The Pattern of a Story

Fancy goldfish CP (better)Recently, I gave some advice to an author whose manuscript I am editing. I thought other writers might find it helpful, so I’m posting the message here (modified slightly to change references to his story).

The hero’s journey, or monomyth, is a basic pattern of stories from around the world through history, identified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Later, Christopher Vogler wrote a memo for Disney Pictures giving guidelines for using Campbell’s monomyth, and this seven-page memo grew into the book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

There are several other variations of the monomyth developed by other writers.

What follows is my own simple adaptation of the stages of the journey that can be applied to most genres of writing:

  • The protagonist begins in her normal world,. A young woman teaches school, but her real passion is running marathons—the only thing that makes her feel competent and complete.
  • Something dramatic happens that propels her on her journey. Her best friend and running partner dies unexpectedly. Although the death is officially deemed to be due to natural causes, the teacher suspects something more sinister has happened.
  • The protagonist resists the calling. Busy with her teaching and preparing for an upcoming marathon, she doesn’t have time to investigate her friend’s death. Taking time away from training to find out what happened to her friend might result in her losing the marathon she’s set her heart on winning. Besides, she’s not qualified—she has no experience or training as an investigator. In addition, she is afraid for her own safety.
  • Finally, she realizes she is the only one who can fulfill her destiny. She accepts her calling and begins her journey. The teacher realizes that everyone else believes the official version of her friend’s death as a heart attack while running in the heat. She is the only one who suspects murder, and thus is the only one who can bring the killer to justice. If she doesn’t take action, her friend’s murderer will go free, possibly to kill again.
  • Along the way, the protagonist encounters obstacles and a lot of conflict—physical, mental, and/or emotional. She has some setbacks and failures—the teacher goes down many blind alleys trying to find what really killed her friend. Medical professionals and law enforcement personnel won’t cooperate in providing evidence. Her friend didn’t seem to have any enemies who would have wanted her dead. Leads that seemed promising fizzle out.
  • Then there is “Black Moment” when it seems that all is lost. There does not appear to be any way out, and she is destined for failure. A doctor produces a medical record that shows the friend had a heart condition that would make running dangerous, but she kept it secret so she could participate in marathons.
  • The protagonist finds a solution to the crisis and achieves victory. The teacher finds that the medical record is a forgery, and discovering why the record was forged reveals the motive for murder. Finding out who created the forged record leads to the solution of the crime—proof that her friend’s death was murder and arrest of the killer.
  • At the end of the journey, the protagonist has changed. She is no longer the person she was back in her normal world before he received her calling. The teacher realizes that doing the right thing is more important than winning marathons. She has gained a new-found confidence in her abilities other than running. She has developed a passion for friendship and justice equal to her passion for running.

A good story includes conflict and change. If everything goes smoothly and the hero encounters no obstacles, the story will bore the reader. If the hero is exactly the same person at the end, the story will not satisfy the reader.  So, for a story that keeps readers’ attention and satisfies them at the end, make your hero’s life difficult and challenging, and in the process help him to grow and develop character.

Creative Commons License photo credit: soozafone

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