Hi gang, Craig here again with part two of my series on story structure. The Hero’s Journey isn’t the only structure, but it’s the most popular. That’s why I’m tackling it.
If you missed part one, you can read it here: https://storyempire.com/2019/04/10/that-heros-journey-monomyth-thingie/
I layer the monomyth over three act structure. That’s a whole different sequence of posts, but nothing is exclusive here. This is just a lens to assess your story through. At this point, we’re coming to the end of Act One. This is the next step.
The First Threshold: This is the point of no return. Whether you have one character, some buddies, a mentor, etc, this is the step into the special world. Keep in mind it is not the big picture just yet. It’s only a taste.
This is the place for a commitment. A prophesy says that Harry Dresden must not seek the shroud of Turin, or he will die. If he doesn’t, everyone in Chicago dies, and so do all the White Knights… He has to make a decision one way or the other.
In Star Wars, this is the cantina scene. Now we get a glimpse of aliens, people who aren’t nice, and even the flash of a light saber and blaster. It’s exciting and eye opening, but pales in comparison to what’s coming.
This is Diagon Alley, and a world Harry never knew existed.
The point of no return doesn’t have to be huge, but it should be kind of obvious. Jumping off a moving Hogwarts Express isn’t a good idea. Flying away with Han Solo is kind of hard to turn back from. Sorry, Bilbo, no going back for hankies. Can’t put that sword back in the stone.
Here’s a secret. Make the first threshold really good, because you’re about to step into the middle slog. You may have hooked your readers in your first chapter, but this is the place to set that hook deep.
Note: This is a section, not a sentence. Harry Potter got a birthday visit from Hagrid, went shopping, then rode the train to Hogwarts. You might even consider the sorting ceremony as part of this section.
Tests, Allies, Enemies: Your character is going to need friends and/or allies. This is where you introduce them.
Note: There is no bright stripe between these stages. They blend together and the exact point is kind of misty. Harry was on the Hogwarts Express, but also met Ron and Hermione at the same time. It wasn’t long before we came across Malfoy either.
This is the place for making plans, testing the plan, and training. Will Smith goes for a ride-along with Tommy Lee Jones so they can blow Jeeves’s head off and watch it grow back. They learned about the alien bug that threatened the peace.
You have a lot to do here, and it’s probably the most boring part of your story. Can’t we just blow up the Death Star now? No, no you can’t. Luke isn’t worthy yet. You have to make him worthy.
In the Karate Kid, Daniel waxed a lot of cars, sanded a deck, and painted a fence. Tony Stark had to take the idea from the cave in Afghanistan, then make the first real Iron Man suit. Then he had to learn how to fly, etc. We also met Jarvis his AI, and Pepper.
When your hero is ready, it’s time to venture out.
Approaching the innermost cave: This is the first exposure to the true evil. The Galactic Empire was some far off oppressor. Now it’s in your face as Darth Vader kills your mentor.
Your hero isn’t ready yet, so this section usually involves sneaking and spying. This is the place to wear Stormtrooper uniforms and blend in. Unfurl your invisibility cloaks. Put on that Ring of Power and weave your way through goblinland.
This is where your hero should have some second thoughts. Indiana Jones is at a book burning in Nazi Germany. Daniel and Miyagi step inside the Cobra dojo and watch their master berate and beat down his students. These villains are serious.
You’re still in the middle slog here, and this is going to take a while. Miyagi asked for a truce so Daniel could train for the tournament.
Sidebar: The monomyth can also be used to assess your trilogy length story. At this point, the Rebel Alliance has been beaten down on the ice planet. They disbursed across the galaxy, and Luke went to train with Yoda. Yoda actually sent Luke into a cave to face his innermost fears. An almost literal translation of this section.
Okay, sidebar over.
The Ordeal: Most good stories are about resurrection. This can involve actual death and rebirth, but usually it’s a bit more subtle than that. Your main character with heroic qualities dies, and the true hero rises from the ashes.
This may be the most mobile of all the sections. You’ll see it earlier and later than this position in the list. Frodo succumbed to the power of the ring (died) very late in the story. It wasn’t quite as late in the book as the movie, but you get the idea.
Remember, from the last post, these things blend together. Obi-Wan’s death is an obvious representation of death, it introduced the real evil, and requires Luke to step up his game. The steps are blending together.
Frodo is bitten by Shelob. Luke is pulled down by the scrod. Even without death, this is a learning experience. Things are crystal clear about the dangers ahead.
Star Wars is another good example of mixing things up a bit. Luke escaped the Scrod on the Death Star. This is about right from a single story viewpoint, but from a trilogy standpoint it’s kind of early. From the trilogy standpoint it’s C3PO who “dies” in Sky City and Luke dies a bit too when he learns about his father.
Jaws ate Captain Quint, and the ship is sinking. (Guess they really did need a bigger boat.) Now Brody has to go on alone to face the danger.
Here’s an interesting example of stirring it all up a bit, Curse of the Black Pearl. This is the bit in Port Royal. Will Turner crosses swords with Captain Jack and survives. When Barbosa’s crew shows up, he is defeated and meets the true evil.
In other words, he took his smackdown then rose from the ashes when he rescued Jack from jail. Only at that point, which is out of sequence, did he embrace allies and friends.
Another one, Gladiator. General Maximus dies, and gladiator Maximus rises. He leverages the Roman citizens into his friends and allies. (There were some others, but I’m trying to simplify here.) This is also a bit out of order.
Lord of the Rings is an odd one, but shows how much variation you can have. It repeats many of the beats. Shortcut to mushrooms is where we met the first ring wraith. No turning back now he’s chasing Frodo. Friends and allies came into play. Then he went sneaking through the forest. We had a figurative death on Weathertop when he was stabbed by the wraith, then met more allies and had a resurrection at Rivendale. Later, Frodo got jabbed by Selob, and foiled by the power of the ring.
Think about how many times Tolkien went to this well. Boromir died and so did the Fellowship. Frodo rose from the ashes, but so did Aragorn and friends. Sam “died” when Frodo sent him home, but he rose from the ashes and got things done. Gandalf died, the elves are leaving, but they all managed to jump back in.
Writers look at story structure and their eyes glaze over. Don’t do that. Be aware of the steps, massage them into what works for your stories. It’s okay to blend them and move them around to a degree. Some steps don’t fit in your story, maybe you don’t need a mentor at all.
I hope you’re still with me here, because I’m going all the way to the end in this series. Might something here help you get through the middle slog? Is there a twist you can add that might keep it more interesting? Let me hear from you in the comments.