The Hero’s Journey VERSUS Seven Point Plot Structure

So I never intended to be a writer, in the way of many of the folks I know. They were all in on English, literature, creative writing, etc. I actually wanted to take a speech class for my last semester in High School, but the lovely bitch assistant principle explained that if I wanted her signature on things, I would take a creative writing class instead.

[Archaeological background: I started college when I was sixteen, so getting official signatures for approvals on variances in education factored heavily into a lot of my life until much later. To this day, I can’t be sure that “adults in the other room” didn’t have a conversation when I wasn’t around, intended to push me into the field of art. It failed. My undergraduate majors were Political Science and Philosophy, with a Minor in Geography (which was a nice way of saying I have a map fetish).

In college, I took one creative writing class that was so wonderful I stopped writing entirely for several years afterwards. (Vicious woman who hated all men. I had been warned that I could not get an A from her going in. I was very obviously her favorite student, and got a B+ from her, while almost every female in class got an A. Interesting, huh? But it reinforced that I could write poetry and needed to skip all that other shit and get an education so I could have a financially-rewarding career.]

All the above is to say that I had a weird relationship with the English language as a kid. Never learned a lot of the rote tools they taught, because of reasons. I learned more about the technical structure English by studying Spanish, German, and Latin than I did from any of my English teachers along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Recently, I went deep into that thing called the Hero’s Journey, looking at it from the standpoint of several different folks, all of whom had officially-recognized opinions. I’m familiar with the pattern, but at the same time I was reading up on that topic, I came across a news article with much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how Tolkien and Lewis had once set up a program at Oxford specifically to teach people how to write fantasy as we have come to understand it in genre literature (Epic or one of the sword and sorcery variants here). The program apparently ran from 1931-70, but the folks it had trained were now all retiring and the writer was furious that so much would be lost. So I dug in to what he was demanding we teach.

Tolkien taught something like the classical Hero’s Journey (more later) but shaped everything around an extremely narrow range in time and place, as a sort of 12th Century, Anglo/French world upon which everything was built. If you read his stuff or any of the innumerable folks slavishly mimicking him, they ALL BLEED TOGETHER.

That’s fine if you’re into that exact story, but I find that it you have read one, you have read almost all of them. The only thing that changes are the names of the characters and the kingdoms. It’s almost like Romance in that way, where things are on rails. Hard rails you can never deviate from.

So back to Hero’s Journey. There are a long set of steps that must be followed, in order to tell this story. Lovely. Good. In science fiction, we call most of that stuff setting.

However, the thing that jumped out at me was the critical importance of how the character must be shown in their native environment, being utterly mundane before something terrible happens that causes them to leave home forever for some grand adventure.

In deft hands, it can be done masterfully, but most of the folks I have ever encountered in the field of epic/sword fantasy are probably hacks. You end up with several chapters of the characters mostly standing around and doing nothing, so you can show just how terribly unremarkable their lives are. I grow bored, because nothing is happening. ONLY MUCH LATER does a plot actually happen. Theoretically.

After digesting that maybe this was the reason I had such problems with fantasy, I went and looked at my various bookshelves.

People who knew me in the wayback can tell you that I used to have a lot of books. As in, 30+ bankers boxes, just of books. Most of those paperback. After Donna died, I flipped my life and decided that I needed to pare things down. Ballpark, I got rid of about 3,000 books over the next 7 years, before I moved out to the farm. Every month, 10% more stuff had to leave the house than came in. Half-Priced Books, Goodwill, and the dump. Every month.

So I went looking through the 300 or so books I still have left. More than half are reference/research. Non-fiction. Of those that remain, less than a dozen are fantasy. Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need. Russell’s Initiate Brother. Both duologies.

I do have the complete Eternal Champion by Moorcock, because I got those in fancy hardbacks with jackets in the early 90s when they came out. A little David Drake, but I’m not generally a fan of his fantasy stuff so I got rid of the Isles hardcovers.

No fantasy. That surprised the hell out of me.

Conversation with Fabulous Publisher Babe™ brought all together. In the act of spending those chapters at the front being unremarkable, you lose me. Bore me.

Once she showed me the Lester Dent Seven Point Plot Structure (see my Business For Breakfast book on the topic), I just immediately gravitated in that direction. That was early and I never looked back.

Character, in a Setting, with a Problem. That’s the first five hundred words of your story, by the way, short or epic novel series. And in those first five hundred you should have only a sentence of problem, but that can be enough foreshadowing. (Pulse Pounders tend to start with a bang and a problem, and all of chapter one is a high octane race until you slow down a little later.)

Luke Skywalker is the hero of Star Wars and the two sequels. (R2D2 is the protagonist, by the way.) When we first meet him, George Lucas SPECIFICALLY made him a whiny punk, to show how later he grows up and becomes a hero. Go back and listen to his first line of dialog, and note the delivery. Now compare that to him tossing aside his light saber aside and mocking Palpitine at the end of Jedi.

How do you handle your mundane opening? How much time do you spend wallowing in nothingness before an actual story comes along?

One thing that writers often do until they learn better is to “slow walk to the story.” That’s where the editor looks at your manuscript and says, “Okay, and on page five we finally got to the plot.” Back in the Anthology Workshop days, that was a frequent refrain, but it taught people to hit their openings. When I took the Strengths Workshop, that was Dean’s advice. The practice was to start a story and stop writing at exactly five hundred words. Nothing more.

You had to have your character, your setting, and your problem there.

The way Dean teaches it, you have to grab hold of your reader by the throat on page one, and drag her to the bottom of the lake, never giving her any opportunity to escape you and surface, because if she gets away, she might not come back. Every break gives them a chance. Any time you “kick someone out of the story” by getting something wrong or telling things out of order, they might escape and not finish your story.

In the case of that long, detailed, mundanity of an opening, I might not ever make it deep enough into your story to actually discover that you had a plot. Like Dean, I’m always looking for a reason not to finish a story, unless it hooks me. I have better things to do with my time that settle for pedestrian fiction.

Lucas had you in Star Wars, even with Luke being a mopey teen, because he hooked you on page one with one of the greatest openings of all time. Tell me you didn’t shiver with excitement as the camera pans down into the middle of a space battle coming right past you at point blank range, followed by the battle in the corridors, followed by bad ass in black armor with a light saber in his hands walking through the smoke.

I rarely ever follow the classically-delineated Hero’s Journey opening because I start the story at the moment when something interesting is about to happen. I have four hundred of those first five hundred words to show the character and the setting being as normal as its going to get before all hell breaks loose. After that, you might slip away.

The same goes at the end, when people seem to want to have a dozen epilogues showing how everything returned to normal and lived happily ever after. I only ever use an afterthought like that to advance the story past the “ending” of the thing. Jessica Keller ended <<<SPOILER ALERT>>>with her decision to negotiate instead of burning the whole galaxy down.<<<SPOILER ALERT>>>

From there, I resolved the stories of many of the interesting characters, so that you got their happy-for-now moment, but also setting things up for other things to occur And each of those did not show a return to normalcy. They gave you some important bit of information about “how” things were resolving. (Hint: it never returns to normal.)

So when you look at your intended story, how much time have you spent noodling around and not actually telling me anything useful at the opening? How long does it take for the adventure to begin? How many dwarf Bollywood numbers are necessary BEFORE the plot occurs?

And how much more interesting would your story be if things happened on page one?