Does the "Hero's Journey" Writing Approach Apply to Military Techno-Thriller / Historical Novels?

I’ve long been a fan of Tom Clancy (Red Storm Rising, about a Soviet invasion of Western Europe), and other military techno-thriller type books, plus classics like Cornelius Ryan’s WW2 epic, “The Longest Day,” General Sir John Hackett’s “The Third World War: August 1985,” or Michael Shaara’s Civil War epic “The Killer Angels.” After a career in the U.S. Intelligence Community and military, I’d like to write a novel in a similar vein as the aforementioned books, as that’s where my expertise lies.

When writing about historical events, the outcomes are known (Fall of Communism & the Berlin Wall, defeat of the Confederacy…etc.) and in these style books there are often many key characters, not just one or two that would qualify as “The Hero” like in Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, the Lion King…etc. Also, since the outcomes of large scale military clashes are known, how are the “Hero’s Journey” elements applicable (if they are)?

- Character
- Situation
- Objective
-  Opponent
- Disaster

Thank you in advance for any insights.


So the first thing to remember is that the Hero’s Journey is just one of many frameworks the writer can use to structure their story. If it doesn’t fit the story you’re trying to tell, feel free to discard it and use some other framework (or come with your own, or adapt it to suit your needs.)

The second thing to remember is that the Hero’s Journey isn’t just about their external travels and travails, but is about their internal journey – how they react and grow and change. From that standpoint, major external events aren’t necessarily the stepping stones in the Hero’s Journey so much as they are the backdrop that makes the hero meeting those stepping stones possible.

Thank you. I’m looking at a novel where the main characters range from the White House Situation Room, the Soviet Politburo, and the senior leadership of the Vatican. Twelve to fifteen principal characters at least and since so many reputable websites say “you must follow ‘The Hero’s Journey’…” I’m left scratching my head in discouragement.

And there’s your problem.

As was pointed out, the “journey” is about the growth/change of a character (not always for the better). It sounds like you have one os the following issues with your plan/novel/whatever

  1. too many characters
  2. not enough mapping/plotting in advance to see the character archs
  3. too much concern for what “they say”
  4. Are looking for a formula to make things “work”.

Consider writing 12-15 novellas. One for each character. Then weave them into one story later. That will help with all the above and will make smaller work of the overall project.

Hope that helps a bit.

Technothrillers don’t generally have a lot of character development nor, as you noted, a single clear “hero” going on a “journey.” The “character arc” often is more about an organization rising to the challenge of the situation, with specific named individuals working as parts of the team.

I think picking apart novels that you like and want to emulate is probably more useful than following generic advice from “them.” A lot of “them” look down their noses at popular genres to begin with.


One of the things that distinguishes Tom Clancy’s writing is that he takes an enormous geopolitical story and manages to put it on the shoulders of one hero. Whether it’s Jack Ryan or John Clark, Clancy centers the story around them, even during chapters spent following other characters.

The value of using the Hero’s Journey is tapping into the shared history and subconscious archetypes of the framework. Joseph Campbell didn’t invent the framework, he observed it as it manifested across countless cultures. To get a better handle on this, I strongly recommend you read The Writer’s Journey. Another excellent but less well-known book as it applies to novelists is The Key. Both books give ideas about how to directly implement the framework in your story.

If you really want to understand this story framework, its ramifications and uses, go back to the source and read The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

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The narrative trappings of the Hero’s Journey can be a distraction — unless your story is about people running around with swords and such you may find it impossible to envision your story in those terms. So, you might look at something that doesn’t bend your mind in that direction. Look at ‘Save the Cat’.* If you know the hero’s journey you can see that STC is in fact a simplified version of it, but it gets rid of many of the narrative sword and sorcery trappings of most write-ups of the hero’s journey. (Some trappings remain, of course. So, it is still hard to think of your hero as something other than a single person. But then again, in reality, you probably should start with that anyway.)

I think the thing to remember about these kinds of plot development tools is that they aim to help you make sure that your story has a dramatic structure — they embody a dramatic structure which you can use to shape yours. It doesn’t matter if you’re covering an exciting historical episode, your story still needs a dramatic structure to its narrative or it will not be an exciting read for your reader. So, if you are just starting out with this stuff, finding a plot development tool that you can work with can be a great help — and good insurance: at the outset you should want some assurance that the enormous effort you will undertake has a solid foundation.


  • Blake had movies in mind rather than novels, but that’s okay. The novel you want to write is one which could be made into a great theatrical thriller, right?
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Hero’s Journey is just one structure of many, many, many story structures out there, and depending on what kind of story you want to tell it may not be the right one for you.

Take Red Storm Rising (one of my favorite Clancy novels) as an example, since you previously called it out and it’s a bit different than most of the rest of Clancy’s work precisely because it is more of the ensemble piece that you’re envisioning. I would be hard-pressed to fit any particular character’s story arc in that novel to the full Hero’s Journey…but several of them, most noticeably Lt. Edwards, are taken on abbreviated versions of that Journey throughout the course of the novel.

Remember that story structures and frameworks are GUIDELINES and not strict roadways. If the story your characters are trying to tell doesn’t fit the structure, that may be a sign that you haven’t thought through their motivations and characterization enough…or it might be a sign that you aren’t using the right structure. As a writer, you are the singular BEST person to know what YOU need to do for your stories. Every bit of feedback you get from everyone else – no matter how many books they’ve read, written, or edited – is MERELY feedback. It’s up to you to evaluate that feedback and decide if it fits.

Not that you’ll always be right, but your mistakes can be far more instructive than doing the “right” thing all the time will be. You need to trust that a) your instincts are worth listening to even when they lead you astray and that b) you can learn from those times and acquire the experience and craft to go hand in hand with the instincts. Story structures are meant to be descriptive and be a shortcut for one writer to learn from another’s experience, not a straightjacket that forces you into conformity.

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Save the Cat by Blake Snyder has been mentioned. He wrote it for screenplays, but it’s about structure. Whether a screenplay or a fiction novel, you need to learn structure. Inside. Outside. Backwards. Forwards. If you don’t know structure, you will be doomed to 10 years before the re-writing mast.

I recommend Save the Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody, among others. Paperback or ebook.

What’s that you say? Structure is formulaic? Probably. But so are drawings for a house. Or a car. Or a skyscraper. See the beauty of structure in a building. Celebrate structure.

You mention a number of writers in the genre you chose. Take one of their novels and break it down. Or, watch the movie version and take notes using your mentioned Hero’s Journey path. Where do the beats turn? But but but that’s only in that book/movie, you say. They aren’t all the same. Well, they aren’t “all the same”, but they all use the same pathways, or structure, implemented in one way, or another. Don’t believe me? then watch another movie or read another of your books, and be amazed.

In the meantime, sit down and write.

I once set up a timed slide show showing the stages of Save the Cat and including the rough timing Snyder hazarded for typical Hollywood movie length. I set my laptop to play that next to the TV and played a Snyder-cited movie that was supposed to fit the form to a tee. And it did fit exactly.

Then I threw at it something I thought of as an off-beat, idiosyncratic movie — which I thought would not fit — The Big Lebowski. Boy, was I wrong!! It was actually hilarious to watch the structure being embodied by the scenes of that show.

Many thanks for the replies. I think, before I begin my globe-spanning epic, objective #1 is to read “Save the Cat.” I’ve downloaded Jessica Brody’s highly recommended “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel” from Amazon and will spend the next 2-3 days reading it, then setting out on my journey.

It seems that the military techno-thriller set in actual historical context is going to need to use an ensemble group of characters, rather than one classic ‘hero.’ I will keep an open mind, however, and heed whatever useful information I come across and adjust my writing accordingly. Nothing is written in stone.

gr » Tue Nov 17, 2020 8:54 pm

GR, you’re 100% correct and I’ve been told by a studio in LA that before they will consider moving forward on a motion picture project based on my idea, they want to see the book, even if only in galley form. I already have two motion pictures to my credit, one already on Netflix and the other in production with LionsGate; however, past success in Hollywood doesn’t guarantee future enthusiasm. It only means you’re establishing a track record of credibility and still must approach EVERY project with the keen hunger you had for your first.

Thanks again to all.

Perhaps Santa will deliver Scrivener 3.0 for Windows for Christmas?

And I’m offering up advice to you? It would appear that you may have more than a little advice for many of us here.

Keep on writing.

Lots of thoughts on structure here. I’ll just leave Philip Pullman’s contrarian view on the matter: … 3372850176

There’s a difference between pitching a studio a granular ‘concept story’ interesting enough for that Hollywood studio to pull out their checkbook and writing a novel that the studio then agrees to option for a motion picture. In the first instance, the stars happened to aligned just right; however, there’s no guarantee that if I manage to write a novel (vs. pitch a concept/story), Hollywood will jump at it.

I’m here to learn from anyone that cares to toss an idea or advice my way. I’ve temporarily paused my writing while I read the Amazon e-book version of “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel” by Jessica Brody. The 'ol light bulb is going off with every chapter I read…(a lot of ‘A-ha!!!’ moments).

Extra thanks to everyone that suggested “Save the Cat! :smiley:

Yes, Ms Brody broadened my horizons considerably as well. I certainly had it all down before I found that book, but she sure helped with the overall big picture. She made me even more comfortable with my production methods, to say the least.

If I may be so bold (not wanting to flog a dead horse, in other words), I recommend the Better Novel Project blog. I have taken some of her breakdowns and come up with a pathway that works for me after dutifully studying some of her work. The thing to keep in mind is that all of the “structure” can be switched out to do anything you want. Remember Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction, and Quentin Tarantino?

Don’t forget to put the books and movies down and write.

Whilst I’ve no objection to Save the Cat which is a well written explanation of the method Blake Snyder used to write his movies, it’s important for anyone reading it to remember that Snyder’s biggest film success was Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot! and to be frank, his advice on plotting is generic enough that you can even apply it to a tv theme song and claim it follows his structure!
See: … /#more-922

Where STC is helpful is in giving a vocabulary to certain plot elements, and to set an expectation that structure is something you need to think about and refine rather than just wing it.

As for the Hero’s Journey — that’s a very specific construction for telling a certain type story (essentially the “epic quest”). If you’re not writing that kind of story (and it sounds like you definitely aren’t) then it’ll probably take you in the wrong direction. That said, it’s not a bad thing to remember that everyone is the protagonist in their own movie and that’s true enough of movie characters too. Even the most 2D pantomime villain should be able to state what his objectives and motives are! A simplified version of the structure to help clarify the motives and frustrations of each of the main characters may help you if you’re in the brainstorming / plot forming part of the process.

All these structures pretty much amount to the same mechanics, see my attachment in this post, where they compare Syd Field (screenplay structure), Save the Cat (Blake Snyder’s method of the same thing), the Sequence approach, the Hero’s journey, and Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s all the same thing. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, there is very high value in how to package these concepts in seductive and clear ways that help people finding structure in their story.
The source of that image, is this post:
thebitterscriptreader.blogspot.c … stroy.html

For people also interested in structure, I highly recommend the link below as well, and I think they talk about mechanics that work equally well in a movie, a book, etc. … These are mechanics that don’t tell you what to do, they tell you what has proven to work. It still takes all your creativity to do it well.
The link is from the screenwriter of Toy Story 3 or 4 (I don’t remember) and Little Miss Sunshine. He makes a beautiful 90 minute essay about how to make an ‘insanely great ending’, but it talks a lot about theme and structure and the underpinnings of how to get to that point:

Enjoy, for the ones that are interested in structure.

I think the thing that some of us miss, notwithstanding the constant references to Blake Snyder’s scriptwriting failures in an effort to discredit him, is that structure is a road map. Haul out the map. Plot a course from A to B. Yawn. Boring road trip. Sally forth.

Flat tire. Spare with no air. Low fuel. Check engine light. Road closed. Detour. Speeding ticket. Road rage. Hit an animal. Fast food. Car sick. Walk the dog/dog runs off. Nagging wife/child/dog. Oh look, a hitch-hiker, daddy can we pick her up (remember The Hitch-Hiker and Detour? Probably not, unless you’re a film noir fan). Held at gunpoint while pumping fuel and on and on.

And we haven’t even gone on any sight-seeing detours. All we did was drive from A to B.

Take all the plot points you think you must meet, throw them in a hat, and there you go. Or not.

I think the idea with all the books telling us what we must do, is that we take what we need, and throw out the rest, until we need them.

There are those of us who can sit down and start writing towards THE END. There are those who need a map, with all the mishaps and detours mapped and written out. Some need an ending to write towards. It doesn’t make the method any less relevant.

Take what you think you need. Make your own “plan” or “map” or novel “structure” for your particular story from Snyder or Brody or anyone else. Mix and match. Or not. Only you, the writer, knows the story and where you want it go go.

Structured or not, you may find that you’re writing outside the bounds of your “structure map” too. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Go with your flow.

And I haven’t even mentioned “cycling”.

Write on, brothers and sisters.

As regards a PM I received, I’m in the middle of editing a 100,000-word tome. Thankfully, I color-coded the various stories/characters as they twist and turn. I can pull them out, edit them separately for flow and other needs, and put them back in the proper sequence. That alone is one reason I have to number my chapters in order to get them back in the right sequence (referencing an earlier post of mine in another thread).

Now some will say, you don’t have to do that. You can use Scrivener’s Add to collection in the binder. Of course I can. And I have. But in some cases, that’s not practical. I need a very condensed version of the binder, and I get that when I drag out the folders and put them into a temporary and separate Scrivener.

That’s my Scrivener “road map”. There’s one way to do it. There’s another I prefer, from time to time. No biggie. That’s how I work with the software.

I think this right here is one of the key factors to the battle between pantsers and plotters – what do we mean by “structure” when talking about storytelling? Is it a descriptive concept, or a prescriptive concept? That is, when we talk about a story’s structure, are we describing a property that the story has, or an ideal we think the story should adhere to?

I personally think it’s both and neither – that structure is simply a compact between the author and the reader about what to expect from the story. And like a contract, the more clear it is, the better for both parties.

Like most of these kinds of flamewars, taking a purely binary approach misses reality by not going granular enough. After all, you can do some amazing pictures with just black and white if your dots are small enough…

The best stories have a clear structure in the descriptive sense whether or not that structure is commonly used or totally unique – and it helps gives cues, in the prescriptive sense, to the reader/listener to help prepare them to be fully immersed in the story. Where exactly you set that slider between the two extremes depends on a lot of factors – the story you think you’re telling when you first start writing, the story as it evolves, your own experience and comfort level as a writer, and more. Some authors use roughly the same structure for their entire career and yet manage to write interesting, engaging stories – because they know the pros and cons of the structure they are using and make sure the stories they are telling fit well into those constraints. Picking up one of these books feels warm and comfortable – you know what you’re getting into.

Other authors never use the same structure twice. Their stories are constantly changing and evolving and as a result they need to do some work to uncover the new structure – sometimes in the beginning while planning, sometimes through the archeological process of writing drafts and discovering more organically what changes need to be made.

At any rate, it all comes back to, “what story do you want to tell?” If your structure gets in the way of telling that story, gets in the way of the reader enjoying that story, then either you have used the wrong structure, or you are telling the wrong story. Whether or not you plan the structure up front or unearth it through the process of writing, every story has a structure, and it needs to be in harmony with the story for you to get the best effect out of your story. Structural rewrites can be a critical and healthy part of the revision process!

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And of course the structure that is (or isn’t) visible in the end result doesn’t necessarily say anything about the planning tools used by the author.