My Hero Can Beat Up Your Hero
“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”
“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”
― Raymond Chandler
Just in case that is not working for you…
In a previous post I mentioned various universal story outlines, and covered the most basic, Aristotle’s three-act structure. At one point I became fascinated with these outlines and had a little time on my hands so I began to survey them. One thing I’ve said before and I want to say again, it is very seductive to say, “Ooh, there is a universal outline, and I have a premise, all I need to do is start with the premise, fill out the outline, and I’ll have a story.”
I think that may be a bit like starting out with the Universal Building Code and expecting to build a house. Yes, every house incorporates that eventually, but most houses start out as architectural drawings. If the drawing doesn’t stand up, the house doesn’t get built. In other words, I think the impression that the outline can come before the plot is skewed. Certainly the entire industry of screen writing supports this, right down to Dramatica and other theories (Vogler) who extend the structure to the interactions between the various character types. And while most of them seem to apply to movies, they really apply to any dramatic story. I think there are just more people willing to pay for it in the movie format.
I’m sure people write like that, start with an outline and fill it in. The reason I’m sure is because you can sit in a lot of current movies and say “Okay, here comes the dark night of the soul.” (And by the way, it is astonishing how many times the character literally goes underground and is reborn during this beat.) These movies are beat-perfect, predictable, and boring. Of course they also go sold and you paid money to see them, so you can see the allure. I don’t think you are going to write Memento or No Country for Old Men that way, though.
Nevertheless, I maintain that the plot is separate from the outline and a better approach is to write your damn story; then if you get stuck use these outlines to think about the parts that are not working. No Act 2 you say? My Story Can Beat Up Your Story has some pretty good suggestions how to work on this.
Why I wrote this and why I find it interesting is that I do think it is interesting how similar they are and really just wanted to analyze that out of curiosity. Once you find out that they all speak the same language, you can find the one that resonates with you. For instance, in my last blog I really kind of got wrapped around the axel with picking a theme for a story. But when I mapped all of these together I found another author that called this the “Hero’s Flaw.” That is an interesting and completely different way to look at the problem my story is having. (And of course, it pre-supposes my alignment of the beats in each outline is correct. I spent more time formatting it than putting the content together, so I’ll leave that up to you.
Below are the various outlines, including links to sites that will talk about each of them in depth. I particularly recommend looking into the Orson Scott Card MICE Quotient, as it is the most orthogonal to the rest.
Of course after spending several days working on this I realized somebody else had also done it, probably better, and had even formulated it into a table. But, it lacks my pity commentary.
As a final note, after I did all of this work I was reading a short story, Acres of Perhaps, by Will Ludwigsen, where he gave the best outline of any I have ever seen for the 3-Act story. This is the one that is posted above my monitor. “What the f*ck? Holy Sh*t! Oh my god.” If your story meets this outline, you are probably on the right track. If it doesn’t, you have work to do.
Vladamir Propp’s 31 Naratemes
Although Campbell gets a lot of the credit for discovering The Hero’s Journey monomyth in 1949, Vladamir Propp actually analyzed many Russian folk tales and identified many common themes in them including 31 narrative units or “narratemes.” He actually got to the point where he could describe any story as a string of symbols. Honestly, you could program his method…
Whilst not all stories will contain all of Propp’s narratemes, it is surprising to find stories that contain none, and many modern books and movies fit nicely into his categories. I just quickly mapped one of my stories in my head (written long before I ever heard of this guy), and I’m amazed at the applicable units. If you really want to use a “formula,” yet still write a rich and meaningful story, I challenge you to start here and hit every one. Then please send me a copy. That is a story I would like to read.
0. Initial situation
1st Sphere: Introduction
Steps 1 to 7 introduces the situation and most of the main characters, setting the scene for subsequent adventure.
1. Absentation: Someone goes missing
2. Interdiction: Hero is warned
3. Violation of interdiction
4. Reconnaissance: Villain seeks something
5. Delivery: The villain gains information
6. Trickery: Villain attempts to deceive victim
7. Complicity: Unwitting helping of the enemy
2nd Sphere: The Body of the story
The main story starts here and extends to the departure of the hero on the main quest.
8. Villainy and lack: The need is identified
9. Mediation: Hero discovers the lack
10. Counteraction: Hero chooses positive action
11. Departure: Hero leave on mission
3rd Sphere: The Donor Sequence
In the third sphere, the hero goes in search of a method by which the solution may be reached, gaining the magical agent from the Donor. Note that this in itself may be a complete story.
12. Testing: Hero is challenged to prove heroic qualities
13. Reaction: Hero responds to test
14. Acquisition: Hero gains magical item
15. Guidance: Hero reaches destination
16. Struggle: Hero and villain do battle
17. Branding: Hero is branded
18. Victory: Villain is defeated
19. Resolution: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved
4th Sphere: The Hero’s return
In the final (and often optional) phase of the storyline, the hero returns home, hopefully uneventfully and to a hero’s welcome, although this may not always be the case.
20. Return: Hero sets out for home
21. Pursuit: Hero is chased
22. Rescue: pursuit ends
23. Arrival: Hero arrives unrecognized
24. Claim: False hero makes unfounded claims
25. Task: Difficult task proposed to the hero
26. Solution: Task is resolved
27. Recognition: Hero is recognised
28. Exposure: False hero is exposed
29. Transfiguration: Hero is given a new appearance
30. Punishment: Villain is punished
31. Wedding: Hero marries and ascends the throne
Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’
Described by him in his 1949 opus Hero with a Thousand Faces.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
1. Ordinary world
2. Call to adventure
3. Refusal of the call
4. Meeting the mentor
5. Taking the adventure
6. Crossing the first threshold into the special world
(End of arc one)
11. Approach to the Inmost Cave
(End of arc two, possible midpoint)
13. Brush with death
(Alt. endpoint at end of arc three)
14. Loss of an ally
15. Revelation of a turncoat (in arc 3)
16. Confrontation with opponent
17. Death of a villain
18. Reward: seizing the sword.
19. The road back
20. Return to ordinary world with “elixir”
21. Coda, ordinary world transformed by journey.
Christopher Vogler’s ‘Writer’s Journey’ Structure
Christopher Vogler took Joseph’s Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ structure and revised it as below.
1. Ordinary World
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting the Mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approaching the Inmost Cave
8. The Crisis / Supreme Ordeal
9. Seizing the Reward
10. The Road Back
11. The Climax / Resurrection
12. Return with the Elixir
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet Structure
I like “beat sheets” (and there are a lot of them) because they provide one of the best ways to learn about movies. Simply print out a blank beat sheet and watch your favorite movie (I like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Sting, any Star Wars movie), then watch the movie and fill out the beats. It’s fun and it will teach you tons about getting from scene to scene.
If you like Save the Cat, it was turned into a book called How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. Not sure if Synder got credited on that or not. I did read the book years ago and if you really need to get going, say for National Novel Writing Month (NaNo), it might work for you. And, I’m sure that many of the people who are becoming millionaires by cranking novels every few weeks on Amazon are using similar things.
1. Opening Image
2. Theme Stated
ACT TWO – A
6. Break Into Two
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
ACT TWO – B
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break Into Three
15. Final Image
Michael Hague’s Six Stage Plot Structure
Just to complete the set.
ACT ONE: FIRST 25%
1. 0-10% – Stage One: The Setup
2. 10% Mark – Turning Point One: Opportunity
3. 10-25% – Stage Two: New Situation
4. 25% Mark – Turning Point Two:
ACT TWO: 25-75%
6. 25-50% – Stage Three: Progress
7. 50% Mark – Turning Point Three: Point of No Return
8. 50-75% – Stage Four: Complications and Higher Stakes
9. 75% Mark – Turning Point Four: Major Setback
ACT THREE: 75-100%
10. 75-90% – Stage Five: Final Push
11. 90-99% – Turning Point Five: The Climax
12. 100% – Stage Six: Aftermath
Gus Snyder’s My Story Can Beat Up Your Story
ACT ONE – Orphan
12 PLOT POINTS – #1 (Meet either the hero, victim/stakes character, or the villain)
12 PLOT POINTS – #2 (See the hero’s flaw in relation to stakes character.)
12 PLOT POINTS – #3 (Meet the villain, or amplify what is known about the villain.)
12 PLOT POINTS – #4 (The Deflector slows the hero down or pulls the hero off the path)
12 PLOT POINTS – #5 (Inciting Event. The hero now becomes emotionally involved)
12 PLOT POINTS – #6 (Hero’s goal as it relates to the stakes character or love interest. Hero’s problem is made clear to the audience.)
12 PLOT POINTS – #7 (Ally aids hero by propelling hero out of his or her comfort zone.)
12 PLOT POINTS – #8 (Hero seems ready to move forward towards goal and/or stakes character, but can’t do it.)
12 PLOT POINTS – #9 (Villain or Deflector conflict stops the hero or threatens the emotional stakes)
12 PLOT POINTS – #10 (Hero realizes depth of feeling for stakes character or severity of threat to victims.)
12 PLOT POINTS – #11 (Deflector or Villain threatens to take stakes character from hero)
12 PLOT POINTS – #12 (Hero decides he or she must act to save stakes character)
ACT TWO – Wanderer
14 YES/NO’s – Yes #1
14 YES/NO’s – Yes #8
14 YES/NO’s – No #14
ACT THREE – Martyr
So many different ways to say the same thing, but we did you My Story to take Moanin’ at Midnight and map it directly to a screenplay format in one weekend.
To see it in action.
THE FOUR QUESTIONS
Who’s your main character? – Gatsby
What’s he trying to accomplish? – Physical: Make something of himself in spite of his poor background. Emotional: Rekindle his relationship with Daisy. Spiritual: Keep his real background a secret.
Who’s trying to stop him? – Tom Buchanan
What happens if he fails? – Gatsby and Daisy will never be together and never find true love.
THE FOUR ARCHETYPES
Orphan – Gatsby lives in a giant mansion, but with no real friends in spite of the hundreds who show up every weekend to party there.
Wanderer – Gatsby gets Nick, the innocent young man who lives next door to reach out to Daisy, his cousin, on his behalf. He figures out how to woo Daisy after having been away from her for 5 years.
Warrior – As Daisy and Gatsby rekindle their romance, Gatsby, with Nick’s help, actively works to keep the affair secret from Daisy’s brutish husband, Tom.
Martyr – Gatsby takes the blame for the death of Myrtle to protect Daisy, ultimately being killed by her grieving husband.
Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient
You can only imagine that a writer as powerful and innovative as Scott Card would have powerful and innovative things to say about writing. I’ve already recommended his book, but he lays out his, unique, theories on stories here. One of the most inciteful things here is that it helps explain why not all Hero’s Journeys are journeys in the sense that the hero doesn’t emotionally grow. Well, James Bond made 20+ movies over 50 years before his character showed any growth. Which type of story below do you think he fit into? Likewise, the characters in No Country for Old Men actually ended up exactly where they started (a good reason some people hated it). Which category would you put that in?
Start: The story begins when the main character enters the strange new world.
End: The story ends when the main character comes back from the strange new world.
Characterization: less is more
· A pure milieu story is rare. Usually a milieu story is mixed with one of the other three types of stories. For instance JRR Tolkien, in crafting Lord of the Rings, took great care in describing his fictional universe–in many ways that was the main focus–but it was also an idea story.
· Frodo needs to get rid of the magical ring Bilbo gave him. He tries to give it to Gandalf but Gandalf adamantly refuses. First Frodo takes it to the elves in the hope they will take up the burden but even they cannot. In the end Frodo realizes he can’t rely on anyone else to destroy the ring so he and Sam carry it to Mount Doom.
· Orson Scott Card also gives Dune as an example of a Milieu story.
· General types of stories that are milieu stories: travelogues, utopian fiction, natural science and westerns.
Start: The story begins when your main character meets an obstacle. They have a problem that must be solved. This gives rise to a question: how will they get around the obstacle?
End: The story ends when the character has answered the question and removed the obstacle.
Characterization: The eccentric problem solver
General types of stories that are idea stories: Allegories, locked room mysteries, bank heist stories, and so on. Anything where the idea is everything.
Start: Your main character is unbearably dissatisfied with their role in society and sets about changing it.
End: Your main character either finds a new role, is content to return to their old role or despairs.
Characterization: God is in the details
As you can guess, for a Character Story well-rounded characters are a must.
General types of stories that are Character Stories: Romances.
Although events happen in every story, the world in an Event Story is out of whack. It is out of order; unbalanced. An Event Story is about the struggle to re-establish the old order or to create a new one.
Start: Your main character tries to restore order to the world.
End: Your main character either succeeds or fails.
Characterization: The level of detail is up to you
The movie Trading Places is an event story. Here’s the tag line: “A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires”. The end of the movie comes when the upper-class commodities broker (played by Dan Aykroyd) re-establishes order in his world by besting the bosses who were tormenting him.
Stories that are Event Stories: The Count of Monte Cristo, Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, The Prince and the Pauper, and so on. Orson Scott Card gives many examples in his book,Characters and Viewpoint.
How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery
Generally speaking, mystery stories conform to the overall structure of a genre story, as Karen Woodward shows in her excellent blog:
1. The Ordinary World.
2. Inciting Incident.
3. Call To Adventure.
4. The Special World of the investigation.
5. Tests and Trials.
9. Major Setback.
10. All Is Lost.
11. “Use The Force, Luke.”
12. The reveal.
Lester Dent’s Short Story Master Formula
I don’t have any stories that map to this formula. Which is actually kind of a good thing. I might someday try to do this as an exercise (I have a premise “6 Feet Short of a New Day” that is begging to grow up to a story.) However, Mr. Dent, inventor of Doc Savage, wrote 181 novels in addition to many short stories. So his example bears scrutiny.
In the first part of this series we prepare to write a 6,000 word story by
a. Choosing a murder method.
b. Deciding what the villain will want, what will be his goal.
c. Picking a setting.
d. Crafting the hero’s motivation.
Lester Dent: How To Write A 6,000 Word Short Story: The First Quarter
Now that we’ve chosen a murder method, a goal for our villain, picked a setting and developed the hero’s motivation we’re ready to set pen to paper and start writing our story. Here are a few pointers Dent gives:
1. Introduce your characters early and in action.
2. Make your character’s introduction memorable.
3. Put the hero in danger in the first line.
4. End the first 1,500 words with a twist.
Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Formula: The Second 1,500 Words
We’ve got the first quarter of the story written, now we’ve got to take the action up to the halfway point. Here are a few of Dent’s pointers:
5. Have the threat the villain poses to your hero grow blacker.
6. Increase the stakes.
Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words
In the third quarter of our story:
8. A complication is introduced,
9. The hero bats the complication aside.
10. The hero confronts the villain and seems to have the upper hand, but not for long …
11. The villain does something uniquely underhanded and turns the tables. The hero’s plan is in shambles and he is worse off than ever.
Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Formula: The Fourth And Final 1,500 Words
We’re almost finished! In the fourth and final quarter of our story:
12. A complication is introduced.
13. The hero overcomes the complication.
14. The hero, using his skill and intelligence, rescues himself.
15. The hero and the villain face off. This is it, the climax. This is where things will be settled one way or another.
16. As part of the climax we learn the solution to the main mystery: How was the victim killed? We learn how the deed was done, who did it and why.
17. The villain pulls something out of his hat, something that surprises the hero.
18. Final twist.
19. Wrap things up.
Close with a punch line. Have the hero say something snappy.
The Magnificent 7 Plot Points
I know nothing about this guy, except I discovered his blog while stumbling around the blogosphere looking for ideas. If you like this, here is one with 8 points, but my matrix was getting a bit crowed by now, so I never mapped it:
In summary, the Magnificent 7 Plot Points are:
· Number One. The Back Story haunts the central character.
· Number Two. The Catalyst gets the character moving. It’s part of the story’s setup.
· Number Three. The Big Event changes the character’s life.
· Number Four. The Midpoint is the point of no return or a moment of deep motivation.
· Number Five. The Crisis is the low point, or an event that forces the key decision that leads to your story’s end.
· Number Six. The Climax or Showdown is the final face-off between your central character and the opposition.
· Number Seven. The Realization occurs when your character and/or the audience sees that the character has changed or has realized something.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Theory of Story Shape
Finally, old Kurt’s failed Master’s Thesis on this topic is pretty enlightening.
A Worksheet to Rule them All
I think maybe the endearing quality of all of these formulas is that they help us understand how an idea can become a story, and that we mere mortals can do it to. Anything that removes the shackles and gets us to write, I’m all for. This little spread sheet is probably the most help to tie all of these beats together. And yes, I did put it last to see if you made it this far. You need to do something to earn your craft. This sheet will lead you through the My Story Can Beat Up Your Story process.
Side-by-Side Comparison of Various Universal Story Outlines
|3-Act Structure||Hero’s Journey||Save the cat||Michael Hague’s 6 Stage Plot Structure||My story can beat up your story||Magnificent 7|
|Opening Scene||The Ordinary world||Opening image||Meet either the hero or villain||Back story haunts hero|
|Theme stated||Hero’s flaw|
|Set UP||Stage one: Set UP||Meet the villain|
|The Deflector slows the hero|
|Inciting Incident||The call to adventure||Catalyst||Turning Point one: Opportunity||Inciting Event||Catalyst|
|Act 1 Problem||Refusal of the call||Debate||Stage 2: New Situation||Hero’s goal
Ally aids hero
Hero holds back
|Meeting with the Mentor|
|Crossing the threshold||Break into Two||Turning point 2||Villain stops hero
Hero realizes severity of threat
Villain threatens stakes character
Hero acts to save stakes character
|ACT 2 MIDDLE|
|Act 2 Choice||Test, allies, enemies||Fun and games||Stage Three: Progress|
|Midpoint reversal||Ordeal||Midpoint||Turning Point Three: Point of No Return|
|ACT 2 2ND HALF|
|The Road Back||Bad Guys close in||Stage Four: Complications and Higher Stakes|
|Disaster||All is lost||Mark – Turning Point Four: Major Setback|
|Act 3 The End|
|Plan||Dark night of the soul||Stage Five: Final Push||BIG YES|
|Break into 3||NO|
|Wrap up||Return with the elixir||Final Image||Turning Point Five: The Climax||Climax|