Have you ever wondered if all those rules of writing hold merit?
Writers get sick of them. Really sick of them. And push back against them—a lot.
I bet you have too.
As a book editor, I know this very well—folks tell me that often. And yes, so many writing rules apply, and learning them, well, can be tricky. And daunting. Or seem not worth the trouble. You just want to write, no?
And yes, studying those takes the other side of the brain—the non-creative one—and can hamper creativity. You don’t want to be grappling with a bunch of rules when immersed in the creative part of this process. That’s when you let inspiration flow, and chase it with your fingertips.
But let’s just begin with one rule, which is basically the same across genre lines, and see if it helps or hinders your process.
The arc of the storyline is well defined. We’re looking at a 3-part structure, with distinct places for plot points, and rising and falling action.
Part One begins with the story question. This is the main gist of your book, and leaves in doubt whether your protagonist will be able to successfully answer it. This is also “real life” for your hero as it stands now, to open your story.
Also, here comes the call to action, and the initial refusal of the call by your main character. It’s too difficult, too much trouble, he doesn’t have the skills, he just doesn’t want to, for whatever reason.
But something—be it his own conscience, an outer event that he cannot turn away from, a spiritual happening that propels him—causes him to take the plunge and dive (or be pulled kicking and screaming) into the issue at hand.
Else you’d have no book!
In Part Two, he’s crossed the threshold into a new world. He’s a novice here, in some form or another. So he has skills to learn, internal and external events to master. He meets allies, who help teach him the pieces he needs. He meets villains ready to thwart him at each fork in the path.
Most importantly, he’s sucked ever so surely toward his most-feared nemesis, which is the internal thing he must overcome, in order to best whatever foe greets him externally. This is the nadir of your story, and quite often missed. Do so at your own peril—without it, your story will lack teeth.
As your hero returns from this inmost foe, a boon is bestowed. The broken sword becomes whole. The power he lacked grows within him.
And he often finds himself rewarded between the sheets with his love interest here as well.
In short, once the black hole of the psyche is forded, the action needs to slow down—for both your hero and the reader.
This leads us to Part Three, where we begin our turn for home—to the climax, denouement, and resolution of your story.
Here your hero takes all that he’s learned—the skills he’s mastered, the internal demons he’s bested, the allies he’s formed—and heads for the final battle, whatever that crusade may be.
Will he be successful? Your reader should still be wondering at this point. And yes, it takes a skilled writerly hand to effect this. Perhaps he’s only somewhat successful, which often works very well, the ending being left at least partially open. If he’s not victorious, that can still work. We call it tragedy.
Once the climax comes to a head, then you have a short (very short) time for denouement (letting the smoke clear), and then resolution (The End).
All this is straightforward enough, no?
So, why does it matter if you follow this blueprint? This Arc?
In a nutshell—it works.
This Hero’s Journey follows the studies of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Honed over decades of study, Campbell found that all myths (the famous and the not-so), from thousands of years—from the very beginnings of stories being told—follow this same storyline arc.
In other words, before writers had rules or blueprints to follow, they naturally intuited this structure. Or, we should say, the successful writers did. Because these are the stories that have borne the test of time.
This structure keeps your story moving. It prevents those sagging middles—one of the most universal problems in manuscripts that I see.
You know the ones—where you’re reading along an enjoyable book, and somewhere the thread of the narrative ceases to engage you. Or, perhaps you’ve found that with your own manuscript. You’re stuck somewhere in the never-never land of chapter 20, and not sure where to go from here.
Using the Arc will prevent that from happening. Or, if you’re mired there, will help get you out.
Finally, it fleshes out the hero to the utmost of his (and your) ability. You’ve now given him enough trials, enough twists in the story that require more learning, more mastering, that in the end he’s as real as your best friend from childhood.
Rather than paint by numbers, the Story Arc gives you a great guideline. It helps keep you on track.
This Arc of the Story is one of the most difficult tasks for a writer to learn. There’s a lot to it. Sometimes it feels like pushing water uphill.
Sometimes it does feel as if all the analytical studying is hampering your creativity.
Work with your book editor on this. Great writing just isn’t learned in a vacuum, and being able to bounce off of someone who truly knows the ropes propels you over the learning curve.
And I promise you this—it can be learned.
Funny thing about learning the rules of writing—eventually you internalize them. They become your friends rather than your enemies, and help you on the writing journey. The rules actually make things easy for you, rather than more difficult.
But don’t take my word for it—check it out for yourself! And let me know how it goes.