Hi gang, Craig here with you again. An understanding of story structure is important to our efforts, and I’m taking on one of the biggest ones. I’ll have to break this into several posts so it doesn’t get out of hand.
One of the things I’ve learned is that we get the same information over and over again. Then one day, some knucklehead says something a bit differently and it clicks. I want to be that knucklehead.
There are a bunch of different story structures, and I’ve dabbled with most of them. I even wrote one using the Fool’s Journey from the Tarot. The writing monomyth seems to be the biggest and most popular one. It’s a sequence of events, painted in broad terms, that most good stories have.
It’s also important to note that most stories don’t use every step. There are some that are easy to skip, or pare down. The important thing is to consider each step and spend some daydreaming time to see if it will improve your story. My point is to choose with purpose and reasoning. Let’s dive into the classic steps.
The Ordinary World: How does your character go through life? In this stage, we should be pretty clear about whether this is historical, futuristic, city, country, which country, etc. We should also get to know your character. Male or female, robot or alien, elf or merfolk. Gain a bit of personality with how they interact in this world.
There is a tendency to eliminate this phase, but I love it. I agree that it ought to be kept short, but I think it’s important. What would the Wizard of Oz lose if it opened in Munchkinland? I think an undertone of Kansas and family was important.
If the opening page has a girl dodging a horse-drawn beer wagon, that tells me something about the time. If she’s selling Buddy Poppies, it tells me World War One has ended. That gives me a lot more information. It doesn’t take more than a paragraph. If her first word of dialog is some kind of French curse word, I narrow down where this story is taking place… somewhat.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have also skipped this phase in one novel. My main character woke up in the desert and the story forged ahead just fine. All I’m asking you to do is seriously consider a bit about the ordinary world. It makes a great foreshadowing for what we’re fighting for moments.
The Call to Adventure: This is one step that can’t be omitted completely. If your story is going to stay in the ordinary world, you don’t have a story. I’m not talking about the “real” world here. You can have your entire story remain in the “real” world, but something has to change the status quo for your character. Hitchcock made an outstanding film called “Rope” that never left one room. Of course there was a murder victim in a trunk, and the killers invited friends over for a cocktail party as a way of gloating.
Whatever messes up your character’s normal life is the call to adventure. This is Dorothy’s tornado, Frodo’s inheritance, that kind of thing.
This one gets tangled up with what’s known as the Inciting Incident. All stories have a Call to Adventure, some will also have an Inciting Incident. Think of it this way:
Jaws eats the skinny-dipper girl = Inciting Incident
Brody is called to the beach to look at Jaws’s unfinished Happy Meal = Call to Adventure, Brody’s call to adventure.
This stuff works in all genres too. Maybe the inciting incident is a whiff of an odd brand of perfume that reminds him of the one who got away. It isn’t her, but she is the most interesting woman he’s run across in fifteen years.
Consider using a herald character to deliver the Call to Adventure. It isn’t completely necessary, but it gives you a chance to sizzle a bit of tension for your readers, maybe drop a line of foreshadowing. Here’s one example:
Brody (a different Brody) calls Indiana Jones out of class to a meeting with Army Intelligence. They talk about Nazis and Hitler in a foreboding way, then ask him to go after the Arc of the Covenant. Note: No Inciting Incident.
Refusal of the Call: This is a step that can be skipped, but it can also add a lot to the story. Indiana Jones jumped on a plane and went looking for Marion. On the other hand, Luke Skywalker said, “… I’ve got a moisture farm to run.”
People are different, and our characters ought to be too. Does your story benefit more from a reluctant hero, or an absolute hero? This isn’t about machismo, and your main character might be a female. Many of mine are.
Alan Grant has a freshly uncovered velociraptor that needs his attention. He doesn’t have time to go traipsing off to Jurassic Park.
How many times did Wyatt Earp refuse to become the sheriff of Tombstone?
In The Patriot, Mel Gibson is against the war. Demands that his sons stay out of it and mind their own business. Until the guy who later played Lucius Malfoy killed his son. (Inciting Incident) They take his older son away to be hanged at their leisure. (Call to Action.) This is a fun example, because the ingredients are stirred up a bit. Refusal of the Call happened before the other parts. It shows us that we have some leeway with our ingredients.
And the last one for today, Meeting the Mentor: Many great stories make use of a mentor character. Our hero is actually a hero-to-be, and needs a bit of help. Sometimes the great mentors are remembered for many years.
You know these guys, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mister Miyagi, Doc Brown, Dumbledore. They provide bits and pieces to help our main character become more than they believed possible.
This one is frequently skipped, but you have to admit, they can bring a lot to the table. They are sometimes used as comedy relief, and can be over-the-top. “Great Scott!” “Mayo-nnaise.”
There are also reluctant mentors. Captain Quint let the yahoos troll the bay for sharks and dynamite the harbor. Then he offered his services, but for his price. Master Shifu didn’t want to train Po in Kung Fu Panda. Be willing to think outside the box a bit here.
Here is a thought that’s worth the price of admission. Fiction has a huge hole in it that demands to be filled. Where are the female mentors? I think the world deserves a few.
I don’t think Professor McGonagall fills the bill, because she’s a peripheral character. There was a ball-busting astronaut lady in Armageddon, but she only got about five minutes screen time.
We’ve read or viewed the gay male mentor who helps turn the wallflower into the princess. Where is the female mentor? One of us ought to come up with a story that addresses this, stat.
Here’s a look at another film that stirred up the ingredients, which I find helpful to demonstrate how these pieces can be assembled. I watched Space Cowboys again a few weeks ago.
Call to Action was delivered by a herald in the form of a young astronaut and the woman who becomes Tommy Lee Jones’s love interest.
The call only came to Clint Eastwood, who refused it. After this was all sorted out, we got to see the normal world during the intro of the other Space Cowboys. Donald Sutherland designs roller coasters, Tommy Lee Jones works at a crop dusting barn, and James Garner is a preacher.
These are like recipe ingredients. You don’t always use everything in the kitchen to make whatchyagot stew. Sometimes you pick and choose, or add things in a slightly different order. Notice I said slightly. You don’t have a Call to Adventure at the end of the story unless it’s a different adventure.
I hope you enjoyed this post, because I’m committed to about three more on this topic. Did I say something in a new way that resonated with anyone? Do you consider these steps as you either plot out, or daydream about your stories? If not, are you going to try it?
I love the comments, so let me hear from you. Am I your knucklehead now? At fourteen-hundred words are you glad I didn’t include all twelve steps today? Do you know of a great female mentor?