Don't count on this to last, friends. ;P
Joseph Campbell popularized the concept of the hero's journey (formally known as the monomyth): a formulaic pattern supposedly all great myths follow. It's been applied in comparative mythology to religious and classical myths. After that, it began to be applied to popular works of fiction such as Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Ender's Game.
The Hero's Journey generally consists of the following stages (pulled from source):
- The Departure/Arrival
a. The Call to Adventure
-Refusal of the Call
-Answering the Call
b. Supernatural Aid
c. Crossing the Threshold
d. Belly of the Whale
a. The Road of Trials
-Battle with the Brother
b. Meeting the Goddess
c. Abduction/Night Sea Journey
d. Dragon Battle
-Death of guide/companion, injury to hero
e. Apotheosis (basically the Climax)
f. The Ultimate Boon/Magic Elixer
a. The Refusal of the Return
b. Magic Flight/Pursuit
-Rescue from Without
-Crossing of the Return Threshold
c. Master of Two Worlds
d. Freedom to Live
The belly of the whale, as well as any other bit here, does not have to occur. Often, characters cross the first threshold (challenge) just fine before moving on to be "tested" by the road of trials. I'll provide some links below for you to look more into the hero's journey and its applications.
The main criticism for this formula is just that: it's a formula. It's a surefire and "safe" way to get the thumbs up. It's praised because it works. It's criticized because it tempts writers to fall right into its trap. But is it really the formula's fault? After all, it is the writer holding the pen. The next time you want to write a nice little epic, you can pull inspiration from this, sure; just don't rely on it all the way.
Here are some links if you want to venture more into the hero's journey:
Hero's Journey Defined
Hero's Journey in Star Wars
io9: New Proof that Every Scifi Epic is Based on Joseph Campbell
io9: Eight Reasons Why the Hero's Journey Sucks
Here's a fun little exercise
Think of the last book you read or movie you watched, and try to apply its plot to the Hero's Journey. Does it work? Post your comparison in a comment! Match up each of the stages with a specific scene or part!