Awhile back, I attended the three-day Story Masters Workshop, given by James Scott Bell, Donald Maass, and Christopher Vogler. I highly recommend it, and you can check out more information about their workshops here. Vogler’s expertise is movie scripts. One of the things that I found most interesting about his presentation was his 12-stage hero’s journey, which suggested that every well-plotted and well-paced story had a “crossing over” at approximately the 25% mark, and a “near-death” at the 50% mark. His case in point: Star Wars. At the 25% point, Luke “crosses over” by leaving his Aunt and Uncle’s farm, and at the 50% mark suffers a “near death” when he’s caught in an intergalactic trash compactor.
If you have read my posts before, you know how fond I am of mathematical approaches to plotting. You can check out my mathematical formula for kicking out a fast first draft here. Clearly I was intrigued by Vogler’s premise, but I wasn’t able to tap into the high-testosterone crime/thriller movie examples he was using: Casablanca, The Godfather, etc. Believe it or not, with the exception of Star Wars, I hadn’t seen a single one of the movies he cited. It made me wonder if the formulas he was promoting were as applicable to the Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction my kidlit colleagues and I were writing, as they were to the thrillers and crime movies he used as his examples. As a result, I took it upon myself to put his formula to the test.
I picked random books off my bookshelf, checked how many pages were in the novel, divided by four, then opened the book to the 25% and 50% mark to see if there was, in fact, a crossing over scene and a near death scene. In my not-so-scientific study, I looked at approximately twenty novels and, for the most part, Vogler’s markers held true. The following three novels were typical of the results.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green (YA) – 313 pages
- Crossing Over: On page 78 (25%), Gus and Hazel receive an invitation from their favorite author to travel to Amsterdam and spend the day with him. Admittedly not the actual “crossing over” to Europe, but it sets up the trip which comes just a little bit later. I call this good enough.
- Near Death: On page 156 (50%), Gus and Hazel meet their favorite author and are crushed to learn that he’s a complete a**hole. This is such a major bummer, that it should count as a kind of death in anyone’s book (literal or figurative).
PRIDE & PREJUDICE by Jane Austen (Classic Novel) – 367 Pages
- Crossing Over: On page 90 (25%), Lizzie attends a ball at Netherfield Place and agrees to dance with Mr. Darcy for the first time, creating a “crossing over” in their relationship.
- Near Death: On page 185 (50%), Lizzie and Darcy have a “near death” in their relationship when he proposes, she refuses, and they part ways.
DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth (YA novel) – 487 pages
- Crossing Over: There is a dramatic crossing over in this novel when Tris leaves Abnegation faction and joins Dauntless. However, it happens a little earlier than Vogler suggests, on page 48 and at the 10% mark. This, I found, was most typical for YA–getting the character into their new environment/situation often within the first 30-45 pages.
- Near Death: On page 243 (50%) Tris learns that her choice to join Dauntless has put her father and her whole former faction under suspicion and potential attack, threatening the survival of their society.
But now what? How do you apply it to your own work? For me, I’ve applied Vogler’s formula in both my outlining and my editing. First, when outlining and brain storming the novel I want to write, I try to come up with all kinds of “crossings over” and “near deaths.” Here are some possibilities to get your wheels turning:
1. Starting a new school or a new job; moving to a new country
2. Turning 18
3. Accidentally getting off an elevator on the wrong floor, only to come face-to-face with Mr. Right
4. Signing Divorce papers
1. Fired from dream job
2. Kicked out of the popular clique in high school leads to 3 days locked in bedroom listening to emo music.
3. Main character doesn’t get the part she wanted in the school play causing her to question her purpose in life
4. Food poisoning from a bad clam puts Main Character in hospital and she has to miss meeting with important client.
Once I decide what type of crossing over and near death makes the most sense for my overall plot, I do my best to place these scenes at their appropriate markers. Then, after the first draft writing is done, I apply the same process I did to the books on my bookshelf. I count my pages, open to the 25% and 50% mark and see if my crossing over and near death scenes ended up where they were supposed to end up, or whether they got shifted during the writing process. On occasion, if they have been way off the mark, I have shuffled the order of my scenes to hit the targets. As I mentioned above, when it comes to kidlit crossings over, I let the marker drift closer to the beginning of the book.
The result is a well-structured novel that meets readers expectations when it comes to pacing, and that is a beautiful thing.
So what do you think? Let me know if you’ve got some more brilliant ideas for crossings over and near deaths. Also, let me know if you try this experiment with any of the books on your shelf and if your favorites hit Vogler’s markers.