Years ago I sat in on a writing class at a local community college with a friend. She’d raved about the professor, a well-published poet and literary novelist.
I quickly saw why. He was a dynamic speaker, clearly engaged in his students’ work and eager to help them shepherd the story in their head onto the page. His passion was infectious.
So when he turned to the class meaningfully, it was no surprise that everyone eagerly snatched up their pen. Once he had their full attention, he told them that in every novel worth its salt, the hero must cross a body of water. He paused for dramatic effect. Even, he said, if that body of water is only a gutter he leaps over as he crosses the street.
I grinned to myself as the students scribbled down every last word, waiting for him to say, “Hey, just kidding!” Or even, “Metaphorically speaking, that is” — which would have made it only marginally better.
He didn’t. He meant it. Literally. And then he spent the rest of the class enumerating the step-by-step series of events every hero has to go through, as prescribed by The Hero’s Journey – you know, like meet the mentor, approach the in-most cave, magic flight, and return with the elixir.
[pullquote]No problem, no plot, no story, it’s as simple as that.[/pullquote]
My heart sank. I couldn’t help thinking, “Here’s one of the big reasons so few of the manuscripts I’ve spent my career reading are compelling.”
In fact, it’s often why the manuscripts weren’t stories at all. They were just a bunch of things that happened.
Why? Because they were written plot-first to hit the high points as prescribed by some external story structure model – as if it’s the “structure” itself that creates the story, rather than the other way around.
What is story structure? It’s simply the sequence of external events that occur in a story. Yep, the plot.
But here’s the secret: While all stories have a plot, no story – from a literary novel to a potboiler – is about the plot.
And that’s why focusing on the plot – the events – in the hope that a story will then somehow magically emerge, is a fool’s errand. Think of it as a textbook example of putting the cart before the horse.
So the question is: why do writers make this mistake, and, more to the point, how can you avoid it?
To that end, let’s correct at three major misconceptions that can derail your novel faster than dropping your laptop into a flooded gutter.
1. It’s not about the plot.
It’s so damn easy to mistake the plot for the story. Why? Because it’s so visible – it’s right there front and center for everyone to see. It’s what happens, and stories are about things that happen, right?
Nope. Stories are about how the things that happen affect someone. Here’s the key: story is internal, not external.
The story is about what the protagonist has to learn, to overcome, to deal with internally in order to solve the story question that the external plot poses.
[pullquote]The story is about what the protagonist has to learn, to overcome, to deal with internally in order to solve the story question that the external plot poses. Story is internal, not external.[/pullquote]
If you don’t know what your protagonist wants, and what internal belief, misconception or fear is standing in her way, how on earth can you construct a plot that will force her to deal with it?
The plot’s job is to relentlessly back the protagonist into a corner that she’d really rather avoid, thank you very much. The story is in how the protagonist makes sense of it, and what she does as a result.
It’s just like in life: we don’t simply want to know what a person does, what we really want to know is why. That’s the arena story lives it.
The plot is the “what.” The story is the very revealing, oft surprising “why.”
When you’re writing, the why comes first. The what follows. So before you begin mapping out your novel’s external events (aka your hero’s journey), ask yourself: Why will this matter to my protagonist? What does she want? Why? What’s holding her back? Why? Armed with the answers to these questions, you can begin dreaming up the external events that will give her no choice but to act.
2. All novels have a plot, even when “nothing” happens.
If you’re thinking, Hey, I’m writing a literary slice-of-life character-driven novel so I’ll just sit this one out, think again.
All stories have plots, period. It’s the plot, after all, that personifies the problem the protagonist faces. No problem, no plot, no story, it’s as simple as that.
Why? Because what defines a story is its ability to stimulate our curiosity. What grabs us is the biological desire to know what happens next.
[pullquote]To hook us, what happens next must bring with it a consequence that makes a difference.[/pullquote]
And that “what happens next” can’t be any old thing, like, Gee, Fred moved his right foot, wonder if he’ll move his left foot too? To hook us, what happens next must bring with it a consequence that makes a difference. Read: something that matters a whole lot to someone hangs precariously in the balance. Because that someone — usually the protagonist — is whose skin we’re in as the story unfolds. What would it feel like to go through that? we wonder. What should she do, how will she try to solve the problem? And we read forward to find out, even when nothing much on the surface is happening.
Look at Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise – a movie in which the entire “plot” consists of two strangers getting off a train one afternoon and talking till the next morning. While on the surface not much happens, beneath it, tons happen. By the end we know what each claims to want, what’s holding them back, and what they truly want, regardless their protestations to the contrary. Talk about a lifetime hanging in the balance! So at the end, when they’re about to part and it looks like they’ll never see each other again, we’re on the edge of our seat as surely as if the mothership was about to beam one of ‘em back to Planet Goneforever.
The point being: Not only do all readable literary feats have a plot, but said plot is harder to create, and takes way more work, than that of a potboiler. It’s kinda like what they said about Ginger Rogers, “Sure, Fred Astaire was great, but she did everything he did . . . backwards and in high heels.”
Literary novels depend just as much on plot as do commercial novels. Both have plots, and – here’s another surprise – both are ultimately character driven. All stories are. It’s never the surface plot that enthralls us, it’s how the plot pokes at, aggravates, soothes and stirs up the protagonist that catapults us into their world and holds us fast.
Yes, literary novelists have it rough, there’s no denying it. After all, it’s just plain harder to convey the earth-shattering tragedy of a single, misunderstood glance than the horror of a stampeding herd of giant spiders. Here’s to waltzing backwards!
3. The Hero’s Journey is a Tourist Trap.
And here’s why you want to avoid The Hero’s Journey as surely as you want to avoid those costly roadside attractions that are big on promise and short on payoff: it – and all external story structure models for that matter – mandates that certain external events (hello: magic flight) must happen at certain specific points in a story. As a result, writers craft plots in which these events occur, rather than crafting protagonists whose internal progress depends on said events occurring.
Such stories are written from the outside in: writers throw dramatic obstacles into their protagonist’s path because the timeline tells them to, rather than because they’re part of an organic, escalating scenario created to force the protagonist to confront her demons. In other words, the dramatic events aren’t spawned by the story itself, but by an external one-size-fits-all, by-the-numbers story-structure formula.
The promise they make is: copy this structure, and by definition you’ll create a compelling tale. After all, it worked for all those myth writers.
But did it? Ask yourself: the creators of those gazillion myths that Joseph Campbell analyzed in order to extrapolate “The Hero’s Journey” – do you think they used said model to create the myths?
[pullquote]None, zip, zero of those myth creators created a single myth based on this structure. They were just doing what comes naturally — telling stories.[/pullquote]
Of course not! They never even heard of it. They didn’t have some external model they were following.
Here’s the big point: none, zip, zero of those myth creators created a single myth based on this structure. They were just doing what comes naturally — telling stories.
Which is exactly what you want to do.
Focus on the story first, then worry about structure – that is, if you have to. Truth is, story structure is the byproduct of a story well told.
And sheesh, speaking of stories well told, do you really think there’s even a case to be made for the proposition that the hero must cross water?
I mean, why? To what end? What, exactly, is the point?
[pullquote]We’re born to story. We’re wired for it. Trust your inheritance, and as you write, just keep asking why.[/pullquote]
‘Cause if you don’t know, then sure as shooting your hero won’t either. And, most importantly, neither will your reader. And so because it won’t have a single thing to do with the story you’re telling, it’ll do what all meaningless digressions do: stop the story cold.
The antidote? It’s simple: it begins and ends with asking, “Why?”
You know what that means? A two-year-old who relentless asks why?, why?, why? knows way more about how to get to the heart of a story than The Hero’s Journey’s rote and rigid GPS.
We’re born to story. We’re wired for it. Trust your inheritance, and as you write, just keep asking why.
What do you think?