We can be Heroes…


Good morning, folks! Faith has journeyed southward to visit family. We’re sure you miss her, but have no fear – we’re featuring a guest blog from Magical Words friend A J Hartley today! Enjoy!


I’m delighted to have been invited back to Magical Words. As some of you may recall, my peculiar position is as a writer working in more than one genre (I write mystery/thrillers as well as fantasy) and since I wrote last time about recognizing and using differences between genres I thought I would ruminate a little on what makes them similar. Like a lot of people, I consider myself a fiction writer rather than a genre writer per se, and that’s a useful thought to hold on to if you move between story types: that in spite of obvious differences between genres, there’s a lot they have in common which you can use to your advantage.

A few years ago I was represented by an agent who really wanted me to write screenplays. Under his tutelage I spent a year or so learning the craft of screenwriting: everything from conceiving of suitably visual stories to the idiosyncrasies formatting. Much of it was film specific, but studying movie structure has proved particularly useful for my fiction writing. It is often said that Hollywood movies are formulaic and there’s clearly some truth to that, but it’s also true that those formulas tend to grow out of patterns–archetypes even–which are common to a wide variety of stories ancient and modern. Of course, what a novelist can do in 400 pages of dense type is a good deal richer and more flexible that what can be squeezed into the 100 sparse, dialogue-driven pages of a screenplay, but following the rough shape of that screenplay can be extremely helpful.

There are different ways of conceiving of film structure but I particularly connected to the ones which view story as a character or hero journey. Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is its best and most familiar articulation, and pursues Joseph Campbell’s use of faintly Jungian archetypes as a kind of map or outline for plot. Some of it is a bit clunky for sure, and I don’t find all the labels especially helpful (“approach to the inmost cave” for instance) but if taken in its broadest terms, the basic shape is a great model for keeping your story on track. I combine Vogler’s version of the hero journey with a simple three act structure such as most movies use (and which is deftly laid out in a book like David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible) and use it not so much as a guide for the creation of a book, but a useful checklist to consult after I’ve done my first draft or outline. The heart of such an approach is the character’s pursuit of goals (conscious) and needs (subconscious or even unrecognized by all save the reader) in a rising, climactic fashion, thwarted by adversaries and hurdles at regular intervals, and featuring key emotional high and low points. It sounds schematic when laid out like that, but if I’m reading a book (mine or someone else’s) where the sentence-level writing is competent but the story isn’t grabbing me, it’s often because the plot isn’t pursuing this kind of model. In my latest New Shiny, I found that while there was a lot going on the story lacked a sense of emotional journey and resolution. I moved a few incidents around, gave greater weight to the failure which ended what in movie terms was the end of the second act, and I had a much more purposeful thrust into my final sequence of events (act three).

I recently was reworking a new project and found that while the story had a lot of event and action, it felt aimless, like one of those RPG inspired books (role playing games, not rocket propelled grenades) which many of us wrote after playing one too many games of D&D. Books can be driven by event but they usually need a sense of purpose from the protagonist (goals) alongside something about the character which needs fixing (needs). Genre writers who have recurring characters often don’t want to see much growth in their protagonist in a single book because it throws off the series, but a character’s needs can be met (or frustrated) without it altering them drastically. If my characters don’t learn and grow a little, the book seems less satisfying to me, though that doesn’t mean they should be trying to teach some kind of lesson. In real life we may not alter that much from day to day, but we aren’t writing characters who live wholly mundane lives. Given what I put my characters through, I can’t imagine they would be unaffected by their experiences. As the author, I get to do what art allows more frequently than real life, and give the events and what might be learned from them a kind of symmetry, a sense of rightness that deepens the story and connects us to the hero.

I’m dubious of the claim that Hollywood is pursuing some kind of essential humanistic story telling which we’re hard-wired to like, but I recognize that versions of these models have existed for a long time—and I include Shakespeare and the Greeks—and that we have come to associate them culturally with good storytelling. The trick, I think, is to keep their inherent flexibility in mind, and to recognize that they don’t dictate genre, resolution or subject matter. I have used these models productively in class to illustrate how movies as different as Star Wars, Taxi Driver, Jaws and Memento work. There’s something to this stuff, and if you can get past the shock of becoming more conscious of how films work (many students have cursed me for “ruining” every movie they will ever see), the patterns can be helpful.

I should add that the hero journey model is not limited to stories with a single protagonist, and it can be usefully evoked to track a chapter or cluster of chapters as well as an entire book or series. A version of the hero journey might occupy a character who is not actually the protagonist of the book but who has a spell in the limelight. Sam in The Lord of the Rings is not the protagonist of the book but his character has a measurable arc which is built out of events, particularly those late in the story in which he is forced to take the lead. Getting the hang of the hero journey model is easiest in application to stories which brim with archetypes (I always began classes with The Wizard of Oz) but once you’ve grasped the basic shape you can apply it with a lighter touch, keeping it at the back of your mind to track story shape, to keep your protagonist active rather than passive and to stop your book from losing what so many readers want: a sense that there’s a lot at stake personally for the hero.


9 comments to We can be Heroes…

  • Thank you, A.J., for this post. I write in multiple genres also and have contemplated screenwriting. It’s fascinating what we can learn for our own works from studying other genres and forms of writing.


  • Thanks Jennifer. I got increasingly frustrated with screenwriting in terms of actually selling screenplays (a subject for another blog some time) but the structural stuff is really useful for all kinds of story telling, I think.

  • Great post, AJ. I’m not familiar with the books you mention, though I will familiarize myself with them now. In thinking about your last point relating to the hero journey, I often think of the movie Thelma and Louise. In that film, both characters are on a journey of sorts, but it’s Geena Davis’s character who is truly transformed; hers is the characters that truly goes through that heroic transformation. The Susan Sarandon character is a still point in a way; she’s static. She starts out formidable and yet fragile, and remains such throughout. The Davis character begins as if in orbit around her but eventually breaks free of that orbit and becomes a far more dynamic, powerful, and deeply changed force. Both are wonderful characters; both are crucial to the story. But for people looking to understand the idea of the heroic journey, comparing the two leads in this movie can be a great tool.

  • That’s a great point, David. I think it can really help story structure to simply ask whose story it is. In film, where character tends to be defined by action (which is also true of thrillers to a large extent) the key to figuring out who the protagonist of the film is often hinges on who is the most active in the 3rd act: who brings the story to fruition. Writers often struggle with this idea, I think, relying too heavily on characters to whom things happen, rather than taking charge. Being on teh receiving end of events is a great way to start a story, but–at least in the hero journey model–the hero has to get a lot more active thereafter.

  • Is The Screenwriter’s Bible a good book? I’ve been writing screenplays and recently did a major revision for an acquaintance of mine who has agents who are farming the script out to the major motion picture companies for possible funding. After the revision, HBO films offered distro, should the film be completed, so that’s a plus at least. I picked up Screenwriting for Dummies, but I was pretty much beyond what it could teach me already and was wondering if there was anything a bit more comprehensive in there. I write screenplays pretty well, but I could always be better.

  • Daniel,
    I think the Screenwriter’s Guide is a good no nonsense primer which establishes Hollywood principles really well. You won’t need the stuff on format and some of the examples-from-my-own-work is pretty tiresome, but the stuff on high concept stories, visual storytelling and–particularly–structure is worth the cost. Get the latest edition as some stuff (esp format) varies year to year.

  • My initial background was in theater, and I’ve always felt that I learned more about dialogue and its infinite uses from that than anything I’ve ever read about prose dialogue. Film is similar (yet different) in that it too uses dialogue as a major way of communicating information but in the theater it is the primary method. Point being, I agree with you and suggest to take it further — understanding other mediums and the way story is told in those mediums will only serve us writers better. I’d include music and sculpture and painting and basically any form of artistic communication.

  • AJ, Thank you Thank you Thank you for taking today. I am commenting from I-10 in Louisiana, and am being rattled to death. Horrid highway.

    When I started my first screenplay, working with oft-sold Marilyn Benner, the hardest part was leaving the details to someone else — actor, director – and not being in charge of my baby, knowing that someone else would interpret the how and why of it all. That said, there is a certain delight in just telling the story through dialogue.

    We are stopping. Gotta walk the rescue dogs we just adpoted. Later.

  • Thanks Stuart. I agree that there’s much to be learned from theatre and from all the arts in terms of how to communicate effectively. And Faith is right too: the lack of control in screenwriting is tough to get used, particularly when you consider that your contribution (which is so much of what the film will be) is the one few people pay attention to. Actors we can name till the cows come home. We could all rattle off a few directors too and maybe even some producers. But how many screenwriters’ names do we know…? Depressing, isn’t it?