Sing to me, O muse, the steps of the hero's journey, because I'm trying to outline and I forgot what a plot even is.
Here's the deal, gang: if you're writing adventure and are stuck on plot structure, there is one pattern of story that has been studied and duplicated since the writing of the epic Gilgamesh circa 2150-2000 BCE. This is, of course, the hero's journey.
I'm sure that your high-school English teachers did their best to pound the steps of the hero's journey into your head, but if they failed, this post can act as a kind of refresher.
In his novel The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell observes and catalogs the plot patterns that ancient myths and epics seem to, for the most part, follow to a T, and he dubbed this sequence of events "the hero's journey". The hero's journey typically consists of three acts and twelve steps, each of which are instrumental in moving the plot forward.
One of the best stories that illustrates the hero's journey, in my opinion, is The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, so as I break down each act, I'll also give you an example of how Frodo goes through each step within that act.
ACT ONE - THE ORDINARY WORLD
Step One - Introduction to character in the ordinary world: when we first meet Frodo, he's living in the Shire, a safe town full of hobbits who generally live safe lives.
Step Two - Call to adventure: after Bilbo disappears, Frodo is entrusted with the Ring, and is tasked with carrying it to the elves.
Step Three - Refusal: at first, Frodo is frightened of the Ring, and tries to give it to Gandalf, who blatantly rejects it, knowing he would succumb to its corrupting properties.
Step Four - Meeting with the mentor: after refusing the Ring himself, Gandalf coaxes Frodo into carrying it. In this example, steps 2-4 all sort of mesh together, but you get the point.
Step Five - Crossing the threshold: "If I take one more step, it will be the farthest away from home I've ever been." Sam says this to Frodo as they're about to step across the boundary of the Shire. In the movie scene, Sam stops at the end of a golden field before entering into a grassy, greener one with Frodo. The color shift between fields gives the audience an actual visual line for them to cross; from safety, into uncertainty.
ACT TWO - THE SPECIAL WORLD
Step Six - Tests, allies, and enemies: throughout the course of this step, Frodo gains allies (the Fellowship), endures tests (getting separated from the Fellowship, escaping various antagonists, internally fighting the pull of the Ring), and faces many enemies (the Ringwraiths, Gollum).
Step Seven - Approach to the inmost cave: the inmost cave can represent a place of great physical danger or an inner turmoil the character hasn't yet completely dealt with. In LOTR, we get both and an actual cave. Up to this point in time, Frodo's relationship with Sam has been fractured; he tells Sam to leave, and Gollum tricks Frodo into entering a cave that's home to a vicious flesh-eating spider.
Step Eight - The ordeal: the ordeal is the hardest test that the hero has faced yet, and he must conjure up everything he's learned up to this point in order to continue surviving -- what makes this test different from the others, other than being substantially more difficult, is that it is a force of characterization; the character has a metaphorical (sometimes literal) death, and is reborn with greater knowledge or insight. In Frodo's case, he is attacked by the cave-dwelling, flesh-eating spider, wrapped in a suffocating web, and is put into a sort of coma, which Sam later rescues him from.
Step Nine - The reward: after overcoming death and his most personal challenge, the hero is rewarded. For Frodo, the reward is the rekindling of his true friendship with Sam. But the quest isn't over, and so the celebration of the reward doesn't get to last long.
ACT THREE - RETURNING TO THE ORDINARY WORLD
Step Ten - The road back: this step traditionally consists of the hero being pursued on his way back home, but for Frodo, it is the climb up to Mount Doom, where the final test, the climax of the story, waits.
Step Eleven - Resurrection: this is the final test, the test that is not only ten-times more perilous than the ordeal, but has far-reaching, high-stake consequences if the hero fails. If the hero succeeds, he is cleansed, renewed. This is Frodo on Mount Doom, struggling to destroy the Ring, which eventually happens; maybe not on purpose, but it happens, and Frodo is freed from the pull of the Ring's power.
Step Twelve - Return with the elixir: Frodo returns to the Shire a changed hobbit -- he's grown and realized he can no longer go back to his ordinary life, so he decides to leave with Gandalf, Bilbo, and the elves. Usually, there is a final reward, and for Frodo, it is self-realization and the knowledge of good and evil. He is no longer naive or sheltered, his enemies are defeated, and his allies are honored and receive happy endings of their own.