First, a caveat. In the following I say things about ‘all X,’ for example, ‘all main characters,’ but of course statements like that are generalizations. There are wonderful stories that do not fit into the patterns I describe.
That said, I think reading about the hero’s journey is valuable even if the stories you are interested in would traditionally have been described as more literary. After all, there are patterns, rhythms, to good storytelling regardless of the story being told. And while I do wholeheartedly agree that there are more ways for a story to express these patterns than are described in the hero’s journey, I do believe that the hero’s journey IS one way to access those patterns.
The Importance of a Good Stake (Punny ;)
I've already discussed the importance of having goals and the inevitable conflict that follows from that (blog post: Storytelling). But the amount of conflict depends on how high the stakes are.
Think of it this way, if you bet the price of a coffee on your sports team winning a particular match you wouldn't care as much about the outcome as if you had bet your entire rent for the month. (Not that I’m recommending that!)
Stakes and Suspense
Goals--especially diametrically opposed goals like the ones I’ll talk about, later--are important because they create conflict, but this conflict means little without high stakes. The stakes control the suspense. Low states, low suspense. High stakes, high suspense.
Stakes are the possible consequences of a course of action. What will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal? What will happen if she doesn't?
For example, let's say we have a character, Rob. Rob is on a diet, he wants to lose 20 pounds before his brother's wedding. Here are two versions of the story:
Possibility A: Rob loses the 20 pounds and doesn’t have to rent a tuxedo.
Possibility B: Rob failed to lose 20 pounds and had to rent a tuxedo.
The story question: Will Rob lose 20 pounds and not have to rent a tuxedo or will he fail and be forced to rent a tuxedo for his brother's wedding?
Either way, so what? Why should we care? I don't know about you, but I don't have strong feelings either way about rented tuxedos!
Let’s increase the stakes.
Rob makes a bet with his brother that if he can't fit into his tuxedo in time for the wedding he'll pay for the wedding. But paying for the wedding would wipe out Rob’s savings and he wouldn't be able to fulfill his lifelong dream of climbing Mount Everest. And if he doesn’t fulfill his dream of climbing Mount Everest he will be depressed, stop making friends and develop an unnatural addiction to Cheetos.
Now we have:
Possibility A': Rob loses the 20 pounds and so not only fits into his tuxedo but is able to fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Afterward, Rob starts a new blog to share his experiences, meets lots of other cool people and lives a meaningful life surrounded by those who care about him.
Possibility B': Rob fails to lose the 20 pounds and so not only has to rent a tuxedo but can’t fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Rob becomes depressed, never blogs, becomes addicted to Cheetos and dies alone.
Here’s our new story question:
Will Rob be able to lose the 20 pounds before the wedding and fulfil his dream to climb Mount Everest or will he fail, pay for his brother's wedding, become depressed and die alone?
That's a better story question. Obviously the example is tongue in cheek, but hopefully it illustrates the point.
As soon as Rob has something with emotional weight to lose, we begin to care more about what happens to him.
In order for this to work, though, the possible consequences of a course of action must be clear.
That's it for now! I'll try and get Part Two of this miniseries up tomorrow or the next day. I'm blogging a draft of my new book on writing, so your input on anything I write would be greatly appreciated! If you think I'm wrong about anything I say, please let me know! I enjoy discussions about writing. Thanks for reading.
Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index