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Archetypes and Storybeats Part III: The Sinner’s Redemption

Over 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 The Sinner’s Redemption.

I don’t believe anyone has laid out the beat sheet for a redemption story, but I could be wrong.  I haven’t done an exhaustive literature search for this.  What you see below is a story beat sheet that I developed myself.

What is it about redemption stories?  We love them.  We tell them all the time.  And like any archetypal story structure, readers recognize the structure.  Classic examples of redemption stories include:  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, A Christmas Carol (and the many spin-offs of it including It’s a Wonderful Life), as well as many sports comeback stories like Bad News Bears

Like the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise redemption stories are perfectly fitted to a specific protagonist archetype.  Theoretically a redemption story can be told about any person with any kind of archetypal behavior system, but usually redemption stories involve protagonists who are Misers, Addicts, Rakes, Harlots, Thieves, Villains, Vampires, Shapeshifters, Zombies, or Biker Boys with Tats.   But for the purpose of simplicity, I’m going to call the protagonist archetype a Sinner.

In short, redemption tales usually begin with a protagonist who has already fallen from grace, or who, like the Ancient Mariner, commits a crime and falls from grace in the first few scenes.  Unlike the Hero who start his story in an “ordinary world,” or a Virgin who starts her story in a “dependent world,” the Sinner begins his tale in a “miserable world.”

Here are the story beats for a Sinner’s Redemption, using examples from the movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Electric Horseman.

Story Beat

Example: Electric Horseman

Example: It’s a Wonderful Life

THE MISERABLE WORLD

The story starts in one of two ways:

 

The Sinner has already fallen from grace and is living in a world that is cold, bleak, dark, and divorced from all things spiritual.  He is unkind, uncaring, craven, and values all the wrong things, just like Ebenezer Scrooge 
 

The Sinner falls from grace.  The Sinner is not a bad guy, but he (or someone close to him) makes a spectacular mistake that puts the Sinner into a miserable world. 

 

Sonny Steele is a five time all around rodeo champion.  At the end of his career he takes a job with AMPO, a giant corporation, to pitch their breakfast cereal.  Now he’s trotted out in an electric cowboy suit and paraded around at rodeos.  It’s a humiliating fall from his former glory.

George Bailey is a good man, but his bumbling uncle has lost the Savings and Loan’s money and a bank examiner has just arrived to audit the books. 

WEARING THE ALBATROSS

There are three possibilities for this story beat:  1) The Sinner will assume the guilt and all the responsibility for his fall from grace.  In fact he wallows in guilt.  2) He might be like Ebenezer Scrooge so far gone that he doesn’t even recognize how miserable he is, and he delights in being a real villain and ass, or 3) He will find himself in a state of utter despair.

Sonny is so humiliated by his life that he takes to the bottle.  He drinks all the time, and is often so drunk that he can hardly stay on his horse when he has to do personal appearances. 

George assumes the blame for the missing money.  He knows he’ll be sent to jail the next morning because he has no way to replace the missing money.  He despairs.

REJECTING THE MESSENGER

In redemption stories, there is a benevolent force at work behind the scenes determined to redeem the Sinner.  The Universe of Goodness will send the Sinner a messenger, designed to shake him out of his misery.  The Sinner usually ignores or misses the message the first time it’s delivered.  But like Scrooge encountering Marley’s ghost, the message often makes the sinner uneasy or angry.

At a corporate wide event in Las Vegas, Sonny is late to a press conference.  Reporter, Hallie Martin, out for a good story, asks him a question that pierces his armor.  He dodges the question, but it shakes him up.

 

 

George is beside himself.  He goes home to his wife and family only to discover that his daughter Zuzu is sick.  She is there to remind George of what he holds dear, but George misses the point, and instead, he yells at Zuzu’s teacher when she calls to see how Zuzu is feeling.  Zuzu gives George a token of goodness in the form of the petals from her broken flower.  He puts the petals in his pocket before he dashes out of the house desperate to find a solution to his problem at the bank.

THE VALLEY OF LIFE AND DEATH

About ¼ of the way through the story, the Sinner leaves his miserable world and enters into the Valley of Life and Death.  In some redemption stories, like A Christmas Carol, this is a paranormal purgatory where the rules of physics do not apply.  In other redemption stories, it’s a metaphoric valley.  This place may be divorced from society, or it may be more akin to a secret world.  Scrooge is allowed to visit his past and future life in a dream world.  The Ancient Mariner is stuck on a death ship with the souls of his shipmates.  In Les Miserables, the Sinner is sent to jail.

 

The PR department introduces Sonny to their new corporate symbol, a million dollar race horse named Rising Star.  The company has sedated the horse and done other things to it jeopardize its health and wellbeing.

 

Sonny, who has been happy to take money in return for being demeaned, is suddenly unable to let AMPO do the same to Rising Star.  So Sonny steals the horse and rides him off into the Nevada desert, a metaphoric Valley of Life and Death.

 

George tries to raise the missing money from Mr. Potter, who only points out that with George’s life insurance policy, George is worth more dead than he is alive. 

George enters the Valley of Life and Death by contemplating suicide. 

A GUIDE WILL APPEAR

The Sinner will not face the Valley of Life and Death alone.  He will either be guided through it like Scrooge with the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, or the Sinner will journey with someone whose main story purpose is to make him review the choices he’s made during his life. 

The police and Ampo are on Sonny’s tail, but they have no clue where he’s gone.

 

Hallie, the reporter, is way smarter.  She talks to Sonny’s cowboy friends, learns something about Sonny’s past, and goes off to find him.

 

When she finds Sonny, Hallie discovers that he plans to release Rising Star somewhere out in the wilderness.  She talks him into letting her tell his story.  Hallie and Sonny team up and begin a trek across the wilderness together.  In this redemption story, both Hallie and Sonny will review their respective lives while they travel cross-country on foot.

 

Heaven sends Clarence, an angel-in-training, to stop George from killing himself.  Clarence who knows all about George’s past, decides to show George what the world would be like if George had never been born.  Together they take a tour of an alternate Bedford Falls, where the villain, Mr. Potter, is in charge of things.

MEETING THE AVATAR OF GOODNESS

While the Sinner is wandering in The Valley of Life and Death being forced to review his life and the choices he’s made, he will encounter at least one Avatar of Goodness whose fate rests in his hands.  Scrooge had Tiny Tim.  Jean Valjean had Cozette.  Often this Avatar of Goodness is innocent, naïve, and even Christ like.

As they trek across the wilderness, Hallie digs deeply into Sonny’s past life.  She meets some of his friends along the way and comes to realize he’s a better man than the drunk she first met.  Sonny learns a lot of about Hallie ,too, and makes her reevaluate the reasons she wants Sonny’s story. 
For Sonny and Hallie, their Avatar of Goodness is Rising Star.  As they tend to the horse, he gets stronger, and their motivations for setting him free gets strong as well.

George Baily encounters himself.  Oddly, in this redemption story, the Avatar of Goodness is the protagonist, whose life and choices have changed the course of history in the small town of Bedford Falls.

HE SEES THE ERROR OF HIS WAYS

At the close of the Sinner’s journey through the Valley, he has come to see how his past choices may not have been good ones.  And he wants to save and/or help the fate of the Avatar of Goodness. 

For a while it looks as if AMPO and the police are going to get the drop on Sonny, because, early on, Hallie gave them information about the place Sonny intended to set Rising Star Free. 

 

But at the last minute, Sonny reveals the release point for Rising Star, and its hundreds of miles away from where the cops think it’s going to be.  Together Sonny and Hallie release the horse, and agree that the true location doesn’t ever need to be disclosed. 

George is shocked and horrified by what Clarence has shown him.  He comes to understand that his life means something.  Suddenly George finds himself back on the bridge where he’d been thinking about ending it all.  He reaches into his pocket and finds Zuzu’s petals.

REPENTANCE

It’s not enough for the Sinner to see the errors of his ways.  Only an act of true repentance or forgiveness will allow him to move on.  Scrooge wakes up from his dream and immediately buys a turkey for Tiny Tim and his family.

Hallie comes to realize that there are some stories that are not worth telling to the world.  She gives up her story, and she asks for Sonny’s forgiveness.  Sonny forgives Hallie, and as she gets on a bus to return to New York, we know that Sonny’s days of selling himself to corporate America are over.  He’s ready to face the penalties for having stolen a twelve million dollar horse, and he’s moving on with his life.

Even though George is facing prison time, he knows the answer isn’t suicide.  He must go home and face his problem head on and accept the punishment.

THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE MUNDANE

The Sinner’s world remains the same as it always was to everyone living in it except the Sinner himself.  When the Sinner sees the error of his ways and repents, his miserable world is transfigured and becomes holy.  The Sinner emerges from the Valley of Life and Death into a world that is as close to heaven as any world can get. 

 

Hallie has seen things a girl from New York never knew existed.  Her view of the world has radically changed.  She sees beauty in things she never saw before.

 

Like any good Cowboy, Sonny heads off into the sunset with his head held high.  He’s no longer a puppet of corporate America, but even more important, he’s preserved a piece of sacred nature by releasing Rising Star into the wilderness to run free.

George runs through Bedford Falls like a mad man, even though he knows that tomorrow he’ll be charged with bank fraud.  It’s almost as if George is seeing the town for the first time.

 

When he arrives home, he discovers that all the people whose lives he’s touched have banded together to raise the funds George needs to replace the missing money.

 

So there you have it –The beats for the Sinner’s Redemption.  I can think of many other stories like this:  Crime and Punishment, The Family Man, The Shawshank Redemption, The Mighty Ducks.

A Christmas Bride By Hope RamsayAnd – wait for it – the first book in my new series, A Christmas Bride, that will be available this coming September.  In that story, a widower is living in a miserable world, no longer able to hear the messages that this eight year old daughter is trying to send him. . .until the his deceased wife’s best friend returns to town, gets all up in his face, and forces him to take a good long look at his life and the mistakes he made during his first marriage.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, it’s a redemption love story, set during the holiday season.  And it was during the writing of this book that I realized that most redemption stories have a structure to them that is repeated over and over again.  And while the character arc for my heroine is probably more of a Virgin story, the much bigger character arc of the hero in this book is definitely a Sinner’s redemption.  In fact, the first comment my editor made in her revision letter, was “wow, the hero’s arc is the biggest one you’ve ever written.”

Yeah.  Because it’s a redemption story.

Next week, finding the story beats when your story isn’t a Hero’s Journey, a Virgin’s Promise, or a Sinner’s Redemption.

15 responses to “Archetypes and Storybeats Part III: The Sinner’s Redemption”

  1. Seana Kelly says:

    Thank you! Great blog and blueprint!

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

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  3. Wow – nice work here, Hope. I ADORE these stories. Electric Horseman was always one of my favorite movies.

    I used to think it was Robert Redford, or that gorgeous stallion, but maybe it was the story that drew me in after all.

    I love Sports stories too. Thank you for this post.
    Good luck with your new release. I’ll be looking forward to reading it.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Yeah, hard to go wrong with Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and a thoroughbred racehorse. I realize this is a movie from the 1970s and I’m probably showing my age, but it’s still one of my favorite romantic movies, even though the hero and heroine don’t stay together in the end. That and I love the part where Redford teases her about her rattlesnake roundups and her shoes from bloomingbirds. Here’s the movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YQjsAWap3M

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  4. Thanks for another great blog, Hope. As I was reading it, it occurred to me that the latest story that has been percolating in my mind is a redemption story, so your story beats are going to make plotting a lot easier.

    Looking forward to reading A Christmas Bride.

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  5. This is great stuff. I love redemption stories. Thanks Hope!

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  6. Rita Henuber says:

    Thank you for taking the time to chart this. There is so much to writing.

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  7. Lena Pinto says:

    With so many romances being redemption stories, this is a must-have template.Thank you for the great analysis, Hope. Looking forward to your new series.

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  8. I love redemption stories (and probably, a lot of mine have this theme…I’m going to have to go back and take a look!). Thanks so much for this, Hope! Very helpful.

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  9. elise hayes says:

    This has been such a great series, Hope! I wonder if there’s a connection between Christmas stories and redemption stories…but maybe I’m just thinking of that because of Scrooge and its many spinoffs.

    Can’t wait for next week, because I don’t think my current brainstorming project fits the Virgin, the Hero, or the Redemption beats (although it’s probably closest to the Hero…). Thanks so much for doing this series!

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  10. Leslie says:

    Hope, I am loving these tutorials. You have perfect delivery—keep them coming!

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  11. Elisa Beatty says:

    So helpful, Hope!! Thank you!!

    I love me a wounded hero who starts out in the miserable world….

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  12. […] that go with them.  I’ve reviewed the Hero’s Journey, The Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption.  There are, undoubtedly, many more story patterns that fit specific […]

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