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Archetypes and Storybeats Part IV: Three Act Structure

Over the last three weeks I’ve blogged about the nexus between certain well-recognized Archetypes and the story structures 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 archetypes.

But what if you’re writing a story about a protagonist that doesn’t quite fit the archetypal pattern of a Hero, Virgin, or Sinner? 

What if your main character is a Sidekick?  Or a Mentor?  Or a Networker? Or a Judge?  Or, the list goes on. . .  

In an earlier set of blogs, I wrote about using the positive and negative behavioral traits of Archetypes to develop character arcs, independent of the rigid structure imposed by the beat sheets of The Hero’s Journey, The Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption.  For many authors, the detailed beat sheet is of no help at all in plotting or navigating through a novel’s story.  These authors need a structure that’s much simpler, more free-form, and in many ways more creative.

That’s where the classic three-act story structure is all about.   

You can find all kinds of writing and advice on three-act structure.  I’m a big fan of Michael Hague and his wonderful workshop on these topics in which he outlines the connection between story beats and character arc. 

In Hauge’s take on story structure, a story’s Main Character needs to move from his “identity,” which is the mask he shows the world in order to deal with a wound he’s suffered in his backstory, into his “essence,” which is the fully realized, authentic person that he needs to become.  Take a look at the video clip in which Hague discusses the Main Character’s “inner journey.”

If this sounds a lot like the Virgin’s Promise, or the Sinner’s Redemption, or even the Hero’s Journey, it’s not surprising.  All good stories tell a tale about a Main Character who changes because of the action of the story.  The Hero proves his manhood.  The Virgin empowers herself.  The Sinner sees the error of his ways.  So it’s fair to say that the detailed beat sheets of the Hero’s Journey, the Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption all follow a basic structure, that’s usually presented in three acts. 

Now, here’s where I’ve added to Hague’s ideas by using behavioral archetypes to help define a character’s identity and essence. Since every character archetype comes with both positive and negative behaviors, I can use the archetype to develop an arc that takes a character from the dark side of his archetype to the light side. 

To give you an idea of this shadow and light quality of archetypes, here are a few:

A Liberator has the ability to free himself and others from outmoded forms of belief.  But a liberator can also impose his own tyranny over the very people he tries to liberate.  Could you write a story about a liberator who learns not to impose his will on the people he’s trying to set free?

An Engineer gives creative energy a practical form.  He has a talent for designing solutions to common problems.  But an Engineer can also rely on mechanical means, and have no regard for emotional consequences.  Could you write story about an Engineer who has to learn compassion?

An Athlete is dedicated to transcending physical limitations and developing personal willpower and strength of spirit, but an athlete can also misuse his ability for personal gain, or have a false sense of invulnerability.  Could you write a story about an Athlete who values money before the love of the game?

A Sidekick is loyal, unselfish, and tenacious.  But a Sidekick’s loyalty is usually be so large that he never moves on to find his own fulfillment.  Could you write a story about a Sidekick who becomes a Hero?

I hope you answered yes to all these questions.  And, just for fun, I’ve used the archetypal shadow and light behaviors of a Sidekick along with a basic three-act story structure to come up with a quick synopsis of a Sidekick story.  Here it is as a series of story beats.

Story Beat

A Sidekick Story

ACT I
Introduce the Main Character and his goal or problem.

 

INCITING INCIDENT
The story begins when something changes in the Main Character’s circumstances.  This could be like the Hero’s call to adventure.  Or the Virgin’s opportunity to shine.  Or the first messenger that arrives at the Sinner’s door.

We see Sidekick in his ordinary world, being the sidekick to the local Cowboy Hero.  He’s loyal and unselfish, but he’s also not moving forward with his life, because, well, he’s a Sidekick.  But suddenly the Hero comes down with the flu.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
For the first one-quarter of the story, the Main Character deals with the change in circumstances.  He may try to ignore it, he may refuse the call, he may miss the point.  While he dithers things get worse, until he finally makes a decision to do something.

Someone needs the Hero’s help, and the Sidekick dithers around feeding the Big Guy soup, but it’s not working.  Someone needs to rescue the Rancher’s Daughter, and the Sidekick finally decides that he’ll have to do it because the Hero is out of commission.

Act II
Through a series of events the Main Character learns about himself.  (Moves from identity to essence.) He must overcome obstacles and challenges using methods that are new and different for him.

 

THE FIRST PINCH
The Main Character faces a problem he must overcome. The problem is relatively easy, but it will require the Main Character to learn something new about himself.

The Sidekick goes to the neighboring town to talk to the Rancher.  The Rancher isn’t so sure the Sidekick is all he’s cracked up to be.  But with a little bit of fast-talking, and a mask, the Sidekick convinces the Rancher that he’s the real deal Cowboy Hero, here to rescue the damsel in distress.  During this encounter the Sidekick learns that he can be as charming and articulate at the Big Man himself.

THE MIDPOINT
The Main Character faces a much bigger problem in which he will have to learn something very important about himself.  Michael Hague would say that the character would have to move into his “identity” during this period.  The Hero gets the “magic elixir” here.  The Virgin is caught shining.  The Sinner meets the avatar of goodness.

The Sidekick tracks the bad guys to their lair and through a stellar display of cunning and bravery he rescues the Rancher’s Daughter. And he’s pretty impressed with himself because he did it single-handedly.  Something the Big Man can’t do since the Cowboy Hero always has a Sidekick – namely him.  Maybe the Hero’s success has been dependent on him from the beginning? 

THE SECOND PINCH
The problems facing the Main Character are getting more and more complicated.  He continues to learn stuff that will bring him further into his “identity.”  But the stakes are getting much, much higher.

Things get more complicated because the Rancher’s Daughter is cute and he likes her.  A lot.  And she’s smitten with the Sidekick who she thinks is the Hero.  Which is kind of a problem.  Nevertheless one thing leads to another and they make love.  In the heat of passion the Sidekick says something that the Rancher’s Daughter interprets as “I love you.”  (Of course a Cowboy Hero would never, ever do any of this, because, well, he’s a Cowboy Hero and always gets the bad guy but never gets the girl.)

ACT III
Something happens and even though the Main Character has grown as a person, he will still fall back on his old ways of thinking and reacting.  This will cause a huge crisis that he must resolve.

 

THE CRISIS
Something happens which forces the Main Character to forget everything he’s learned through the course of the story.  He reverts back to the person he was at the very beginning. (Hague would say he moves away from his essence back into his identity.)  From an archetype perspective this means he moves from the positive qualities of his archetype back into the negative ones.

The Sidekick returns home to find the Hero fully recovered from the flu.  The Hero is fine with the fact that the Sidekick rescued the Rancher’s Daughter, but when she arrives in town expecting the Hero to fall on his knee and propose marriage, the Sidekick is in deep trouble.  The Rancher’s Daughter discovers the Sidekick isn’t who he said he was.  And the Cowboy Hero feels betrayed because we all know Cowboy Heroes don’t ever get the girl.

THE RESOLUTION
All appears lost, but somehow the Main Character gets his act together, jettisons his fears, remembers what he’s learned about himself and fully embraces his “essence.”  When he does this he is able to resolve the crisis.

The Sidekick loses his job and the Hero’s trust, but maybe that’s not the end of the world.  After all, he could have the love of a wonderful woman, and he’s proven to himself that he could do the Hero’s job.  There are plenty of Western towns that need a guy like him.  And he could hire his own Sidekick.  So he jumps on his horse, catches the Rancher’s Daughter, professes his love, kisses her senseless, and they ride off into the sunset together.

The simple three-act structure above can be used to write any kind of story.  And if you combine it with archetypal behaviors that were first outlined by Carl Jung, you have some very powerful tools for brainstorming story and character arcs. 

I also think that this less rigid beat sheet is perfect for writing a synopsis or coming up with a brief outline, especially if you’re a seat of the pants plotter who doesn’t want to know every scene before you write it.  In fact, the story beats I’ve outlined above, if you put them in paragraph form, would create a very short, but complete, synopsis for this Sidekick story.

Even though I consider myself a tiny bit OCD when it comes to plotting stories, the truth is that I use the three act beat sheet way more often than I use any other story structure because I find that it’s the most fluid and liberating, and the best structure for synopsis writing.

Thanks for tuning in to this blog series.  It’s been fun to write.  Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. 

And if you’d like to learn more about this topic, I’ll be teaching the three act structure and archetypes at RWA’s convention this July in San Diego.  I’ll also be teaching a workshop on this topic for the Virginia Romance Writers in October.

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.

Archetypes and Storybeats Part I: The Hero’s Journey

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. 

VoglerChris 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:

Story Beat

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.

It’s Never Too Late to Learn Something New

I’ve been writing novels for a long time now. I can say that I’ve learned how to write a novel and I’ve learned how to meet a deadline.

But I get stuck. I lose my way even though I have an outline. I have to rewrite. I struggle sometimes with imagery and just plain bad writing. And I sometimes lose confidence. I have accepted that these things are just part of the job.

I’ve also discovered over the years that when I’m feeling doubtful about my writing it helps to go read a book on writing craft, or storytelling, or character development and try out new techniques or new processes. Going back to basics and/or learning something new frees me from self-doubt and the writing doldrums.

So, since we’re in the midst of the Winter Writing Festival, and I figure lots of you are struggling with self-doubt, have lost your way, or are stuck on a scene, it might be helpful to provide a list of great books on the craft of storytelling and writing.

Below you’ll find a list of my favorite books on the craft of writing. Some of these books changed my life. Others are used all the time as I plot or troubleshoot.

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition by Christopher Vogler

The book discusses mythic structure and the hero’s journey as first outlined by Joseph Campbell. My take: This was the first book I ever read on story structure and it was an enormous eye-opener. It probably should be on every novelists shelf. But, a word of caution, romance authors will be left scratching their heads. The hero’s journey explains a lot of stories out there, and a lot of popular movies, but it doesn’t work for romance novels.

 

 

The Virgin’s Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual, and Sexual Awakening by Kim Hudson (with a forward by Christopher Vogler)

This book discusses fairytale structure and can be viewed as a companion book to the Writer’s Journey. My take: I’ve been waiting for this book for years. It was published in 2010 and it discusses stories that don’t fit mythic hero’s journey structure (like romances!) If you’re writing stories about characters learning to live a fulfilled life, then this book will help you understand that structure. I truly think every romance author should own this book and study it.

 

Scene and Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Jack M. Bickham

This book discusses scene and sequel structure. My take: This is a book that will help you improve pacing, regardless of what kind of genre you may be writing. The book focuses on thrillers and suspense novels, but romance authors can get a lot out of it as well.

 

 

 

Goal Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon

This is a seminal book that provides hands-on help in crafting three-dimensional characters and understanding what people mean when they talk about conflict in a story. My take: This book changed my life. Seriously. I had no idea what conflict was, and I kept writing stories that got rejected with the words “no conflict” written all over them. If you have been told that your manuscript is lacking in conflict, you should read this book.

 

 

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maas

Written by a well-known literary agent, Donald Mass’ workbook provides advice and exercises to make your novel stand out in a crowd. My take: The exercises in this workbook are so useful, whether you are trying to fix a scene you’ve already written, or plot a novel from start to finish. The exercises are also very useful during brainstorming sessions with other writers. A lot of the questions I ask during the WWF brainstorming sessions on Wednesday mornings come right out of this workbook.

 

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K Le Guin

Beloved author and poet Ursula K. Le Guin provides her take on the craft of writing. My Take: If you’ve ever read one of Le Guin’s books, you know that she writes beautifully. Her book on writing craft (including such issues as comma placement) was utterly liberating for me.

These are my go-to books when I’m looking for inspiration or when I’m stuck. What books on craft or storytelling are on your shelves?

What I Learned About Storytelling from Game of Thrones

I’d like to put this out there right now.  I am NOT cool. I’ve often longed to be cool, but after 40 years on this planet, I recognize that if I do something that seems cool, it probably started out as someone else’s idea, or it was an accident. And so it goes with my recent obsession with Game of Thrones – the HBO TV show.  My husband put the first disc in his Netflix queue and I happened to be in the living room when he popped it in the DVD player. However, the reason we watched the whole disk and then haunted the mailbox until the second disk showed up was that it is so, sooooo good.  And also, fortunately, we discovered we can watch it with HBO-Go, so now we don’t have to maul the mailman every third day, for which he and the USPS are very grateful.

With the first episode in Season 3 to air this weekend, I feel like one of the “cool kids” because I know what all the hype is about and I share in the excitement – and not just because there are suddenly all sorts of random commercials with baby dragons.

In case you haven’t watched Game of Thrones, (In the words of Inigo Montoya) “Let me esplain… No. There is no time… Let me sum up.” Game of Thrones the TV show is based on a fantasy series by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Fire and Ice (which, for the record, I have not read.  All observations are based entirely on the TV Show). The series  takes place in a medieval-fantasy/alternate-reality universe that’s filled with a crazy amount of intrigue and so many twists and turns you need a deep breath and an elephant tranquilizer after every episode. (If you want more details than that, you can check out HBO’s Game of Thrones website.)

So here’s what I have learned about compelling storytelling from Game of Thrones. (Note, if you have not seen the series, Spoilers will be given below. Stop reading if this will upset you.  You have been warned.)

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