Hi gang. Craig here with you once again with more about story structure. I’m taking on the biggest form of story structure out there, but there are others. If you missed any of the earlier posts, don’t despair. They live forever on the Internet.
Time to get jiggy with it. We’re knee deep in the middle slog now, but we’re about to work our way out.
From our last section, we went through the ordeal. Indiana Jones survived the book burning, Frodo escaped the ring wraiths, and we killed off a mentor or two.
When the hero survives he gets a reward. Frodo got an entire fellowship to watch his back. Will Smith got a “noisy cricket.” Maybe the sword from the stone is lost, but the Lady of the Lake has something even better. (Depends upon which version of King Arthur you read.) You actually retrieve the plans to the Death Star.
In this section, your hero is now perceived differently. Strider is gone and Aragorn takes his place. Who are you? –– I’m Batman.
Tip: Costuming is your friend here. We’re all visual creatures to a degree. Spider-Man might have worn that ratty sweatshirt and ski mask up until now. From this point on, he has the real Spidey suit. Gone is Tony Stark’s steampunk looking creation from the cave in Afghanistan, now it’s the real Iron Man suit. It still works outside superhero themes, this might be the shiny armor from Excalibur, or maybe some science fiction high tech stuff.
I write speculative fiction, if you hadn’t guessed from my examples. Some of you might relate better to the journey of Eliza Doolittle.
The last section was about risk, this is reward. Simple as that.
Tip: Make the reward useful for your end game. Alejandro went to steal the Andalusian stallion. He pulled this off which was paramount to his adventure. He also made a pretty sexy connection with Catherine Zeta-Jones which didn’t work out too bad for him either. Gone is bumbling over-confident Alejandro, now he is truly Zorro. (And got a costume upgrade.)
One for you muggles out there: When Richard Gere comes to sweep Debra Winger off her feet he is wearing his dress blues, because he is now An Officer and a Gentleman. This one is odd, because it marks the end of the story. Gere’s graduation and salute from Louis Gosset Jr. was his reward.
One more: Will Smith puts on the black suit and tie. “I make this look good.” He also becomes known simply as J. It’s a new perception.
This is an earned reward, not simply a gift from a loved one. Wyatt Earp put up with the Cowboys for a long time. He complained to an inept sheriff and city marshal. When his time comes, he thumbs his lapel to show that he’s trumped everyone. “United States Marshall.” The promotion is an earned reward, and he’s perceived differently.
Note: This is not the same as Perseus’s gifts from the gods, or Harry’s Nimbus 2000. Those weren’t necessarily earned. They also came at an earlier point in the tale.
The Road Back:
This section is important. Things were a whirlwind from a loss and beatdown right up to the reward. It makes sense to mourn some losses at this point. It’s realistic, too. Things happened that are largely out of the hero’s control, but now it’s time to mourn losses. Obi-Wan died, the fellowship failed and lost track of the ring, Sirius Black died. Wyatt Earp is transporting his brother’s body.
Film can get away with a thousand yard stare at sunset and some dramatic music. We can’t. Internal thought can work, but dialog is better. Think about Gandalf and Pippin talking about what happens next. This is the part where Gandalf says, “All our hopes lie with two little hobbits…”
This is the reminder of what we’re fighting for, seems like Sam and Frodo had this conversation too. This is often referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul.
It starts with mourning of some kind, but then turns to an uplifting moment. Somebody usually makes a speech of some kind. Think of Aragorn’s speech to the troops outside Mordor. “There may come a time… but it is not this day.”
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about (Watch the damned video):
You might think of the label as the road back –– from disaster. This is why the speech, or at least some focus matters.
I don’t care for the name of this section, because we’ve already dealt with that. However, it’s not referring to the individual but the big picture. This is the rebellion that is resurrected, the world of man, piracy, etc.
Think about it like this. The East India Trading Company has Davy Jones and is about to wipe out piracy forever. The Pirates restore Calypso and now meet the EITC on equal or superior footing.
Sauron and Saruman build the Orc army to destroy man. They have the Nazgûl, those dudes with the elephants, the war is over. That’s when it all comes crashing down as Frodo delivers the bomb.
This is your big boss battle. Good ultimately triumphs over evil. Your readers hung with you for this, so pay them back.
Tip: Consider using a ticking clock to ramp up the tension. Bruce Willis sacrifices himself to save his daughter and Ben Affleck. Before Bruce nukes the killer asteroid, the clock is counting down to a point of absolute failure. There is less than a second to spare when he blows the damned thing up.
Some stories are obviously tragedies, so you’ll have to modify as needed. Kong falls off the Empire State Building, the classic monster dies, Godzilla is defeated. In these instances, you’ll have to make sure to sell the true message during the previous section. Man is a jerk, and Kong was a tragic victim. Godzilla represents planetary vengeance for all the horrible things we do to the Earth. This means your previous speech needs to take on a different tone.
That leaves us with…
Returning with the Elixir:
I didn’t name these, so don’t shoot me. This is your happy ever after. In modern fiction, it’s often abandoned entirely, or made very brief. Do with that what you will, but I agree with making it short.
Years ago I proofread a manuscript that had several chapters of happy, including names of unborn grandchildren, future college degrees, careers. It was an entrapment/murder mystery, so once the killer is caught the story needed to end. Drop the mike and walk offstage.
On the other hand, I’m not a fan of ending it abruptly. You know these stories. The hero and the sidekick are sitting amid a field of bones, but everyone else is dead. They light cigars and the credits roll. We get it, they won, but how about just giving us a taste of the future. (Think Jaws here as they paddle for shore. A hug from Brody’s wife would have been nice.)
Will turner defeated Davy Jones and restored some kind of balance to the spirit world. Piracy will go on, but we still got to see him come ashore and get some happy time with Elizabeth.
This is your party with the Ewoks. This is where John Wick adopted a new puppy.
Tip: Think about a return to the real world, like in John Wick. It can be a changed world, but gives a sense of normalcy.
We get to see Aragorn crowned king, and get a glimpse of Sam back at the Shire. The bit about seeing the elves, Gandalf, and Bilbo off was almost too much for me.
Your mileage will vary, but my preference is Happy –– Done. This lets the readers see everything is okay, but they get to imagine how it will be after that.
To quote Porky Pig, “That’s All Folks.” Twelve steps, three posts, that Hero’s Journey Monomyth Thingie. I hope I took some of the fear away, showed you where it’s safe to vary, and where it might be best to stick to the true path.
Let me hear from you. Did my unusual presentation of story structure resonate with anyone?