TAP028, 5 Tips for Structuring a Story with the Hero’s Journey (Part 4 of 4)
Welcome to the final instalment of this mini-series on how to structure a story using the Hero’s Journey. In this show, I will share five tips on how to structure a story using the Hero’s Journey. And, at the end of this episode, I will also share examples of this story structure in film and literature and provide you will a list of recommended reading so you can do further research.
So, let’s get started.
TAP028, 5 Tips for Structuring a Story with the Hero’s Journey (Part 4 of 4)
Tip #1 – Create the Hero and the Villain
When you decide to write a novel, usually you have a vague story idea. Before I started writing Missing, the story idea started off with a simple one-line-story idea.
“A Museum Curator returns home from a successful dig to find an Artefact stolen and her assistant lying face down in a pool of blood in the Curator’s living room.”
This idea is the opening scene or the crime that the story is centred around, and it’s evolved a lot since it’s origins. Because this particular story is a part of a crime thriller series, I already have a hero, and it’s not the Museum Curator. But, you probably don’t have a Hero, and I recommend you don’t start with the hero. I know what you’re thinking “it’s the Hero’s Journey,” but bear with me for a second.
Start with the villain first.
If you want to create a complex, three-dimensional adversary for your protagonist, you need to start with the Villain. What usually happens when you start with the Hero is the villain often comes off as two-dimensional. How do I know this? I had this issue with Missing. My villain and his team lacked realistic motivations and depth. Once, I started fleshing out these people they are now my favourite characters. There’s a large part of me that loves writing James Lalonde, but these other characters are just as important.
In terms of fleshing out your villain explore back history. None of this will make it into the story, but the reader can tell that you know you’re characters through the way you portray them on the page. Consider who your villain is behind closed doors and not just the side of their character they reveal to the world. How do they understand and view the world around them? You will find that when you create these two main characters, you will be fleshing out the conflict and world building simultaneously. It’s just easier for me to share the tips as separate steps.
Just like you and I, your villain should have a personal evolution. No-one wakes up one morning and decides to be pure evil; it’s a journey, not a sudden transformation. So, how did they get to where they are at the start of your story? What critical moments shaped your villain?
Your Character’s Motivate
Now, it’s time to consider your bad guy’s motivations. What do they want? And, why do they want this? Make this reason compelling and emotional because it’s the driving force behind every action they take. What’s at stake for you villain? In essence, what are the consequences of their failure?
Create Your Hero
Now, go back and do the same with your hero. Your Hero and Villain are both sides of the same coin; they are almost, mirror images of each other. You might also want to consider hobbies, quirks and bad habits to make them relatable as possible. Out of these characters will naturally come conflict and a journey to resolve this conflict; that’s why you should start with these characters and not the plot.
Realistically, characters and plot go hand in hand. It is hard to create characters separately from the plot of your story. For the sake of this podcast episode, I want to create a list of steps that you can actually follow.
Tip #2 – Flesh Out the Core Conflict of Your Story, and the Cast of Supporting Characters
Story is conflict. And, people have a natural way of creating conflict. But, first, you need to create a one-page synopsis or even a few short paragraphs summarising the basic plot of your story. This doesn’t have to be a huge thing; just write out what you already know.
Your Story’s Problem and Obstacles
The next step is to figure out your story’s main problem. What pushes your main character out of their comfort zone? It doesn’t have to be a huge event, but it needs to be a big deal for your hero. Whatever it is that encourages your hero to leave his everyday world it must be orchestrated by the villain. Both of their worlds need to collide in some way, even if it’s by accident. And, it usually is because the villain doesn’t know the protagonist exists at this point.
Unfortunately, life is not going to be smooth sailing for your hero. It’s time to figure out what get’s in his way. To help you discover the stakes and obstacles along your hero’s path, ask yourself the following questions.
- What obstacles get in the way of your protagonist?
- What mini-successes does the villain achieve along the way?
- Who is your hero’s mentor?
- Who are your hero’s allies?
- Which of these allies change sides?
- What leads to the villain’s eventual demise? At some stage, your villain will get overconfident, usually for a valid reason, and count their chickens before they hatch.
I’m going to leave this tip here because fleshing out a story idea into a synopsis is a huge topic in and of itself. And, it’s a topic that I’ve covered in this podcast and on my YouTube channel. Check out episodes seven and eight for more tips on how to flesh out your story idea into a synopsis.
Tip #3 – Build Your Story’s World
I’m by no means a world-building expert, but here are a few of my thoughts when it comes to world building. The world needs to be immersive. This is the reason why readers turn to the fantasy genre.
- Science: Does your world obey the natural laws of science?
- Technology: What exists and what does not?
- Magic: Does magic exist and what are its limitations?
- Religion: Is there a higher power? If so, who are the god/gods? Also, consider the role religion plays in everyday life and the annual festivals the people in your world observe.
- Government: Is your government a republic, feudal society, a democracy, a place where an absolute monarch rules? And, how do people rise to power?
- What are the core beliefs of the society? And, I’m not necessarily referring to religion but consider, health, superstition, and things of this nature.
Myths and Beliefs
Because people have beliefs around these things even if they are true or not. There are things people believe today, especially in terms of reproduction. I watch a lot of Mummy Video Bloggers on Youtube and some of them talk about how to conceive a child. Just a side note, I know this is way off topic, but it’s a great example. A lot of these women talk about laying flat and keeping your legs elevated to help sperm travel to the uterus. If you talk to an Obstetrician/Gynaecologist or a fertility expert about this is a waste of time and there is no scientific evidence to support this. And quite often, they will tell you that it’s a great way to get a urinary tract infection.
However, people believe these things. The same should be true of your world, whether the beliefs are fact or fiction your people should form their own beliefs based upon personal experience. Something will happen to them and they will make their own conclusions arriving at a belief.
As well as that list you might want to create a brief world history where you would include significant battles and other moments that shaped your world.
Because I’m no expert here is a list of links to other great articles on world-building that I’ve used during my own research for an ongoing medieval fantasy series that I’m writing.
- Worldbuilding: the Master Guide (with Template)
- How to Create a Breathing World for Your Fantasy Novel
- Creating a fantasy world? Ask 10 questions
- World building tips: Writing engaging settings
Tip #4 – Plot Out the Key Scenes
This step is going to be very short because you’ve already done a lot of work up until this point. Go back over the twelve stages and create a short description of what happens in your story for each of these stages. Again, draw from the ideas that you came up with in the previous steps.
This exercise doesn’t have to be full of detail if that’s not your thing. Add as much or as little detail as you like. If you’re a discovery writer and feel suffocated by this much detail, that’s okay. You don’t have to plan and write as I do. I realise that it’s not for everyone.
Tip #5 – Flesh Out the Scenes Between the Key Moments
If you’re more of a discovery writer, then you don’t have to follow this step and the last step. The reason steps four and five exist are because I’m an extensive outliner and I don’t know how to teach story any other way. So, do what works for you and only take on board the tips that suit your style of writing.
What needs to happen between the moments you fleshed out in step four for the story to make sense? At this stage, you might want to do a bit of research. If you’re writing science fiction, then watch a few of your favourite movie, or read a few books. For those of you who are writing fantasy, check out exhibits at museums, watch documentaries, read books and watch films. Research isn’t about ripping off ideas but getting a glimpse of what readers expect and filling your creative well so that when you draw from it, it’s not empty.
After the research phase, go back and write down the ideas you have for scenes. The End product should be a synopsis or scene by scene outline spanning a few pages.
Take a break then read your scene outline or synopsis and ask yourself the following questions.
- Does the story make sense?
- Is your story dragging in places?
- How can you make the story more exciting?
- Are there too many moments where everything seems to be all smooth sailing for your hero?
- Can you raise the stakes by adding more conflict to the story?
The next step is to go back over your list of scenes and make revisions to the story moments that need to change.
Examples of The Hero’s Journey as Story Structure
One of the best ways to learn story structure is through reading. Blog posts, books, and podcasts are great, however, seeing something in action is a far better way to learn. Because I just spent the last two episodes of this podcast plus the first part of this show talking about the twelves stages of the Hero’s Journey, here are examples of fiction novels that follow this story structure. You’ll notice that the following examples are all from the science fiction and fantasy genres. The reason is that I couldn’t confidently recommend books in genres outside of these genres that use the Hero’s Journey.
- Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J R R Tolkien
- Mistborn Series by Brandon Sanderson
- The Hunger Games Trilogy
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien
Films that Follow the Hero’s Journey
Here are a few examples of the Hero’s journey used as a story structure in films. I know that film is generally written in a slightly different way to novels and you can do things in a movie that you can’t quite do in a book. The same is also true the other way around. I wanted to share this list because it includes a few classics that hopefully everyone has seen.
- Empire Strikes Back
- Groundhog Day
- The Matrix
- The Wizard of Oz
- The Princess Bride
Looking for Further Reading?
Much of the material in this mini-series on the Hero’s Journey was taken from the book, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It’s a huge book and serves as an excellent reference guide. And, clearly, it’s a book that I believe every writer should have on their shelf.
Chapters eleven, twelve, and thirteen of Chris Fox’s book Plot Gardening contain a story structure adapted from the Hero’s Journey by Dan Harmon most famously known as the creator of the TV show community. His Story Circle is a simplified but nonetheless great adaptation of this story structure. If you’re a beginner and these last three episodes of the show have overwhelmed you, then this is a great alternative.
To structure a story using the hero’s journey I recommend that you follow the following five tips. Start with the hero and the villain, flesh out the core conflict of your story, and the cast of characters, build your story’s world, plot out the key scenes, and flesh out the scenes between the key moments. Now, I have two important questions to ask you. Are you structuring your story using the hero’s journey? Which one of these tips did you find most helpful? I want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Thanks for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
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