Plot A Novel Like a Hero

True Grit. A classic Western novel by Charles Portis. Both movies, this one (1969) and its remake (2010), did an excellent job of staying true to Portis’s work.

If you’ve ever read the novels True Grit or The Wizard of Oz, or seen the movies based on them, you’re familiar with the hero’s journey plot structure. It’s sometimes referred to as monomyth and was described in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). He studied stories and myths from throughout the world and from this, he discovered three common elements which he set forth in his book.  

In The Writer’s Journey, Hollywood consultant Christopher Vogler wrote an updated version of this structure. Hollywood uses it a lot. We’ll follow Mister Vogler’s version in this post.

ACT I

Stage One: The Ordinary World

The hero lives an ordinary life in an ordinary world.

Stage Two: The Call to Adventure

The hero’s life gets disrupted when he/she is called to solve a problem, face a  challenge, or go on an adventure. The stakes are high and the consequences serious if the hero doesn’t accept the call. Mattie Ross’s life is disrupted in True Grit when Tom Chaney kills her father. If she doesn’t get justice for him and find someone to help her get revenge, Chaney may kill again.

Stage Three: Refusal of the Call

For reasons the hero believes are valid, he/she either hesitates or refuses the call. In Rocky, when Apollo Creed challenges him to a championship bout, Rocky Balboa makes excuses and refuses. Later, however, he changes his mind  and agrees to fight.

Stage Four: The Mentor

The hero meets a mentor, who is a teacher or guide. Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn becomes the mentor for young Mattie.

Stage Five: Crossing the Threshold

The hero sets out on an adventure. To Rooster’s and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf’s dismay, Mattie follows them when they try to leave Fort Smith without her to  pursue her Chaney. Eventually, though grudgingly, they accept her. So, Mattie crosses the threshold and sets out on her adventure. She cannot return home until she brings Tom Chaney to justice.

Mattie Ross “crosses the threshold.” She follows Rooster and LeBoeuf and sets out on her adventure.

ACT II

Stage Six: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The hero enters a new kind of world, encounters numerous conflicts and tests. These encounters help the hero grow and change. The hero meets villains and finds new friends. Mattie’s new friends become Rooster and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. She also meets the outlaw gang which Chaney has joined.

Stage Seven: Approach to Inmost Cave

This is the story’s second threshold, and it’s a dangerous place. The approach is  when the hero makes plans on how to deal with it. Mattie gets captured by Chaney; Rooster and LaBoeuf must help her escape.

Stage Eight: The Ordeal

Here, the suspense and tension are heightened. After Mattie kills Tom Chaney,  her gun’s recoil kicks her into a pit full of rattlesnakes. Her arm is broken and a rattler bites her in the hand. Will she get rescued before she dies?

Stage Nine: Reward

LaBoeuf and Rooster rescue her. Her rescue is her reward.

Mattie approaches the “inmost cave.” She shoots and wounds Tom Chaney, but Chaney’s gang captures her within minutes.

ACT III

Stage Ten: The Road Back

The hero still has to get back to a normal life. Mattie, having been bitten by the snake, isn’t out of the woods yet. She needs medical attention, so Rooster carries her on his  horse at a fast gallop back to Fort Smith.

Stage Eleven: Resurrection

In this stage, the hero faces a final challenge. If you read the book (I don’t recall this doctor’s scene in the movies), you’ll learn about Mattie’s final fight for her life. She’s in a stupor. The doctor at Fort Smith gives her morphine and amputates her arm. We see her amputated arm in the remake, as shown in the scene below. In John Wayne’s version, Mattie’s arm isn’t amputated. In this regard, the remake is truer to the book, though both versions stayed pretty true to the novel– a reason why I love both films!

Stage Twelve: Return With the Elixir

The hero returns to an ordinary life. Mattie survives her snakebite, never marries, but resumes a normal life.

Matiie has returned home and to a normal life. Years later, she meets two famous former outlaws–Cole Younger and Frank James, who are now part of a Wild West show.

Mister Vogler advises authors not to follow this structure “too precisely.” Vary the order of the stages and work in the story’s details. This story should also be written so seamlessly that readers don’t notice that this structure is being followed.

Bibliography

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 2nd Edition, Studio City, CA., Michael Wiese Productions, First Printing October 1998.

Plot a Novel Like Aristotle

File:Aristotle Altemps Inv8575.jpg

“A whole story is what has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Aristotle, in Poetics

Plot structure is as old as old Aristotle. Although he wrote the above quote about drama, it also holds true for fiction. It’s the classic three-act structure many novelists follow; other authors put their own twists on it. Before experimenting, though, it’s important to understand how this formula works. Let’s look at Aristotle’s structure as though our characters are climbing a mountain.

Act One: The Beginning, or Setup

At the mountain’s base, we have the beginning. It introduces the setting, the hero and villain, and the tone. It immediately draws readers into the story, includes conflict and begins in medias res (Latin: in the middle of things). That is, in the middle of the conflict and action.

The hero must have an important goal or objective, and the villain must try to prevent the hero from realizing his goal.  Also, readers should care about the characters and what happens to them.

An inciting incident disrupts the hero’s world, and he gets involved in its event. He starts “climbing the mountain,” for he cannot go back. This incident may not happen in the first scene or first chapter, but it must happen in Act One. As the main character struggles through it–“up the mountain”– he moves toward the middle of the story and into Act Two.

Act Two: The Middle, or Confrontation

The villain does everything he can think of to stop the hero from reaching his goal–the mountaintop. Yet our hero continues climbing and struggling against him and his obstacles. Each obstacle the hero encounters should be harder than the previous one, and the stakes higher, ramping up tension, with setbacks (stumbles down the mountain) and regrouping.

Another way to show conflict is internal — the hero’s inner battles that must be fought before reaching his goal. In C.S. Forester’s novel, Greyhound (original title, The Good Shepherd), an American destroyer captain, Commander George Krause, commands the naval escorts shepherding merchant vessels across the Atlantic during World War Two. Krause doesn’t just fight Nazi submarines, though. He also battles self-doubts, personal demons, and physical and mental weariness. Commander Krause’s internal and external conflicts (the battles with U-boats) keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Near the end of the book, Krause and his ships are low on fuel and ammunition. Will he and his ships survive the enemy’s wolfpack? This is the reader’s main concern.

As we see from this, Commander Krause’s stakes are high: life or death for him and his crew, the sailors in the other naval vessels he commands, and the lives of the merchant mariners he escorts. Also, England’s need for the supplies the merchant ships carry so it can keep fighting Hitler.

Are your hero’s stakes high enough? Will your hero be harmed in some way if his goal isn’t met? If not, the stakes aren’t serious enough.

Also, do we care about our hero? We care about Commander Krause for lots of reasons. He’s an honorable man, this is first trip across the Atlantic in command of a naval squadron, and he grieves over Evelyn, his wife who left him for another man. We want him to succeed.

Act Three: The End, or The Resolution

Alas, hero and villain go at each other on the mountaintop—the story’s climax. Conflicts come to a head and issues are resolved. Then the hero proceeds down an easy path with falling action to the mountain’s base as his life returns to normal. After a tense and exhausting journey fighting Nazi U-boats and protecting merchant ships, Commander Krause finally gets the sleep he desperately needs.

By the end of Act Three, the main character(s) should be changed, either in a positive or negative way. This is called the Character Arc. Author K.M. Weiland, in her excellent book Creating Character Arcs., mentions a third arc she calls the Flat Arc. We’ll discuss the Character Arc in another post at a later time.

Next week, we’ll look at a different plot structure.