Monday, December 28, 2009

Story Structure Part X: The Road Back

tornado-car_1480982i This is the tenth 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.


The Road Back

Act III. This is where the magic happens. This is the part of the story you wanted to write  since you held the first glimmer of the concept in your head. Everything is heading downhill with a breeze at your back at this point…until you hit the rapids heading for the waterfall. The stakes are huge. Everything your Hero has ever known is at risk. A great winner-take-all conflict is looming. I can throw in more clich├ęs but you get the idea.

Your Hero is now exiting the Special World he has been in since the beginning of Act II. He’s heading back to the Ordinary World, but this isn’t the same world he left—he isn’t the same person anymore. The problem is…you can never go home. We all know that. And worse than that—your Hero hasn’t resolved anything in Act II. The Villain is pissed off, and follows the Hero back to the Ordinary World, putting that world in jeopardy. The Road Back is hard, and if your Hero fails, he’ll never go home again. He may have even met some would-be Heroes stuck in the Limbo, unable to overcome their fears and forever lost in the Special World. Maybe he can help those lost souls home too.

uOttawa vs Queen's.  Gee Gee's win 13-12 Our benchwarming Quarterback now has a bug up his butt. In Act II he discovered that his nice, safe, comfortable world no longer exists. To return back home, he must keep moving forward. In some ways he’s become the Villain. He abandoned his team on the field, he abandoned his family at the hospital, and of course he tells his girlfriend he never wants to see her again. His Road Back is hard. He’ll never be the Benchwarming Quarterback again. He’ll never have that special relationship with his girlfriend again. He may never be able to speak with his father again. But…what now? Who is he? All he knows is that he has to win this game. It’s become more than a game—it’s a life and death struggle, with his father’s life held in the balance.

He returns towards the end of the 3rd Quarter, and his team is still losing. As he enters the field, he sees his team’s starting QB struggle, limping around the field, the other team crushing him to the ground again and again. It’s fourth and long, and they have to punt. Our Hero dons his helmet and runs on the field. In the confusion, a man runs off, keeping their side at 11. When the ball is hiked, he steps in front of the punter, takes the ball, and runs like a flamethrower is aimed at his back. The opposing team is confused as he runs the ball down the field, leaping would-be tacklers, spinning and driving, bowling over one last man and making a first down by inches. Coach is screaming, the starting QB is ranting, but our Hero refuses to leave the field. It’s his game now. Still down by three scores, it will take everything he has to lead his team to victory. He will win this game, or he will die trying. Time is running out.

The Road Back Goals

  • Return to the Ordinary World. Stick to your Hero’s original Goals. Why did he enter the Special World in the first place? What did he learn there? How has his life changed?
  • Your Hero has few Allies left. Everyone else wants to go home, too. He must rally them for one last battle.
  • Raise the Stakes. Your Ordinary World is no longer a safe place. Your Hero is now the Villain’s #1 Most Wanted.
  • The pace should be excruciatingly fast at this point.
  • Starting casting doubt on whether the Hero will actually succeed. The final outcome should always be in question, and in fact doubtful.
  • This is why movies like The Wizard of Oz and Circle of Iron are such great examples of The Hero’s Journey. The HJ isn’t about finding out what’s “out there,” it’s about finding out what’s inside of you, about finding out who you are and what matters to you the most.

Non Goals

  • Do you really thing this is a good place for backstory? Any new information at this point is more of the nature of a “reveal” than world-building. “Oh, BTW, the girl you like is actually your half-sister”.  D’ohh!
  • Pretty much anything goes at this point, as long as it raises the conflict. Special and Ordinary Worlds intermingle. Clashes erupt.
  • No big world-changing revelations—yet. Trying hard doesn’t cut it. Using your skills doesn’t cut it. A transformation is coming,  Strip your Hero down to his most raw, naked self, because his trial by fire is about to begin.
  • The point is not for your Hero to win. It’s to learn something precious. What is the lesson? Also, remember what makes a true Hero. It’s not success. It’s sacrifice. What is he willing to sacrifice? And more importantly, what is he not willing to sacrifice? What is the absolutely most important thing in his life?

For me, this is always the most exciting and interesting part of the story to write. I can’t wait to write the next page, to find out myself how my Hero will act in the end. I learn more about my Hero in the last ten pages of the book than in the previous 300. You’ll find out what that “most important thing” is, more than a thousand pages of backstory will tell you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Story Structure Part IX: The Reward

image This is the ninth 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.


Note About “Avatar

If you want a great example of the Mythical Hero’s Journey, look no further than Avatar. It contains all the elements of The Hero’s Journey. A hero starts out with a problem: he’s crippled and wants to be made whole (Ordinary World). He has an opportunity to become something called an “Avatar” which is a replica of the native Na’vi which he can use to infiltrate their world (The Call). He scoffs at what the scientists are trying to do with the Na’vi (Refusal) but the Head Scientist (Mentor) convinces him to participate. On a scientific mission he is separated from the other avatars and must survive a night in the strange world (Crossing the Threshold).

I’ll let you work out the rest. SEE THE MOVIE! NOW!! In 3D if you can afford it.

The Reward

This is probably biggest misnomer of the bunch. Also known as “Seizing the Sword,” The Reward is the final portion of Act II. After facing a number of Tests and engaging the Enemy, the Hero comes away with new knowledge and determination. He’s seen the true face of the Enemy, faced Death, and now must turn back home. The basic concept is that the Hero has fought his way to the Dragon’s Lair and stolen the Crystal Chalice. It’s a small victory, but the Hero leaves with the knowledge that he has faced the Enemy and lived. He also know that the Dragon has awakened, and will be coming after him with everything it has. I call it a “misnomer” because it sounds like something positive and hopeful but many times it’s a dark realization that the battle isn’t over and that greater challenges lie ahead. “Seizing the Sword” is a better name, because it reflects the Hero’s determination to see the conflict out to the bitter end, for better or worse.

hospitalman Now on to our Benchwarming Quarterback. His parents are in the hospital after a wreck. His girlfriend is unfaithful. The coach hates him. The other players hate him. His father is on life-support. WTF? “There’s nothing we can do but wait,” says his mother. “And pray.” He goes to see his father, tubes sticking everywhere, machines chirping and purring. Everything he’s done in his life flashes before him. All his failures, all his disappointments, all his betrayals of his father’s love. He faces the cold hard truth about his life.
(I smudged the image’s face to protect the innocent).

“I want to be the son you wanted,” he tells his father. “I want to prove to you I’m worthy, that I can be a man. If this is your last moment on Earth, I want to do something for you, to show how much I love you.” He rises, and walks to the waiting room. “Come on, we’re going,” he snaps at the girlfriend. “We have a game to win.” He has Seized the Sword. He is determined for once in his life to be the man his father wants him to be. His mother begs him to stay, but he must do this. It’s as if his father’s life rides on the outcome of this game. His Reward is the strength to do what he must, the self-determination to carry on despite the incredible odds, and the knowledge that he himself is willing to face death to accomplish his goals. We see him turning into the Hero before our eyes, but his task is daunting, and his goals seem further away than ever.

The Reward Goals

  • The boy becomes a man. The Hero takes responsibility for his life. He is ready to take on the world.
  • The Hero has conquered the Special World. He’s now a master of the domain. He has gone where no man has gone before.
  • The Hero knows what he must do to prevail in the end. He’s made his choice and will see it through.
  • The Enemy is awakened and pissed off. There is no more room to compromise or walk away. The Hero is in it to win it.


  • Remember, this is not the final transformation. There is still one more crucial lesson to be learned, one final test to pass.
  • The Enemy has been hurt, but not defeated. The Reward is also the knowledge that the Enemy will regroup stronger than ever.
  • The Reward is a Pyrrhic victory more often than not. And short lived.
  • The Reward is not the achievement of the Hero’s original goal. Nothing is resolved at this point.

What is The Reward in Avatar? There are actually two Rewards. Bonus for anyone who knows both (or are there more?) Try not to spoil anything ;)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Story Structure Part VIII: The Ordeal

ordeal This is the eighth 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.


The Ordeal

This is it. This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Finally, our Hero confronts the Enemy. He’s been trained, he’s gathered his Allies, but is it enough? No, it isn’t. Nothing that’s come before can prepare him for this moment. He’s deep in the Enemy’s lair, and must rely on his own wits and judgment to make it through. Now this isn’t the final confrontation, but it’s the first major exchange with the Enemy. The Villain is cunning and smart. He knows the lay of the land. He has some objectives too—to turn the Hero to his side, to corrupt the Hero, to see if he can win an easy victory. It becomes clear that the Enemy represents everything the Hero hates, especially about himself. His own fears, his own weaknesses. The Enemy is in his head almost, exploiting every weakness of the Hero and turning him into a gibbering mass of goo.

This is the scene you wanted to write since you came up with idea for the story. Luke vs. Darth Vader.  Dorothy vs the Wicked Witch. The hospital scene where Adrian tells Rocky to “Win.” This is the final test before your Hero is allowed to start the long road home. This is when the train jumps the rails, the troops retreat, the police close in, the wife is in bed with someone else, and everything the Hero ever knew about himself is put into question. He’s no longer the innocent traveler to this Special World, he’s a fully involved participant, and his goals seem further away than ever.  He’s seen the face of the Enemy and it’s bad. Who talked him into this misadventure anyways?

Let’s go back to our Benchwarming-now-playing Quarterback. It’s halftime. Wait—what? The Ordeal isn’t on the field? WTF? Yes. Because he’s confronting his true Enemies—the Head Coach and the starting Quarterback. The starter is feeling better. The Head Coach wants him back in. But wait—there’s more. Our QB gets a phone call. His parents have been in a bad wreck on the way to the game, he needs to leave right away, which Coach says means he’s off the team. Forever. Everything seems to be falling apart. In addition, he finds out the Starting QB is the father of his girlfriend’s baby. Everything seems to be conspiring to destroy him. This is his last chance to prove himself, to become a winner, but now it looks like everything’s been cut short. He leaves the game humiliated, having to bum a ride from this unfaithful girlfriend to the hospital (which is conveniently a minute away). The opposing players mock him on the way off the field.

man-woman-brain-1 Now the Ordeal turns to this awkward car ride. The girlfriend is distraught and apologetic, almost unable to drive. She never meant it to happen, it wasn’t consensual, she doesn’t know what to do. His mind is consumed with fear about his parents, disappointment that he can’t finish the game, and bitterness that this woman and the Starter hurt him. Our Hero’s story seems to be over before it even started. He’ll never amount to anything. He’s consumed with self-doubt and self-loathing. The world is collapsing around him. Everything he’s ever feared about himself seems to be coming true. He can’t play football. He can’t be loved. And Death lurks right around the corner. Depressing, isn’t it? Why the heck did I write this book??

The Ordeal Goals

  • The Hero must face Death. In the example above, it’s the possible death of his parents coupled with the death of his football career.
  • The Hero takes on the Enemy. And loses. Badly. This is far harder than anything your Hero has faced up until now.
  • Your Hero’s worst fears must be realized. From now through the end of Act III, your Hero is in a crucible of fire. He’ll be tested beyond everything that ever happened before.
  • Allies drop like flies. Enemies grow strong and multiply. This is a hard time for everyone.
  • Make it clear what the ultimate stakes are: Life and Death. Everything and everyone the Hero cares about must be placed in jeopardy.
  • Keep Raising the Stakes, and keep the Hero focused on his Goals, even if he’s ready to give up. Something good is right around the corner.

Non Goals

  • Your Hero does not defeat the Enemy. He may wound the Enemy, he certainly antagonizes him, and sometimes steals something important from him. We’ll talk about this in the next installment.
  • Don’t commit your Hero to the fight. He may come away from this Ordeal battered and bruised and ready to go home. This was far more than he bargained for, and he may want more. Too bad, he’ll learn soon enough that all roads home lie through the Enemy.
  • Don’t give your Hero any easy ways out.  Every choice is bad. Every option leads to conflict. But definitely give him choices. He’s still in charge of his destiny. He is still driven by Inner and Outer Goals.

This is definitely a rough time for the Hero.  By the end of the Ordeal, he’ll have everything he needs to prevail in the end. He just may not know it yet.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Story Structure Part VII: Approach to the Inmost Cave

CaveThis is the seventh 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.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

This is perhaps the most nebulous and hard-to-understand step of the Hero’s Journey. At this point, your Hero has gathered Allies, engaged with some dark forces, and has met with his Mentor. He’s ready to take on the main antagonist But first, he must endure an arduous process on his way to the main Crisis of the story.

What is this “Inmost Cave?” It’s the enemy’s lair. It’s the embodiment of the Hero’s fears. It’s a place where few tread, and fewer return from. It’s the furthermost point away from where the Hero started his journey. The Death Star. The Emerald City. The Bedroom. The Courtroom. Jail. The Dragon’s Lair. This the place where every decision has life-or-death consequences, where the stakes are at their highest. But before this Ordeal, our Hero must get there. He must prepare himself for battle, arm himself with information, learn the final lessons, remove all doubt, and commit himself to the Journey.

Let’s look at our benchwarming-but-now-playing Quarterback. He’s on the field. He’s made a few plays. He’s starting to feel out this Special World. He throws a touchdown. Success! Maybe he can prevail in this world, maybe he does have what it takes. But the Enemy is huddling, changing their strategy. The stakes are going to be raised. There’s about to be an Ordeal near the end of Act II. He will be tested. What can we do as an author to Raise the Stakes? We’ve got the girl on the sideline. He’s now sitting on the bench while the other team has the ball. She approaches him…she’s late—it’s not his. His mind is now distracted, hurt. Still no word from his parents…what’s up with that?

muddy-431x300 They get back on the field. He throws incomplete passes and they punt. Coach is yelling and screaming. He’s going to have to clear his mind, find a way through all these distractions. And guess what? The other team knows about his girl trouble, and they start taunting him. Even the old coach on the sideline is getting agitated with him, trying to set him straight. His early success is falling by the wayside, he’s going to have to reach down deep, because with 2 minutes left in the half, he had little time to prove himself before the head coach puts someone else in. His friend the receiver is ambushed by an illegal crack-back block and is now out of the game, taken away in an ambulance, perhaps crippled for life. Now it’s time for our Quarterback to rise to the occasion and start kicking ass. And I have no idea how that picture relates but I just liked it. :)

Approach to the Inmost Cave Goals

  • Fully engulf the Hero in the Special World. In fact, you may even create an inner Special World inside the outer Special World…the world of the Enemy’s Hideout…which has it’s own special rules.
  • Start testing your Allies and Enemies. See how firm their commitment is. Some of them may change sides. Some of them bow out. Others prove themselves.
  • This can be a large portion of your story, so keep the pace up and keep raising the stakes. Throw obstacles in front of the Hero. Make him earn every success…which become more and more infrequent.
  • Your Hero Must Act. No more sitting around, philosophizing about the pompetus of direct conflict. Move, move, move!

Non Goals

  • Still avoid direct confrontation with the Enemy. Think about this as a Chess Game…everyone is still moving pieces around and waiting to strike. Some pieces are lost, but some become powerful. Direct conflict is almost inevitable at this point.
  • No more Mr. Nice Author. Why does Bad Stuff happen to Good Characters? Because that’s what makes literature interesting. Your character starts failing in bigger and better ways than ever before. But he’s also trying harder than ever before.
  • This should be the dying gasp of whatever Refusal your character still has. Kill your Hero’s doubts, because the Ordeal of Act II will destroy any Heroes that are not fully committed. If he’s not fully committed…give him some “motivation.”

Is your Hero armed and ready for his first major conflict? Are the Stakes high enough to convince him to take on the dreaded Enemy?