William L. Brown, MBA discusses his thoughts on story structure and the importance of the heroes journey. The director and writer of Stained Glass Windows shows some of the influences that played into the creation of this film.
In American culture, we are groomed to believe we want new things. In truth, completely new things are stressful and human beings, in general, will resist something that is completely alien. Now stress can be a good thing, although we commonly associate the word with going gray and losing our minds. While Americans want something new, they want it presented in a way that’s understandable. That’s where genre and story structure come in.
Brian Cercente, game columnist and journalist, said it best, “Fans say, ‘I want something new,’ but clearly they want the same thing with less suck.”
Once again I come back to the concept of yin and yang (see previous blog entry regarding pet peeve). The core, the yin, of your story is the structure and genre. The yang are your original characters, settings, themes, ideas and concepts. The basic structure of a house is the same, with a foundation of some kind at the bottom and a roof of some kind at the top. It’s what the architect does with that fundamental structure that makes it new.
When writing The Sonata Chronicles I studied the fantasy and sci-fi genres quite a bit. It wasn’t difficult for me because those genres are my long-term favorites (along with action films). And in that basic three act structure of every film lies one consistent structure, The Hero’s Journey. The archetypes and structure are the same in film franchises like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future. Even in single films like Willow, Soldier, Krull and Starship Troopers (the sequels were horribly written).
The foundation is very similar although the outcome is very different. You start with a young hero in a comfortable but unsatisfying life. For whatever reason, a call to action comes. This call usually comes from a mentor character of some kind, although sometimes it comes from a victim. When this occurs, the hero resists at first until it becomes apparent that there is no way out of the problem. This opening serves two roles. First to develop the stakes of what will be lost when the hero goes on this journey. The second is to establish the conflict between what can be gained and what can be lost.
From there the journey usually proceeds to find information, either to find the mentor character or to go to a place as directed by the mentor character. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly escapes terrorists by going back to 1955. There he has to find Doc Brown to get back to 1985, once he does we’ve finished the first act. In Episode IV: A New Hope, Obi Wan does his best to get Luke to learn the ways of the force and join him to deliver the Death Star plans to Alderaan. Luke resists until he returns home to find his aunt and uncle, the people who raised him, have been killed by stormtroopers. There he decides to go with Obi Wan on his adventure. These scenarios are very different but the follow the same basic structure.
The middle is then the mounting conflict between our hero and the obstacle for his goal. Marty’s enemy, in Back to the Future, is the space-time continuum. Marty’s presence in the past has altered events and, unless he can set things right, he will be erased from history. As the story progresses, he watches his sister and brother disappear from the photo he brought back in time with him and soon the same thing begins happening to him. In Star Wars, Luke arrives at Alderaan to find the planet has been completely destroyed. He is then captured by the Empire and must escape the Death Star in order to find the rebels and deliver the plans. Once again, same structure but very different scenarios.
At the second turning point, we have another shift. This time from the hero’s struggle to the hero preparing for battle. Marty and Doc formulate a final plan to get Marty’s parents back together and Marty back to 1985. Luke joins the rebels and goes on the difficult mission to destroy the Death Star before it can destroy the hidden rebel base. In this moment, the hero takes on the mantle he or she was chosen for and now has to take action for him or her self.
Note that this does not mean the character just started acting on their goal. Your protagonist, your hero, your main character should always be proactive in achieving his or her goal. The difference is that the idea of quitting, going back or not measuring up is no long adequate. The hero has reached a place where he or she now knows that the hero must be the one to save the day, whether or not he or she is ready for it.
And the final act, of course, culminates in the climax where the hero must overcome or lose in the ultimate conflict of the story. After this climax is finished, there must be some form of resolution that takes the audience out of the theater or off the couch with a feeling of closure. The length of this resolution is arbitrary and highly dependent on the writer and the story. Structure wise, if a screenplay is 120 pages and the final act is 30 pages then this resolution should be, at most, 15 pages. Anything more than that probably suggests that your climax lacks the substance to make a satisfying ending.
Now this is just a basic discussion on The Hero’s Journey and screenwriting structure but it is effective for telling your story. I focused on Fantasy, Science Fiction and Action genres, but this structure also works for other genres. Other genres, however, also seem to employ a varied array of archetypes, themes and structures outside of this. You may also find other people with a distinct understanding of this structure or who have plot points not mentioned above. You must remember that writing is an art and take the information that suits your style and creative needs while leaving the rest.