Monday, November 30, 2009

Story Structure Part VI: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

UN Security Council This is the sixth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies

Your Hero is finally in that Special World and guess who’s waiting on the other side? The Villain. Dark forces stand in the way of your Hero’s success. The Special World is full of lies, obstacles, and conflict. It’s also loaded with courage, success, and opportunity. Your Hero will spend at least half his time (by word count) in this Special World, learning its rules, meeting its characters, and mastering this world in an eventual conflict known as the Ordeal (still to come).

Think of this section as a series of ups and downs. Failures, successes, and lessons learned. Allies won, and enemies angered. Your Hero masters a skill only to face a larger challenge. He meets friends in unexpected places. Other characters may turn against him. This is an extremely generic part of the book where many writers flounder because it’s so nebulous and undefined. Anything can and does happen. Let’s tackle each part of this.

Tests. Your Hero has to learned critical knowledge and gain certain skills to pass his coming ordeals. Imagine the first week on a new job. Where’s the bathroom? Where’s the mailroom? How does this email program work? Sounds simple, but these tests increase in difficulty as the story progresses. The Boss wants report by the end of the day. The computer is acting up and Tech Support is busy. The lunchroom serves unhealthy crap. These are non-world-ending challenges compared to what’s coming, but they are an important warm-up.

Allies. No one succeeds alone. In fact, to become a true Hero, you must have friends, and these Allies must succeed before the Hero does. You don’t win unless everyone wins. Where do you find Allies on this new job? You hang out around the water cooler. You hit the pub with the co-workers after work. You talk with the mail guy. You flirt with the Admin. You join the company softball team. You hit on the boss’s daughter (which may not end well). What happens in these encounters? Also, many great Heroes have a Sidekick, someone they trust, and can help provide the Hero with perspective and wise counsel.

Enemies. Some people say your Hero is only as strong as the Enemy he faces. The Villain has been alerted to your Hero’s presence, but may not see him as a threat. He may try to woo your Hero, trick him, reel him in as it were. The Villain would rather see the Hero on his side, after all. In fact, the Hero is the one who decides that the villain is The Villain. Something about the Hero makes the Villain who he is as well.

mud fb sack Let’s return to our Hero, the Benchwarming Quarterback. He’s now on the field. He’s in the game. Ten players face him in the huddle. First play: he hands the ball off for no gain. Second down, the same. Third down, he tries a pass, the other team catches it and returns for a touchdown. A linebacker crushes him to the ground and laughs in his face. His body is in pain, the driving rain is soaking him. The Special World is hard. Back on the sideline, Coach screams at him. The other players yell at him too. Then, one of his receivers comes up to him. “Just get me the ball,” he says. “We can do this.” An Ally?

The other team kicks off, and he’s out on the field again. The receiver nods at him. Our hero changes the play the coach called. It’s a fake handoff into an all-out blitz, and he throws to the wide-open receiver for a first down. Although the blitzing linebackers have crushed him into the mud, he has passed his first test! He returns to the huddle where his teammates look at him with a new appreciation. He himself has a touch more confidence. But on the other side, the Enemy gathers, knowing they won’t underestimate him again. On the sidelines, the injured starting QB sees his job slipping away if our Hero performs well.

There are a heck of a lot more tests we can throw at him. How does he get the players firmly on his side? What critical mistakes does he make? How does the Enemy respond? This is how we’ll flesh out this section. There is still the question of the girlfriend, the parents, and many more subplots to interweave into the main story. I could fill ten blog posts with this section, but I’ll spare you :).

Test, Allies, and Enemies Goals

  • Learn important lessons about the rules of the Special World. Give your Hero a chance to succeed. Let him master Email. Let him win a date with the Boss’s daughter.
  • Meet people, socialize, figure out who’s who. That guy in the next cube who throws a tantrum—he also knows “what’s really going on here.” The Admin who refuses to help you find a stapler—she also knows the Boss’s detailed itinerary. She’d be a good Ally…or a dreadful enemy. The guy who also seems to be hanging around, poking his head in meetings he’s not invited to—could he be an Agent of Evil? Be careful who you trust.
  • This is a large section of your story, not just the 1/12 it appears to be. Think about everything your Hero needs to learn. This is truly the Journey part of the Hero’s Journey. Once your Hero has arrived, there’s a sense of relief, of exhilaration. Have fun! Relax! Then get to work.
  • Your Hero is much more proactive in the Special World. He has Crossed the First Threshold, and now is driven to work through this world. He has to keep his job. He can’t blow this opportunity. Many people in his Ordinary World, his wife and kids, etc., are counting on him to succeed.
  • Keep your Hero’s goals intact, but make sure the Obstacles still match those goals. He climbs a mountain only to find a bigger mountain behind it. He files a report on time, only to find that it was only the first of ten he should have filed. The Boss’s daughter turns out to be a handful.
  • Keep your Hero’s spirits up. This is probably the most fun he’ll have in the whole book. By the end of this section, he’ll be ready to take on the Enemy, full of (over)confidence, and ready to take on this Special World.


  • Direct confrontation with the Enemy. Now in my example, it seems like our Quarterback is fighting the Enemy, but is he? Or are they just acting under orders? Who controls them? And is his true enemy across the field, or is he standing on his own sidelines?
  • Some life-changing Epiphany. These lessons are meant to be affirming and supportive. Everything seems to be going relatively well. We’re giving our readers hope that he’ll prevail. But we also see the Enemy strengthening as well, getting away with things. Conflict is inevitable.
  • Avoid too much backstory, telling, and explanation about the Special World. Let your Hero learn by doing. Let him make mistakes. Some lessons are easy, some are hard.
  • Don’t get sidetracked. It’s tempting to expound on everything, fill pages and pages with details about each character, explore previous relationships, describe fantastic settings in detail. Remember to keep the story moving forward, and keep these detours to a minimum, including them only when necessary to provide the Hero with some critical information.

Who are your Allies? How did you win them? How have they helped you in Life’s Journey?


  1. I've been waiting for your next story structure post! I so look forward to these :-)

    (In fact, it's because of these posts... and many of your others... that I left an award for you at my blog) :-)

    "Now in my example, it seems like our Quarterback is fighting the Enemy, but is he? Or are they just acting under orders? Who controls them? And is his true enemy across the field, or is he standing on his own sidelines?"

    This is my favorite point from above (they're all good though!) because I love when characters, at first, don't understand who their enemies really are - or why they're the enemy in the first place.

  2. Thanks for the award! I think I still owe you a book (getting on it--I promise!)

    As far as enemies go, I think I made a point in there somewhere that a Hero can choose his enemy.
    And it can be confusing. In my NaNoWriMo novel, my Hero stands by the Enemy through thick and thin, turning away her friends in her quest until he finally does something so egregious that she has to act against him.

    I haven't thought through the entire football game plot yet, but maybe the coach has taken money to throw the game. Maybe his girlfriend has been seeing the other QB. Maybe his parents were in a wreck and in hospital. But all those are Act III issues. Act II is more about him learning what it takes to win the game. Then Act III will be about him using those skills to fight his real enemies.

  3. Why would you put direct confrontation with the enemy under 'non goals'? Isn't that one of the goals in the hero's journey?
    Excellent post, as always!

  4. That's a good question. The point of this section of the story is to "train" the Hero for the fight to come. He may fight the enemy's henchmen or stand-ins, or maybe lesser enemies along the way. But he hasn't earned the right to "face the master" as it were.
    Indirection confrontation yes, direct confrontation...wait for it ;)
    It's coming.

  5. Ah, thank you. I love this series of yours!

  6. For those not writing mythical action fantasy adventures, you can substitute "fears" for "Enemies" and "worst fear" for "Villain."

  7. Hey, this is to say thanks again for the wave invite. I didn't know you blogged. And then I meet this great write-up. You can be sure I'll be back. And to say I really appreciated your feedback at the writer's meetup. It really helped me complete that story in a better way.

  8. Myne: Always take my feedback with a grain of salt, especially when I only can see a small portion of the story. I tend to nit-pick on little things because I can't see the big picture.
    How's it going?

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