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

Thursday, February 11

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)

In the last few posts I’ve discussed a story’s setting. Today I want to discuss a story’s setting and how it changes in the context of the hero's journey.

Setting Reflects Changes

The setting of a story changes as the story progresses. Often, the setting for each scene mirrors the hero’s arc. (If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of the hero’s journey, I’ve written about it here.) 

Just in case all that is clear as mud, let me give you a few examples of what I mean.

Setting Reflects Story

Dichotomies: Tagging the hero and villain

In the movie, The Matrix, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are dressed in black while their opposition wears business suits. 

Here the opposites are agents of order versus agents of chaos. The agents of order (and, yes, they were actually called Agents!) are dressed in business suits and are part of an irredeemably corrupt system.

The agents of chaos, the ones wearing black, are trying to tear down that corrupt system. It was clever to subvert the audience’s expectations and have the good guys wear black. This nicely illustrates that aspects of a setting, such as the clothing/uniform each side wears, helps with characterization. Or, at least it can. 

On the topic of business suits, in The Matrix the enemy was an outside force but often the enemy is closer to home, sometimes it even wears a seemingly friendly face. In the movie, The Firm, Mitch McDeer’s opposition was the people he worked beside everyday and they all looked alike. They wore the same thing, they had the same kind of house, the same kind of car (expensive!). They were “one happy family”™. The sameness was part of what made the opposing force so insidious and scary.

Setting Reflects The Protagonist's Need

In general, at the beginning of a story the protagonist has a weakness, a need. For instance, take Susan. She has a weakness that prevents her from realizing her full potential, something that prevents her from living a life that is as meaningful as it could be. In order for Susan to meet this need, she must change. But this is mixed news for Susan because there is no change without destruction, without sacrifice, and that brings turmoil, pain, and possibly death.

The storyteller’s goal is to construct a suitable crucible for heroes-to-be like Susan, one that will challenge her and, ultimately, singe off the bits that have to go to make room for new and improved bits.

The Hero’s Desire

A story world should explain the hero's desire for their goal. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere's desire is to never, ever, be poor again and his specific goal is to make partner in a wealthy law firm. At the beginning of the film he’s poor and working as a waiter while still receiving top grades from one of the best law schools in the world, Harvard Law School. That nicely illustrates Mitch’s ambition and intellect. 

Here’s another example. (I know I used this example too much!) Luke Skywalker was a skilled pilot but, while his uncle kept promising he could leave the family’s moisture farm and attend the academy, something always came up to prevent it. A droid would break down, the crop wouldn’t be as big as expected, and so on. This meant they couldn’t afford to hire someone to replace Luke, so he felt obliged to stay.

Another thing. I see Luke’s landspeeder as a representation of this conflict between Luke and his family. It reminds us of Luke’s desire to become a pilot as well as the sacrifices he has to make. (That, and landspeeders are just plain cool!)

The Opposing Force

A story wouldn't be much fun if the protagonist wanted something then, without further ado, got it. They must be opposed. This is the job of the antagonistic force that opposes the protagonist in their attempt to attain their goal. 

There is a symmetry between the hero and villain. Whatever the hero’s specific goal is, it needs to be something that both the villain and he want, but which at most one of them can achieve. Both can fail but both can never win

The Hero Confronts Death

At some point the hero will suffer a devastating setback. It will seem to him that his quest is over. It is at this point that the hero often has an epiphany, a revelation. 

How could the story world reflect this, both the danger and the epiphany? 

This is going to sound obvious because it is obvious… I could say ‘dead obvious’ but I think that would be going too far! ;) Anyway. Often the hero confronts death in a setting that brings death to mind. So, how do we do that? What makes us fear? Well, the dark. So caves, dungeons, crypts, pits--sometimes even one’s bedroom at the witching hour! What was that noise? Footsteps? But no one’s home! 

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke and his allies are nearly crushed in a trash compactor. Countless movies have the hero visit a creepy old house, or abandoned insane asylum. Perhaps the hero is lured into a cellar, or a dark and musty basement (the Paranormal Activity movies), and then is brought close--even symbolically--to death. (Also, sometimes at this point one of the hero’s allies dies. In a mystery this will often give the hero/sleuth a valuable clue.)

That said, the hero could confront their mortality anywhere; for example, in a law office or as the hero runs through a crowded city. There are no hard and fast rules. The only thing you can take to the bank is that if you don’t write anything you’ll never have a story! So write!

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I think that’s a good place to stop for today. I’ve only blogged half my chapter, so I’ll try and get the second half up tomorrow. 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, September 13

Using Tarot Cards To Tell A Story

Using Tarot Cards To Tell A Story

I thought I'd write about something a bit different today.

Years ago, an acquaintance told me she thought numbers had meaning. Although I didn't share her belief, I was intrigued. Next, she told me the meaning of numbers told a story.

A story! That did interest me and I scooted to the edge of my seat.

She laughed and told me the story and, though it was interesting and I promised myself I'd remember, I promptly forgot it.


This morning I went shopping with a friend who bought a deck of tarot cards. Later, while she was making coffee and puttering around her kitchen, I picked up the tarot cards and flipped through the major arcana, starting with The Magician.

At that moment my friend's story came back to me and I realized something. The meaning of the numbers from one to ten seemed to be a close analogy for something else: The hero's journey.

I'll lay out my reasoning below, do tell me what you think in the comments.

(Please keep in mind I'm not claiming numbers have meaning; in fact, I don't think they do. What interested me was the similarity of the one story to the other.)

The Hero And The Fool

1. The Unaccomplished, Unrealized, Hero

Number 1: The thing itself without division or differentiation of any kind. Pure, raw, potential. (By the way, all my information about the meaning of numbers was drawn from the links on this page over at

This is from at
"... the Magician implies that the primal forces of creativity are yours if you can claim your power and act with awareness and concentration."

Hero's Journey: The Hero in the Ordinary World

The hero in the ordinary world is at the beginning of his journey. He hasn't yet claimed his power and does not act with awareness.

The hero is untried, untested; a diamond in the rough.

The hero has the capacity for great bravery, for acts of courage, but none of that has manifested yet. One day he may be able to slay dragons but that day is not today.

2. The Hero Starts His Journey

Number 2: Duality. Division. Instinctual knowledge. The energy of (1) gets direction.

Hero's Journey: The Call to Adventure

In this second stage what was metaphorical becomes literal. The hero literally gets a new direction with the call to adventure.

For example, Indiana Jones is asked to find the ark of the covenant (Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark), Joan Wilder must ransom her sister (Romancing the Stone), Frodo must destroy a ring of power (The Lord of the Rings).

As with the biblical story of Jonah, our hero may refuse the Call to Adventure at first, but, eventually, something will happen (in Jonah's case, being swallowed by a whale and stewing in gastric juices for a few days) to change his mind.

3. The Hero Enters the Special World

Number 3: The number three brings balance to the two opposites. One can also think of 3 as the child of 1 and 2; in this sense, 3 can be thought of as having been birthed by them. It is a newborn that needs nursing, developing.

Hero's Journey: Entering The Special World

Christopher Vogler, in his wonderful book, The Writer's Journey, puts it this way,
"It [the Special World] is a new and sometimes frightening experience for the hero. No matter how many schools he has been through, he's a freshman all over again in this new world."
Vogler also notes that "the Special World should strike a sharp contrast the the Ordinary World."

So here we have the hero entering a new situation, a new world, with different rules. It is completely unfamiliar. What used to be his strengths in the Ordinary World are weaknesses here and what were weaknesses are now strengths (think Alice in Wonderland).

To sum up: the hero enters a new world that is completely different.

4. The Hero Trains, Becomes Something New

Number 4: If the number 3 is a new thing then the number 4 is the new thing matured. It can be successful, or not. The number 4 is about maintaining what has been created, about building a strong structure.

Hero's Journey: The Hero Finds His Footing.

The hero finds her legs in the new world, she learns how things are, is tested, finds some allies and makes more than a few enemies. Through her journeys, her trials and tribulations, she starts to grow into her own.

5. The Ordeal: The Hero Confronts His Nemesis And Loses Something

Number 5: Something is lost. This could be momentum, love, money, friendship, whatever, but something that was gained in (4) is lost. Also, though, one becomes stronger because of the ordeal.

The hero goes through the trial (usually) victorious. He loses something, but he is made stronger.

The is part of the wikipedia entry for The Hierophant:
"The negative aspect of The Hierophant is well illustrated by the myth of Procrustes. Procrustes was a man (or a monster) living in the mountains of Greece. He invited weary travelers into his home, washed the dust off their feet, provided a meal, and let them lie on his bed. If they were too big for his bed, he cut them to size. If they were too small, he stretched them to fit. At last, Theseus came through the mountains and accepted Procrustes’s seemingly kind offer. When Procrustes tried to cut him to fit, Theseus killed him, making the road safe. In this way, the Hierophant is like Freud’s superego. It shapes us, sometimes brutally. This shaping is necessary for us to become who we are." (Wikipedia)
I would add that not only the shaping, but rebelling against the shaping, is what brings us into our own. It is the fight against the monster that makes us, as the saying goes, "come into our power".

If the hero never fights the monster, never engages it, the hero will never realize his full potential.

Or something like that! (grin)

So here we have a confrontation, like what happens between the protagonist and the antagonist midway through a story, what Vogler calls the Ordeal. Because of the battle something is lost (in the case of Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark it was Indiana's freedom) and something is gained (he gets his lady love, Miriam, back).

(In the tale of Procrustes the Pitiless, although Theseus doesn't lose anything, many of Procrustes's other 'guests' do.)

Okay, that's it for today. I'll go through stages 6 through 10 on Monday.

#  #  #

Personally, I don't put any stock in numerology or the tarot, but I love stories and it seems to me that the cards of, for instance, the Rider-Waite tarot deck, tell a story. Also, I'm intrigued by the possibility they could be used to help us create our own stories.

In any case, since this blog is about anything and everything to do with story--anything that will help us create better, more inventive ones--I thought I'd share!

Good writing, see you Monday. Cheers!

Photo credit: "RWS Tarot 00 Fool.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith (published 1909) via This image is not under copyright in the US.

Sunday, January 27

Michael Hauge On How To Summarize Your Novel

Michael Hauge On How To Summarize Your Novel

Michael Hauge's Story Mastery

As some of you know, my right arm is out of commission so all typing--except for this blog!--is out of the question. As a result, I've been taking care of tasks I normally put off.

Tasks such as filing papers.

I struck gold! I went through some of the handouts from conferences I've attended--I thought I might find something interesting for a blog post--and came across Michael Hauge's handouts, along with my notes from the workshop he taught at Write On!

Michael Hauge's Biography

For those who don't know, Michael Hauge is a story consultant, what some folks call a story doctor, as well as an author and lecturer. The following is from his bio:
[Michael Hauge] has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Robert Downey Jr and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network.
Michael has been involved "in the development of I AM LEGEND, HANCOCK and THE KARATE KID".

I was riveted by Michael's talks. If you ever have a chance to attend one of his workshops I recommend it.

Novel Summary Template

The really cool thing about Michael Hauge's template is that it isn't just a 'plug in the description' kind of thing, he ties it into the underlying structure of the story.

I'll do this in two parts. First, we'll look at the template, then we'll look at how the template ties into the underlying story structure.

This is straight from Michael Hauge's handout:
When hero who empathy/setup, is opportunity, s/he decides to new situation/preliminary goal. But when change of plans s/he now must outer motivation/primary goal but hero's plan as well as second goal. [NOT a necessity, except in most Romantic Comedies] in spite of the fact that outer conflict.

Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure

Now let's take Michael's tempate and see how it lines up with a story's underlying structure (see Figure 1). In the next section I'll give an example and pull everything together.

Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure
Figure 1. Click to Enlarge

KM Fawcett has written an amazing article: Michael Hauge's Six-Stage Plot Structure. I encourage you all to read it, she gives the best summary of Michael's system I've seen, here is a sample:
A character arcs when he moves from his identity to essence.

Identity = emotional armor (facade) worn to protect himself from some wound.
Essence = who the character is when the emotional armor is stripped. True self.
What is your hero’s wound? From the wound grows a fear. This fear gives IDENTITY (emotional armor) to the character.

The character should have a physical goal, but that goal is primarily a symbol. It represents an emotional need (the true goal). The end reward must satisfy the character’s emotional need.
The only way the character can get to his longing (his emotional need) is to step out of his IDENTITY (emotional armor) and into his ESSENCE (true self).

Once you’ve established your hero’s WOUND, FEAR, IDENTITY, ESSENCE, EMOTIONAL NEED and PHYSICAL OUTER GOAL, we can move onto The Six Stage Plot Structure.
That is only the start of her analysis, to read the whole thing, click here: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot Structure.

Michael Hauge's Example: Shrek

Okay, so now we're going to bring everything together. We're putting Michael's structure for a summary together with his underlying plot structure and coming up with something you can use to wow editors as well as the next person who asks you: So, what's your story about?

Hero = Shrek
Role = lovable, courageous ogre
Setup = lives alone in his swamp because the townspeople reject him, has his home invaded by fairy tale creatures
New Situation = go tell the powerful Lord Farquaad to send them back home
Change of plans = Farquaad sends Shrek on a mission in return for his swamp
Outer motivation = rescue a princess and give her to Farquaad
Hero's plan = overcoming a fearsome dragon
Secondary goal = win the love of the princess for himself
Outer conflict = a) Farquaad will stop at nothing to get her, b) Shrek is afraid she'll reject him, and c) she's secretly cursed with turning into an ogre herself every night.

So here's how that reads:
When Shrek, a lovable, courageous ogre who lives alone in his swamp because the townspeople reject him, has his home invaded by fairy tale creatures, he decides to go tell the powerful Lord Farquaad to send them back home. But when Farquaad sends Shrek on a mission in return for his swamp, Shrek now must rescue a princess and give her to Farquaad by overcoming a fearsome dragon, as well as win the love of the princess for himself, in spite of the fact that Farquaad will stone at nothing to get her. Shrek is afraid she'll reject him, and she's secretly cursed with turning into an ogre herself every night.
An added bonus is that since the summary is drawn right out of the structure of your novel, it's tethered to it, so doing this exercise before you write the first draft could save you a TON of work later.

Try it out! What is the summary for your work-in-progress? 

Other articles you might like:

- Six Things Writers Can Learn From Television
- How To Succeed As A Writer: The Value Of Failure
- The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome

Photo credit: "Metrò Paris" by superUbO under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, January 6

The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1

The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1

I'm going to continue my Starburst Method series today, but first I'd like to say a few words about Hugh Howey's book Wool and why we write. If you'd like to skip to where I start talking about the Starburst Method scroll down to the heading "The Starburst Method, Continued".

Hugh Howey and Wool

I started reading Wool yesterday and was amazed by the story. Hugh Howey's characters and events are emotionally compelling. The world of Wool is stark, filled with unpleasant realities, but the characters refuse to give up, they refuse to abandon their humanity.

Here's HH's dedication:
This collected work is dedicated to anyone who dares dream of a better place.
When I read that something clicked for me.

Wool is more than a book. It tells the story of a Silo and the people who live within its metal grip but, somehow, Hugh Howey has managed to do what all great authors have done since time immemorial, he has reached beyond himself, beyond his story, and connected with something universal.

I'm bringing this up because I don't want to lose sight of this aspect of the craft.

What I talk about in these essays—the questions I present ("What is your character's goal?"), the formulae—are meant to be intuition pumps, to help get us thinking in terms of story, they can't be the whole kit and caboodle.

Okay, now let's continue on with our series.

The Starburst Method, Continued

This post is part of a series about a method I'm calling the Starburst method. You can read the first two chapters here:

1. The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do
2. The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters

I wonder if "Starburst" doesn't give a misleading impression because instead of starting with something small and rapidly expanding we're starting with something big and nebulous—our relatively unfiltered and perhaps contradictory ideas for a story—then honing them.

Perhaps this method is more like sculpting, cutting away parts that don't belong and adding ones that do.

Five Paragraphs: Setting Up The Story

Today we're condensing our story down into five paragraphs. By the end, ideally, we will have reduced each paragraph to a single sentence. Each paragraph represents one stage of the hero's journey.

Let's go through them.

1. The Ordinary World

1.a. How is your hero DISTINCTIVE?

Christopher Vogler writes:
Most stories take the hero out of the ordinary, mundane world and into a Special World, new and alien. This is the familiar "fish out of water" idea which has spawned countless films and TV Shows (... The Wizard of Oz, Witness, ... Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, etc.).

If you're going to show a fish out of his customary element, you first have to show him in that Ordinary World to create a vivid contrast with the strange new world he is about to enter. (The Writer's Journey)
Last time we started to get acquainted with our protagonist. Although we don't know everything yet we have an idea what he does for a living, his name, his special ability as well as his weakness, and so on.

Here's another question: In the ordinary world, where your hero isn't perhaps very heroic, what is the most distinctive thing about him or her?

Is he a troublemaker? If so, quickly write down an example, something that shows he's a troublemaker, a malcontent.

Or perhaps your protagonist is much too much caught up in what society expects of him.

Or maybe he is hopelessly in love with someone unattainable.

Think of some one thing that your character is noteworthy for, that makes him distinctive. That sets him apart from everyone else. What is it that makes the other characters in your story care about him? (They may want to murder him, but that's still a kind of caring! He influences the actions of others.)

For instance, Nathan Bransford in the query letter for his book, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, had this to say about his protagonist:
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magillan Middle School ...(My Query Letter for JACOB WONDERBAR)
In only a few words NB paints a clear picture of his hero.

1.b. How is your hero TRAGIC?

That's the first part, setting your hero, your protagonist (I'm using those words interchangeably) as distinctive. Now we need to explain his uniqueness.

There's another part to being a hero, the tragic bit. Many, perhaps most, heroes have something very wrong with their lives, some tragedy. This tragedy can perhaps help explain why he is distinctive in the way he is.

For instance, if your hero is a thief perhaps it's because his parents died when he was a child and he had to raise himself on the streets.

This is how Nathan Bransford put it:
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. (My Query Letter for JACOB WONDERBAR)
Jacob is a terror at school but we get the idea that's partly because of his dad's absence. That one sentence encapsulates, summarizes, gives us a snapshot of the hero's distinctive challenges and character.

2. Friends and Helpers

Everybody needs somebody, even heroes. Who are your protagonist's friends and helpers? What do they do for the hero? What are their weaknesses?

In Lord of the Rings Pippin and Merry are troublemakers. They love eating (they could eat their weight in lembas!) and smoking 'leaf' and they nearly get Frodo killed more than once, but no one could fault heir bravery when a friend was in danger.

Here's what Nathan Bransford wrote about Jacob's friends:
He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled.
 Again, this paints a compelling picture.

To Be Continued

Tomorrow we'll continue this series and finish fleshing out our five paragraph summary. See you then!

What are you writing about at the moment? What makes your protagonist distinctive? Does she have a tragic past? Who are her friends? What are her friends' weaknesses? What can her friends do well?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: MS Word Styles
- How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon
- The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters

Photo credit: "Superlative Beauty // Footsteps of Happiness // Wonderful Moments // The Shelbourne, A Renaissance Hotel Dublin, Republic of Ireland // The Grand Staircase // ENJOY!" by || UggBoy♥UggGirl || PHOTO || WORLD || TRAVEL || under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, September 12

Writing Resources

Writing Resources

Writing Resources

I thought I'd try something different and share a few links. Originally I was going to share 5 or 6 but I kept finding more!

 1. The Hero's Journey: giving your story structure
- Blake Snyder's beat sheet. A fabulous explaination of Blake Snyder's beat sheet is here: Save The Snyder – The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet of Structure.
- Michael Hauge's hero's journey. I had the pleasure of hearing Michael Hauge talk about the Hero's Journey. Excellent! He also explains it here: The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Scripts.
- The inner journey. Janice Hardy has a terrific article going into more depth about what Michael Hauge has to say about the inner journey: The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Inner Conflict That Make Sense.
- Your story: where to begin
- The hero's journey: an interactive illustration
- The hero's journey: summary of the steps
- Story structure: What is it and why should I care?
- Jim Butcher: how to write a story

2. Outlining
Dan Wells On Writing A Short Story
- Outline your novel in 30 minutes
- Novel Outlining 101
- Chekhov's Gun
- How to write a romance novel

3. Character Building
- Here are 10 ways of building your characters
- Web Resources for Developing Characters. Dozens of personality tests you can use for character building.
- A character sheet. Another character sheet. Do you know your character's eye color? Their favorite desert?
- Build your character! Here you'll find there quizzes. See how well you know your character.
- Interview your character: Interviewing Characters: Follow the Energy
- Different kinds of antagonists: Villains are people, too, but ...
- Character writing exercises

4. Dialog
- Robert J. Sawyer, Speaking of Dialog
- All Your Characters Talk The Same — And They’re Not A Hivemind!

5. Names
- Medieval Names Archive
- Behind the Name: the etymology and history of first names

6. Idea generators
- 36 dramatic situations
- 200 plot ideas

7. Conflict
- Does your story have enough conflict? Give it a conflict test.
- Plot without conflict

Miscellaneous Links:
- 102 Resources for Fiction Writing
- The Uncomfortable Pantser: When Your Method Doesn't Fit Your Personality.

Are there any links you'd like to add?

Other articles you might like:
- Five steps to better proofreading
- Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 1
- Thinking of becoming an indie author? Some tips

Photo credit: Macskafaraok