Showing posts with label hero's journey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hero's journey. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 3

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

There are many stories that don't fit the hero’s journey. For example, the movies Psycho and The Princess Bride. And that's great! There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. 

I mention this to emphasize that what I am going to talk about is only one way of doing things. If it doesn’t work for you, or you have developed your own way, great! However, if you are looking for an example of how things could be done, this is one possible way.

Narrative Setting

Narrative setting is the setting where the events of the story take place. 

The story world includes, among other things, the physical environments your characters will encounter as well as the groups they interact with. You can create these environs from your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

Conjuring a story world from nothing but the materials of your imagination may save long hours of research, but keep in mind that the story world (unlike the real one!) needs to be consistent. A happy medium between these two is to set the tale in a fictional world but to use the actual world as a starting point. By changing aspects of the actual world one can often produce a setting that is both unique and plausible.

Social Setting

However you go about crafting your story world, the most time-consuming, intricate and important aspect of a character's environment is their social environment.

What are the rules of your world's societies, rules both written and unwritten? What sorts of pair bonds are sanctioned? What are their norms, their unwritten rules? Are certain practices, certain actions, sanctioned but discouraged? 

Getting finer grained, what kinds of groups, or sub-groups, does the society contain? By this I mean any kind of group: political, recreational, medical, artificial, criminal, natural, sanctioned and unsanctioned. And if you see fit to give your world something like the internet, don't forget online groups!

The most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, our coworkers, our distant relatives, our facebook friends. Of course, your protagonist need not be sociable! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

Above all, think about ways to introduce opportunities for conflict when creating a story world.

The Elements of Setting: Time

What time of year is it in the story? Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons? How much time passes in your story? Hours? Days? Months? Years?

Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps for flashbacks to convey the story? 

The Elements of Setting: Place

Where does your story take place? What is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? Does the story take place in a town? A city? A tropical jungle? A rainforest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?

Is there water nearby? A pond? A sea? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? For example, could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances

What social groups is your character involved in? Are they religious? Spiritual? Politically involved? Do they have a large family? Small family? No family? If they're a loner, do they have a network of friends online? What kind of social groups is your character a part of at work? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Are they the first one at the water cooler in the morning, gossiping, or do they keep to themselves? Do they get along with their boss? 

What are the signs of group inclusion? Do your characters have an accent? Do they wear a uniform, or some sort of special clothing? Do they have markings that identify them as part of a particular group?

Do different groups, different societies or cultural groups, have different accents? Different ways of speaking?

How do these marks of social inclusion, these accents and languages, differ from those which existed a century ago? A millennium ago? Also, what will these groups, these societies, be like a century--or a millennium--from now?

Setting & Scenes

Let’s talk about setting as it relates to each scene.

I've touched on some of this information above, but let's get specific. Stories are made up of scenes and scenes occur at a place and a time. 

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends. Also know what time of day it is. Is it morning or high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? You don’t have to--you likely shouldn’t!--put all this information in the scene, but it helps to know.

What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it invoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child. (This introduces conflict: the character would like to sleep but the nightmare, and now the memories invoked by it, trap them in the waking world.)

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?

If the scene takes place outdoors what's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds turning day into twilight? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes making the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Does the unbearable heat of the sun bake everything to a brittle hardness? Are the characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by distance and the unbearable, bitter cold? What associations might they have to snow? How about rain? 

While an adult might hate to wake up to a winter wonderland, a child would likely be overjoyed--especially if it means a snow day!

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. 

Wherever your characters are, were they invited here? Are they comfortable here? Does this place make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

A room could be lavish and yet make a character uneasy because, while they have always desired it, they are unused to such luxury. Another character, one equally uncomfortable in such surroundings, might feel the urge to destroy it. Setting can be used to develop character. Before we examine that, though, let's briefly look at the importance of being able to use setting to generate conflict.


I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. One thing all stories must have, whatever the story world is like, is conflict. Political parties contend with each other. Countries go to war. Social groups hold diametrically opposed yet strongly held views about what constitutes appropriate conduct.

What do your characters believe? Where in this ever shifting maze of interconnectedness do they fit? What groups do they belong to? What do they believe about the world? Which social practices and which social institutions do they embrace? How do these preferences generate conflict both within and between characters?

It is one thing for a character to understand what sort of behavior a particular society expects from its members, and quite another whether, and to what extent, they will go along with it.

Writing Challenge

Select one of your favorite books and try to answer the following questions: 

- What is the setting for the story?
- Does the world have seasons? If so, during what season, or seasons, does the story take place?
- How much time elapses during the story?
- What is the geography of the story world like?
- How many distinct social groups exist and what characteristics distinguish one from another?
- Which aspects of the setting created the most conflict and how was it generated? 

A Thought Experiment

Imagine two societies are remarkably similar but one--Society A--helped defend the surrounding region against an enemy while the other--Society B--did nothing. As a result, many citizens in Society A despise Society B. It's winter, food is scarce, and a fire has ripped through Society B destroying its food reserves. Many in Society B accuse Society A of setting the fire. One thing is certain, unless Society B gets food many of its citizens will starve to death. What will Society B do? Attack the city that defended it? What will Society A do? Share it's food reserves with the city that not only didn't help defend against the enemy but that now accuses them of sabotage?

Given this setting, who would be your protagonist? I think I would choose a child from Society B who discovers evidence that their food reserves were destroyed by the enemy they thought Society A had defeated. But will he be believed?

Okay, that’s it! This was a bit of a grab bag of ideas. I hope you got something from it. I’ll talk to you again soon. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Friday, December 20

Story Structure: The Hero's Journey

Story Structure: The Hero's Journey

The Hero's Journey

Over the years I've written quite a bit about story structure. So much in fact that I resolved not to do another post about it for a while! But then I began writing my NaNoWriMo novel and a few more things fell into place.

I would really like to know what you think of it. Do you agree? Disagree? Is there anything you would add?

A few random comments before we get started

I believe that, with few exceptions, each genre story is a version of the hero's journey. The specifics are different but the general progression is more-or-less the same.

Not all points, below, will be in every story. For example, sometimes the Inciting Incident and The Call to Adventure will occur at the same time.

Also, sometimes the hero doesn't reject The Call to Adventure.

Another way this structure can vary occurs at the Midpoint. Occasionally the important change to The Hero's life is that he receives information about the story world. Other times the important change comes about because of a physical confrontation between the Big Bad and The Hero. Sometimes (for instance, in a romance) the change occurs when the lovers (the protagonist and antagonist) take their physical relationship to the next level.

About the Midpoint ...

I talk more about this below but, for me, the essential thing about the Midpoint is a revelation the hero has, one that comes about because the Big Bad gives (either directly or indirectly) The Hero some information that makes him view the story world in a fundamentally different way. For example, Cage in the movie Edge of Tomorrow realizes that he is a better fighter than his teacher, who happens to be the woman he is in love with. He realizes he has a choice between saving her life and saving the world. He chooses the world and in so doing, he transitions from cowardice to courage.

Because of what happens at the midpoint, because of the The Hero's sacrifice and resulting growth, The Hero's becomes a threat to the Big Bad.

The Hero has an inner and outer goal. At the beginning of the Midpoint the hero hasn't yet made a lot of progress toward his inner goal. As a result, the hero isn't much of a threat to the Big Bad.

At the Midpoint Cage accepts that he will have to give up the person he loves the most in order to save the world. That moment of sacrifice marks a fundamental transition, reorientation, in The Hero's hierarchy of values. It is BECAUSE the hero makes this sacrifice that he becomes a true danger to the Big Bad.  Now -- if I may use this expression -- the hero is in it to win it. He is committed. It doesn't matter if he survives as long as he wins.

At the second Pinch Point the hero comes into conflict with the Big Bad. Because The Hero went through a fundamental restructuring at around the Midpoint, he survives the confrontation, and now the Big Bad is concerned. He realizes that now The Hero is a threat. This sets things up for the hero's race for the finish and the climax of the story.

In what follows please take the percentages with a grain of salt, it's the order that matters. Also, I've done all calculations assuming at finished length of 75,000 words.

Act One

1.  Inciting Incident (1% -- 750)

An event that changes the nature of the Ordinary World. It is a disaster that divides the time before from the time after.

2. Call to Adventure (10% -- 7,500)

Because of the Inciting Incident, because of the way it has changed the world, the hero is asked to take on a dangerous challenge for the good of both himself and his community.

Note: The call to Adventure and the Inciting Incident can occur within the same scene.

3. Refusal of the Call (12% -- 9,000)

The hero isn’t a hero yet and the Adventure that he is being asked to undertake is dangerous. The hero doesn’t think he’s up to the task, he’s never done anything even remotely like this before! Besides, the hero has so many responsibilities, he just can’t leave. Maybe next year.

4. Disaster (16% -- 12,500)

An event occurs, something connected to how the Inciting Incident changed the story world, that divests the hero of many of his responsibilities. This event pushes the hero into the adventure and then burns his bridges so there's no going back.

For example, In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke said he couldn’t go with Obi Wan because he couldn’t leave his Aunt and Uncle; he was duty bound to help them run their farm. Then disaster hit. Stormtroopers killed Luke's Aunt and Uncle and burned their farm to the ground. Not only did this relieve Luke of his responsibilities but he was given a new motivation to take on the adventure Obi Wan offered: revenge.

5. Acceptance of the Call (20% -- 15,000)

The hero accepts the challenge being offered, usually by a mentor, to save both himself and his community. He does this even though he realizes that he is ill equipped for the task.

Act Two

6. Cross the threshold (25% -- 18,750)

The hero crosses over from the Ordinary World -- the world he’s used to -- to the Special World of the Adventure. Usually there is a journey involved. The Special World is very different from the Ordinary World and the hero has no idea how to act. His strengths are now weaknesses and perhaps at least one of his weaknesses is now a strength. The hero needs friends and allies to help him succeed in this strange new world.

The Hero will also make new enemies.

7. Tests and Trials (30% -- 22,500)

The hero is tested and found wanting (often this is played for laughs). The hero trains and gets better. Sometimes there is a series of scenes and sequels that ends in a minor competition that demonstrates the hero's progress.

8. The First Pinch Point (37% -- 27,750)

Since entering the Special World the hero has become sidetracked. He has been busy learning about the Special World and how to succeed in it. Now the hero's external goal becomes his primary focus.

It is here that the hero gets his first glimpse of the power of the Big Bad. At this point the hero has made some progress toward his external goal but not a lot of progress toward his internal goal. This means that the hero is not yet a strong threat to the Big Bad. Sometimes this attack is just the Big Bad playing with the hero like a cat with an injured mouse.

9. The Plan (42% -- 31,500)

The hero and his allies get together and make a plan to defeat the Big Bad. Often all The Hero's allies are present, there is eating and drinking, so this scene often takes place in a bar or great hall.

This is a lighter scene, perhaps there is a good natured argument. The allies bond.

Perhaps the hero has an ally that we think may be a traitor. This would be a good place to explore that.

10. The Approach (46% -- 34,500)

The Hero and his allies travel to the place of conflict.

11. The Midpoint Confrontation (50% -- 37,000)

Often, the hero confronts the Big Bad at the midpoint. The hero wins in the sense that he doesn’t get killed and escapes, but in all other ways he loses. As a result of his confrontation the Big Bad, either directly or indirectly, the hero is given a crucial piece of information. Something the hero thought was indisputably true about the Special World turns out to be false. Further, his attempt to defeat the Big Bad relied on this idea/thought/piece of information being true.

There isn't always a confrontation between the hero and the Big Bad at the midpoint. Occasionally The Hero confronts the Big Bad's minions, or sometimes -- if, for example, the Big Bad wants to recruit the hero -- they call a truce and talk. Occasionally the Big Bad calls a truce to get the hero out of the way so his minions can attack the hero's allies.

At some point after the First Pinch Point, and no later than the Midpoint, the hero makes significant progress toward his inner goal. This growth is usually in response to a significant failure or loss. For instance, in The Edge of Tomorrow Cage is presented with a choice: save the woman you love or save the world. He chooses the world -- Cage would never have done that at the beginning.

12. Escape (60% -- 45,000)

The hero escapes by the skin of his teeth. He reunites with his allies and tells them what he’s found out.

13. The Second Pinch Point (62% -- 46,500)

The hero gets his second experience of the full power of the Big Bad. This is the most powerful attack he and his allies have faced.

At this point the Big Bad is actually worried about the hero. Because of the progress he has made on his inner goal he has actually become dangerous. Here the Big Bad throws everything he has at The Hero in an effort to take him out.

14. The Plan (70% -- 52,500)

Because of the savage attack by the Big Bad, the hero and his allies realize they have to defeat him and now there is a ticking clock. It has to be done SOON.

Even though it is practically impossible to kill the Big Bad, if the hero is to save his friends, his community, the world and possibly the galaxy, he must confront the Big Bad and he must win. So the hero and his allies make a plan.

Note that the plan doesn’t have to be complicated. The hero’s sidekick could turn to the hero and ask, “So, what’s the plan?” The hero turns to her and says, “Don’t die.”

Act Three

After this point no new characters are introduced.

15. The Approach (75% -- 56,250)

The hero implements The Plan. Usually the hero has to travel to where the confrontation with the Big Bad will take place. At the end of the approach, there may be a confrontation between the hero’s sidekick and the Big Bad’s sidekick.

The Hero's Flaw

The Hero needs to face his inner flaw head-on. We want to expose his true nature. Perhaps, up until this point, The Hero has denied the existence of the inner flaw but now he admits it to himself and, as a result, becomes stronger. Strong enough to take on this nearly impossible task.

The Choice

Often The Hero is offered a choice by the Big Bad. He will have to decide between abandoning his outer/external goal (e.g., finding the ark, recovering the magical gem, etc.) and the life of someone he loves.

Often The Hero will abandon his external goal -- or at least make accomplishing it a LOT less likely -- to save the person he loves. But not always. For example, Cage in Edge of Tomorrow was given this choice at the Midpoint and he gave up the person he loved. 

The key here is that The Hero will choose to do the right thing, the courageous thing, at great personal cost.

In making this choice, The Hero should burn all his bridges. He is committed to whatever course of action he has decided on.

Ticking Clock

The Hero is often given a set period of time in which to decide which sacrifice he will make. In this way The Choice also sets up a ticking-clock which helps to increase suspense. Also, there should be some chance, however slight, that The Hero won't have to actually make The Choice.

16. All Hope is Lost (85% -- 63,750)

This is the lowest point in the story. It seems as though the hero has failed completely. There is no coming back from this. There is no more hope.

This is where the progress The Hero has made on his inner goal often becomes crucially important. If he were the same person who Accepted the Call in Act One, this setback, this disaster, would finish him off. But he's NOT the same person. He has grown. And because of this all hope is NOT lost.

Make this moment last, don't rush over it. This is where The Hero's true nature is revealed. (By the way, this point is from Deborah Chester.)

This is the final point of growth for The Hero. This is a bit like his death and resurrection. Here he lets go of everything he has been hanging on to, everything that has kept him from changing into the kind of person his community needs him to be, and becomes someone who can change the world.

17. The Climax (92% -- 69,000)

It seems as though The Hero has lost. As Deborah Chester writes:

"Although in the dark moment, the protagonist seems defeated ... and although the protagonist has sacrificed a goal -- the thing he thought he wanted most -- instead of his conscience or his principles .... and although the story question appears to be answered with a no ... and although the antagonist seems to have won ... that's not the way the story's going to end." (Deborah Chester, The Fantasy Fiction Formula)

The hero confronts the Big Bad.

Generally there will be at least three try-fail cycles and the hero will come to a point where it looks like The Hero has lost. But The Hero has grown because of his journey, because he accepted The Call to Adventure. He has become stronger.

Because he has changed The Hero is able to defy all the odds and win.

You might wonder, Well, okay, but exactly HOW does The Hero win? After all, it really looks as though the poor guy is finished.

Right. That is the tricky bit. Often writers call back to something cleverly planted earlier in the story. Perhaps two or three things that, when taken together and with a bit of luck will allow The Hero to do something exceptionally spectacular. And of course it doesn't hurt that the Big Bad is absolutely sure The Hero is finished and no longer a threat.

A couple of things to note: However The Hero ends up succeeding, it has to be from The Hero's own efforts. It's not that no one else can help him -- sometimes the Big Bad's abused Sidekick gives The Hero some help -- but the solution must come from The Hero.

Here's the message of this kind of story: If we take on challenges we will grow and become better than we are and, as a result of this growth, we could have a better life and be an asset to a community with which we are deeply connected. That’s why readers love these kind of stories, they echo a deeper truth.

At least, that’s my take on it! I’d be interested in knowing what you think.

18. The wrap-up (99% -- 74,250)

The Wrap-Up is crucial. It is perhaps the most important part of the book. Readers need to see the stakes being cashed out. How did the hero’s win affect his allies? His friends? His community? The world? How did his win affect his enemies and their communities?

The Wrap-Up can be very brief -- a couple of paragraphs. I try to keep it to under 1000 words. That said, some writers use an entire chapter for her Wrap-Up ... and it works!

Well, that's it! I'd love to hear what you think about this outline, especially if you disagree.

What I'm reading:

Right now I'm reading Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch which is the first book in his Rivers of London series. What book(s) is on your bedside table?

If you would like to support my blog ...

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending Blue Moon by Lee Child. I haven't read this one yet, but it's at the top of my "to-read" list. Here is an excerpt:

"The city looked small on a map of America. It was just a tiny polite dot, near a red threadlike road that ran across an otherwise empty half inch of paper. But up close and on the ground it had half a million people."

Wednesday, October 2

The Structure of Story

The Structure of Fiction

When I was a kid I had absolutely NO idea how to write an entertaining story. I wish someone had whispered the phrase “story arc” in my ear, it would at least have given me a place to start.

The Classic Character Arc: The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey is something we feel in our bones, it is the story of human civilization, but let’s make it explicit. What are its elements? We need:

A character, in a situation, with a well-defined problem, who tries to repeatedly solve it, but he fails and, in failing, makes the problem worse.

At the climax of the story, the hero makes a final attempt to achieve his/her goal. The result of this final attempt -- of the race to the final confrontation -- should unfold from the pattern of the hero’s victories and failures during the rest of the story.

If that sounds a bit mysterious, hang in there, I’ll unpack it.

BTW, that summary was from Philip Brewer’s post, Story Structure in Short Stories.

The Inward and Outward Journeys

Let’s break down the idea of a journey. There is usually an inward journey for the hero as well as an outward journey. 

In the movie, Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage (inner journey) went from cowardice to courage and (outer journey) from incompetence to mastery. These two journeys, these two paths, come together. Cage does something very brave just before the Final Confrontation and this gets him through the All Hope is Lost point. Mastering his cowardice was essential for Cage winning the final battle.

Again, more about this, below.

1. Opposites are good

This story structure comes to us by way of Larry Brooks's article: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story

Brooks writes:

"Like life, our stories always reside somewhere along that same continuum of set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution."

For instance, in the setup, the hero -- I like using the word ‘hero’ rather than protagonist -- is going through his normal everyday routines -- he struggles with the neighbourhood bully, he is in love with someone completely out of his league, he dreams of taking over the lucrative family business. That’s the hero's ordinary world.

Then something happens. There’s a shift. It could be that the protagonist gets a magical golden ticket, it could be that a young boy, sees a hologram and goes in search of an older, mysterious rather dodgy, character.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf came to Frodo, who had recently inherited the One Ring, and advised him to take it away from the shire in order to protect his community.

Okay. So. Another name for what just happened was the ‘Call to Adventure.’ After anything big happens in a story, there’s a response. In the case of Lord of the Rings, they are chased by the Black Riders.

But what I like about Larry Brook’s way of looking at things is that we really don’t need a lot of fancy names: the Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, and so on.

The key, the bedrock, is that something negative happens that derails the hero, and then something positive happens. That’s the pattern. The negative things that happen keep getting worse but the hero manages to keep going. Negative and positive. This back and forth keeps up until the hero and villain fight it out at the end and settle the matter once and for all.

Hook the reader early.

Plant a hook in the first couple of lines. Be bold. Here are a few first lines I think are marvelous:

“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.” (The Cat From Hell, Stephen King)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell)

If you THINK you have a good hook for your novel, but you’re not sure, test it out on your friends -- or even random strangers in line with you at Starbucks -- tell them your hook and watch their face, that will tell you pretty much everything you need to know. Also, do they ask questions? Are they curious about what happens?

I think it’s a good idea to include your hero’s perspective in the hook, although, that said, only one of the stellar opening lines I included, above, say anything about the protagonist (The Cat from Hell). As always, it’s up to you. If it works, it works.

2. Introduce the elements of a central problem as soon as possible. 

We’ve given the reader a hook. They’ve read the first sentence or two, now we need to draw them into some conflict, some problem, that is directly related to, connected to, the central problem of the story. 

Also, we need to fulfill the promise of the hook, or at least give the reader enough information to make them curious enough to keep reading. 

Here are the first two sentences of “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” (I know I just shared the first sentence, above, but this is one of the best first paragraphs I’ve ever read):

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Now, I thought the first line was a very good hook, but just look at that second sentence! 

Right away, the reader knows there is going to be a lot that is strange and a lot that is mysterious occuring in the Dursley’s life and the Dursley’s are going to HATE it. I also knew right away that I would find the Dursley’s trials and tribulations humorous, because the Dursley’s seem like perfectly horrible people! (Which they are.)

3. The Ordinary World

Show your readers your character going through his/her daily routine, and show them one problem that he needs to overcome, one thing he/she is failing at.

For example, Harry Potter is failing to fit into the Dursley’s family, he is failing to find people who love him. Of course, it’s not his fault, the Dursley’s are despicable people, but, still, it’s a problem. Why is Harry failing to fit in? Well, he is the offspring of someone who could do magic and the Dursley’s are terrified of that. They are terrified their friends will find out they are related to people who can do magic. They are terrified of being rejected. So, the very thing the Dursley’s are terrified of, they do to Harry Potter. 

I have to be honest, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is one of my favorite stories! Both because it is very fun to read and because it is well structured as a story.

4. Try and Fail Cycles

Here’s the way I think about the construction of a story. The hero starts his journey in the ordinary world, going to his ordinary life. 

He is secretly in love with the lead cheerleader, but she doesn’t know he exists, he gets beaten up for his lunch money, etc. But then something happens that changes his situation. For Harry Potter it was a letter that invited him to attend a school for wizards. 

Generally, at around the 25% mark of a story the hero’s situation changes. Often when something big happens, there are a number of attempts to change but the first couple of attempts fail. For example, with Harry Potter, there were a LOT of attempts to deliver Harry’s acceptance letter to Hogwarts before he ultimately received it.

One movie that is great at demonstrating this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think of the scene where Indy is thrown into the Well of Souls, think of the number of times he tries to fight off the snakes and then his torch goes out, and then he tries to climb a statue, and then it tips over, etc. (I talk more about this in Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles.)

5. Midpoint confrontation

This is where the hero confronts the villain (or where the protagonist confronts the antagonist). Obviously, the protagonist can’t defeat the villain here, if he did then the story would be over! 

What generally happens is the hero learns that he’s wrong about something he believes about the world. He’s wrong about something important, essential, to the problem he is trying to solve. Further, he learns this because he confronts the antagonist. 

For example, in Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage, at the midpoint (Spoiler!) discovers that he has been tricked. He journeyed to a location because he thought he could fight the Omega (the Big Bad) but he was met by Alphas (run of the mill bad things). He discovered he was being tricked. That was an important piece of information that significantly changed Cage’s plans.

So, in summary, at the midpoint the hero fails in defeating the antagonist but he learns something vital from the confrontation.

6. The Hero’s Plan: The race to the final confrontation

At some point the hero comes up with a plan. Generally this is somewhere around the 75% mark. Generally, there is some sort of group scene around this point (your main characters meet in a bar, restaurant, etc), the hero has a touching bonding moment with his band of travellers.

Make sure the stakes are clear. What could the hero lose? What would the hero gain?

7. Something goes wrong: try and fail cycle.

The hero is racing toward the final confrontation, but of course something goes wrong. 

The hero’s plan was good, plausible, perhaps brilliant, but something went wrong and it failed. 

This is a try, fail cycle. The hero fails, then he tries something new. Then he fails. Then he tries something else. Then he fails. 

Then, facing certain death, he tries a new thing in desperation, believing that if it works he will die but at least the antagonist will be eliminated. And that is a good thing because it means his family and friends will be safe.

And it works.

Obviously this is difficult to set up. In the movie, Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist, Cage, was introduced as a coward -- that is what he needs to overcome -- so when the final confrontation happens we need Cage to be prepared to give up his own life for the people in his community, for humanity. And he does.

8. All Hope is Lost

Toward the end of the Try and Fail cycle I just spoke about, the hero will experience an ultimate setback. They will fail, but they will fail in such a way that it seems there is no way back. At this point, often, the A-story (the outer journey) and the B-story (the inner journey) come together. Further, these threads come together in such a way that the hero sees the way out, the way to POSSIBLY win the confrontation.

9. Resolution

Either the hero defeats the villain or not. In popular fiction, generally, he does. And ideally, it should be done cleverly. If you can surprise the reader here, but in a way that makes sense and grows from the hero’s challenges, that is the stuff of which great stories are made.

There’s a reason why stories like Star Wars: A New Hope, Edge of Tomorrow and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark were box office favorites.

I urge you to take a peek at The Structure of A Short Story by Sarah A. Holt, it’s an older post, but it’s much shorter than mine and she has a good sense of humor.

BTW, I’ve begun reading my posts over at YouTube, so if you would rather listen to this, here is the url: Structure of Fiction.

Thursday, January 23

Narrative Setting: Making Your Story World Reflect Your Hero's Journey

Narrative Setting: Making Your Story World Reflect Your Hero's Journey

I'm finishing my series on setting today! Yes! I'm excited. Finally I'm getting to the material I've wanted to talk about for ages: connecting the setting of a story up to, hooking it into, the arc of the hero's journey. (The other episodes can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Another way of saying this is: have the setting mirror the protagonist's arc--which is going to be the main arc of the story. (Here I'm talking about a story where, although there may be several main characters, there is one character whose quest sets the spine of the story.)

Here's how I'm going to approach this. First, we'll (very quickly) look at the progress of the hero from bondage to freedom; from (as Michael Hauge would say) living in his identity to living in his essence; from unconsciously living with a weakness that was destined to prevent him from realizing his true capacity, to finding the strength to conquer his weakness and (at least try to) live the life he really wants.

Not all stories go like that. Tragedies, for instance, often take the character from living a good, fulfilled, life and--because of the hero's tragic weakness, or because of the machinations of the gods or fate--his life, and the lives of those he loves, are destroyed. 

In what follows I'm going to focus on a typical story that more-or-less fits the hero's journey.

Truby's Seven Key Steps of Story Structure

I should have said this before, but most of this material, and all of the quotations, are from John Truby's excellent book, "The Anatomy of Story."

1. Weakness and need
2. Desire
3. Opponent
4. Plan
5. Battle
6. Self-revelation
7. New equilibrium

Creating The Story World Around The Protagonist

1. Weakness and need.

The protagonist has a (at least one) weakness, a need, something that is preventing him from realizing his true potential, preventing him from living the life that would make him truly happy.

Story world

Show a story world "that is a physical manifestation of the hero's weakness or fear." 

For example, Luke Skywalker grew up on a desert planet, one that was on the outskirts, away from anything Luke considered remotely interesting. His uncle kept promising he could leave the farm to go to the academy, but something always seem to come up, something it was his duty to attend to.

2. Desire.

The protagonist has a desire, something he wants more than anything else. 

- Perhaps (The Firm) he wants to escape the trailer park of his youth so he dreams of becoming a partner in a rich law firm.
- Perhaps (Pi) the protagonist wants to discover the number that is the name of God and created all things.
- Perhaps (Lord of the Rings) the protagonist wants to destroy the One Ring and so defeat the Big Bad.

This desire will form the 'spine' of the story. The idea is that everything--setting included--should relate to the protagonist and, most especially, to the protagonist's desire.

Story World

Your story world should express the hero's goal. For example, in The Firm, the hero (McDeere) begins his quest at university--Harvard Law School. The protagonist's desire is to never, ever, be poor again and his goal is to make partner in a wealthy law firm.

3. Opponent.

The antagonistic force opposes the protagonist in his quest to fulfil his desire. Note: Desires can be general, diffuse. A goal should be concrete enough that one could take a picture of it being achieved. For example:

Desire: I want to be rich.
- Become a partner at a prestigious law firm.
- Find the lost treasure of the Incas.
- Rob the bank on 1st and 3rd.

Also, the goal should be such that it can be achieved by either the protagonist or the antagonist, not by both. (Many times, both could fail to achieve it, but only one can succeed.)

Story World

Protagonist & Antagonist: 

- Their lairs, their living spaces, their domiciles, their homes--as well as their workplaces--should express their desires. For the antagonist, his physical domain should also represent "his power and ability to attack the hero's great weakness."

- Also, Truby holds that the "world of the opponent should also be an extreme version of the hero's world of slavery."

4. Plan.

The protagonist devises a plan to defeat the opposition and achieve his goal.

Story World: 

Apparent defeat or temporary freedom

Apparent defeat: All hope is lost. At this point all of the "forces defeating and enslaving the hero are literally pressing in on him." 

For example, Star Wars IV where Luke and company are in the garbage compacter.

5. Battle.

The protagonist battles the antagonistic force.

Story World

This is the climax of the story. The battle--or confrontation; it doesn't have to be physical--"should occur in the most confined place of the entire story." Why? Truby writes that this creates a "pressure cooker effect".

"Realistically, a dogfight would occur in open space where the pilots have room to maneuver. But Lucas understands that the best battle occurs in the tightest space possible."

6. Self-revelation. 

At some point the hero will suffer a devastating setback. It will seem to him, and to the audience, that his quest is over, that there's no way he can continue. 

Cue the self-revelation.

Generally there's a B-story (the A-story tracks the hero's quest for an external goal while the B-story tracks the hero's quest for an internal goal), and the answer/resolution of this B-story often provides the hero with the key to the A-story. It will give him an idea for how to overcome whatever opposition he is experiencing and, against all odds, achieve his goal. (Or not, it's up to you.)

Story World: Visit to death

The hero thinks he is going to die. "He should encounter his mortality in a place that represents the elements of decline, aging, and death."

I'm tempted to use Luke's imprisonment in the trash compactor again--but I won't. Countless movies have the hero visit a creepy old house (or other structure) with skeletons (Raiders of the Lost Ark), or take them down into the cellar, a dark and musty basement (the Paranormal Activity movies), and bring them close--even symbolically (e.g., a shrivelled rose)--to death.

7. New equilibrium. 

The hero has been transformed by his confrontation/experience with death. He goes back to the Ordinary World, the world before the adventure, but he's changed. At the very end of the story we see how the lessons the hero has learnt through his quest enable him to respond to the challenges of daily life in different ways. (Or not. A comedic story often ends with the hero learning nothing.)

Story World: Freedom or Slavery

Truby holds that the world "should represent in physical terms the final maturation or decline of the character."

Take the hero, the protagonist, back to their original world--the Ordinary World. Show how the journey has changed the hero.

Going back to Luke and Star Wars IV, there is a clear difference in what he's wearing. In the beginning he's in off-white, ordinary, clothes. Alone. 

At the end he is in a white uniform, in front of many people, standing with close friends, being honored for his contribution as a leader.

Look at where Luke is. When we first meet Luke he is outside in the desert, assisting his uncle as the man shops for droids. When we leave Luke at the end of his journey he is inside a rebel base, in a gleaming white room. Rather than assisting anyone, he is being honored as a leader.

Points to keep in mind when crafting your setting:

1. Identify the key visual oppositions.

These oppositions should be based on your character's values. (e.g., Star Wars IV, V, and VI all provide terrific examples of this.)

2. How is time expressed in the story world?

The Past

Truby writes: you set a story in the past to "show values dominant in the past that still hurt people today."

The Future

"You set a story in the future to give the audience another pair of glasses, to abstract the present in order to understand it better."

The Seasons

Each season can convey certain meanings to the audience about the hero and the world.


a. Change the seasons to reflect the inner states of your hero has he changes.
b. If you take your hero through all four seasons this can provide a nice way to compare and contrast the protagonist's start and end states.

Note: Think of ways you can use a reader's anticipation to surprise them.

For example, a person in shorts and t-shirt is unexceptional on a beach in July but quite exceptional walking to the store in December--if there's snow on the ground.

It's normal for many animals to give birth in the spring. Unconsciously (or consciously) we tend to associate the two. 

To shake things up, why not have someone give birth in the winter? This could work as a symbol (humans out of touch with nature) or it could increase conflict. 

For example, snowdrifts cling to the sides of an isolated cabin. Inside a woman gives birth. The lights flicker as a storm shakes the cabin, highlighting the woman's dwindling supply of firewood.

Or something. This is one way to use the setting--the story world--to introduce, or increase, conflict.

Holidays and Rituals

Truby writes: "A ritual is a philosophy that has been translated into a set of actions that are repeated at certain intervals."

Rituals are dramatic. Think of your last family get together, perhaps for Thanksgiving. Was it calm and relaxing or dramatic?

What do these rituals mean to the protagonist? How do they tie into the protagonist's desire? (Perhaps they don't.)

A Single Day

You can use a daily event/ritual (say, lunch) to track a few characters acting simultaneously.

That's it! This is the end of my series on setting, I hope you found something you could take away, something you can adapt to enrich your writing.

In any case, good writing!

Photo credit: "Walk Alone..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, February 21

Story Structure Provides A Framework For Meaning

PJ Reece in How to Create a Story Structure to Die For writes that a story is really made up of two stories and a middle. What happens at the middle of the story? In a word: death.


In the middle of your story the hero dies, though not literally.

Figure 1: 10 of Swords
Like the tarot card of the same name, his death isn't literal. If there is a death card in the tarot I think it's the 10 of swords (see Figure 1). The death card (see picture at top)--the 13th card of the major arcana--is more about change. It signifies the end of one story, or way of life, and the beginning of the next. More than anything, it's about rebirth.

Heroes Have To Fail Before They Succeed 

In genre fiction, heroes usually succeed in their quest. We want to see the good-guy (or gal) win and triumph over their obstacles.

But in order for the protagonist's victory to mean something there has to be an ever present sense of the possibility of loss.

The way we give the reader this sense is by making it clear that the hero can fail. In fact, failure should be much more likely than victory.

How do we do this? How do we convince our readers that the protagonist can fail? By showing him fail, repeatedly, earlier in the story. As PJ Reece writes:
[In the Oscar winning movie, The Artist, a] silent movie star watches in dismay as talking pictures become all the rage.  George Valentin finds himself with no job, no girl, no more adoring fans.  He takes up the bottle and slips into oblivion.  Most protagonists would straightaway fall into the dark heart of the story and wake-up to the facts of life.

But not George.

Our hero continues to believe in yesteryear, which lays himself open to more punishment.  The screenwriter pushes George to rage and all the way to self-loathing.  His beliefs are literally killing him.  It looks like George might actually commit suicide.

That’s a story!
That brings us to the midpoint, the "dark heart of the story". This is where the hero relinquishes his old belief system--the symbolic death--and embraces a new way of viewing the world, and his problems.

Why The Hero Needs To Suffer

In each story there is a truth. Perhaps this truth is covered by the theme (for instance, 'liars never win') or perhaps it's something the hero needs to find out before he can accomplish his goal (this is his external goal, the story goal).

For instance, in The Firm Mitch McDeere had to re-discover the truth that he loved the law, and not just the money he could make from practicing it. It was that truth that let him to steer his way through the Scylla and Charybdis of the FBI and the mob.

The point is that the hero's suffering has to be connected to this truth, the truth that they need to uncover to overcome the obstacles before them and achieve their goal.

For instance, in Shrek the truth was that he had built up layers of protection around him to keep the world at bay because he didn't think anyone could love him. He was scared of getting hurt. Shrek had to confront this fear and overcome it in order to win the hand of the lady he loved. He had to come to a point where he realized the truth--that he wanted a companion, that he wanted Fiona. Shrek's failures helped him realize this.

Or so I would argue.

Other articles you might like:

- 6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story
- 8 Tips From Chuck Wendig On How To Read Like A Writer
- Author Solutions: The New Carnys?

Photo credits:
- Top photo (13th card of the major arcana in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck): "RWS Tarot 13 Death.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith. File is no longer under copyright in US.
- Figure 1: 10 of Swords in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, "Swords10.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith. File is no longer under copyright in US.

Tuesday, January 8

The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3

 The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3

Today I'm going to do what I promised yesterday and step us through the rest of our five paragraph summary of the journey of your Hero and his band of intrepid adventurers.

Below are links to the previous articles in this series, something I'm calling The Starburst Method, though I've been thinking of changing the name to something more descriptive. The Sculpting Method or perhaps The Diamond Method.

Since this article is a continuation of the last two (The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey), you may want to give them a quick read.

1. The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do
This gives a roadmap of where we're going and why we want to get there.

2. The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters 
We begin to get to know our characters, what they want, what they fear, what they do for a living, what their dreams are and, most importantly, what their goal is.

3. The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1
Here we go deeper into our characters and start transforming our knowledge into a narrative. We hone what we know about our characters until it can be expressed in five paragraphs that summarize our hero's journey.

4. The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 2
A continuation of the ideas in (3).

Let's dive right in!

4. It All Falls Apart

Here we meet our antagonist.

Of course your antagonist has been around, in story terms, for some time. Probably ever since you entered the Special World. In fact, he was likely one of the first people your hero met, or heard about, when he entered the Special World. This is just the first time we're meeting him in our summary of your hero's journey.

Also, when I say it all falls apart I'm not talking about The Dark Night of the Soul or The All Hope Is Lost point that usually occurs about 3/4 of the way through a story. The 'All Hope is Lost' point occurs when the hero and his intrepid band of adventurers lumber up to the climax of the story and their Big Plan falls apart.

No, what I'm talking about here is the first sign of trouble. The first real resistance they face in the Special World. (Some would also call this a pinch point.)

For instance, in The Firm everything seems to be going great--Mitch McDeere, the protagonist, has a nice house, great car, awesome paycheck and he's on the fast track to becoming partner--then he discovers that the law firm he works for, Bendini Lamert & Locke, is a front for organized crime and he's in it up to his eyeballs.

At that moment Mitch's initial goal of becoming a wealthy lawyer dissolves and he gets his true goal, the Story Goal: Get away from the mob with his licence to practise law, and his marriage, intact.

This leads us to ...

5. The Challenge

How is our intrepid adventurer going to thwart the machinations of the antagonist? How is your hero going to get himself, and his friends, out of this big fat mess?

That's the story goal, the challenge. That's what we want to read about and it will form the heart of your story. (I feel as though there should be a drum roll at this point because, in a way, this is what the entire series has been leading up to.)

Yes, there will be hurdles the hero must jump, dangers to avoid, tests to pass--although he should fail at least one, and fail spectacularly--and so on, but it's all because of the hero's goal and the mess he's gotten himself and his friends into.

And why has he gotten himself into that mess? Because of who he is, because of what he wants, because of his Dream and, especially, his Goal.

An Example: The Firm

Yesterday I gave you an example of a five paragraph summary based on Star Wars IV: A New Hope, today I'll give you another. This one is based on The Firm.
1. Ordinary world

Mitch McDeere worked hard to get top grades at Harvard Law School because he never wanted to be poor again.

2. Characters and setting

Mitch would never have succeeded without the love and support of his beautiful wife Abby who, more than anything, wants him to stop running and accept who he is, and to accept his brother, even though his family is a reminder of what Mitch is running from: the shame of growing up in a trailer park, poor, raised by a mother who didn't really care about him.

3. Entering the special world 

When the lawyers from Bendini, Lambert & Locke offer Mitch more money than any other law firm it is a dream come true and he and Abby move into their brand new house, courtesy of the firm.

4. It all falls apart

Everything is great until Mitch learns about the secret files and discovers Bendini, Lambert & Locke is just a front for organized crime. As the FBI closes in on Mitch, threatening him with prison, the mob gets suspicious.

5. The challenge for the protagonist

Mitch has to rely on his wits to save himself and Abby. But is he up to the challenge?
By the way, I took that example from an earlier post I wrote: The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version.

What you have at this point--a five paragraph story summary--can form the skeleton of your story. We've met the main characters, or at least their archetypes. They need fleshing out and, as a result, your story skeleton will grow, change, bend, but as long as it remains roughly 'story shaped' (i.e., focused on the hero's goal, the hero's journey) it's all good.

To Be Continued

In our next and final section we'll look at condensing your story down into one or two sentences.

This is handy for two reasons:

a) You'll be able to determine what is really truely important in your story, and
b) If you ever have to write a pitch, you'll have your tag-line ready!

At this point, with your five point summary concluded, you already have a blurb for your book or the start of your pitch.

Update: Here is a link to the final installment of this series: The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

Other links you might like:

- How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: MS Word Styles
- The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 2
- The Magic Of Stephen King: How To Write Compelling Characters & Great Openings

Photo credit: "Fire Storm" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, January 7

The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 2

The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 2

This is a continuation of my series on the Starburst Method:

- The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do
- The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters
- The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1

You don't have to read the previous articles to understand this one, though I would encourage you to read The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1 since this is a continuation of that material.

3. Entering The Special World

The Special World is different. We're not in Kansas anymore.

Whatever rules for acting, for getting ahead, your hero knew in the Ordinary World no longer apply. This is a different reality.

A popular way of demonstrating this strangeness is to test your hero with a series of trials, at least one of which he should fail miserably.

Bar scenes are great for demonstrating how alien the Special World is. Of course the setting doesn't have to be a bar, it can be any kind of watering hole, any place where a lot of different kind of folk meet and where it's easy for the crowd to get ... er ... lively. (Think of the bar scene in Star Wars IV.) This is where your hero can get a crash course on the new rules, the new conventions, as well as meet new friends, make enemies and generally get things moving.

Threshold Guardian

I think the concept of a threshold guardian is one of the most useful concepts in my writer's workbox. I suspect different folks think of the Threshold Guardian in different ways, and would give him different attributes, so what I say here pertains specifically to how I think of him.

So, preliminaries aside, what is a Threshold Guardian? Here's how I think of it: 
A Threshold Guardian is a force--usually a person--that tries to keep the status quo.

How A Threshold Guardian Operates In A Story

Let's back up a bit. When your hero is still lounging in the Ordinary World he'll receive what a lot of writers refer to as a Call To Adventure. This will be an invitation, a reason, for the hero to leave his current existence, his life as he knows it, and enter the strange wonderland of the Special World.

For instance--and I know I talk a lot about Star Wars IV, but, what can I say? I thought it was a great movie!--Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke a clear call to adventure when he invites him to learn the ways of The Force and travel to Alderaan.

Refusal of the Call is common too. Luke says, Thanks but no thanks. I can't go. I have responsibilities. I have to help out my uncle and aunt on their farm. And that's a perfectly good reason.

In a sense (this is what I'm going to argue, you might not agree with me) Luke's uncle fills the role of a Threshold Guardian. Why? Because Luke's uncle does everything he can to prevent Luke leaving the farm. Even Luke's aunt says to the uncle something to the effect: Why don't you just let Luke go? The uncle has the best of reasons, I'm sure, but he is like a jealous dragon guarding his treasure and Luke is on top of the pile.

But many different kinds of archetypes can be involved in a Call To Adventure. For instance, The Mentor. After the hero refuses the call often it's the mentor who gets him back on track. For instance, the Frog brothers in The Lost Boys were unlikely mentors to Sam Emerson. Also, though I won't go into it here, The Shadow and The Trickster can also, in their own distinctive ways, be effective Threshold Guardians.

What's the point?

The Threshold Guardian--regardless of which guise he appears in within your story (The Shadow, The Mentor, The Trickster, and so on)--is going to be a pivotal figure in moving your hero from the Ordinary World into the Special World.

Sure, Luke's uncle never got much screen time, but when it comes to why Luke accepted the Call To Adventure his uncle is the single biggest reason. It was his death, and that of his aunt, that both removed Luke's reason for refusing the call--the farm didn't exist anymore--and gave him a positive reason--avenge his relative's deaths by helping to destroy the Empire and, of course, Darth Vader--for taking up the adventure.

How this would this look: An example

Here's an example using--yes, you guessed it!--Star Wars IV:
1. Ordinary World

Whenever there was something that needed fixing around his uncle's farm Luke Skywalker was somewhere else racing his speeder dreaming of adventure.

2. Setting & Friends

Then he met two droids--one snarky and self-absorbed but loyal and the other quirky and full of heart but with a knack for finding adventure--who changed his life ...

3. Special World

... by leading him to mysterious old Ben Kenobi who the droids referred to as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke he used to teach his father before his father was killed by a minion of the Emperor: Darth Vader. Obi Wan offers to train Luke in the way of The Force and take him on a quest to save the Rebel Alliance and help defeat Darth Vader and, ultimately, the evil Empire.

Luke would love to accept but he declines because his uncle and aunt need his help to run the farm.

When the Emperor's minions kill Luke's uncle and aunt and obliterate their farm Luke swears vengeance and, taking up his father's lightsaber, asks Obi-Wan Kenobi to be his teacher.

4. It All Falls Apart

When our intrepid band of unlikely adventurers spots an enormous planet destroyer known as the Death Star they come to the attention of the being, now more machine than man, who killed Luke's father: Darth Vader. With their ship impounded, Obi Wan dead and an ungrateful princess on their hands, how will they ever save themselves let alone the rebel alliance?

5. The Challenge

Luke and his not-so-merry band of adventurers have to overcome nearly insurmountable obstacles if they are going to rescue the princess. Can they learn to work together in time to save the rebel alliance, defeat the Empire and save the universe?
Or something like that! I wrote this example in 15 minutes so I'm sure you can do better. Hopefully you can see what I've been talking about as well as where we're headed.

I had wanted to get through parts four and five today but it looks like that's not happening! Tomorrow, even if the post is a bit long, I'll get through this Hero's Journey section. Promise!

Update: Here is a link to the next article in this series: The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3. (And I do keep my promise!)

Other articles you might like:

- The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters
- How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon
- The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone

Photo credit: "See No Vader, Hear No Vader, Speak No Vader" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, December 5

Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
I have a problem. For the past two years or so, every time I set out to write a short story—something under 5,000 words—I fail miserably. It grows and grows and grows until I'm writing a 20,000 word novella!

And there's nothing wrong with that.

It used to be it was hard to sell novellas but the form is experiencing a resurgence. It appears that as long as buyers are informed about the length of a story, they don't mind variety. (See: Ian McEwan Believes The Novella Is The Perfect Form Of Prose Fiction)

But I digress. As I say, there isn't anything wrong with writing novellas, but I've grown increasingly anxious. Every time I begin a short story it morphs into a novella. It has gotten to the point that—even if only for the novelty of it!—I would like to write a short story.

The upshot is that I've researched various structures that could be used for short stories because I think my problem is that I'm trying to use the structure of a novel for a short story. Not good.

Here's what I found.

The Hero's Journey: The Structure For A Novel

So that we'll have something to contrast the various short story structures with, here's the classic monomyth structure in visual form. This comes by way of the wonderfully creative folks at TED:

Short Story Structure 1: A Character, In A Situation, With A Problem ...

1. A character,
2. in a situation,
3. with a problem,
4. who tries repeatedly to solve the problem,
5. but fails, usually making the problem worse.
6. At the climax of the story the hero makes a final attempt which may succeed or fail.
7. The result of the hero's final attempt is validated in a way that makes it clear what we saw was the final result.
I've paraphrased it, but that's from Philip Brewer's post, Story Structure in Short Stories. Originally it comes from Algis Budrys.

This structure seems better suited to the brevity of a short story, but let's keep looking.

Short Story Structure 2: Set-up, Response, Attack, Resolution

This short story structure comes to us by way of Larry Brooks's article: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story. He writes:
"Like life, our stories always reside somewhere along that same continuum of set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution."
1. Setup
2. Shift
3. Response
4. Shift (mid-point)
5. Attack
6. Shift
7. Resolution

Sarah A Hoyt: The Structure Of A Short Story

This wonderfully detailed short story structure comes from Sarah A. Hoyt's article, The Structure of A Short Story, and is, I'm afraid, a case of me saving the best till last. Well, almost last.

(All quotations are from Sarah's article.)
1. First line or two
"[I]ntroduce the most startling or grabby thing about your characters/setting/situation."

2. Rest of the first paragraph
"[L]ay out character/setting/ and most of all problem.  You might want to lead with problem as that brings out the most interesting things about your idea.  (If your idea isn’t interesting, WHY are you writing it?)"

3. Next few pages (From the first paragraph up to the 25% mark)
"Develop the present situation which your character is caught.  This situation is usually not the main problem, and you should have at least one try/fail before getting character out of the PRESENT situation.  About 1/4 of the way through the story, have the character realize what the REAL problem is."

4. From the 25% point to the mid-point
"Initiate try/fails to solve the main problem."

5. Mid-point
"Around middle of the story have character realize he was going about obtaining goal the wrong way or that his/her assumptions were oh, soooo wrong."

6. 62% (between the mid-point and the 3/4 mark)
"Activate cunning plan.  (This normally doesn’t involve a turnip, on account of not being a Black Adder story.)"

7. 75% mark
"Try fail sequences set up about 3/4 through the story."

8. 88% mark
"Black moment about 1/8th from the end."

9. 95% to 100%
"[R]esolution and usually not much of what my husband calls a cigarette moment, because it’s a short."
I especially love Sarah's attention to detail in the first paragraph, breaking it into two. Let's face it, folks are probably going to decide whether they'll read your story based on the first few lines.

For Kicks And Giggles: A Possible Short Story Structure

I've tried to condense the hero's journey into something manageable for a short story and (as you'll be able to tell) I've borrowed liberally.

1. Set-up/Status quo/Ordinary World

The hero has a well-defined need but there is something specific keeping her from meeting this need. (Another way of saying this is, "The hero has a well-defined goal, but there is something specific keeping her from acquiring what she seeks.)

2. Call to adventure/Inciting incident

Something (perhaps something shocking) happens to break the status quo.

3. Hero's Response

The hero might vacillate for a short time while she weighs what accepting the call to adventure will mean for her (good opportunity for a sequel), but she ultimately accepts the call and enters a new, strange, intensely unfamiliar situation/world.

4. Trial and Error

The hero tries to attain her goal, to meet the need that we read about at the beginning of the story. She fails. Perhaps she fails spectacularly and humorously. Even though she failed, she succeeds at something. Perhaps she gains an ally because, even though she fails, she just won't give up.

Hero looks back. Thinks about going back to the status quo, what that would mean.

5. Mid-point/Point of no return (50%)

Hero tries to defeat the thing that is preventing her from getting what she needs.

Hero Succeeds: If hero succeeds then there has to be a twist. The person/thing they thought was the Big Bad really isn't. The real Big Bad is revealed.

Hero Fails: Stakes are raised. Perhaps she loses her allies, perhaps she's injured. She fought impressively but, because she still has a weakness, her enemy either got away or beat her.

Either way, the mid-point is a point-of-no return. Because of what happens in this scene the hero no longer has the option of going back to the ordinary world. Also, often, the hero makes the problem (overcoming the obstacles to achieving her goal) worse in an unexpected way.

Note: I mention the hero's weakness, above. Her weakness could be anything, but it's nice if it can be related to whatever it is INTERNALLY that keeps her from achieving her goal.

6. Setback

Our hero has failed (see (5)). She tries to go back to the status quo but realizes that's not possible. Time for reflection and perhaps a pep-talk. Or perhaps she hits bottom and starts fighting everything in sight and the experience revives her. (It could happen! ;)

7. Acceptance

Hero accepts her fate and trains, or otherwise works on removing what is keeping her from reaching her goal. Her weakness (usually an internal thing; e.g., a bad attitude) is diminishing. She is getting control over it.

Make sure your readers know 'the plan', how the hero is going to defeat what is preventing her from reaching her goal. If there is one crucial element of the plan it helps. For instance, the presence of her mentor.

8. All is lost (75%)

The one thing that absolutely can't fail for the plan to work does fail. All hope is lost. The hero will never be able to ....  You get the idea. I think the movie The Firm, with Tom Cruise, did this brilliantly.

But, wait, all hope is not lost. It's an incredible long-shot. It's insane, really, to even consider it, especially given that the hero failed at the midpoint. But maybe, just maybe, if the hero does [insert deed], there's a chance the plan can still work.

9. Final Attack 

It is essential that the hero act immediately. It is now much harder for the hero to succeed than it was at the mid-point and the stakes are much higher.

Something spectacularly improbable yet plausible, happens and the hero executes the plan. At the end of this scene she will triumph over whatever was keeping her from attaining her goal. She has worked through the weakness that caused her to fail at the mid-point.

10. Wrap-up

Have the hero say goodbye to her allies and go back to the ordinary world. Show how her ordinary world has been transformed because of her journey (because your hero is, in some ways, a different person).

In my outline I have it that the hero was successful, but they might not be. Also, the hero might not  willingly go back to the ordinary world, perhaps she returns for the sake of someone she left behind, or perhaps she's chased back.

Final Thoughts

Looking over the story structure I just detailed I wonder if a person could use it to write a short story, say one of 1,000 words. Perhaps it would be more suited to a story of 5,000 words (or so). But, who knows? Perhaps I'll try it tonight as a challenge.

I hope you've gotten something from this article, even if it has only highlighted the problem, how difficult it is to squeeze all that story goodness into the tiny vessel of a short story.

If any of you would like to share your short story structures I would LOVE to see them.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I want to recommend "Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction" by William Bernhardt. From the blurb: "Story structure is one of the most important concepts for a writer to understand—and ironically, one of the least frequently taught. In this book, New York Times-bestselling author William Bernhardt explains the elements that make stories work, using examples spanning from Gilgamesh to The Hunger Games."

Other articles you might like:

- Before You Start Writing Test Your Characters: Are They Strong Enough?
- Dean Wesley Smith's Advice To Indie Authors For 2013: How To Sell Fiction
- Robert Sawyer Says: Don't Worry About What's Popular, Write What You Love

Photo credit: "Angels in fury" by Jsome1 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.