Reading that line, I’ll bet some of you immediately had this mental picture of yourself sitting at your favorite work spot, downing carafes of coffee or tea (or in my case, Diet Coke) while drilling the key board, writing an entire novel, and within six weeks, finishing it with ‘the end’. Good for you. You have a goal.
Yet, I’m sure some of you froze at the word begin because the choices you have to start your story are limitless. The question where do I begin? haunts you. Which one start should I pick? Is it the right place? Fear not, I have some advice for you.
Every writer knows the importance of the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter. Failure to immediately gain a reader’s interest is the vilest death to your story. Your work is like a shooting star that speeds across the sky and disappears without a big bang. The dreams and hopes pinned to such a star are gone in one quick moment. It’s far better to be that twinkling North Star. So today, we prepare to start our masterpieces.
#1 Great beginnings are the hard work. Rarely do they come easily and quickly and without dozens of rewrites. Sometimes they appear freely in later paragraphs or even chapters. We only need to recognize them when they do. Know that fact. Owned it.
#2 First impressions are the most lasting; Proverbs.
A magnificent first line must be lean, powerful, and provide the reader with a question or promise. Here are some examples of great lean and powerful lines.
It was a pleasure to burn. ‘451 Fahrenheit’ Ray Bradbury
All children but one grow up. ‘Peter and Wendy’ J.M. Barrie
There was a bloody man walking down the road. ‘Discovering You’ Brenda Novak
Brilliant. Each of those lines not only asks questions but they also laid the foundation of book’s theme or its characters’ persona. Knowing your story’s theme is important. Try outlining ahead of starting your story to learn the theme, but if you finding outlining is not your thing, don’t sweat it. The theme will come to you.
#3 Ground your readers as quickly as possible in time and place. However, settings should be shown in small bits and either add to the conflict or become a character itself. Examples:
On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ M. L. Stedman
It was a cold, bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984 George Orwell
ONE HOT AUGUST Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers. ‘Tell Me Lies’ Jennifer Cruise
#4 Write the first chapter as if it were the entire story, with its own escalation of action and conflict. And let it end with mystery and unanswered questions. Mystery demands answers. It propels readers to read on. Do not tell all. Exposition kills drama and backstory is boring.
#5 Write tight. Write fast. Let your voice ring true. Voice is what is truly unique about your story.
#6 All the boom, boom action or fast paced dialogue will not keep readers flipping pages unless they care about the characters. A great story is an emotional ride. A reader must connect with the characters and care what happens to them immediately. They don’t necessarily need to like them (leads to character growth) but they must understand the character’s actions and feel for them as a human being. Establish your hero/villain goal, give him/her a familiar quality, and then add a ticking bomb.
#7 Dialogue is action. It’s fast paced (quickly drawing a reader farther into the story) and it’s an excellent way to show character and conflict. Here are a few great examples.
“Your title gives your claim to the throne of our country, but men don’t follow thrones. They follow courage.”
William Wallace in Braveheart.
“It’s not the broken dreams that break us. It’s the ones we don’t dare to dream.”
Will Schuester in Glee
“The problem is not the problem. It’s your attitude about the problem that is the problem.”
Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption
Wow! Wow! Just wow!
#8 Big or little, internal or external, conflict is a reader’s addiction. Add it where ever and whenever you can. You hear me. Big or little. Internal or external. Pile it on!
#9 In order to understand a character fully, we need to know the world he came from. Show the character in his or her world in an interesting way, but make that world change quickly. He can be making toast, but why not have make toast over the gas stove. His method of making toast is interesting and says something about his character, doesn’t it?
#10 The most important bit of advice on making your first pages awesome I saved for last. Have faith in yourself that the story ahead will be adventurous and fulfilling and go for it!
Anyone else have advice on producing great starts?
Autumn Jordon, one of the sneaker Rubies, is an award-winning author who writes Romantic Suspense, Thrillers, and Contemporary Romance under the same pen name. Join her newsletter at Autumn Jordon.com
Don’t believe me, read on. A few months ago, in a reader forum, I started a discussion, asking the question ‘what first grabs your attention when searching for a book in brick store?’ My thread stayed on top for weeks as readers offered their opinions. A great cover was the overwhelming answer with a catchy title running a close second. Behind them were the back-cover blurb and the author’s name.
When I threw ‘the cyber-stores’ into the mix, a catchy title was hands down, no-doubt-about-it number one. With like a thousand new books being introduced each month in cyber-venues, your title becomes the hook that will make the buyer click, read your blurb and check out your sample pages.
A great title says a lot about the author’s creativity and his/hers capability to market their work. If you’re entering the 2017 Golden Heart and are seeking the interest of professional advocates, you definitely want to have the most awesome title.
Looking at my bookshelf, some of the titles that jump out at me are; Zeroes by Chuck Wendig, Tick Tock by James Patterson, Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters, The Hello Girl by Merline Lovelace, The First Grave On The Right by our own Ruby-sister Darynda Jones and most recently The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison. Each one of these titles reveals the essence of the story. And each one jumped out at me from their spine and prompted me to read the back blurb. Do not dismiss the importance of a great title.
Every now and then, on our private loop, one of the Ruby sisters cries out for title help. She shares a very short blurb and we bombard her with suggestions. Are we good at doing this? Look at our titles and you be the judge.
Today only, if you’re having trouble thinking up a grabber, the Rubies are willing to put on our thinking caps for you. Post a short blurb and we’ll help you out. Guests, please offer a suggestion too.
Autumn Jordon is the award-winning sneaker Ruby and author of Perfect~ a fun, warm-hearted Christmas romance set in the fictional town of Black Moose, Vermont. To join her rapidly growing newsletter and be entered into members’ only contests, visit www.autumn Jordon.com
Why do readers read? They want to escape their world. But you knew that, because you are also a reader.
The greatest writers through time have said that the best fiction takes a reader through a fact finding journey and also on an emotional journey. The emotional journey is what connects you and the reader. Without it, you’re just relating what happens in your characters’ lives. Bonding with the reader is the most important job you have as an author. But how can you do that? There are many ways, but today I want to discuss two.
First, recall emotions, especially those you’ve buried. Buried emotions are the best because they affected your heart. Recall a time you felt hurt or happy or lost or found. Allow yourself to experience the emotions again and write them down. By writing them down, I don’t mean just the term. Write the dialog used during the conversation and the reactions both physically and mentally you experienced. Be honest with yourself. The more you peel away the layers of your psyche, the more powerful your writing will be.
Here is an example as I recall my first taste of love. I’ve changed my hero’s name to protect him.
My first kiss happened in my family’s barn. The barn had been in my family for five generations. It was old and leaned slightly. Closing my eyes, I feel the cool air against my warm skin- the barn is built into the hillside. I can see the wood planks, turned gray from time and wear, just a few feet above my head. Bridles and lead ropes hang from pegs hammered into road milled posts nicked over years. Large rocks make up the foundation walls. My sorrel gelding is in his stall watching me, and dust mites float in the sunlight pouring in the door behind the boy who had chased me inside.
I can smell a mixture of summer sun, feed and manure. I hear the munching of hay as the cattle fed and the sound of my horse’s neigh and snort. There is a dip from the nozzle near the shaft to the silo. I also hear the whispered alto voice of the boy with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, as he declared his affection for me. His gorgeous cobalt eyes were magnified behind glasses: dark framed like Clark Kent’s. Eric was my hero and always would be. I’d love him until the end of time.
My heart thumped against my breast, knowing Eric really liked me while my toes wiggled in my boots as if telling to run because if my dad found out about the kiss that was about to happen he would kill the boy and ground me for a month. My spine stiffened and my step was defiant as I cut the distance between Eric and myself, committed to take my chances. Looking up at me, because he was about two inches shorter, Eric’s eyes widened before closing as his lips met mine. For a brief few seconds, we entered an unknown world, a world we knew we’d entered again, in due time.
“Will you go to the movies with me on Saturday night? I can meet you there,” he said in a rush.
I simply nodded, afraid my voice would crack.
Writing the memory down gave me tons of ideas of how to write emotion into any first kiss scene, no matter what the age of the characters.
As an exercise in your comments, write about your first kiss. What do you recall?
Second point: Everyone has experienced a first kiss. Using that scenario immediately connects you to the reader. But what happens when you’re writing beyond your experience? Research is the answer. Say you’re writing a scene where the characters have experienced a fire and have lost everything. You’ve been fortunate enough not to have that disaster happen to you, so what you can do is ask someone who has. I did this and I’ll never forget the two of the responses I received.
One woman she said she always looked at her husband as the rock she could count on, but the day they lost everything, her husband fell to his knees literally and was lost. She took over the responsibility to shoulder their way through rebuilding their home and lives. That catastrophe made her stronger than she thought she ever would be.
The second woman told me she felt guilty after suffering the loss of everything. Her guilt was over her family’s heirlooms for which she had been entrusted. For generations the treasures from England had been kept safe and passed down. She was the one to fail to do so. She was ashamed of herself. It took her a long time to come to terms that the lost was not her fault.
Both are very unique outlooks on a tragedy that can connect you with many readers who’ve had the same experience. And for those readers who have not, we have a better insight into the depth of emotional upheave that a fire can cause.
So show your readers your passion. Reveal your heart and the heart of others.
About the author
I began my writing career at the age of nine and sold three handwritten copies of a twenty page story. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and follow in the footsteps of my favorite authors, the ones who took me away and inspired me. Many years later, here I am.
I’ve earned the nickname of trouble from family and friends. Okay, I admit I do stir up things now and then, but in my defense I’m usually the one called on to champion a cause.
All that life reveals is fair game to a writer.
Join my newsletter at www.autumnjordon.com to learn more about me and my works, including my Christmas romance Perfect.
I have to start with a funny story: My first paranormal romance, TASTE ME (2011), is about an incubus security specialist, Lukas Sebastiani, who finally learns to trust his love for Scarlett Fontaine, a siren rock star who can manipulate his emotions with her song. While discussing final tweaks to the manuscript at 2010 RWA National, my then-editor grinned at me, clasped her hands against her heart, and said, “And you completed the extended metaphor!” (At the end of the book, Lukas “boldly crashed his ship into the cliffs,” confessing his love for Scarlett. Because…sirens, right?)
“Of course I did,” I replied. “There is no metaphor I can’t extend until it snaps.”
Unfortunately, this is true – especially in early drafts.
Metaphors, and extended metaphors, are abundant in romance fiction, especially in love scenes. They’re among our most effective and evocative tools. We use them all the time, sometimes without being entirely aware of it.
There’s nothing wrong with being aware of it! Indeed, it’s to your readers’ benefit that you’re aware of it, because well-crafted metaphors – careful and conscious word choice – can add so much to a reader’s experience.
First, some quick definitions:
A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies one thing as being the same as some unrelated other thing, thus strongly implying similarities between the two.
An extended metaphor is when an author exploits a single metaphor or analogy at length through multiple linked vehicles, tenors, and grounds.
In this post, I’ll focus on extended metaphor, which, craft-wise, requires we choose specific words to evoke the selected metaphor over sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, books – whatever our “linked vehicle” may be – to produce a particular emotional reaction.
An easy way to get a feel for the concept is to study poems or song lyrics. So…here comes my spirit animal, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, to the rescue! Specifically, I refer to the Foos’ 2014 Sonic Highways project.
The creative conceit behind Sonic Highways is that the Foo Fighters traveled to a different American city each week for eight weeks, interviewing musicians and exploring the city’s musical heritage, then they wrote and recorded a song before leaving the city. That’s ONE FINISHED SONG PER WEEK, folks. Talk about deadline pressure! My example, Subterranean, came out of the Seattle session, where, sadly, so many grunge-era musicians died from drug overdoses – including Dave’s former Nirvana bandmate, Kurt Cobain.
Dave couldn’t go to Seattle and not address this topic – and for a man who never finished high school, he teaches an extended metaphor master class here, evoking dirt, and mines, and burial to explore death and resurrection in context with relationships and career. Seattle’s famously rainy, gloomy weather gets a nod here; musical guest Ben Gibbard (from Death Cab for Cutie) says that if you live in Seattle, you spend a lot of time indoors, underground in basements. Subterranean. And the song came from there.
Here’s the ballad, with lyrics conveniently superimposed (6:08). Watch. Listen. Think about the themes suggested by Dave’s extended metaphor:
Can Dave dig his way out? Can he go this alone? Can he begin again? The song doesn’t tie things up in a pretty little bow by any means, but given the Foo Fighters are considered shoo-ins for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in their first year of eligibility (2020), I’d say things look good. 😉
The composition is complex, featuring diminished chords and a plaintive lead guitar. The bass line is a pick axe, pulling the song along.
Need another example? Take a look at “Something From Nothing,”also by Foo Fighters. Another song off the Sonic Highways album, it’s laden with extended metaphor invoking fire, destruction, sparks and ambition. Is it any coincidence that this song was recorded in Chicago, home of 1871’s Great Chicago Fire? I think not. 😉
Some other great examples:
“Every Breaking Wave” by U2. Waves, the tides, chasing every breaking wave… A song about making mistakes, and perhaps learning from them.
Dirt, fire, breaking waves…lonesome roads and theatrical stages… Notice how, in all these examples, small and private human moments become larger, more elemental? When we use metaphor, personal moments become universal moments – moments everyone can relate to.
Consider the romance novels you’ve written, or those you’ve read. How many metaphors have we come across describing an orgasm? Crashing waves, galloping horses, tsunamis of sensation, shattering glass, shooting geysers (OK, eww) but metaphors abound. And there’s a reason for this, right? No matter how tame or hot the love scene, use a good metaphor and anyone who’s ever had an orgasm can relate.
Can you think of a metaphor or extended metaphor, either from your own work or someone else’s, that, to you, made a great scene even more memorable? That turned a serviceable description sublime?
I’d love to see some of your favorite examples in the comments!
P.S. Are you going to be in Minneapolis Saturday afternoon Nov. 12? I’m teaching a workshop at The Loft Literary Center called “Scene + Structure = Story: A Plotting Technique for Advanced Novelists,” and I’d love to see you there!
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.
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.
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.
And – 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.
Human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of language. Some stories have been told so many times that their structure and main characters have been hardwired into the human consciousness.
A smart writer can use this to advantage. Knowing the most beloved characters and their story patterns, can be a huge time saver when you’re sitting down to brainstorm your latest novel. Today’s blog, and the blogs that will follow on the next three Thursdays, will explore the nexus between character and story, by looking at some of the story patterns that have been with us since the dawn of time.
Before I start, two definitions are in order.
Story beat is a term that comes from script-writing. A story beat is scene or collection of scenes that moves the narrative from point A to point B. All the action occurs during story beats, and scriptwriters start plotting their stories with something they call a beat sheet, which is nothing more than an outline of the scenes in the movie and the action that occurs in each scene.
Character Archetypes come from the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who postulated that certain human behaviors are hardwired into our “collective unconscious,” because we’ve encountered them in life or in fiction over and over again. The King, the Warrior, the Magician, and the Sidekick are all familiar character types that have built in behavioral traits that readers immediately recognize because all human beings recognize these characters.
Some characters are so universal that they come ready-made with a series of story beats. The character archetype called the Hero (capital H to connote that we’re talking about the character archetype and not the male lead in a romance story) is perhaps the best known of these. His set of story beats was first outlined in the work of Joseph Campbell who studied the myths of many different cultures and discovered that the story beats in all of them were the same.
Chris Vogler, a scriptwriter for the Disney Studios, took Joseph Campbell’s work and turned it into a writing manual for Disney scriptwriters. The manual was so popular that he eventually turned it into a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler’s book should probably be in every fiction writer’s library of craft books, especially those writing action adventure stories, suspense stories, or science fiction stories.
Let’s look at the Hero’s Journey.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the standard story beats in the Hero’s Journey only work for a main character who is a Hero. The Hero of a Hero’s Journey story can also have the behavioral traits of a King or a Warrior or a Lover or any other standard archetype, but once you put a character into the standard beats for a Hero, he automatically becomes that archetype.
A Hero is a main character who leaves his/her comfort zone in order to face a series of tests in which s/he proves his/her mettle and quite possibly saves the world. You will find Heroes in all the myths of classic literature and in a lot of today’s comic book movies. Ulysses is a Hero. Luke Skywalker is a Hero. Dorothy Gale of the Wizard of Oz is a Hero. The clown fish in Finding Nemo is a Hero. While the word Hero is masculine, it is possible to write a Hero’s Journey for a female protagonist.
Here are the story beats for a Hero’s Journy for in short form, using the original Star Wars: Episode 4 as an example:
THE ORDINARY WORLD The Hero is introduced against the backdrop of his environment.
Luke Skywalker is living his life with his aunt and uncle on a backwater planet. His uncle buys two androids to help with chores around the farm.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE Something happens that changes the Hero’s situation.
While cleaning and checking the androids, R2D2 delivers part of a message from Princess Leia that is meant for Obiwan Kenobe.
REFUSING THE CALL The hero is afraid of this change in circumstance and tries to ignore it.
Luke suspects the droid is damaged. He doesn’t take the message seriously.
MEETING THE MENTOR Someone older or more experienced comes along and encourages the Hero to answer the call. The mentor will provide advice or training.
R2D2 escapes from the Skywalker farm, and Luke has to chase after him. This brings him into contact with the old Jedi Knight Obiwan Kenobe where Luke learns about the Force, and the fact that his father was a Jedi Knight.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD About one-quarter of the way through the story something happens that forces the hero to commit to leaving his ordinary world and entering a new world with new rules and values.
After his meeting with Obiwan, Luke returns to the farm only to discover than his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Emperor’s evil forces. He must answer the call now.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES The Hero meets friends, battles enemies, and is tested.
Luke, Obiwan and the droids go into town looking for transit. They have adventures in the bar, where they team up with Han Solo and Chewbacca. It isn’t long before they are dodging Han Solo’s enemies as they take off in the Millennium Falcon headed for the planet Alderon.
APPROACH TO THE CAVE The Hero and his new found allies prepare for a big battle that will take them into the enemy’s or antagonist’s lair.
Obiwan teaches Luke about the Force during their voyage to Alderon. When they finally the arrive, they discover that the Evil Empire has destroyed all traces of the planet by using it’s latest weapon of mass destruction — The Death Star. The Millennium Falcon is unable to escape and is drawn into the Death Star.
THE ORDEAL Near the middle of the story, the Hero, enters the enemy’s lair and faces death. Out of this ordeal, the Hero will learn something important about himself. He may also come away with an important artifact or prize.
Luke and his friends hide from the Imperial storm troopers. Obiwan goes on a mission to disable the Death Star’s tractor beam. Meanwhile Luke and his friends go deep inside the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia. Obiwan has a final battle with Darth Vader and is killed. The rest of the allies escape.
THE REWARD The hero and his friends celebrate their victory. But the celebration is short lived.
Luke and his friends manage to escape the Death Star, perhaps too easily. They go to the rebel base but it turns out that Darth Vader has put a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon.
THE ROAD BACK About three-fourths of the way through the story, the forces aligned against the Hero make their presence known. The Hero must prepare for a final battle with his antagonist or his enemy.
The Death Star is gunning for the rebel base. A countdown to annihilation has begun. The only hope is if the small band of X-wing fighters can torpedo one tiny spot on the Death Star that it it’s only vulnerability.
DEATH AND RESURRECTION At the climax, the Hero is severely tested to the point where it looks as if he will fail and maybe even die. To get out of this, he may need to make a sacrifice. Or he may need to use knowledge that he’s learned during his adventures, particularly during the Ordeal.
The rebel forces mount an attack on the Death Star but their efforts are failing. Many of them die.
After Luke fails on his first bombing run, he decides not to rely on his fighter’s instruments. Instead he lets the Force guide him. Once he follows the Force, he is successful in taking out the Death Star.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR The Hero returns home or continues his adventure, but he is forever changed because he has proved his mettle and learned something as a result of his adventures.
In the final scene we see the rebel forces rejoicing and Luke getting medals for his efforts, but we know that Luke is different now that he’s learned the power of the Force.
The table above is a simple example of a beat sheet. If you want to use the standard story beats of The Hero’s Journey, create a spreadsheet or table like the one above, with the story steps on the left, then number your scenes on the right, making sure that the action in each beat, matches the standard story pattern.
Beware! Some people – Joseph Campbell himself – will try to tell you that every story fits this pattern. And that’s just not true. Not every story is a Hero’s Journey. In fact, if you write romance or are telling a Cinderella story, the Hero’s Journey is not particularly helpful.
Cinderella is not a Hero. She’s not a character from out a myth. She’s a character from out of a fairytale. And if you think about it, you already know that a myth and a fairytale are two different things, even though they are both as old as storytelling.
Fairytale structure is next week’s topic, so stay tuned. In the meantime I’m happy to take any questions.
Dave and me, hanging out @ The Experience Music Project in Seattle
This is the fourth post in an occasional series about finding inspiration in other artists’ creative processes. Read the first, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the second, featuring Trent Reznor, and the third, mourning the death of Scott Weiland, at the links.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a massive Dave Grohl fangirl. (Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana, and founded and fronts the Foo Fighters.) So when I heard Dave was keynoting the South By Southwest Conference a couple of years ago, in 2013, I blocked out an hour on my (then) day job’s Outlook calendar so I could watch the webcast uninterrupted.
Dave didn’t disappoint. In an f-bomb-laden, highly personal speech, and sporting ridiculously sexy reading glasses, Dave brought us along on his personal artistic journey, one inspired by wise parents and a love of punk rock. He reveled in his independence, developing and nurturing what he later recognized was his individual voice.
Voice. It’s an aspect of art, of craft, that musicians and writers share. It’s a tone, or a worldview, that makes a piece of work – or a body of work – belong uniquely to its creator.
Some key takeaways from Dave’s keynote that resonated for me:
“There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s (expletive) gone.”
“Am I the best drummer in the world? Certainly not. Am I the best singer/songwriter? Not even in this (expletive) room. But I have been left alone to find my voice.”
“I am the musician, and I come first.”
This statement about creative control of one’s art, spoken with such certainty during a time when my traditional publisher and I were parting ways and indie publishing loomed on my horizon, shrilled into my very bones.
Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten that.
I am the writer, and I come first.
I won’t forget it again.
I could quote from this keynote for hours – and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it since Dave made it 2013 – but I think I’ll just let the man speak for himself. Here’s Dave, being all hot ‘n wise ‘n awesome. The video is 49:32; it’s well worth the time regardless of how you write or publish, and the language is NSFW.
Listen. Learn. Enjoy. And remind yourself, if you need to: “I am the writer, and I come first.”
I realize fifty minutes is a significant time investment, and that comments might be few and far between at the blog today. But if you’re inclined to comment:
Do you think there are lessons writers can learn from musicians, and publishing can learn from the music industry, about the intersection of art and commerce?
Is there a writer whose voice you absolutely adore? Why do you like it, and which book do you recommend we read to get a taste?
I recently took a virtual workshop about writing multiple series from NYT and USA Today bestselling author Marie Force. Self-publishing trailblazer and author of not one but FOUR continuing series, Marie also owns the E-Book Formatting Fairies, hosts Reader Weekend events for her biggest fans, moderates one of the most useful self-publishing loops on Yahoo, and is a frequent conference speaker. In addition, the busiest woman in publishing generously shares her knowledge by teaching workshops. I suspect that, in her spare time, she’s either invented cloning, or discovered a way to circumvent the space/time continuum. 😉
All joking aside, it was an awesome class, and I highly recommend it for both published and unpublished series writers. Marie shared some great advice about anchor couples, mining connections between characters, world-building (particularly the factors she considers when creating vibrant fictional communities that stand the test of time), and of course, the biggie: how to write characters that readers care about. In the last class lesson, she advised creating a series bible early on—which made complete sense to me—but then she recommended doing something that, in hindsight, seems so completely obvious, but that never crossed my mind.
Re-read all the books in your series, at least once a year. According to Marie, re-reading your books on a regular basis reacquaints you with the details you committed to the page, and it also helps generate new story ideas.
Re-read my own books? Seriously? Study them, like I study the books on my keeper shelf? The very idea seemed…presumptuous. Intellectually, I know my books are decent, but for some reason the prospect of re-reading them with that level of scrutiny made me cringe as much as I do when my sisters haul out my seventh grade school photos.
Yes, really. Marie was serious. So I hemmed and I hawed, I bitched and moaned, but…I finally did it. I was gestating a new project, and…dang it, why take a class from one of the most successful series writers in our industry if I wasn’t willing to at least try something she recommended? Bottom line, I knew my series bible was woefully out of date, so even if re-reading my own books was excruciating, I knew I’d get something valuable out of the deal.
No pain, no gain.
So I sucked it up and started re-reading my first published book, TASTE ME, my 2009 Golden Heart finalist and the kickoff to the Underbelly Chronicles. And yes, there were a few winces along the way: Unnecessary dialogue tags. The occasional copy-editing error. The very rare head-hop that…worked, but that I’d never allow myself now that I’ve become a POV purist.
But…heh. Not bad, if I do say so myself. * buffs fingernails on shirt *
And the details I’d forgotten! The potential plot seeds I’d planted, but hadn’t yet cultivated. The nameless, sometimes faceless characters that walked onto the page for a sentence or two, served their purpose, then walked away again.
Story ideas flew at me hard and fast. OMG, she was right.
I re-read all the other books in my Underbelly Chronicles series over the Christmas holidays, and plot seeds are still sprouting left and right. A character who received two sentences’ worth of real estate in TASTE ME—such a minor character he wasn’t even in my series bible—has elbowed his way back onto the page of Book 5, where he’s a major catalyst for conflict. And an unnamed character in my TOUCH ME novella? Oh my, do I have plans for her. The garden of my imagination is over-run, and I’m still tilling. Still weeding, still cultivating. But I really like how things are setting up.
Another thing I realized? It’s what I didn’t commit to the page in those earlier books that allows me to re-purpose these characters, to expand their utility beyond their original walk-on roles. By not providing more information than was absolutely required, I didn’t box myself in.
I came out of Marie’s class with not only an updated series bible, but with new ideas and a fresh, new energy for my work—a gift beyond price. So, that’s the biggest lesson I learned from Marie Force: that no matter how excruciating it might initially feel, re-read your work, at least occasionally. You never know the bounty your imagination might be ready to provide.
Have you ever re-read your own published or completed work? If so, why did you do it, and what did you learn? Did you find it exhilarating, excruciating, or both?
As writers we often find ourselves sitting behind our computers, tucked away, safe and sound. We send our heroes and heroines into battle, down dark alleys, to distant planets or on blind dates. While we wear fuzzy socks, sweatpants, and sit at our desks with our hot tea or diet soda. Comfort – it’s a good thing. Personally, I have a pair of sweater-pants that I wear all the time. They hug my legs in the softest material I’ve ever felt. Right now I’m writing before a lovely fire with a cup of English Breakfast tea within arm’s reach. There is nothing wrong with this.
And yet…if we limit our lives to comfort, only exploring our world through pictures on the internet and descriptions in reference books, our writing can start to become…well, too comfortable. Comfortable can become bland, and blandness is death to fantastic writing.
“Crap. Blandness? Is my writing getting bland?”
Don’t fear! You can do something about it. When your ideas start to come from other peoples’ ideas it’s time to get some fresh experiences to feed your characterizations and plot twists. Okay, so it can be a little uncomfortable, maybe a bit pulse-kicking, perhaps requiring more than bunny slippers and fleece pants. It means leaving the computer behind and stepping outside into the big, color-filled world.
Time for a field trip!
Feel free to grab a buddy, load the GPS and pin your return address to your sweater (However you may get a stalker following you home. On the up side, the experience would fit right into a suspense plot line!). Yes, it would be wonderful to travel to exotic locales (I did visit Scotland and England, which was fabulous), but you don’t have to spend a lot of money or go far to find thousands of details and entice your muse out to play.
For example, my 9-year-old just brought home a permission slip for a field trip to our local planetarium. The teacher is asking for chaperones. Yes, it means a morning away from the computer, but going also means sitting under the stars, watching planets and learning a thing or two about our universe. Not only would this first-hand information aid me in writing a sci-fi romance, but it could fit into contemporary romances too. My heroine could find herself in the dark next to a hot-bodied astronomer or executive chaperoning his niece’s class to the planetarium.
Ooooo, so much fodder for stories! So I signed up to chaperone, knowing that I will come away from my daughter’s field trip with all sorts of first-hand, all-five-senses details for future stories.
By trying new things and risking discomfort, we become like our heroines: brave, intelligent, open to new possibilities, willing to get out of our sweatpants (even if some of our heroines fight it).
Characters and ideas are everywhere out in the world. Here are a few suggested field trips:
Ferries and trains
Your neighbor’s party
One of those crazy, full-of-mud obstacle courses
Me in the Rugged Maniac in 2014. Yes, that’s barbed wire over my head!
On a Segway tour of your city
Paddle board class
Chaperoning a high school dance
Animal adoption event
While you are trying these new experiences, remember to be observant. Pay attention to what people do with their hands, eyebrows, postures, etc. when they are frustrated or happy or sad. Not every guy runs his fingers through his hair when he’s upset. What else can we say about a person’s eyebrows when they are angry? Or their eyes when they are surprised? Twirling hair, tugging at a bra strap, snapping gum, scratching the space between their shoulder blades on the corner of a building…
There are thousands of opportunities for you as a writer, for you as a heroine, to experience life and discover the details that will color in your scenes with authentic, first-hand descriptions. Bland will give way to writing that transports your readers to your world, sucking them into your books and the lives of your characters.
So kick off those bunny slippers, throw on a coat and get out there in the world. Sniff, touch, see, listen, and taste. Be a heroine, and then write what you know.
Have you ever gone anywhere to soak in details for your writing?
In the sprints, many authors have announced that they’ve completed their work, first draft or edits. Others are following their footsteps. I thought we’d take this opportunity to talk about endings.
We all know that our endings MUST leave our readers satisfied. The ending can be happy or not. Or, it could leave the reader completely hanging out there with a hundred questions about what happens next, if that is what the reader has expected and will want-think saga. However, don’t leave the ending up to the reader to draw conclusions. They are the reader, not the author.
Endings need to answer or allude to the resolution of the main character’s conflict. If you allude to the hero’s trumpet but don’t actually show it, this opens the door for disaster to happen in the beginning of the next story, if that is your goal.
As you head toward your end, ask yourself what was the main conflict? Did you resolve it? Remember the hero can win the battle (his priority) but the war can still rage on.
Make the main character the catalyst for the outcome. It is their battle and they are the hero of their story. Make them work to make the things happen in their favor.
Have you read a story where things just came together at the end, tied up with a pretty pink bow? Did you feel cheated, let down? You’ve worked too hard building characters, emotion, and tension, just to tell your characters, to kiss and make-up like children. Don’t come up with contrived details to end your story. Don’t be lazy now.
Don’t end the story using new information that has come out of the blue. Your readers have invested time, getting to know your characters and have racked their brains formulating theories about the outcome, don’t cheat them.
If your ending is going to twist, make sure you sprinkle signs throughout your story. That way, the reader will say the author did warn me, but I let the clues go over my head. They’ll look at the story in a total different light. A light that includes five star reviews. A great example of a twist ending was the movie ‘THE SIXTH SENSE’. If you haven’t seen it, do it. It’s a great study.
And finally, know when the story ends. The reader does not need to know what happens with every character. Once your main characters’ reach their goal, whether they won the battle on a blue star in a galaxy far, far away or lover’s pledge their undying love and go to sleep only to die in each other’s arms, the story is over. It’s time for the reader to feel. Tie up loose ends (brief anti-climax) before the grand climax.
A great ending makes your reader feeling something, good or bad. It makes them think about the story a long time after closing it. It makes them talk about your book to their friends. And it makes them buy your next.
Does anyone have any other advice on writing a great end or examples of great endings?