Friday, April 17, 2015

Part 8 of 8: CHANGE The World


This is the last post in my Dan Harmon series. To read the series from the beginning head on over to the first post: Dan Harmon on Story Structure. I’ve placed an index at the bottom of the page.

Onward! Our protagonist is almost the master of two worlds. They have conquered the Special World of the Adventure and now they must complete the circle and bring that knowledge, that expertise (the prize) back to their community in the Ordinary World. 

Part 8 - Master of Both Worlds


Dan Harmon writes: “the protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they're able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

The Climactic Showdown


This is what the story has been building up to, the confrontation, the showdown, between the protagonist and antagonist. What occurs here will determine whether the protagonist achieves his goal or fails miserably. Dan Harmon writes:

“In an action film, you're guaranteed a showdown here. In a courtroom drama, here comes the disruptive, sky-punching cross examination that leaves the murderer in a tearful confession.”

Christopher Vogler echoes this when he writes that, “the showdown is a distinct dramatic form with its own rules and conventions. (The Writer’s Journey)” Vogler goes on to enumerate some of these for a Western, but more general guidelines are given by Jim Butcher in his excellent article, Climaxes

Jim Butcher on Climaxes


When I sketched the outline for this post I didn’t intend to talk about Jim Butcher’s take on the structure of story climaxes—I was just going to include a link to his article—but it’s too good NOT to discuss.

JB writes that the climax has much the same structure as a sequel: Isolation, Confrontation, Dark Moment, Choice, Dramatic Reversal and, of course, Resolution. The climax begins just as the Great Swampy Middle Ends. I’m not going to explain these terms, if they aren’t familiar, head on over to Jim Butcher’s Livejournal account. I’ve gone into this in great and gory detail here: Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax.

Mirroring: Completion


When the protagonist comes back to the ordinary world they often find their way back to the same bit of terra firma where the protagonist stood as he or she experienced a significant story transition—like, say, a cataclysmic setback. 

Mirroring can also be done with the use of sayings, some sort of tag line—or even a repeated behavior. Whatever is used, a familiar location or a character tag, now’s the time to put a twist on it. Now it has come to mean something else, something more.

Christopher Vogler writes:

“The most popular story design seems to be the circular or closed form, in which the narrative returns to its starting point. In this structure you might bring the hero literally full circle back to the location or world where she started. Perhaps the Return is circular in a visual or metaphoric way, with a replay of an initial image, or the repetition of a line of dialogue or situation from Act One. This is one way of tying up loose ends and making a story feel complete. The image or phrases may have acquired a new meaning now that the hero has completed the journey. The original statement of the theme may be re-evaluated at the Return. Many musical compositions return to an initial theme to rephrase it at the ending.” (The Writer’s Journey)

As Dan Harmon points out, “John McClane, who at step (1) was afraid of flying, now [in Part 7] wraps a fire hose around his waist and leaps off an exploding building, then shoots a giant window so he can kick through it with his bloody feet. / Strangely enough, he will soon [Part 8] find himself back in the same room where the Christmas party was being held.”

And so we’re brought full circle.

The Prize


Have you noticed that, often, the protagonist will receive something in Part 4—this could be an actual physical object or even just a realization, perhaps a profound one, about life and their place in it—and it is this very thing which will enable the protagonist to succeed in the final confrontation? Dan Harmon writes:

“One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his shit together. Remember that zippo the bum gave him? It blocked the bullet! It's hack, but it's hack because it's worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version. You didn't seem to have a problem with that formula when the stuttering guy (4) recited a perfect monologue (8) in Shakespeare in Love. It's all the same. [...] Why is this not Deus Ex Machina? Because we earned it (4)” (Story Structure 104)

And that’s it! I’ll close by mirroring something I said at the beginning of this series. If your story works, leave it alone! But if you feel there’s something the matter with it but you can’t figure out what, then it might be an idea to examine your story in the context of the hero’s journey. Bottom line: The hero’s journey is a tool. You can use it or not, but it’s a good thing to have in your toolbox. Just in case. 

Talk to you again next week, good writing!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Part 7: RETURN - Bringing The Prize Home


Today I continue my series on Dan Harmon’s Story Structure. The first article in the series is here. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Dan Harmon’s article, Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details.

7. RETURN - Bringing It Home


To review: Our protagonist (YOU) had a NEED that drove (GO) her into the Special World of the Adventure. While adapting to the strangeness of the Special World she SEARCHed for what would fill her need. When she found it (FIND), she TOOK it and RETURNED to the Ordinary World where she can now, transformed as she is, CHANGE the world.

Today we will be looking at the protagonist’s journey, or flight, from the Special World of the Adventure back into the Ordinary World.

The Flight From The Special World


Dan Harmon writes:

“For some characters, this [the journey back] is as easy as hugging the scarecrow goodbye and waking up. For others, this is where the extraction team finally shows up and pulls them out—what Campbell calls "Rescue from Without." In an anecdote about having to change a flat tire in the rain, this could be the character getting back into his car.

“For others, not so easy, which is why Campbell also talks about ‘The Magic Flight.’”

It doesn’t have to take up a lot of space on the page, it doesn’t have to be death-defying (though it could be!), but at some point around 75% of the way through a story the protagonist begins her return to the community, the world, they left behind in Part 3.

The Pursuit


But, as we’ve seen before, nothing comes without a price. The protagonist had to give up something, strip herself of the inessentials, before the meeting with the goddess in Part 5. Further, the knowledge acquired in Part 5 necessitated, in Part 6, that the last of the scales fall from the protagonist’s eyes and she endure the pain and ecstasy of seeing the story world for what it was. Or, to change metaphors, it necessitated reading within the world the deep truth of the story. But this was the last straw, the last little bit of pain/change needed to complete the protagonist’s transformation.

It comes, then, as no surprise that the protagonist’s exit from the Special World likely won’t be easy. Dan Harmon writes:

“The denizens of the deep can't have people sauntering out of the basement any more than the people upstairs wanted you going down there in the first place. The natives of the conscious and unconscious worlds justify their actions however they want, but in the grand scheme, their goal is to keep the two worlds separate, which includes keeping people from seeing one and living to tell about it.” (Story Structure 104)

As such, this part of a story is generally active. By this time many protagonists have become comfortable in the Special World so it will take an active push from something in the underworld to get the protagonist to leave. Christopher Vogler writes:

“This is a time when the story’s energy, which my have ebbed a little in the quiet moments of Seizing the Sword [TAKE], is now revved up again. If we look at the Hero’s Journey as a circle with the beginning at the top, we are still down in the basement and it will take some push to get us back up into the light.” (The Writer’s Journey)

For example, Dan Harmon writes that ...

“This is a great place for a car chase. Or, in a love story, having realized what's important, the hero bursts out of his apartment onto the sidewalk. His lover's airplane leaves for Antartica in TEN MINUTES! John McClane, who at step (1) was afraid of flying, now wraps a fire hose around his waist and leaps off an exploding building, then shoots a giant window so he can kick through it with his bloody feet.”

Mirroring


One of the things I like most about Dan Harmon’s treatment of story structure are the all too infrequent asides he makes about mirroring, about the way one part of the story mirrors or builds upon another. 

In Part 1 storytellers introduce something the protagonist is frightened of, something that is a definite weakness. For instance, in Edge of Tomorrow (spoiler alert) the protagonist, Cage, is a coward. He would do anything, absolutely anything, rather than fight. So, of course, he spends the entire movie fighting! Around the midpoint he becomes a seasoned fighter. But he has a special gift, a special ability, that gives him an edge. Acquiring that special ability marks his entry into the Special World of the Adventure and losing it marks his exit. 

Not every protagonist has as clear cut a flaw as Cage, a flaw that drives forward the action of the story. Indiana Jones, for instance, has flaws aplenty but they don’t drive the story forward, at least, not in the same fashion. Of course, as Dan Harmon mentions, it doesn’t have to be quite that clear cut. In Die Hard we learn early on that John MacClane is afraid of flying and then, in the RETURN portion of the movie, he overcomes that fear—or at least learns to master it—with dramatic effect.

That’s it! That’s it for today and it’s almost it for the series. Next time I’ll discuss the last step in the protagonist’s heroic transformation. Tell then, good reading and writing.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Classic Design vs Minimal Design: Part 2 of 2

Classic Design vs Minimal Design: Part 2 of 2

This article continues yesterday’s post on Deborah Chester’s notions of classic design. All quotations, below, are from her article Fighting for Story.

Have A Proper Protagonist


Protagonists should be heroic, strong and admirable. They should be depicted in such a way that readers will like them. Further ...

Make The Protagonist Active


Chester writes that the protagonist should initiate confrontations “in order to accomplish a specific objective.” Further, each confrontation should cause a chain reaction. It should set other events in motion, events that “lead to bigger complications for the protagonist.”

Key point: There is a human being causing these difficulties for the protagonist. A good old-fashioned hand wringing, mustache twirling, villain. (Okay, not so much hand wringing or mustache twirling, but you get the idea.)

Have A Proper Villain


Deborah Chester admonishes us to make our good guys good and our bad guys bloodcurdlingly evil—or at least devious, ruthless and driven. They should be depicted in such a way that readers will not like them. She writes:

“It’s become unfashionable to label fictional characters as the good guy or the bad guy. To consider someone a villain means you must make a judgment. You must gauge this person against your standards, ethics, and principles, and find him or her lacking.”

And, when it’s put like that, I can understand the disinclination to do so. If one measures other people against one’s own code of ethics and then judges them if they don’t measure up ... well, that’s caused quite a lot of nastiness in the world.

In real life folks have a variety of tastes and predilections. In my book, that’s just fine. 

But as DC mentions:

“Fiction is art, and art makes order of reality. The story protagonist must become heroic in order to prevail over an opponent who chooses expediency enough to become a villain.”

I agree. That goes to the heart of the perception of villainy, of evil: choosing what is expedient over what is right. 

In the end I think it depends on the kind of villain you want to create. As Jim Butcher and Donald Maass have said, most antagonists, even villains, see themselves as the good guy. They believe themselves to be the hero of their own story. 

Perhaps perspective is the key. Readers see the story world through the eyes of the viewpoint character. In a single viewpoint novel this is (naturally) going to be the protagonist. As long as the protagonist has reason to view the antagonist as someone who is more concerned with expediency than with what is right, readers are going to see the antagonist as a proper villain.

Linear Plotting And Viewpoints


No flashbacks. Deborah Chester writes:

“Classic design unfolds a story in a logical, cause-and-effect chronology. It begins with the catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action. Thereafter, it moves in a linear direction toward the finish where the story’s climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.”

When there are no flashbacks the order of events is crystal clear and confusion is minimized.

One viewpoint. Classically designed stories tend to have one viewpoint character rather than several. (For example, all the books in The Dresden Files.) Deborah Chester writes:

“It [webbed plotting] involves several viewpoints, which in turn requires the story to present each viewpoint as directing a subplot. Strict chronology of story events is deemed less important than a character’s feelings or perspective. Although web plotting can generate more depth of characterization, if handled poorly it can result in a split focus in the story and much difficulty in achieving effective story resolution.”

I agree. Which, of course, isn’t to say that multiple viewpoint stories aren’t engaging—just look at the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s books. But, of course, Mr. Martin is a skilled writer. What he has pulled off is epic. I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that a single viewpoint novel is much easier to write. So, all things being equal, if you’re setting out to write your first or second book, go easy on yourself (and your beta readers!) and stick to one viewpoint character.

How To Create A Suspenseful Scene


Deborah Chester mentions two things that help keep a scene on track and suspenseful:

1. Every scene should focus on a clear character goal.

2. Every scene should end in a setback for the central character.

Further ...

Character Creation: Be Bold. Be Vivid. 


Exaggeration is your friend. Each character should have one, or a few, qualities which define them (see: Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy). Deborah Chester advises us to “Exaggerate that quality. Own it. Flaunt it. Build it bigger.” Make your protagonist—make all your characters—vivid. She writes:

“When I read fiction, I want to follow a viewpoint character through tough problems right into the heart of conflict and see that character meet the challenge or be temporarily flattened by it.”

Mr. Monk wasn’t just quirky, he was downright strange. People are afraid of a lot of things, but he was afraid of pretty much everything. Including milk!

Harry Dresden isn’t just a wizard—which is pretty darn cool as it is—he’s the first and only wizard to announce himself as such and make himself available for hire. 

Scenes: Maximize Conflict


One of the best ways to create suspense is to create conflict. Chester writes:

“Every scene is focused around conflict, which is created by the clash between the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal.”

Also ...

“[...] scene-based conflict focuses a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, brings an issue out into the open, pits the two characters against each other, and drives one or the other into victory or defeat.”

Beware Ending A Story On A Cliffhanger


Deborah Chester writes that the danger of ending a story on a cliffhanger “is that readers — and inexperienced writers — lose touch with how stories should be resolved, how [...] readers should be taken through a cathartic experience of anticipation, suspense, emotion, and satisfaction at the story’s conclusion.”

You might be thinking: But that’s not how it is in real life! To that DC says:

“Fiction isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s art, and art focuses on the message its creator wants to convey. Story is contrived by writers to transport readers to a different place and time, to put them vicariously through tremendous challenges and difficulties, and to let them survive, prevail, and grow as individuals.”

As Stephen King has said, fiction is the truth inside the lie.

That’s it! Next time I’ll continue my series on Dan Harmon’s unique take on story structure. Till then, good reading and writing.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Classic Design vs Minimal Design

Classic Design vs Minimal Design

I know I said this blog post would either be about Part 7 of my series on Dan Harmon’s unique take on the structure of stories or I would delve into the beautiful dark heart of the gothic genre.

I’m going to do neither, because I came across a wonderfully informative post about story structure written by Deborah Chester. You can read it on her blog, Chronicles of the Scribe. It’s called Fighting for Story.

By the way, if you don’t know who Deborah Chester is, in addition to having written over 35 science fiction and fantasy books she holds the John Crain Presidential Professorship at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, she was Jim Butcher’s writing teacher back in the day and he dedicated his first book, Storm Front, to her. 

Classic Design


Unless otherwise indicated, everything I talk about, below, has been drawn from DC’s post, “Fighting For Story.” I urge you to head over to her blog and read it for yourself. It’s stuffed to bursting with insights on how to write suspenseful prose. 

Before we get going I want to talk a bit about what DC calls classic design. She writes:

“It [classic design] follows this pattern:  a protagonist pursues a goal despite the active opposition of an antagonist until the conflict escalates to an ultimate showdown and the protagonist prevails or loses.”

Also, in a classically designed story, there is an inciting incident that is the “catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action.” Further, at the end of the story, the “climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.”

Classic vs Minimal Design


Chester’s object in writing “Fighting for Story” is to compare and contrast classic design with what she calls minimal design. She writes that “Minimal story design is where the protagonist is facing a problematic story situation but is reactive to it and may not necessarily be facing a direct foe.”

I’m acquainted with stories that use minimal design and—I won’t lie—I loved many of them! To each their own.

From what I can tell, the stories that DC refers to as minimally designed also (more or less) follow Joseph Campbell’s story structure. In what follows I’ll use American Beauty and Pulp Fiction as examples of minimally designed stories. One of the differences between these stories and, say, The Matrix (a classically designed story if there ever was one), is that the stakes seem to be handled a bit differently. 

From the first scene of American Beauty we know Lester Burnham is going to die, we just don’t know who will kill him or how the deed is done. Or, really, why anyone could possibly be passionate enough about Lester Burnham to kill him. Aside from those not insubstantial questions, a large part of the appeal of American Beauty is voyeuristic (or so I would argue). We hover about the family unseen. Fascinated, we watch them implode.

A Longish Aside


In American Beauty no one person is a Big Bad, if anything fits that description it is the inevitability of endings and failure and death. It is the constant awareness of our own inevitable mortality. Wonderful movie. It’s one of my top 10 favorites. Pulp fiction as well. It’s a brilliant story that made me laugh and gasp in surprise and, yes, cry. And all the while being ever so slightly ironic. (Or maybe not ever so slightly.)

Pulp Fiction and American Beauty are two very different movies but, from what I can gather from “Fighting for Story,” both would be examples of minimal design. My own take is this: If that’s the sort of story that lives inside you—go for it! Write it.

Alan Ball wrote and produced American Beauty and then went on to create and write the hit HBO series Six Feet Under. Quentin Tarantino hasn’t had a bad career either. ;)

Now, I’m not saying that if anyone employs minimal design in their stories then stardom (as much as stardom is possible for writers!) is guaranteed. Quite the opposite. I believe that it is much more difficult to write a compelling story if one employs a minimal design. Ultimately, I don’t believe one kind of story is superior to the other. We as people—as readers and writers—need both. I read and enjoy both, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for a good classically designed story, a story such as Deborah Chester and Jim Butcher (and many, many others) write.

Sorry for the long aside, but I wanted to make it clear that I don’t think minimal design is in any way bad. Jim Butcher has had a few things to say about the difference between classically and minimally designed stories—even though he never, to my knowledge, used those exact terms. And, as usual, he puts it far better than I could. Although in this quotation JB’s focus is narrower than DC’s, I believe the general point comes through. Jim Butcher writes:

“Sticking with the purely craft-oriented standpoint, we'll start with a basic question: what makes a good character?

“FIRST AND FOREMOST, FICTION WRITERS, YOUR CHARACTERS MUST BE INTERESTING.

“I mean, come on. Who is going to want to read about boring people? I can do that in the newspaper, or in any history class. Increasingly, as our society moves into the MTV-Information-broadband-instant-gratification age, reader tolerance for the dull and the plain is going to go down.

“Bottom line: without interesting characters, your book is already dead. You can write something that flies in the face of this if you like, and people the story town of Plainsville with John Smiths, and who knows, maybe you'll create an immortal piece of literary art. But for poor slobs like me whose sons are suddenly wearing larger shoes than them, and who are looking with mild panic at the costs of a college degree, there are a couple of basic principles to think about which could really help you in all kinds of ways.” (Characters)

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s see how we can employ Classic Design in our stories.

Ack! I’m at a thousand words. Well, I’ll leave the rest of this post till tomorrow. On Monday I’ll write about Deborah Chester’s tips on how to craft a compelling story your readers won’t be able to put down. Till then, have a great day, and good writing.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Part 6: TAKE - Take The Prize And Pay The Price

Part 6: TAKE - Take The Prize And Pay The Price

This article continues my series on Dan Harmon’s story model. Here’s a link to the first article: Dan Harmon On Story Structure.

6. TAKE - The Pearl And The Price


Part 6 is about consequences. The protagonist has just passed the midpoint of our tale, she has sloughed off most of whatever was holding her back and met with the Goddess. Now she must return to the Ordinary World.

But a price must be paid for this understanding. After all, the protagonist has taken something. She has found her own personal pearl of great price. A sacrifice is required.

I want to concentrate on two things in what follows. First, the second Call to Adventure and, second, the price the protagonist must pay.

The Second Call To Adventure


No, there isn’t really a second Call to Adventure. This is more like an echo of the first Call. Referencing the movie “Real Genius” Dan Harmon writes:

“In Real Genius (I'm really drawing on the classics, now), the dorky kid (1) is recruited for a special college program that's working on a powerful laser (2). He becomes the roommate of a wayward genius whose major is how-to-parrrrrtay (3). Party man teaches Dork how to relax while Dork teaches party man how to focus (4) and as a result, they are able to perfect their laser (5) and get their prestigious accolades. But now a second, more honest call to adventure from an uber-nerd who lives in the steam tunnels: What is that laser for? Why did they have to build it to certain specifications? What did that creepy, popcorn-hating professor have in mind? Sure, they could stay here in this pizza parlor, nursing at the tit of their own prosperity. But then again, they didn't get this far by being irresponsible. It's time to start heading back up to the real world and making things right, Genius style.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

At the midpoint (or shortly afterward) the hero discovers either that there was a dimension, an aspect, of the first Call to Adventure that she didn’t fully appreciate or she figures out she’s been snookered. Often this shift in perception is brought about by her deeper understanding of the Special World of the Adventure, an understanding given to her by the Goddess (“the Goddess” being shorthand for whatever it was that evoked this epiphany).

For example, in “Die Hard” ...

“Having made his peace (5) regarding his marriage, John McClane now wonders why Hans Gruber, head terrorist, was so desperate for those detonators. He goes back to the roof and discovers that the entire upper portion of the skyscraper is wired to blow. With this realization comes the consequence (6): The giant blonde terrorist - the ED-209 to McClaine's Robocop- descends on him and the two will now battle to the death.” (Story Structure 104)

So the order is: 

(Part 5) Midpoint (Meeting with the Goddess)

--> leads to -->

(Part 5) A different way of seeing both oneself and the world

--> leads to -->

(Part 6) The protagonist making the discovery that there’s something wrong, or missing, from his view of the world/reality.

If the story isn’t a tragedy, then there’s often what I’ll call a saving grace. Something happens, the protagonist figures something out, just in time to avert complete disaster.

In Edge of Tomorrow (spoiler alert), Cage discovers that there’s something wrong with reality as he understood it: the Omega can feed him false visions. As a result, rather than battling with the Omega, he walks into an ambush. The saving grace is that he realizes what the mimics are after in time to avert total disaster.

In Die Hard, John McClane discovers that the kidnappers aren’t kidnappers or terrorists, they’re thieves. The saving grace: McClane realizes the significance of the detonators in time to thwart their plans.

The Pearl and the Price 


There are repercussions to meeting with the Goddess and in Part 6 the protagonist must pay up.

I’ve said, above, that in Part 6 the protagonist has the realization there’s something wrong, or missing, from her view of the world and therefore from her plans. Something fundamental was missing from her understanding of the mess she’s in and, as a result of her meeting with the Goddess, now she knows what it is.

This realization is both a boon and a bane. Without realizing the true depths of the problem one has, one can’t hope to solve it, but ... well, when one sees the true extent of the hole one is in that’s painful. Inevitable but painful.

In any case, there is always a price to be paid for this increased understanding of the true nature of one’s (story) reality. In Cage’s case as soon as he realized the Omega wasn’t where he ‘knew’ she would be, he realized the visions had to have been false. He’d been led into a trap. The price: He had one plan and that had gone to hell. He was back at square one. The pearl: He finally knew what he was up against.

All Hope Is Lost: The First Beat


As we’ve seen, in Part 6 the protagonist reaps the consequences of the understanding he gained in Part 5. This leads to the protagonist paying a great price which is manifested as her suffering a fundamental setback. 

In my opinion, this setback is often the first try-fail in the final All Hope Is Lost try-fail cycle. Dan Harmon doesn’t put it quite this way, though he does write that ...

“[...] in a good action movie, this is where our guy simply gets his ass kicked. Robocop, armed with Clarence Boddiker's confession (5), marches into the office of Dick Jones, CEO of the company that built him. He tries to arrest the man that owns him, only to discover that he can't. It's against his programming. Loveable, human Alex Murphy (2) might have been able to pull this off, but bullet-proof, factory-made Robocop can't. [...] Between his purely mechanical brother, ED-209, and his purely human brothers, the misinformed police, being sicked on him, Robocop barely makes it out of the father's castle in one piece.” (Story Structure 104)

Also ...

“In a love story, this is the part where they break up. Now comes the stubble and the dirty dishes and the closed shades. The deep, deep, suicidal depression. The boring relationship with the supposedly better partner. And finally, the realization that nothing was ever more important than him or her.” (Story Structure 104)

Where This Leads


The short answer: Deification. Becoming a living god, at least figuratively. Dan Harmon writes:

“When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it's more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.” (Story Structure 104)

I think that process doesn’t truly come to fruition until Part 8: CHANGE and our protagonist wallops the Big Bad into the next Millennium, but here we see our protagonist begin to emerge from the ashes.

Yes, she’s going to suffer setbacks between now and the final showdown, but the process of transformation has already begun.

That’s it for today! Next time I’ll either look at Part 7: RETURN or I’ll talk about the gothic genre. Till then, good writing!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Part 5: FIND - Meeting With The Goddess

Part 5: FIND - Meeting With The Goddess

This article continues my series on Dan Harmon’s view of story structure. Here’s a link to the first article: Dan Harmon On Story Structure

Part 5: FIND - Meeting With The Goddess


The job, the function, of the Road of Trials (Part 4) is to prepare the protagonist for his—or her—meeting with the Goddess. Though, she may not be quite what you thought you she was. 

At the midpoint our hero is, metaphorically, in the depths of their psyche, in the dark, deep, depths of the unconscious so things are about to get wacky.  Harmon writes, “Anything goes down here. This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability. If you're writing a plot-twisty thriller, twist here and twist hard.” (Story Structure 104)

Revelation


As we’ve seen, the cave of the goddess is a strange, weird place where anything can happen. At this point the character, the protagonist, is blessed (or cursed) with a major revelation, an epiphany. As a result they have a deeper understanding of life the world and everything, including what they’ve been doing wrong.

The Role of Choice


It’s important the hero makes a choice, so it’s important there are choices to make. For instance, Does the protagonist save her ally’s life even though it could cost them the object they were seeking? Does the protagonist do the selfless thing even though doing so would almost surely cause the quest to fail? Does the protagonist admit to herself that she’s in love even though that admission could cost her everything she holds dear? And so on.

Whatever the choice is, it’s important the protagonist has time for reflection. This is a big choice and an important plot point. Even though it’s tempting to move on, give this moment the page space it deserves.

The Goddess


Exactly what do we mean by “The Goddess”? Dan Harmon writes:

“[...] the goddess doesn't have to be a femme fatale or an angelic damsel. In an all-male or all-female play that takes place around a poker table, the "goddess" could be a character's confession that they lost their job. The goddess can be a gesture, an idea, a gun, a diamond, a destination, or just a moment's freedom from that monster that won't stop chasing you.” (Story Structure 104)

The Role of The Goddess


Although The Goddess doesn’t mean only one thing, meeting with her (whatever form she takes in the story) is dangerous and guaranteed to transform the protagonist, changing how they think about themselves and the world around them. 

Sometimes this midpoint change benefits a character and makes it easier for them to achieve their goal, sometimes it devastates them, warping them forever (e.g., The Craft).

In any case, this is a moment of inner and outer transformation, for either good or ill. Dan Harmon writes:

“In Die Hard, John McClane, having run over broken glass, is sitting in a bathroom, soaking his bloody feet in the sink. It is at this moment that he finally realizes the true extent of his love for his wife, and what he's been doing wrong in their marriage. He (1) has been too stubborn (2). He uses his walkie talkie, acquired in step (4), to give a message to his wife through his benevolent, happily married, gun-shy counterpart: ‘She's heard me say 'I love you' a thousand times...but she's never heard me say I'm sorry.’”

There’s two things here. First, the action, the pursuit (Part 4), then a pause for reflection, a pause in which the protagonist has a profound revelation, an epiphany, one that changes their understand of both themselves and the world.

At The Midpoint The Hero Switches From Passive To Active


At the Midpoint the hero switches from (mostly) passive to (mostly) active. Also, notice the mirroring going on here. Dan Harmon notes that the protagonist goes from the mama’s boy of Part 1 to a lady’s man (Part 5). He writes:

“You might have noticed that, just as (3), the crossing of the threshold, is the opposite of (7) the return, (5), the meeting with the goddess, is the opposite of (1), the protagonist's zone of comfort. Think of (1) as being the arms of mother, however dysfunctional she might be. (5) is a new form of mother, an unconscious version, and there is often a temptation to stay right here. Like at that elf guy's house in Lord of the Rings.” (Story Structure 104)

Definable Moment


Harmon advises us to mark this transition with a definable moment. He writes:

“If this is a story of a poor little girl (1) who dreamt of being rich (2) and got adopted by a millionaire (3), having become accustomed to her new lifestyle, (4), she might now be something of a fancy pants (5). Show it with a definable moment. This might be a good point for her to drive by the orphanage in her limousine.” (Story Structure 104)

That’s it for today! Next time we’ll continue the ascent back to the Ordinary World by looking at Part 6: Taking what one has found and paying the price.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Part 4: SEARCH and ADAPT to the Special World

Part 4: SEARCH and ADAPT to the Special World

This article is the fifth in a series about Dan Harmon’s take on the structure of stories. If you’d like to read the earlier articles I’ve indexed them at the bottom of: Dan Harmon On Story Structure.) 

Today let’s look at ...

4. SEARCH: The Road of Trials


In Part 3 the protagonist crossed the threshold and descended from the Ordinary World—from the known, the comfortable—into the Special World of the Adventure. Now she must adapt to a land that is alien, strange, and frightening.

As Harmon points out, different writers have different names for this phase. Christopher Vogler calls it “Friends, Enemies and Allies,” producers call it, “The Training Phase.” Joseph Campbell called it, “The Road of Trials.” The point is that, “our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

The Protagonist Gives Up Something: No Pain, No Gain.


The protagonist must jettison excess baggage. After all, to gain something one must first give up something. If one’s life is cluttered with trifles we’ve held onto for maudlin sentimental reasons we must clean house to make room for something new. 

The protagonist must lose something, must divest themselves of something, before they can find what they’re searching for. This stripping of the cared for, of the familiar, will cause pain but will be transformative. But, then, pain and transformation are two sides of the same coin. Harmon writes:

“In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell actually evokes the image of a digestive tract, breaking the hero down, divesting him of neuroses, stripping him of fear and desire. There's no room for bullshit in the unconscious basement. Asthma inhalers, eyeglasses, credit cards, fratty boyfriends, promotions, toupees and cell phones can't save you here. [...]

“In Romancing the Stone, Michael Douglas cuts the heels off of Kathleen Turner's expensive shoes with a machete. Then he throws her suitcase off a cliff. If she's going to continue to survive in this jungle, she literally needs to drop her excess baggage and lose the fancy pants.” (Story Structure 104)

Identify What Things (Ideas, etc.) Hold The Protagonist Back


Why do we need to shed this excess? Harmon writes:

“We are headed for the deepest level of the unconscious mind, and we cannot reach it encumbered by all that crap we used to think was important.” (Story Structure 104)

While it’s fine to have a pair of expensive designer shoes—especially if you happen to be at an event where everyone else is wearing expensive designer shoes—the protagonist needs to shed anything unnecessary, she has to get rid of the trappings of the Ordinary World, they have no place here. In fact, if she refuses to give them up she will fail to find what she has been searching for.

Fun And Games: Fish Out Of Water


As Blake Snyder reminds us in “Save The Cat!,” this is also a time for Fun and Games. This is where the hero explores the Special World and blunders about like a toddler, figuring out how things work, learning the ropes. As he does, he will make new friends as well as an enemy or two. 

For example, in Star Wars IV, Luke Skywalker visited the Mos Eisley Cantina with Obi-Wan Kenobi. That was a strange new world indeed! 

The friends and allies the protagonist makes in the Special World are invaluable, for they not only help him acclimatize to the strange new world, but to excel in it.

Mirroring



I’ll talk more about this later, though if you’d like to skip ahead, read Dan Harmon’s article, “Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details.” 

When we look at Part 6 we’ll see that it’s another road of trials, one that mirrors Part 4, only this time rather than descending to meet the goddess, the protagonist ascends on her return to the Ordinary World. Rather than being passive, rather than stripping away the excess, now our transformed protagonist is on the upward journey ready, ready to return to the ordinary world with what the goddess gave them.

That's it! Hope you had a wonderful week.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Part 3: GO - The Protagonist Enters An Unfamiliar Situation

Part 3: GO - The Protagonist Enters An Unfamiliar Situation

Today, I continue discussing Dan Harmon’s take on story structure. In the first post in this series (see: Dan Harmon On Story Structure) I gave an overview and went into the origin of Harmon’s system. Head over there if you have questions, or you’re wondering why this looks a bit like Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

3. Crossing The Threshold, Entering the strange, new, world of the adventure.


Here the protagonist takes a journey, a dangerous crossing, into the unknown.

Dan Harmon writes:

“What's your story about? If it's about a woman running from a killer cyborg, then up until now, she has not been running from a killer cyborg. Now she's finna start. If your story is about an infatuation, this might be the point where our male hero first lays eyes on the object of his desire. [...] If it's a coming of age story, this could be a first kiss or the discovery of an armpit hair. If it's a slasher film, this is the first kill, or the discovery of a corpse.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

Harmon gives us what I think is a wonderful writing tool. He asks:

If you were going to make a movie poster for your story, what would it be? “What would you advertise to people if you wanted them to come listen to your story? A killer shark? Outer space? The Mafia? True love?” (Story Structure 104)

If you were reading a Werewolf story, chances are this (the 25% point) is where you’d discover Werewolves DO exist. Why? Because you’ve entered the strange and occasionally bizarre Special World of the Adventure. Here the rules are different and the protagonist is a fish out of water.

The Special World of the Adventure


In terms of Harmon’s/Vogler’s/Campbell’s system, The Special World is the lower, shaded, portion of the circle. (The Ordinary World is the unshaded upper half.)


Harmon writes: “Neo wakes up in a vat of goo in a world ruled by machines. His ordinary world desire to be a hacker, to fight the system, is going to be put to the test.” (Story Structure 104)

Contrast


The exact nature of the Special World will depend on the kind of story you’re telling, but there should be as stark a contrast as possible between the Ordinary World and the Special World. 

Think of the movie, The Matrix. It’s hard to get more stark than the difference, the contrast, between the Ordinary World of our experience and the Special World of humans in caves vats being used to power the machines.

Choice


The protagonist must choose to enter the Special World. Even if there’s coercion involved (as in the movie Collateral), the protagonist must make the decision to go forward. Christopher Vogler writes:

“Crossing the First Threshold is an act of the will in which the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure.”

Threshold Guardians


The tale of a hero setting out on a dangerous journey to acquire something of both personal and public value can be interesting. The tale of a hero setting out on an easy journey is boring. The protagonist must face obstacles that test her, that put her through the fire. This is one of the functions of a Threshold Guardian.

According to Vogler any Threshold Guardian worth her salt will be able to inspire doubt and fear, will be able to cause the hero to question whether they’re the person for this particular job.

This has been a brief overview where I’ve chatted about the highlights of what Dan Harmon calls Part 3. I’ve written more about this stage of the story here: A Story Structure In Three Acts: Act Two.

That’s it! Next time we’ll look at the protagonist’s descent into chaos.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Dark Art of Blogging

The Dark Art of Blogging

Yesterday a friend told me he needs to stop blogging. It was a shock, but I think it’s the right decision for him, and I strongly suspect he’ll be back one day in the not-too-distant future.

It made me remember a time when, years ago, I needed to walk away from blogging. I was the primary caregiver for my parents. They needed help in their last years and I was glad to give it. 

During the worst patch, I stopped blogging for a few months. I had to. And, looking back, I’m glad I did. It was too much. In the odd half hour I could snatch for myself I needed to let my mind grope toward a static whiteness. At least, that’s what it felt like. Overload. I started hearing Scotty, “She cannae take any more of this, Captain! She’s gonna blow!”

Anyway.

Although I stopped blogging, I never stopped writing. Even if it was just scrawling down fragments of a story on the outside of torn envelopes. 

It’s almost ironic that when one needs the most time to meditate, to be still and feel and struggle to make sense of the apparently senseless, that one actually has less time.

And, of course, I came back! I have my friends to thank for that. When it was all over, they kindly, gently, encouraged me to resume blogging. And when I did I realized how much it meant to me, how much I’d missed it. 

So, looking back, I’m convinced that taking time away was the right decision. I think that if I had driven myself to keep blogging I may have ended up resenting my blog and, as a result, stopped for good. 

How I Blog, My Process


For a while now I’ve meant to write a post about what I somewhat jokingly call my process. But, over the years, I have developed a certain system, a certain rhythm. I strongly suspect this is going to be different for everyone, but, for what it’s worth, here’s what I do:

Step 1: A Handwritten Zero Draft


The overwhelming majority of my blog posts begin life as a handwritten draft scrawled in my writing journal. This is a rough, rough, draft, more like a zero draft than a first draft. 

Often, when I pen the first draft I’m not sure what the blog post will be about, I’m groping about for an idea. As I sit and write a theme usually emerges. 

Everyone’s different, but for myself it’s important I handwrite this first draft. If I try and type it I often end up staring at a blank screen thinking about all the things I need to do that day. I’m not sure why this is, but often a theme won’t emerge. Here’s where the “dark art” of blogging comes in!

Step 2: Transcribe The Zero Draft


I’ve experimented with voice recognition programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking but find I spend just as much time training it as I do using it to write! 

I do sometimes use the voice recognition capabilities of my Mac, the program that comes with the operating system. Although it’s not as accurate as Dragon, I find it much more convenient since its only one keyboard shortcut away.

As I type in my first draft I reorder or delete paragraphs, fill in an idea or two, and so on. By the time the post has been transferred from my writing journal to my computer, I usually have a theme.

Step 3: Read The Post Through And Tweak It


The next step is to read my post through from beginning to end. It now begins to take on it’s final form. If I still don’t know what the post is about, I lay it aside and come back the next day.

Step 4: Polishing


Then comes polishing, and inserting whatever links are needed. (In previous drafts I simply put “[link]” in the text to indicate I’ll need to hunt up a URL.) When that’s all done ...

Step 5: Editing


I then ask my computer to read the post back to me. Often hearing my post will suggest editing changes. I try and eliminate rambling sentences that go on and on, with no period in sight, sentences where the point I was trying to make gets lost in the words used to make it; sentences like this one.

This is also where the lions share of actual editing takes place. Sometimes I’ll add another step and paste the whole thing from Scrivener to Word. Even though I love Scrivener, I like to use Word to expose my many grievous sins against the English language.

Step 6: Publish


And that’s it! Or, almost it. I still need to paste my post into the editor over at Blogger, fill in the metadata, find a public domain or Creative Commons picture, alter the picture to include the title of the post, save the image as a .jpg file, and upload it. Then, finally, it’s time to press that big, beautiful, orange “Publish” button.

And ... that’s it!

Or not. After the post is published I share the link with my social networks. For me, that’s Google+ and Twitter.

All in all it takes a few hours of work. But it’s worth it because the writing, the process, has become a living thing, like the beat of some wild subterranean drum. It’s something I love to do, something I must do. And, fate willing, I’ll be able to do it for a good long time.

That’s it! Thanks for reading. For my next post I’ll return to my series about Dan Harmon’s take on the structure of stories.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Part 2: NEED - The Protagonist WANTS Something

Part 2: NEED - The Protagonist WANTS Something

Dan Harmon On Story Structure


In Part 1 (YOU) everything was hunky-dory. Even if things weren’t perfect, the protagonist was comfortable. Then something happens to the protagonist’s Ordinary World and knocks it off-kilter. 

Now the protagonist is uncomfortable; now they have a NEED. Harmon writes:

“If this is a story about a war between Earth and Mars, this is a good time to show those Martian ships heading toward our peaceful planet. On the other hand, if this is a romantic comedy, maybe our heroine is at dinner, on a bad blind date.” (Story Structure 104)

“This is where a character might wonder out loud, or with facial expressions, why he can’t be cooler, or richer, or faster, or a better lover. This wish will be granted in ways that character couldn’t have expected.” (Story Structure 104)

Call To Adventure


This is where the protagonist receives the Call to Adventure. The Call can be about something internal (“I wish I was the life of the party”) or external (“I want to rescue the Ark” or “I want to discover the true nature of reality”).

Harmon writes:

“[...] a more literal, exterior “Call to Adventure” could come in, at the hands of a mysterious messenger, explaining to a dry cleaner that he has been drafted by the CIA.”

Often action movies have an external call to adventure. In the movie, The Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist, Cage, discovers that the upcoming battle is a trap. If it occurs the aliens (Mimics) will win a resounding victory and the human resistance will be crushed. Cage’s need is to stop the battle from happening.

Refusal of the Call


The protagonist often Refuses The Call. Just because his life is complicated, this doesn’t mean he wants to participate in a high stakes adventure. His world may have problems, but at least they’re familiar problems. The devil you know.

The Refusal of the Call is something the audience understands. Why? Because, as Dan Harmon says, it’s all a part of the pattern, of playing out the rhythm. “We’re all scared of change.”

That’s it! I’ll be back with Part 3 (GO) next week.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Part 1: Create A Protagonist Audiences Will Relate To

Step 1: Create A Protagonist Audiences Will Relate To

Dan Harmon On Story Structure


Yesterday I introduced the bare bones of Dan Harmon’s story model:

When YOU have a NEED you GO somewhere, SEARCH for it, FIND it, TAKE it, then RETURN and things CHANGE. 

Yes, I wrote about this yesterday, but thought it would be helpful to reproduce the structural overview again and in more detail. All this is basically verbatim from Dan Harmon’s article, Story Structure 103.

1. A character in a zone of comfort (YOU)
2. The character WANTS/NEEDS something.
3. The character GOes to, enters, an unfamiliar situation.
4. While SEARCHing for what they want, the character adapts to the new situation.
5. The character FINDs (at least a part of) what they were searching for, what they wanted/needed.
6. The character TAKEs it and pays the price.
7. The character takes their prize and RETURNs to the Ordinary World, to the place they began their journey.
8. The character, who is himself changed, can now CHANGE the Ordinary World.

Why Story Structure Is Important


Dan Harmon believes that “a story has to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story.” He believes that “our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play that rhythm, it resonates.” (Story Structure 102)

Cyclic patterns such as death swallowing life and life emerging, Phoenix-like, out of death. Patterns such as the contents of consciousness falling away, sinking into unconsciousness, then emerging, transformed. Patterns such as order crumbling into chaos and chaos receding, yielding, to order. The one feeds the other, depends on the other.  

Dan Harmon writes:

“Whereas the health of an individual depends on the ego’s regular descent and return from the unconscious, a society’s longevity depends on actual people journeying into the unknown and returning with ideas.

“In their most dramatic, revolutionary form, these people are called heroes, but every day, society is replenished by millions of people diving into darkness and emerging with something new (or forgotten): scientists, painters, teachers, dancers, actors, priests, athletes, architects and most importantly, me, Dan Harmon.” (Story Structure 102)

Story Resonance


“Now you understand that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat—whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke—it will resonate. It will send your audience's ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they're going to say ‘yum.’” (Story Structure 102)

Sorry for all the quotations, but I wanted to establish WHY story structure is important. I’ve read other people on this issue, but have found Dan Harmon’s explanation the most persuasive. 

Now let’s examine the structure itself.

1. YOU - Establish A Protagonist - Pity


A writer needs to give their audience a place to land. Dan Harmon writes:

“[...] if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” (Story Structure 104)

Agreed. Stephen King is brilliant at this. If you doubt me, read the first few paragraphs of “The Shining.” The real question is, how is it accomplished?

For the big and little screens it seems relatively easy: show them a character. Dan Harmon writes:

“You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice.” (Story Structure 104)

But what about writers? Is it as simple as writing, “So there was this guy, see, and ...”? 

Yes and no. Harmon writes that an audience will relate to a character that evokes pity. He writes:

“Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon. Fade in on a room full of ambassadors. The President walks in and trips on the carpet. We are the President. When you feel sorry for someone, you’re using the same part of your brain as you use to identify with them.” (Story Structure 104)

I’ll be honest, that took me off-guard. I was ready for Harmon to say something about the character’s goal being just, or them being skilled at something. But pity ... I wasn’t expecting that.

 Though, thinking about “Community” and movies like “Die Hard” or even “The Princess Bride,” it fits. Just about every character I’ve strongly identified with has a flaw, often a deep one. But I hadn’t thought of the flaw in those terms, as connecting the character to the audience by invoking pity. Brilliant!

Creating A Character Your Audience Can Relate To: Have Them Do What The Audience Would


Here’s Dan Harmon’s advice: Have your protagonist always do what the audience would do. He writes:

“The easiest thing to do is fade in on a character that always does what the audience would do. He can be an assassin, he can be a raccoon, he can be a parasite living in the raccoon's liver, but have him do what the audience might do if they were in the same situation. In Die Hard, we fade in on John McClane, a passenger on an airplane who doesn't like to fly.” (Story Structure 104)

Caution: Switch Perspectives As Little As Possible


But there is a limit. Harmon warns:

“Like anything adhesive, our sense of identity weakens a little every time it’s switched or tested. The longer it’s been stuck on someone the more jarring it’s going to be to yank it away and stick it on someone else.” (Story Structure 104)

Introduce the protagonist early and make them the focus of the story.

That’s it! My next post will be about the second part of Dan Harmon’s story structure, the character’s NEED. See you then and good writing!

Original Photo: Curious Raccoon

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dan Harmon On Story Structure

Dan Harmon On Story Structure

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to Dan Harmon’s series of articles on story structure. I had no idea Harmon was passionate about story structure, though I should have guessed. 

In this article I barely brush the surface of what Harmon has to say, so I will be returning to this material in future articles. Or at least that’s the plan (knock on wood).

Here are the links to DH’s articles:


Dan Harmon’s Story Model


Dan Harmon’s story model, his story structure, really isn’t his. He tells us this up front. He got it from Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. He got it from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. He got it from Syd Field’s book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook.

And those are useful books. I know, I’ve read them. Yes, okay, I read Joseph Campbell’s book a couple of decades ago and there was some head-scratching involved, but still. I say this because even though I’ve probably read most of the books on writing DH has, his way of looking at story structure is unique. Reading his articles gave me a new perspective on story, and that’s exciting! 

Dan Harmon’s talk of rhythms, of drawing one’s audiences’ attention to certain patterns, gave me an ‘Ah ha!’ moment, a realization about something that had puzzled me: How to think of the gap between the Midpoint and the All Hope Is Lost beat. For some reason, that particular stretch of story, bridging it, was a bit of a desert trek for me. 

I’ll talk more about that when we get there. For now, let’s take a barest of bones look at Dan Harmon’s story model:

When YOU have a NEED you GO somewhere SEARCH for it, FIND it, TAKE it, then RETURN and things CHANGE. 

Or, even more simply, “YOU NEED to GO SEARCH, FIND, TAKE and RETURN with CHANGE.” (SS 103)

Too condensed? Here it is stretched out over the eight stages:

1. When YOU
2. have a NEED,
3. you GO somewhere,
4. SEARCH for it,
5. FIND it,
6. TAKE it,
7. then RETURN
8. and CHANGE things.


The Barest of Bones


It’s going to sound odd, but I suggest you read Dan Harmon’s last article (SS 106) first since it gives a nice, if dense, summary of his system. It’s a kind of whirlwind tour of his 8 steps. Do it now. Here’s the link: Story Structure 106: Five Minute Pilots.

Back? Good!

What I want to do today is, rather than apply this structure to a 5 minute video (as Harmon does), apply it to a 4,000 word short story. 

Ready? Let’s go! (Keep in mind that this is the condensed version)

1. Ordinary World


Here is where you establish both the protagonist (YOU) and the protagonist’s NEED. 

The protagonist is comfortable in the Ordinary World, or at least he thinks he is. But, nevertheless, he wants/needs/desires something. Next, begin to change his circumstances and unleash the Call to Adventure.

2. Enter The Special World of the Adventure


Because of his need, the protagonist enters (GO) a new, unfamiliar, situation. While SEARCHING for what he wants, he adapts to this new situation.

The character FINDs what they were searching for.

3. Paying The Price


The character claims their prize (TAKE) and pays a price. Their mission accomplished, the protagonist begins the long trek back home (RETURN). 

The Big Bad rallies his strength and chases after the protagonist. When the two meet we have the final confrontation that decides whether the protagonist will return to his community with whatever he has taken. (Note: this doesn’t have to be an object.)

4. The Return


Show how the protagonist’s circumstances have CHANGEd as a result of their adventure. This is where the stakes get cashed out and we see how the journey, the adventure, has changed not only the life of the protagonist but the lives of everyone around him.

That’s the barest of bones. When I pick this subject up again, I’ll begin at the beginning and take an in-depth look at the first link in the chain: 1. YOU.

By the way, DH stresses that not every single stage must be explicitly present in every story. Sometimes (often) a story will condense one or more of the stages due to time or space constraints. After all, if we couldn’t do this then I’m not sure if we’d have many truly “short” stories anymore. Having said that, the order of the stages is important.

The Fractal Nature of Story Structure


I’d like to mention something I’ve been thinking a great deal about recently, the fractal nature of story structure. That is, each part of a story can mirror the structure of the entire story.

To put it another way, just as DH’s eight stages describe an entire story they can also describe a chapter or a scene or a paragraph. For example, here’s Dan Harmon’s story about "the guy whose soda turned out to contain poison”:

“(2.1) The guy [you]
(2.2) Makes a stink face [need]
(2.3) Starts inspecting the soda can [go]
(2.4) Runs finger over ingredients [search]
(2.5) Finds "poison" in ingredients [find]
(2.6) Chokes [take]
(2.7) Falls down [return]
(2.8) Dead [change]” (SS 106)

That’s it for today. Have a terrific rest of the week. If the mood strikes, try using Dan Harmon’s story structure to write a Dabble.

The articles in this series:

- Dan Harmon on Story Structure
- Part 1: Create A Protagonist Audiences Will Relate To
- Part 2: NEED - The Protagonist WANTS Something
- Part 3: Go - The Protagonist Enters An Unfamiliar Situation
- Part 4: SEARCH and ADAPT to the Special World
- Part 5: FIND - Meeting With The Goddess
- Part 6: TAKE - Take The Prize And Pay The Price
- Part 7: RETURN - Bringing The Prize Home
- Part 8 of 8: CHANGE The World