Search:
 
 

Archetypes and Storybeats Part II: The Virgin’s Promise

In last week’s blog  I discussed the Hero’s journey and the nexus between certain character archetypes that are so well-recognized that they come ready-made with their own set of story beats.  The Hero’s Journey as interpreted by Chris Vogler in his book on screenwriting (The Writer’s Journey), has been so widely read that it’s often offered up as the only pattern for stories.

But anyone who writes romance knows that the hero’s journey isn’t a good fit much of the time. It’s hard to see how Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, or Belle from Beauty and the Beast fit the Hero archetype. None of these protagonists go out into the world for the purpose of proving their mettle. None of these protagonists have battles with villains, although they all face antagonists. None of these protagonists assemble a group of allies. And even if we go beyond fairytale protagonists, it’s hard to see how Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett fit the Hero archetype, much less the main characters from movies like Sleepless In Seattle or While You Were Sleeping.

Not surprisingly all these protagonists are women, and although it is possible to have a female Hero, there is something quintessentially male about the hero’s journey. Perhaps that’s because the hero’s journey is based on the study of myths from largely male-dominant cultures.

It should come as no surprise that Joseph Campbell–a male– had a blind spot in his research. He studied myths but he ignored fairy tales — told by women for millennia and equally as pervasive in the human experience.

virgins PromiseA few years ago Kim Hudson undertook an effort to develop a set of story beats that fit the uniquely feminine stories that are found in folk tales and fairy tales.  Her book The Virgin’s Promise is a wonderful counterpoint to the Hero’s Journey.

The Archetype she uses is the Virgin – a person (not necessarily female) who is inexperienced and dependent.  The Virgin’s story is one of empowerment.  Unlike the Hero, who leaves the comfort of his ordinary world in order to test his meddle and eventually save the world, the Virgin is living in a world that’s holding her back from her true, authentic potential as a human being.  She doesn’t leave her world and come back changed.  The Virgin’s story is all about how she empowers herself and thereby changes the world she’s living in. 

Below you’ll find the story beats for the Virgin’s Promise, but a word of warning.  Virgin stories are not like Hero stories.  A Hero story moves from one beat to the next in a logical order.  Virgin stories don’t necessarily do that.  Because they are stories of empowerment, and because they are uniquely female, they are less linear.  But each of following story beats is usually present in a Virgin story. If you’re creating a beat sheet, you do not have to put the beats in the order I’ve listed them below.

Here are the story beats for the Virgin’s Promise, using Cinderella and the movie While You Were Sleeping as examples.

Story Beat

Example: Cinderella

Example: While you were Sleeping

DEPENDENT WORLD

The Virgin is living in a kingdom in which she is either dependent on someone for her well being or so lost to herself and her inner dreams that she’s sleeping through her life.  

Cinderella is an orphan child who has been reduced to the role of servant in her father’s house.  She is dependent on her evil step mother for her survival.

Lucy is a toll taker on the Chicago Subway.  She dreams of traveling, but she never goes anywhere.  She dreams of a true love, but she’s alone.

THE PRICE OF CONFORMITY

Because the Virgin is dependent, she must conform to the rules of her world or face the possibility of losing something important to her.  It could be a roof over her head or the love of her family.  The bottom line is that the Virgin is living a life of servitude, in which her kingdom tells her what to do and who to be.

Although her stepmother and stepsisters are mean to her, Cinderella does their bidding because if she were to stop, she would lose the roof over her head.  (In addition, Cinderella wrongly believes that if she works hard enough she will earn her step mother’s love.)

Because she has no family, Lucy is always the one who has to work on holidays.

OPPORTUNITY TO SHINE

Something happens that gives the Virgin an opportunity that she wouldn’t ordinarily have.  This opportunity is like an escape hatch out of her dependent world.

The Prince is having a ball.  All the single girls are invited.  That includes Cinderella.

On Christmas Day, Peter, the man she’s been fantasizing about, falls to the train tracks.  Lucy saves his life but his fall has put him in a coma.

DRESSES THE PART

The Virgin will change her appearance in order to take the opportunity that has been offered.  She might dress like a boy.  She might take off her clothes all together.  She might work on a dress for the ball.

Cinderella dresses for the part in two places.  First she begins to alter one of her mother’s old dresses in order to attend the ball.  And, of course, after her step mother ruins that dress, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother give her a new, much more magical dress, that allows her to go to the ball. 

A mistake is made, and the hospital thinks that Lucy is Peter’s fiancé.  Lucy figuratively dons a mask.

SECRET WORLD

Emboldened by her suddenly awakened dreams, the Virgin creates a secret world in which her dreams can thrive.

Cinderella continues to secretly work on her ball gown, dreaming of what it might be like to go to the ball and dance with the Prince.  After she meets the Prince she also dreams of marrying him.

Peter’s family arrives at the hospital and immediately embrace Lucy as his fiancé.  She plays the role and pretends.

NO LONGER FITS WORLD

By spending time in her secret world the Virgin is empowering herself.  She begins to see possibilities that weren’t there before.  She tries to juggle both worlds, it becomes clear that she must make a decision, but she’s angst-ridden over it.  She may become confused or reckless or attract unwanted attention to herself.

Cinderella begins to believe that she has a right to go to the ball.  And despite the extra work her step mother piles on, she continues to work on her dress.

Lucy goes to dinner and a holiday celebration at Peter’s parent’s house, where she falls in love with Peter’s family.  But the next morning Peter’s brother, Jack, arrives and he’s immediately suspicious.  Juggling the lie becomes difficult as Jack tests her. But Lucy begins to fall in love with Jack.

CAUGHT SHINING

Reality intrudes, and the Virgin must face the fact that she can’t keep her two worlds separate.  Her secret world and the real world collide with the feared consequences.  Also, the Kingdom is not happy to discover that she’s dared to dream.

On the night of the ball, Cinderella puts on her party dress and expects to go with her stepmother and stepsisters.  But, of course, her stepmother is furious to discover that Cinderella dared to dream that she was good enough to go to the ball.  So her stepmother rips up the dress.

Peter wakes up.  He can’t remember being engaged to Lucy.  Everyone thinks he has amnesia. 

 

His godfather encourages him to love Lucy.  Peter agrees and asks Lucy to marry him.

GIVES UP WHAT HELD HER BACK

A major turning point, in which the Virgin sacrifices some part of her past in order to move forward toward the future.  She recognizes that she’s been paying a price for conformity that is way too high, and comes to realize that she is entitled to more.

Cinderella has a low point after her dress is destroyed.  But her Fairy Godmother arrives on the scene and tells her that she is entitled to a night at the ball.  She dresses the part again, and goes back to her secret world, dances with the prince, and begins to harbor another secret much more dangerous.  That she could be a princess.

Peter’s marriage proposal changes everything.  Lucy could choose to tell the truth and go back to her world taking tokens and being lonely, or she can say yes to a handsome and rich man.  She agrees to marry Peter.

KINGDOM IN CRISIS

When the Virgin changes and demands something better, a ripple goes through the kingdom that throws everyone into crisis.  Not just the Virgin, but everyone around her.

Cinderella leaves the ball at midnight when the magic wears off.  She’s back in her dependent world, but she left the glass slipper and a lasting impression on the Prince,  who throws the kingdom into chaos because of his desire to find his true love.

But Lucy doesn’t love Peter.  She loves his brother.  And Lucy’s impending marriage to Peter throws Jack’s world into chaos, because he loves Lucy.

WANDERS IN THE WILDERNESS

The Virgin, as much as she would like to stand up and leave her dependent existence, is suddenly afraid.  She’s not sure she can make it on her own.

Cinderella goes back to her life of servitude. And while the prince is running around trying on the glass slipper, she allows herself to be locked away.  She momentarily accepts the fact that she will never have a chance to try on that shoe.

Lucy is determined to go through with the wedding, but there are several moments when she gives Jack a chance to profess his love.  He doesn’t, because he’s loyal to his brother.  But this hurts Lucy.  She’s more determined than ever to marry Peter.

CHOOSES HER LIGHT

The Virgin will finally decide to trust herself and pursue the dream that’s she’s been nurturing.  She knows this will upset the order of things, but she’s no longer willing to maintain order at the expense of her own fulfillment.

Cinderella defies her step mother and asks for a chance to try on the shoe

The day of the wedding arrives.  Lucy is all dressed up in her white dress.  She goes down the aisle, but she can’t go through with it.  She tells Jack she loves him and she tells the entire family the truth about the mix-up at the hospital.  She has lost the family she’s grown the love.  But she has chosen to trust herself.  She’s going to go traveling.  On her own.

THE KINGDOM IS REORDERED (Rescue)

The Virgin has claimed personal authority over her life.  The Kingdom must: a) recognize her value when she’s fulfilling her dream and b) reconnect the Virgin to a community.

The shoe fits.  The Prince asks Cinderella to marry him.  She goes to live in the castle.

But before Lucy can leave her job, Jack and his family arrive at the toll booth.  He professes his love and asks her to marry him. 

THE KINGDOM IS BRIGHTER

In the end the world has changed.  Evil has been overturned.  And the world is brighter because the Virgin is now living a true, authentic life.

The evil stepmother and step sisters are thwarted and must live in a world in which Cinderella is no longer a servant but a princess.

Lucy marries Jack and she becomes a member of the family she has come to love.  Jack takes her to Italy on their honeymoon, fulfilling one of Lucy’s biggest dreams.

A Virgin’s Promise story lies at the heart of many romance and women’s fiction novels as well as romantic movies.  This is a uniquely female pattern because it’s a story of someone caught in servitude who breaks her chains and becomes the person she was fully meant to be.

Next week, we’ll discuss redemption stories, a story beat structure that’s essential to know if you’re writing Christmas stories or sports stories.

19 responses to “Archetypes and Storybeats Part II: The Virgin’s Promise”

  1. Another WONDERFUL post that magically appears just when I need it most. 🙂

    Thanks for this terrific breakdown of the story beats for an empowerment story!

    Off to write….

    1+
  2. I love this break down. Thank you.

    0
  3. Thanks so much, Hope. This is a fascinating breakdown! Can’t wait for next week’s “redemption stories.” 😀

    0
  4. Wonderful post! Thank you for breaking it down so nicely.

    0
  5. elise hayes says:

    Love this post, Hope! I had never heard of the Virgin’s Story before you explained it–and I can see so many examples where it fits for romance writers! (Actually, the film I kept thinking about as I read the breakdown and examples was “Ever After” with Drew Barrymore. That moment when the Danielle (the Cinderella character) goes to the port to save the servant her stepmother has sold into servitude (and the moment when she first sees the prince and catches his interest) feels like a great example of “caught shining.”

    0
    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Actually Elise, Kim Hudson uses Ever After as an example of the Virgin’s Promise in her book. She also has examples from the 40 year old Virgin, Brokeback Mountain, and others. For my latest book, I actually used the Virgin Promise beat sheet and for the story I’m writing right now, it was a huge help to the initial plotting.

      0
  6. Love this post. Thank you for that side-by-side chart. I love The Virgin’s Promise, and I read my paperback for reference all the time.

    Looking forward to next week’s article.

    0
  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    Really interesting, Hope!

    I’ve always thought of Cinderella and Belle as working within the Hero’s Journey (they do cross thresholds away from home and undergo transformations), but this is a very different way to think of their more internal changes and challenges and the way the world doesn’t want them to shine….

    Will have to think more on this….

    0
    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Well, yes, she does cross thresholds and have ordeals. But she doesn’t amass allies, or have tests of her womanhood. She doesn’t gain a “magic elixir” during a mid-point ordeal that she uses to magically save the world.
      So, I suspect, you’ve been doing what I’ve been doing — using the rising and falling action of the Hero’s Journey to pattern a story, making sure there’s a threshold at 1/4 of the story. A big ordeal in the middle, and a crisis at 3/4. That’s not the Hero’s Journey. That’s three-act structure, which I’m planning to cover in Week 4 of this series.
      I bet if you tried to put together a beat sheet for Cinderella using the story beats from the hero’s journey, you’d have trouble filling in the boxes. You might be able to use metaphor to fill them in, but it would still be a stretch. On the other hand, the beat sheet for the Virgin’s Promise, fits Cinderella about as well as the dress her fairy godmother conjures up for her.
      Which makes it way easier to use as a brainstorming, or plotting tool for anyone writing a romances that don’t have kickass Hero-like heroines. 🙂

      0
  8. Wonderful post!! Loved the chart and While You Were Sleeping is a favorite movie of mine so it was interesting to see it broken down like that.

    Thanks so much!!

    0
  9. Lena Pinto says:

    What a great analysis, Hope! You’re so right about the hero’s journey as not quite fitting the romance genre. Sort of like squeezing one’s feet into ill-fitting shoes. I’d never heard of The Virgin’s Promise. Thank you so much for the information and this post!

    0
  10. I didn’t realize I was writing an archetype until I read this post! 🙂

    0
  11. Alyssa says:

    Fascinating post. Thank you.

    0
  12. Jen Sako says:

    You just confirmed something I’ve thought about for a long time. I’m as yet unpublished so still learning and tweaking my finished MS. My circle consists mainly of self-pubbed or indie-pubbed authors who have written amazing stories of super strong heroines kicking ass straight out of the chute. My heroine is the virgin you’ve described with an arc pretty close to what you’ve outlined. I have a new confidence in her now. I thought I had made a mistake. Thank you for your help. I still need work, but much like my virgin, we’ll get there and kick ass when we Choose Our Light instead of Page One. That’s the story I wanted to read, so that’s the story I wrote!

    0
  13. […] the last two weeks, I’ve discussed the story beats that make up the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise.  Today, I’m going to introduce some original work on an archetypal story structure that I call […]

    0

Subscribe to the Blog

The Latest Comments

  • Elisa Beatty: Welcome, Jennifer! It’s wonderful to have you here! Bless your husband for leaving that...
  • Liz Talley: Yes! Yes! Yes! I love this post so much! I love the Figure it out advice because it doesn’t cut...
  • Liz Talley: Loved this post, Bet, and I shared on FB. Hope some readers see how easy it is to help the authors they...
  • Jacie Floyd: Another great idea! The Rubies could have one to get the ball rolling!
  • Elizabeth Langston: I love my readers. I like the nice things they say. I like seeing them at book signings. I like...

Archives