You Need Story Structure: A Cautionary Tale
When I was 19, I started writing my first novel. I’d written fan fiction as a young teen, but my original works were rarely longer than a few pages. I was an avid reader, though, and I’d been told I was a prodigious writer. I thought that was all I needed to write. This was the first year I studied writing formally. I’d decided in high school that I wouldn’t write like me if I studied how to write. (I know! The ego! Though I wish I still possessed any scraps from this level of self-confidence.) Occasionally, I bought some craft books, but I felt superior. I didn’t *need* craft books. But, my novel stalled. I spent YEARS trying to figure out where I went wrong. And there were certainly problems: I had gone back and forth on reading level AND point of view multiple times. I wrote out of order and then tried to fit the pieces together like they were a puzzle. I had no outline and wouldn’t listen to anyone who told me that I should have an outline because I was a proud Pantser and outlining would take away from the surprise (and the quality of my work). Years stretched out, though, and I still couldn’t finish this novel. I worked on other projects that I loved, but this was my heart book and with each passing year, it was breaking my heart.
I decided to make a change. I threw out the 67,000 words of mess and started over. The old version was a pseudo-outline: I knew where we would end up, but how we got there would change out of necessity. I tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed and then finally, I got the opening right. Then, I took a class with a writer whose focus is story structure, and the lightbulb went off. Understanding story structure doesn’t make your story just like every other story out there; it helps you optimize your plot so that the ways that the story unfolds read as authentic to your readers. This was a game changer, and I knew I needed to learn more. Cue a deep dive into Joseph Campbell’s work on the Monomyth, an intensive program on story structure for writers, and entering a PhD program as a Campbell scholarship recipient. Writing education is so important, but knowing what type of education to pursue is critical. In The MFA program I attended, we talked about Acts; more specifically, the 3 Act Structure. But rising action, climax, and falling action hadn’t helped me to understand why my novel wasn’t working, but the stages of The Hero’s Journey cycle as well as the breakdown of archetypes present in stories allowed me to look critically at where my plot stopped moving forward and why.
Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey structure was originally published in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” in which he made the case that, fundamentally, all cultures and all stories are one story. He called this the “monomyth.” Before we get further in: a note on the word hero: I use the word hero to describe my main characters, regardless of their gender simply because the Campbellian structure uses the term ‘hero’ and the structure can be applied to anyone who is followed in a story. There are people who feel the term is exclusionary, but as an agender individual, the term ‘heroine’ would be gendering if applied to me. In my eyes, stories are about heroes, and anyone can (and should!) be a hero.
In Act One of a story, phases 1-5 of the Hero’s Journey are undertaken. The story begins with The Call to Adventure. This is the first tip off that the hero’s fate is different than everyone else’s. Next, The Refusal of the Call. Our heroes don’t drop everything the first time they’re invited on a quest that will irrevocably change our lives. We need enticing, and this often comes from a Mentor figure. Campbell calls this Supernatural Aid and with some convincing, our heroes Cross the First Threshold and set off on their adventure. Campbell’s Departure phase concludes with The Belly of the Whale, a journey into darkness.
In Act Two, our hero is challenged-the completion of the quest will not be as simple or straightforward as he/she/they had previously believed. Campbell divides these initiatory trials into 6 sections. Campbell’s sections are more mythically oriented in my opinion, but I agree that we must begin with The Road of Trials where our heroes confront danger. Then, throughout the course of the Second Act, our heroes must continue to be put into situations in which they grow. This growth is important, because the skills acquired in their second acts will ultimately help them to succeed in their quest. It’s important to note that your hero shouldn’t always emerge victorious. Sometimes, we learn more from failure than we do from victory, and learning how to regroup and try new things to secure a better outcome will make your hero more dynamic. Make sure you let your hero have a break, too! Rest and regroup scenes in Act 2 can deliver mentor energy, and remind the hero why they’re fighting the battle they’re fighting when all they want to do is quit and go home.
Act Three, the phase that Campbell calls The Return brings a twist: the completion of the quest has fallout that must be dealt with before our hero can officially take his/her/their place in the world (and await the day they are called upon to act as a mentor to a future hero!). This unfolds over the course of another 6 stages, and again, Campbell’s terms are more mythically oriented. In the return, we see that our hero may not be ready to go back home, even though they’ve done what they set out to do. What forces will guide them back home? And at what cost? What happens when the hero finally returns home? Are they celebrated? Does home still exist?
As part of the work on the monomyth, Campbell also identified archetypes: characters and energies deployed within the plot of the story that help to move the story forward. The first archetype is that of Hero. Without your hero, there is no story. But sometimes, our heroes lose faith in themselves, and need an ally to step up with some hero energy and inspiration. Never underestimate the importance of a good ally!
Remember when I said that a Mentor may need to convince your hero to leave home? Mentor energy can appear in your story without the mentor coming into the scene. Perhaps, during a trial, your hero remembers advice that the mentor gave before they left. Maybe Mentor always repeated kryptic advice that made no sense until that very moment! This is mentor energy!
The herald may be a literal character entering into a scene to deliver a message or share information, but it could also be a letter or an anonymous message your main character receives. My character Hedia often carries herald energy, because she hears things no one else hears. Do you have a character who hears all the gossip? How can that move your plot forward?
Guardians are gatekeepers. Who or what is trying to keep your hero from accessing what they need? But more importantly, why are they acting the way that they are? These thresholds are important crossings, not only because they’re important to your pacing, but because they’re moments when your hero has to earn the skills required to see the full picture, and ultimately, to succeed on their quest.
People have shadows, so your hero also must have a shadow. Shadow usually takes the form of villain energy, but the most important factor to consider is that your hero’s shadow character must be a foil to your hero. The more heroic your hero, the more villainous your villain. These character are deeply connected in ways that they might not even understand, but the energy your shadow brings must serve your hero’s ultimate journey of individuation and integration.
Shapeshifter energy is invoked when a reader isn’t quite sure where a character stands. Is your character going to help your hero, or are they an obstacle? Is that a red herring? When my first shapeshifter character appeared in my novel, I HATED HIM. He hid behind a tree FOR A WEEK and prevented me from getting any writing done. His name is Namai, and I can’t wait for you all to meet him. I thought that he was the blackest of black shadows, but he’s just a flawed character with ambiguous alliances. Oops!
My favorite archetype is the trickster. This is because I’m a huge trickster! Tricksters crack jokes, make silly mistakes that sometimes have disastrous consequences, and sometimes, we are the joke. Trickster energy is incredibly important, because our readers (and our heroes!) need a break from the suspense and the trials, especially as we get to the Act 3 Ordeal. Don’t be afraid to sprinkle in some extra trickster energy! Bonus points if your tricksters are mischievous.
If you want to dive deeper into story structure, there are books, like Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, free lectures on Youtube, and courses like Path of the Storyteller, which provides a high quality, non-MFA writing training and a great community to learn with (you’ll see me in Storyteller’s Circle!).
The Hero’s Journey is a troubleshooting method, but building your story using its map can save you a lot of aggravation. You don’t have to wait until you get stuck (like I did) to put the Hero’s Journey into practice. You can outline with this structure in mind, or reverse outline and adjust as needed. The Hero’s Journey can be applied no matter where you are in the writing process. All you have to do is accept the call to adventure, hero!
Story structure is a scaffold, and the stages of the Hero’s Journey and the archetypes in stories are tools that you can use to build a story that will read authentically, because it mirrors the natural stories we’ve co-evolved with. The more you know about how to make story work for you, the better you’ll be able to execute your heart book. You won’t even have to throw out 67,000 words to fix your book, like I did.
Bottom line: knowledge is power, and your stories will be better in every way—in craft, in structure, and most importantly in pacing—if you dig deep into what makes a story work. And I promise, you’ll still write like you.