Showing posts with label tests and trials. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tests and trials. Show all posts

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."

Monday, November 21

NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

NaNoWriMo is coming to an end. We can see the finish line.

If you're making your word count goal, awesome! Go you!!

If you haven't made your word count (like me), even if you are so desperately behind you don't think there's any hope you'll catch up, take heart!

How many words have you written for NaNoWriMo? Are those words you would have written if you hadn't done NaNo? If not, you're already a winner!

If you're having trouble finding the motivation to continue, or you're looking for a new direction, here are a few ideas.

A few questions that might help you decide what to do:

1. Have you changed your mind about the genre that best describes your story?

This sounds ludicrously, obnoxiously, aggressively obvious, but judging from the beginning efforts of many writers—my own included!—it isn't.

When you began writing your story on Nov 1, what genre did you think best described the story forming in your tortured writer's soul?

Is that still the genre you're writing in? If not, don't panic! Panic helps no one.

If you've genre-hopped then that means you've found out more about your story. That's awesome! You thought your book belonged in a certain category and now that you know more about it you realize that's not the case.

Sure, maybe you'll have to go back and rewrite some scenes, but so what? If you're anything like me, you'll likely end up radically revising each scene—and likely more than once!

Yes, like anything worthwhile, writing is a lot of work! There's a reason why there are SO MANY writers and are, relatively speaking, so few authors.

2. Is your protagonist still the focus?

If so, great! If not, remember that this is a zero draft, these are musings, scribblings. What you write here need only have the slightest of passing resemblances to a story. This is a chance for you to play with words and ideas and, in so doing, to discover your story's shape, its dimensions.

Discover your characters. Put them in different situations. What are their likes? Make us love them, make us identify with them, then torture them. Turn their lives inside out. What do they do next?

Actions often show a person's values much more clearly and more eloquently than words ever could.

In any case, as your story develops, as it unfolds in front of you, you might very well come to understand that the fictional person you thought was the protagonist—meaning that her goals, her desires, drive the story—isn’t. Perhaps she’s the antagonist, or the protagonist’s helper. There are all kinds of possibilities.

It could also be that you haven't met your protagonist yet. In a zero draft everything is on the table.

3. What does your protagonist want? What drives your protagonist?

Quickly! Before you look at any of the slips of paper tacked to your walls, write down your answer to these questions:

a. What does your protagonist want more than anything?
b. What does your protagonist fear more than anything?
c. How does your protagonist achieve the thing she wants?
d. How does your protagonist avoid the thing she hates?
e. What specific, concrete, goal does your protagonist have?


Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark wanted to find the Ark and bring it to the United States.

In Stranger Things, Will Byers friends’ goal was to find Will and bring him home.

In the TV Series Supernatural Dean and Sam want to rid the world of monsters. Each episode this general goal is seen through the lens of a different adventure. Either the boys are detecting, chasing and killing a specific monster—one that is actively menacing a specific person or group of people—or Sam and Dean are worried about becoming monsters, of becoming the thing they hate.

Which brings us to ...

4. What does your protagonist hate?

Often the thing we fear the most seems the most real, the most likely to happen. Perversely, the future we dread is often the one we spend the most time thinking about. What would this look like for your protagonist?

For example, if your character fears disconnection then perhaps she desperately wants to feel as though she is connected to something larger to herself. Something important. Something beautiful.

Perhaps, concretely, your character loves her business and fears she’ll lose it. Her life will be nothing without her business and so she will do anything, go to any extent, to save it, to protect it.

Or perhaps your character loves a person. He can't image life without her and, as a result, will do anything to preserve his connection to her.

I find that, often, a fear can be a more concrete thing than a love and so can be easier to start from.

Here is the link to a list of articles I’ve written for NaNoWriMo.

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 Cruising for Murder: A Myrtle Clover Cozy Mystery by by Elizabeth Spann Craig. From the blurb: “When Myrtle and her friend Miles set out for adventure on the high sea, they assume most of the trip’s excitement will result from shore excursions to charming Alaskan villages. They feel as if their ship has come in. But when a fellow passenger disappears, Myrtle realizes she must seize the helm and find the killer...before more souls are lost.”

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. Until then, good writing!

Friday, November 18

10th Key Scene: The Wrap Up

10th Key Scene: The Wrap Up

Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as a writer.” —Ray Bradbury

In honor of NaNoWriMo, every day this month I’m blogging about a key scene, one that any suspenseful story will include, either implicitly or explicitly. So far I've posted articles about the Inciting Incident, the Lock-In, Tests and Trials, Pinch Point One, the Midpoint Crisis, the All Hope is Lost scene, the Epiphany and the Climax.

Today I'm going to talk about the Wrap Up.

The Wrap Up: Breaking It Down

In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. Here you must answer the questions:

  • How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of her adventure?
  • What was his reward? What was the cost of his failure?

Or, as Jim Butcher puts it in Story Climax:

“RESOLUTION: Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, attend the funeral, or otherwise demonstrate that with the conclusion of the story, some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.

“My advice to you on resolutions: Keep it short. Once you've gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don't draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You've already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, your heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours!” (Jim Butcher, Story Climax)

In my experience the Wrap Up is short, about half as long as an ordinary chapter. The story is over, there’s no more work to be done. Wrap things up quickly and type those two beautiful words: The End.


  • What is your protagonist’s story goal? Did your protagonist achieve the goal?
  • If so, what did your protagonist and her allies gain? What did the world gain?
  • If not, what did your protagonist and her allies lose? What did the world lose?

Does your writeup communicate this? If so, great!


There is no difference between genres!

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 Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen, by Robert Mckee. From the blurb: “... in DIALOGUE, McKee offers the same in-depth analysis for how characters speak on the screen, on the stage, and on the page in believable and engaging ways. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad, McKee deconstructs key scenes to illustrate the strategies and techniques of dialogue.”

That’s it! This is the last post this week, I’ll talk to you again on Monday. :-)

Good luck in the final stretch of NaNoWriMo!

Word count so far: 21,854
Word count for today: 600
Total words this month: 22,454

Friday, November 11

(NaNoWriMo Day 11): 9th Key Scene: The Epiphany

(NaNoWriMo Day 11): 9th Key Scene: The Epiphany

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

In honor of NaNoWriMo, every day this month I’m blogging about a key scene, one that any suspenseful story will include, either implicitly or explicitly. I then take a close look at how this scene, this structure, is implemented in three popular genres: Action, Romance and Mystery. So far I've posted articles about the Inciting Incident, the Lock-In, Tests and Trials, Pinch Point One, the Midpoint Crisis, the All Hope is Lost scene, and the Climax.

Today I'm going to talk about the Epiphany.

The Epiphany: Breaking It Down

The All Hope is Lost scene immediately precedes the Epiphany. In that scene, as the name implies, something happens that transforms the protagonist’s world (or perhaps just the protagonist’s view of it) and brings her to her lowest point in the story.

After the All Hope Is Lost moment the B-story is resolved.[3] As a result, an important change occurs in the protagonist and she resolves her inner conflict. One result of this change is that the protagonist is able to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate attempt to achieve her goal.

 About this “important change,” I don't mean a superhuman ability—though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be! Whatever the change, the ground must have been laid for it. Perhaps the protagonist is now able to think clearly because she finally has the empathy she has been lacking, or perhaps she has been able to release a certain way of thinking that has been holding her back.

Whatever the case, during the Epiphany, something fundamental within the protagonist permanently changes and, as a result, she is able to escape from whatever had caused the complete and total destruction of all her previous plans.

Of course, not all protagonists have an internal conflict. If the only conflict is external, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero without any real internal conflict. At the end of that movie it is his broad knowledge that saves both himself and Marion, the object of his desire. Jones says: “Marion! Don’t look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens.”

One way of describing the Epiphany is that it’s at this point in the story that the scales drop from the protagonist’s eyes. She thought she knew how things were, but she didn't. To use Shrek as an example, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He thought they believed he was hideous and unlovable but he had misunderstood them. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before—risk rejection and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.

Here's another example: At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's the One and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes; he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and it is this realization that transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do; namely, triumph over the Matrix and become the One.

I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it.

But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.

The Epiphany: Key Points

- A significant resolution. We can speak about this resolution in a couple of ways.

Speaking about this resolution using the language of subplots (or, if you prefer, the A-Story, B-Story, C-Story, and so on), this is the place where subplots are cashed out and the various threads of the story merge into one.

Speaking about this in terms of conflict, whether internal or external, this is the place where the conflicts are resolved. Not a final solution or answer, but the various conflicts come together in a synthesis that provides the protagonist with an idea about how to push forward past the devastation that came with the All Hope is Lost point.

Let me unpack that a bit.

Internal Conflict: At the Epiphany, the protagonist’s internal conflict (if she has one) is resolved. Like their flesh and blood counterparts, characters want things, even things that are incompatible. For example, a character might both want to save someone from being killed and be a model FBI Trainee. When these two internal drives come into conflict (as they often do at the All Hope is Lost point) the protagonist must choose.

External Conflict: At the Epiphany, the protagonist’s external conflict is resolved and the storylines merged. For example, in Edge of Tomorrow, Cage’s squad—J Squad—was not his biggest fan. One of his recurring challenges is getting J Squad on his side. Just before the All Hope is Lost point, Cage acquires a crucial piece of information, something he has been trying to discover the entire movie: the location of the head mimic, the Omega.

In the Epiphany, Cage uses his relationship with the Angel of Verdun (Sergeant Rita Vrataski) to get his Squad to follow them and attack the Omega. This gathers three storylines (his love story with Vrataski, his strained relationship with J Squad and his quest to defeat the aliens) into one.

Here’s another example: In The Matrix the B-Story is Trinity’s feelings for Neo. At the end of the movie, after Neo has been shot dead in the Matrix, Trinity tells Neo (what’s left of him) that she loves him. She tells him that the Oracle said the man who she loved would be the One. So, since he’s the One, he can’t be dead. Then she kisses him. The confession and the kiss close out the B-story and, one feels, are the reason why Neo rises from the dead seconds later.

The change is permanent. The internal and external changes are permanent. Once these threads are bound together there is no going back.

Strength becomes useful. Occasionally, the protagonist’s strength in the ordinary world comes back into play. For example, Cage was in public affairs—he was a spin doctor. He was good at talking people into believing things. He uses this skill at the Epiphany (as well as earlier) to get J Squad on his side.

Where is it?

The Epiphany occurs early in Act Three, about 75% of the way through the story. In terms of scenes, it appears after the All Hope is Lost scene and before the Climax. This scene propels the protagonist and his allies into their race for the finish.

How is it connected to the protagonist’s desires?

Each of the hero’s desires, internal and external, represents an arc. At the Epiphany these arcs, these story lines, merge. At minimum, the B-Story will merge with the A-Story.

The Epiphany: An Example

This one is drawn from Edge of Tomorrow. We recently looked at the All Hope is Lost scene in that movie (this occurs when Cage loses the ability to reset the day). It is right after this that our plot-lines begin to merge. I’ve discussed this, above, so I won’t go into it again here.

As part of my research for this article, I’ve re-watched the three-quarter point of the first Lord of the Rings movie as well as that of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Lord of the Rings there is a moment of Epiphany. Frodo has long come to suspect he must go off on his own, leaving the others behind. After Boromir, maddened by the presence of the ring, attacks Frodo, the hobbit accepts that he must continue the quest on his own and leaves.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark—a brilliant action/adventure movie—there really is no moment of Epiphany, at least not that I saw. And that’s okay! This movie didn’t have much of a B-Story. Yes, there is the developing relationship between Indiana and Marion, but there aren’t any hidden currents, it’s all there on the surface. And it works beautifully!

Testing the Scene Example

Is the A-Story Merged with the B-Story? Yes. Cage has just had a huge setback, the biggest in the story so far: he has lost the ability to reset the day. On the plus side, their mission is clear, even though they are least well equipped to deal with it, they need to take out the Omega (the Big Bad). That means they need help. This initiates the collapsing of three storylines, Cage’s love story involving the Angel of Verdun, his dysfunctional relationship with J Squad and his main goal of defeating the aliens.

Is the change permanent? Yes. Cage, Rita Vrataski and his troupe band together on the race to the finish. They all have the same goal: to kill the Omega.

Also, the scene involves what used to be the character’s strength in the Ordinary World. Cage uses his ability to spin a story to get his troupe on board with the plan.

How the Epiphany is Implemented in Three Genres: Action, Romance & Mystery

Action Genre

See the example, above.

Romance Genre

Let’s take a look at the movie, Pretty Woman. The All Hope is Lost point comes when Edward Lewis asks Vivian Ward to be his mistress. The night before Vivian broke her rule and, for the first time, kissed Edward. And then she told him she loved him. Her epiphany is that money is not an adequate surrogate for love. She wants to be a girlfriend, perhaps a fiancee, NOT a mistress. This is a discovery about herself, not about her profession or about him. As a result of this insight she breaks up with him.

In general, in a romance book, this is the point at which the protagonist often realizes what she really wants.

Perhaps there were two men courting her. One of them is wealthy, has social standing and her parents love him. The other one doesn’t have bean, her parents hate him but he makes her happy.

It is often at this point that the protagonist has an epiphany and realizes that the only reason she wants money and social standing is to be happy. Since the wealthy fellow doesn’t make her happy but the poor one does, she finally knows who she wants to walk off into the sunset with. Unfortunately, though, there’s a problem. The poor fellow doesn’t want to be with her anymore! And we’re off on the race to the finish.

Murder Mystery Genre

From what I’ve seen, the stage of a story I’ve been calling the Epiphany unfolds a bit differently in murder mysteries.

Generally speaking, the protagonist doesn’t have the same sort of arc in a murder mystery as she does in other genres.

In a murder mystery the progression is from ignorance to knowledge. So it makes sense that the All Hope is Lost point for the sleuth is to feel that he or she has been, once again, plunged into ignorance. For example, in Agatha Christie’s delightful story of love and betrayal, Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot actually has this line at just this point: “I know nothing. Nothing!”

But we’re not here to talk about the All Hope is Lost point. The epiphany, as the name suggests, is like the light shining through the clouds just when the night seems bleakest. Don’t be too relieved, though. This light could be illusory. The detective could think he’s onto something when, in reality, he is simply being played by a devilishly clever antagonist.

During this scene the protagonist can do a number of things, but usually she does one or both of the following:

a) Clears out dead wood. The detective confronts one or two suspects and questions them. As the audience, you’re not sure if they’re telling the truth, or whether the sleuth thinks they’re telling the truth. This is a bit like a person in a pitch black room groping for a light switch.

This is also a point where certain possibilities are ruled out, certain suspects are disqualified from consideration.

b) Introduces an alternate theory of the crime. For example, in Basic Instinct just after the three-quarter mark, detective Nick Curran is stumped. Roxy, Catherine Tramell’s live-in lover, has died, killed in her attempt to usher Nick into the great hereafter. When I first watched this story I had thought Roxy was the murderer. Roxy’s death was the All Hope is Lost point from the perspective of the sleuth because now he has no idea whodunit.

The epiphany comes, or begins, after Nick gets a clue from Catherine about a stalker she had in college. Nick does a bit of digging and uncovers the fact that his on-again-off-again girlfriend, the department psychologist Dr. Beth Garner, appears to have had a crush on Catherine in university, going so far as to dress like her. When Nick confronts her, Beth swears it was the other way around, that Catherine dressed like her, was obsessed with her.

Nick begins to doubt that Catherine is the killer and starts to pursue a new theory of the crime. This new theory is nurtured and investigated during the Epiphany. (Sure, this theory turns out to be a diabolically clever red herring masterfully planted by Catherine, but that’s part of what made Basic Instinct a terrific movie!)

So, as you can see, the shape of this key scene is a bit different when implemented in a murder mystery, but the essential idea is the same: gather together whatever you need to begin the race to the finish.

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’d like to recommend an excellent resource. If you’ve never read this book please do, even if you get it from the library: Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. Donald Maass is the head of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. As such, he has read thousands of manuscripts and has written extensively on the subject of how to write stories that sell. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a couple of writing conferences where Mr. Maass was a speaker and made it to two of his workshops. Amazing! If you ever get the chance to attend one of DM’s talks or workshops, do yourself a favor and go! (BTW, I wrote an article about the advice contained in one of Donald Maass’ workshops: How to make your readers care about your characters on the first page.)

That’s it! Sorry for the long post but this one required extra research. I’ve discovered a lot of uniformity over the various genres when it comes to Key Scenes, but the Epiphany is one that has unique features when it comes to the murder mystery.

Word count so far: 14,220
Word count for today: 2,940 (This is the number of words in my draft and so might change by the time I publish the article.)
Total words this month: 17,160


2. For an excellent analysis of Silence of the Lambs read the latter part of The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. He goes into the internal dynamics of character creation in explicit and loving detail.

3. Other subplots can be resolved here as well. Basically, this is a time of merging, where all the storylines come together in preparation for the race to the finish. Note, though, that one or more subplots could have been resolved earlier. This is just the place where, if a subplot exists, it’s time to tie it off and get ready to focus on defeating the Big Bad.

Wednesday, November 9

Title: (NaNoWriMo Day 9): 8th Key Scene: Tests & Trials

Title: (NaNoWriMo Day 9): 8th Key Scene: Tests & Trials

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

In honor of NaNoWriMo, every day this month I’m blogging about a key scene, one that any suspenseful story will include either implicitly or explicitly. I then take a close look at how this scene, this structure, is implemented in three popular genres: Action, Romance and Mystery. So far I've posted articles about the Inciting Incident, the Lock-In, Pinch Point One, the Midpoint Crisis, the All Hope is Lost point, and the Climax.

Today I'm going to talk about a scene (or sequence of scenes) often referred to as Tests and Trials.

Tests and Trials: Breaking It Down

After leaving the Ordinary World and entering the Special World of the Adventure, the protagonist goes through a series of Tests and Trials.

The Special World is radically different from the Ordinary World. Metaphorically, it’s inside out and upside down, Kansas vs the Land of Oz. In this new environment the protagonist is a fish out of water. She doesn't have any idea of the rules, the norms, that govern conduct in the Special World.

Part of being a fish out of water has to do with her strengths and weaknesses being flipped. Qualities that were strengths in the Ordinary World now become weaknesses and her weaknesses are now strengths. Think of Luke Skywalker in the Mos Eisley Cantina or Frodo and company in The Prancing Pony.

Many of the things we said of the Ordinary World are also true of the Special World. For instance, the protagonist will often meet new friends as well as make new enemies.

Though I’m not going to say much about it here, the B-Story often begins now and will involve new friends the protagonist makes in the Special World. To read more about A- and B-Stories I recommend Steven Pressfield’s article: The “A” Story and the “B” Story.

Another similarity between the Ordinary World and the Special World is that, on entering the Special World, the protagonist will have a clear initial goal, one that will soon take on new dimensions.

Tests and Trials, Fun and Games

As soon as the protagonist enters the Special World she will begin a series of Tests and Trials, mini adventures which highlight the strangeness of the Special World. Because her strengths are now weaknesses, and vice versa, she will fail quite a lot and in ways she couldn’t have foreseen.

As the protagonist goes through her Tests and Trials she’ll often receive aid and advice from her new friends and be hindered by her new enemies.

Tests and Trials are often also a time of Fun and Games, a time of bonding through adversity.

During this period it may seem as though the protagonist loses sight of her story goal, and that’s fine. It gives the audience a breather, perhaps they have a laugh or two. Here you have time and space to develop your characters and make your readers care about them.

Often, at the tail end of Tests and Trials the protagonist has her first big success. For the first time she triumphs over her tormentors. There’s a brief celebration then, suddenly, the Big Bad rears his head (this is the first Pinch Point—for more on this see here and here).

Key Points

  • The protagonist is a fish out of water in the Special World. She doesn't know the rules.
  • In the context of the Special World the protagonist’s strengths become weaknesses and perhaps her weaknesses become strengths.
  • The protagonist has a well-defined goal going into the period of Tests and Trials.
  • The protagonist makes new friends and gains new enemies.

Where is it?

The Tests and Trials part of the adventure comes at the beginning of the second act, about 25% to 35% of the way through the story.

How is it connected to the protagonist’s desires?

The Tests and Trials portion of the story should be connected to the protagonist’s internal and external desires, but there is a bit of wiggle room here. New elements are introduced into the story as the protagonist meets new characters and learns about their desires, their goals. One thing we need to show here is how the desires of the new characters mesh with those of the protagonist. Are they compatible? Incompatible?

This is an important part of character development and adds depth to the story.

Tests and Trials: Examples

In Edge of Tomorrow the Test and Trials portion of the story begins when Cage, drenched in the blood of an alpha, dies and wakes up in the previous day.

In the beginning Cage has no idea what’s happening. He’s put through tests and trials as, desperate, he tries to learn how to fight all the while keeping himself—and as many others as he can—alive. This sequence also has incredibly funny parts. There’s one scene that, even though I know it’s coming, I laugh out loud every time I see it. Cage is NOT a fighter by any stretch of the imagination—in the beginning of the story, he can’t figure out how to take the safety lock off his weapon!

Testing the Scene Example

Fish out of water. In the Ordinary World Cage creates propaganda. He’s good with words, with creating a narrative, but he couldn’t shoot a gun to save his life. Literally! He doesn't know the rules, the norms. Check.

Well defined goals going in. Cage’s goal is to NOT fight. Even when he’s on the beach in the midst of the battle he tries to run back to safety! But, as soon as he figures out that if he doesn’t learn how to fight that he will die, he begins to apply himself. So, yes. He has a well defined goal: survive.

Makes new friends and enemies. In Cage’s case he ignores the people who are hostile to him and makes friends with those who can help him. Check.

How the Midpoint is Implemented in Three Genres: Action, Romance & Mystery

Action Genre

I’ve covered the action genre, above.

Romance Genre

It depends on the kind of romance story you’re writing, but this is generally the “getting to know each other” phase that my male friends hate and my female friends (including moi) get all dreamy over.

Any romantic contact with the antagonist is forbidden (he’s a prince, she’s a pauper, etc.), and even if it wasn't forbidden the protagonist knows a relationship would never work. Never EVER. Still, the protagonist keeps thinking about the antagonist, she wants him to notice her. Then she does something mortifying and, sure enough, he notices her! He comes over and offers her a hand but she just wants the floor to open up and swallow her.

It turns out he likes her, he thinks she’s cute and different. Perhaps their essential incompatibility appeals to him because he’s not looking for a serious relationship.

And so on.

Murder Mystery Genre

In a murder mystery this is where the sleuth acquaints himself with the case by questioning suspects and investigating clues.

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’d like to recommend one of my favorite Agatha Christie murder mysteries, Murder on the Links: A Hercule Poirot Mystery

From the blurb: “An urgent cry for help brings Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies face downwards in a shallow grave on a golf course. But why is the dead man wearing his son's overcoat? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse . . ..”

That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow.

Word count so far: 12,755
Word count for today: 1,465
Total words this month: 14,220