Plot Rules Work Best if You Tailor Them.
Joseph Campbell famously dissected the Hero’s journey into specific plot points, a bit like how a tailor might pin the cloth for a suit, and left it to his students to craft their stories using these guideposts.
To paraphrase and condense Mr. Campbell, Shakespeare, Blake Snyder, David Trottier, and Christopher Riley, I see the basic plot pattern as such:
- We start in an ordinary world with an immature Hero.
- The Hero does something endearing, saves a cat or gives a kid a cookie, which helps the audience relate to them and become invested in their goals.
- The antagonist is introduced.
- A disrupting force threatens the routine world.
- The Hero refuses to take ownership of the ordinary world or defend it.
- The Hero meets a mentor who hints at the path the Hero should take.
- The disrupting force irreversibly alters the ordinary world, and the Hero is obliged to take action to accomplish goal 1 (the fake ring).
- The Hero enters a new world and fails miserably to adapt.
- The Hero is humbled by their failure and learns to accept help from others.
Through this interaction, goal 1 is found to be the dust jacket for the real problem – Goal 2.
- The Hero matures in the new world and earns a unique skill or weapon that the audience is made to believe will help them win the day.
- A disrupting force, usually something that has been percolating in the B story, boils over into the A plot and the Hero fails.
- The mentor dies.
- Then, through personal sacrifice or integrity, the Hero unexpectedly achieves goal 2 (This dovetails with the death or humiliation of the antagonist who has been the engine keeping the Hero from reaching goal 2).
- The Hero accepts ownership for the ordinary world and returns to it with the experience and skill (elixir) to make it better.
- The Hero should end up where the script started – completing the story circle.
A good story often has a sub-plot that runs concurrently with plot A. It adds comic relief, prevents lulls, and allows the audience a mental break to subliminally process the developing A plot. It often centers on the supporting characters.
- The immature sub-Hero has a flaw, often comedic, that prevents them from reaching their potential.
- They understand the rules of the new world and help explain them to the audience.
- They allow the audience to see the Hero from a different angle.
- They trust or believe in the Hero’s potential and see them as a role model.
- They are let down by Hero.
- The Hero’s sacrifice and transformation make it possible for the sub-Hero to overcome their own flaw.
- The Hero redeems themselves in the sub-Hero’s eyes.
- The mature Sub-Hero commits to helping the Hero protect the ordinary world.
Reading anything by the authors above will ensure the writer develops a basic understanding of plotting. Only, no wants to wear the ten-dollar machine made suit. They want the tailored-one-of-a-kind-no-one-has -ever-thought-to-do-it-that-way fashion statement that only someone who is familiar with the expected plot can provide. You have to know the rules to change them:
- What if the sub-Hero refuses to forgive the Hero?
- What if the mentor lives and saves the day instead of the Hero?
- What if there is no ordinary world to go back to?
- What if the Hero falls in love with the antagonist?
- What if the sacrifice the Hero must make is the life of the sub-Hero?
- What if the Hero returns to the ordinary world and it has solved its own problem?
You’ll notice how your mind rebels against each of the suggestions above. The story doesn’t feel right. That’s not how things are supposed to end up. You’re right, and your audience will be upset if you leave it that way.
The trick is to drag this false plot out just long enough so that they almost believe the story will end this way before you fix it and put everything right again – the ultimate tailor’s twist. This is a more challenging plot to write but one that people will remember.
Writers are dreamers who refuse to wake up.
I hope this helps – D.C. Lozar.