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Best Short Stories for Teaching the Hero’s Journey

the best short stories for teaching heros journey

Looking to shake up your approach to teaching the Hero’s Journey? Whether you’re looking to replace a novel with a range of short stories or to use them as additional texts, this post reveals 8 short stories that will get the job done.

Gearing up to teach the Hero’s Journey? Before you grab your go-to book from the shelf, I urge you to consider an alternative approach—using short stories.

While there are plenty of great novels out there to emphasize the Hero’s Journey, it was always a challenge to choose just one. Did I want to go with a popular classic, like The Odyssey? Or an engaging modern text, like The Hunger Games? That very challenge is what first got me thinking—What if my students could dive into multiple examples of the Hero’s Journey? Besides, heroes come in all shapes and sizes, right? So, in an attempt to expose my students to a classic narrative archetype and a variety of texts, I turned to short stories. And, honestly, I haven’t turned back since.

Whether you’re looking for short stories to take center stage or serve as a stepping stone before jumping into a full-length novel, they make the perfect addition to a Hero’s Journey unit. Keep reading to learn the advantages of teaching the Hero’s Journey using short stories and 8 short story titles that are sure to enhance your lessons.

What Is the Hero’s Journey?

Whether this is your first time teaching the Hero’s Journey or you need a quick review, let’s go over the basics. The Hero’s Journey is a narrative framework coined by Joseph Campbell in his book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces, published in 1949. However, the concept and pattern of the journey have been around since the earliest days of storytelling. It outlines the transformative journey of a protagonist who overcomes obstacles, faces inner and outer challenges, and emerges with newfound strength and wisdom. 

While variations certainly exist across different narratives, cultures, and uses, the classic phases of the Hero’s Journey include the following:

  1. The Ordinary World: An introduction to the protagonist’s everyday life, relationships, and any challenges or limitations they face are first introduced.
  2. The Call to Adventure: The protagonist receives a compelling invitation or challenge that initiates the on the heroic journey.
  3. Refusal of the Call: The protagonist resists the call to adventure due to fear, doubt, or a sense of inadequacy.
  4. Meeting the Mentor: The protagonist encounters a mentor figure who provides guidance, advice, and assistance needed for the journey.
  5. Crossing the Threshold: The protagonist leaves the familiar and ordinary world behind and enters the unknown.
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The protagonist encounters various obstacles,enemies, and allies that test their will, determination and character.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The protagonist prepares for a significant challenge or confrontation, symbolizing their innermost fears, doubts, or weaknesses.
  8. Ordeal: The protagonist is pushed to their limits when faced with their greatest challenge, undergoing a transformative experience.
  9. Reward: After overcoming the ordeal, the protagonist is rewarded with something, often knowledge, that empowers them to continue their journey.
  10. The Road Back: The protagonist begins a journey back to the ordinary world.
  11. Resurrection: They face a final challenge, where they must apply everything they have learned and experienced.
  12. Return with the Elixir: The protagonist returns and is reunited with the ordinary world, having been transformed by “the elixir”—an object, knowledge, or insight—for the greater good.

Why Teach the Hero’s Journey with Short Stories?

You can apply the Hero’s Journey to a wide variety of literary texts, including myths, fairy tales, novels, short stories, and plays. Heck, you can even track the Hero’s Journey in movies, too. No matter which avenue you use, the Hero’s Journey encourages students to analyze plot structure, character motivation and development, and universal themes.

It gets them shrinking about essential questions like, are heroes born or are they made? What defines a hero? How can an individual change through taking heroic action? What can we learn about ourselves through studying a protagonist’s Hero’s Journey?

While many teachers opt for teaching the Hero’s Journey through a novel, here’s why I love using short stories to do so:

  • Concise Storytelling: Short stories allow students to explore the Hero’s Journey in a concise format. This brevity allows for you to utilize short stories in various ways. Have students explore multiple examples of the Hero’s Journey, comparing and contrasting the variations. Alternatively, you can use a short story as Hero’s Journey review or as an introductory experience before diving into a full-length novel.
  • Engaging Narratives: Given the waning attention spans of today’s students, it can be challenging to keep them engaged and on track with a longer text. On the other hand, short stories captivate students with their fast-paced narratives and intriguing characters. Short stories can make it through a 12-phase Hero’s Journey in a matter of pages. They often pack a punch with their themes and conflicts, giving students plenty to work with.
  • Diverse Perspectives: Heroes come from different places and backgrounds, and possess various strengths and skills. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Therefore, short stories allow you to expose your students to a range of protagonists and the different journeys they take. In fact, students can analyze multiple heroes in the same amount of time it would take to read an entire novel. In turn, you expose students to different voices, perspectives, and cultural experiences, fostering empathy and understanding in addition to highlighting the Hero’s Journey. Talk about two birds with one stone!
  • Accessibility and Differentiation: Short stories are a great way to make literature accessible for students of varying abilities and interests. Teaching the Hero’s Journey through these shorter narratives is a great way to set students up for success by assigning a text based on their reading and comprehension level. And, if you ask me, it’s far easier for teachers to manage various short stories than multiple novels.

8 Short Stories for Teaching the Hero’s Journey

If you’ve made it this far down in the post, I’ve convinced you to at least consider using short stories when teaching the Hero’s Journey. (You won’t regret it.) But, let’s take it one step further, shall we? Instead of starting from the drawing board, here are 8 short stories that are perfect for teaching the Hero’s Journey in secondary ELA.

1. “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

Would it be a great short story list without at least one Bradbury title? “A Sound of Thunder” may not follow every stage of the Hero’s Journey in a traditional sense, but the protagonist, Eckels, certainly experiences his own form of the journey. Bradbury’s story incorporates elements of the hero’s transformation, the challenges faced, and the revelation of the consequences of their actions as Eckles ultimately learns the hard truth that even the smallest actions can have big consequences.

2. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber

This is another short story that doesn’t completely follow the journey in the most traditional sense. However, students will enjoy tracking protagonist Walter Mitty’s own form of his Hero’s Journey. Walter Mitty’s journey involves vivid daydreams that serve as an escape from his mundane reality. Students can track the stages of the Hero’s Journey as Mr. Mitty sets out on a quest for self-expression, courage, and embracing the extraordinary within.

3. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This is not your average Hero’s Journey, making it the perfect challenge text for advanced students. Students can track how the unnamed narrator turns to the titular yellow wallpaper as her supernatural aid, becoming the catalyst for her journey of self-discovery.

4. “Thank you, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes

Students will appreciate the simple realness of Roger’s Hero’s Journey. What begins as an attempted purse robbery, Roger is faced with a different kind of call to “adventure.” Ironically, the woman he tried to steal from, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, serves as his mentor during this journey, ultimately leading him to gain a newfound understanding of the importance of kindness and compassion.

5. “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell

The story’s protagonist and skilled hunter, Sanger Rainsford, goes on a harrowing Hero’s Journey when he falls off his yacht and winds up stranded on a mysterious island. Suddenly, he finds himself caught in a deadly game of survival. (Dun, dun, dun.) However, by the end of his journey, Rainsford returns to civilization with a newfound perspective and appreciation for life.

the most dangerous game short story analysis
The Most Dangerous Game Short Story Analysis

6. “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara

Squeaky, the story’s young protagonist, is a talented runner who unexpectedly embarks on her own Hero’s Journey. While she is initially focused on her own ambitions, Squeaky’s perspective shifts as she heads down a path of self-discovery and compassion. By the end of her journey, Squeaky transforms from a self-centered competitor to a caring sister who is able to support her brother.

7. “Marigolds” by by Eugenia Collier

The story’s protagonist, Lizabeth, finds herself on a transformative journey initiated by frustrations with the poverty and hopelessness in her community. By the end, despite the struggles around her, she is able to find moments of beauty and to approach others with kindness and understanding. Ultimately, Lizabeth’s Hero’s Journey is one of learning empathy and self-realization in the face of adversity.

8.  “To Build a Fire” by Jack London
Does this story follow the traditional Hero’s Journey? Nope. But that’s what makes it the perfect companion text to a storyline that follows the traditional journey structure and stages. In London’s story, the protagonist, simply known as “the man,” sets out on a journey through the frozen Yukon wilderness. The man’s survival skills and overall resilience are tested again and again as he faces numerous challenges and tests throughout his journey. Rather than ending with a traditional elixir or triumphant return, the man learns the power of nature and the consequences of overestimating one’s abilities. (Yikes!)

There you have it, my teacher friend! If you’re looking to shake up your approach to the Hero’s Journey, short stories may just be what you need. The stories above offer diverse examples of the Hero’s Journey, showcasing different characters, settings, and themes. As a result, your students can explore variations of this classic narrative structure, laying the groundwork for engaging discussions, a cumulative compare and contrast activity, or analytical essay.

Have any other titles to add to the list? Don’t forget to share your favorite short stories for teaching the Hero’s Journey in the comments below!

1 thought on “Best Short Stories for Teaching the Hero’s Journey”

  1. I was searching for short stories that fit the monomyth and came across “Through the Tunnel” by Dorris Lessing. It’s fantastic and fits beautifully. Thanks for your list!

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