Okay, so now you know your characters pretty danged well. You know what they go through to get from point A to point Z, and how you’re going to structure the scenes.
Whew! You’re far down the Yellow Brick Road at this point! Pat yourself on the back and take a breath.
Because we still have a long way to travel.
So, let’s get down to exactly how your characters, and more to the point, your hero skips down that road.
Although the scene structure from last time helps you frame a lot of the story, the main all-encompassing shape is something different. It’s the forest, where the scenes are the trees. I.e., this is the plot, where the scene structure forms the storyline.
And the best way I’ve ever found to address this all-encompassing plot is to follow the hero’s journey from mythology.
Because there’s a reason follow the same plotting structure: It works.
Mastering this keeps the story moving, the plot points coming at specific places, all of which helps you avoid those dreaded sagging middles (link to that blog).
So, let’s dissect this.
You know that the idea of polarity and opposition needs to run through the entire story. That’s what causes conflict and friction, making the story interesting, and causing things to happen.
The thesis and antithesis, with the reality somewhere in the middle–synthesis–but not quite the center. Under a pressure situation, you find out a character’s true nature.
You’re basically looking at three acts, or movements in the story. The “thesis” if you will, comes in the first quarter. The vast majority of the book–the middle two quarters–holds all the movement that we call antithesis. Then the final quarter holds the synthesis–where it all comes together and change in the characters is made.
Realistic characters don’t make whole-scale changes, but stay in the middle zones. Though they sometimes go to the opposite poles, they come back a bit. But they’ve tasted the experience and don’t go all the way back—they’ve learned and grown.
Throughout the three acts, turning points–called plot points–occur. I.e., something happens that turns the story in a different direction. This brings conflict, and forces the characters to choose, going in one direction or another, and taking the story with them.
Basically, these come at 12 stages along the way. I’ve paraphrased Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (link) for this, as it’s an excellent resource:
Stage 1: The entrance. This is “real life” for the character, as it is now.
Stage 2: The call to adventure (whether internal or external).
Stage 3: The refusal of the call. Your character will give a laundry list of excuses as to why he or she can’t accept whatever challenge. This brings up the polarity, the duality, of the character, and raises the question of whether the hero can actually master this test. You want to leave doubt in the reader’s mind at this point.
Stage 4: Meeting the mentor. Here some wise voice comes in–the wise old woman archetype, etc., although we can also learn from fools, and it can even be the intuition. This speaks clearly, with no ego in the way. It gets the hero’s own ego out of the way so that God’s voice (or however you perceive a higher power) can speak to him or her.
Stage 5: Crossing the Threshold. Here is a major plot point. The commitment to the journey–whatever that journey is–has been made.
This is the end of Act 1. It makes the transition from one world to another. In myth and metaphor, the character would go through an actual gate, often with a guardian in front of it, and have to pass some test to do so. The hero is stepping into the brink of the unknown, and some have to be kicked through it!
Stage 6: Tests, allies, and enemies. Here the hero faces little tests, which train her in specific skills. Many have to do with the formation of a group, or allies. The polarity/duality again rises as the hero aligns with one side or another. This is the place where the hero learns about the other world. He’s a freshman here, and learns the idea of grace under pressure.
Stage 7: Approaching the Inmost Cave. Somehow the hero must penetrate this. It will test her defenses. The masks of everyone also shift at this stage. It’s a shifting of power. Sometimes people rise and fall here. It’s also about preparation, reconnaissance, rehearsal, planning. Many doubts and fears arise. The hero braces himself, and calls all resources together.
Stage 8: Going into the depths–the inmost cave. Here the character faces all of the stuff she’s been denying. Her greatest fear. This is the heart of the story, and the most important piece. It’s the borderline between life and death (literally or figuratively–for example, when an addict truly decides to become sober), and puts a different focus on life. The character may even experience a metaphorical death. It’s empowering. The hero is painted into a corner, and has to face what she doesn’t want to face about herself.
Stage 9: Rebirth. This is the reward stage. Metaphorically, the hero finds the sword, and it’s usually broken and is up to the hero to fix it. The sword is symbolic of will power. After confronting the most fearful thing though, the hero can now pick up the sword and use it effectively. The story comes to a point–this recalls the point of the story! When the hero gets through the preceding ordeal, many possibilities present themselves. He can turn back, go sideways, forward, etc. But it’s a pause for celebration, and remembering what he’s been through. It’s a feeling of reprising the story just a bit, so your reader can catch up, along with the character. This is often an opportunity for a love scene. She gleans her reward–new insight, intuition, new self-realization, etc.
Stage 10: The Road Back. This is the turn for home. The character may straddle the threshold of the two worlds, but it’s a commitment to finish. Finishing energy. This can come from inside, internal, or outer, external. Sometimes a counter attack comes from the villain at this point, which propels the story to its conclusion. In an action/adventure film, here is where you’d get a major chase scene 🙂
Stage 11: Resurrection. This is the supreme ordeal. To go home, you have to be purified. This is the last test. It’s a test of every skill, mask, archetype, threshold guardian, etc., which the hero has absorbed. Another death and rebirth occurs in order to purify the hero. Time to readjust. At the threshold of home, the hero is confronted by the Supreme Test–whether mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual. This dramatizes that the hero got it; changed. You can show this by appearance, verbally (the weakest, this is telling), but best by her behavior. We get a sense of climax. And the outcome could go either way. But through this ordeal comes true transformation.
Stage 12: Return with the Elixir. This is the time of denouement. Untying the knot. The last little threads are tied off, cut off, put into place. We have closure here. We have a final sense of bringing him back to rest.
Now, don’t get hung up on the exact timing. The timing is important, but you have some flexibility. Just know that the further off the road you veer, the more slogging it will take to come back.
But the main thing is that your hero go through these steps. Doing so will add depth, layers, and again, you’ll find out things about him you never knew in the beginning.
Hard folks to draw well, these protagonists! But you can do it.