Tuesday, March 1, 2016

0 The Reader's Response to the Hero's Journey Story Pattern and How to Use It to Build In Relatability

We all love the stories we weave in our heads, so much so that it can be hard to understand how other people can fail to find them equally fascinating. The reason for the lack of enthusiasm is often complicated. Sometimes the story is just a little too familiar, or not yet fully formed, or perhaps the characters simply don't display enough emotion or common ground with the reader to establish a firm connection. Often, though, it's a lack of familiarity that trips us up, a divergence from the pattern of story that readers have come to expect.

That's not to say that stories should all be the same. It's simply that there is a pattern to the structure that has been written and studied since Aristotle first set forth his theory of tragedy. That's since been expanded by Freytag, who applied it to virtually every type of story and gave it a visual roadmap with what's come to be called Freytag's pyramid. But these authors didn't invent the structure of plot; they simply pointed out what has existed in storytelling since early man first sat around a cookfire and described how the day's dinner had been fought and caught. 

Lisa Cron, in Wired for Story, points out that:

“Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.”

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, described used a phrase in his epic The Hero With a Thousand Faces that has always stuck with me as the essence of what the best stories invariably are, because they "echo the everlastingly recurrent theme of the wonderful song of the soul's high adventure."

It was Campbell who, through a comparative analysis of a wide range of mythologies, identified "The Hero's Journey," a common pattern of narrative that not only appears in book-length fiction and short stories, but also in drama and oral storytelling. More importantly, it mirrors our own psychological development. In short, it is a pattern that, as humans, we recognize and crave.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey, and a well-known writing coach, story analyst, and story consultant for film producers and studios points out:

"Such stories are true models of the workings of the human mined, true maps of the psyche. They are psychologically valid and realistic even when they portray fantastic, impossible, unreal events.

This accounts for the universal power of such stories. Stories built on the model of the hero myth have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal source in the collective unconscious, and because they reflect universal concerns. They deal with the child-like but universal questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go when I die? What is good and what is evil? What must I do about it? What will tomorrow be like? Where did yesterday go? Is there anybody else out there?"

The Hero's Journey pattern of story addresses this questions. It contains twelve elements, each with something specific to give your reader:

  1. The Ordinary World: The protagonist of the story, our hero, has some lack or dilemma in his life. He may be unaware of this, mildly aware of it, or aware enough to be uncomfortable, but it is this problem that creates the impetus that will take him on the adventure he is about to undertake. The storyteller introduces the hero in a way that not only evokes empathy in the audience, but lets them relate something about the hero to their own lives and creates a connection. We get a sense of the hero's personal background, passions, and the people he cares about. But we also see that there is something in his ordinary life that is causing him to be pulled in two directions, one way in which he pursues what he needs to do--what's expected of him, or perhaps even what he expects of himself versus what he wants deep down in the recesses of his soul. This set up gives the reader the contrast that he or she will need to understand how far the hero will go on the journey he is about to undertake and how different the world he will enter is from the world whence he came.
  2. The Call to Adventure: Something changes in the hero's life. Either there's an external situation that arises and adds pressure to push him in a particular direction, or there's a straw and the camel's back moment where the cries of his soul can no longer be denied. The reader recognizes and appreciates this polarity from his or her own life.
  3. Refusal of the Call: Fear, a sense of duty, warnings of danger or uncertainty, or a combination of factors prompts the hero to refuse to leave, to try to stick things out. We all hold back from undertaking something, knowingly or unknowingly, so this is familiar and relatable to the reader. 
  4. Meeting with the Mentor: Someone or something enables the hero to finally commit to the journey by providing advice, training, equipment, or added incentive, or alternately, some other impetus forces the hero to find the courage or wisdom inside himself to make the decision to go, much as the reader wishes to find a way to break free of something in his or her own life.
  5. Crossing the Threshold: The hero makes the commitment to leave his "Ordinary World" and set off into unfamiliar territory of some sort, whether that's an actual trip to someplace new, a journey of physical development like a task, or a mental challenge that will need to be undertaken. The rules of this new landscape are unfamiliar and fraught with danger, but there is now no turning back. The reader relishes this part of the story, because this is where he or she anticipates the adventure that will allow him or her to live vicariously through something bigger than his or her own life.
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Having crossed into the "Special" or extraordinary world of the journey, the hero meets new people and faces many challenges. He has to sort out friends from foes, make alliances, and find his own strengths and weaknesses. He is tested and grows through these tests, amassing tools and lessons that will ready him for the bigger test that's coming up. The reader sees himself in the hero and feels bigger and better as a result of that empathy.
  7. Approach. The hero discovers that there is a single, enormous challenge that he must conquer, and he and his allies prepare to face it. The reader is now so fully invested that he or she can't help turning the pages.
  8. The Ordeal: At about the midpoint of the story, the hero faces a life or death encounter or is forced to confront his greatest fear. Death in this case does not necessarily mean his own physical mortality. It can be the death of a dream, the death of a point of view, the death of a way of life, or the death of a part of himself. In some way this speaks to the two directions in which he was pulled at the beginning of the story, but he is still trying to cling to both what he wants and what he needs. He succeeds enough to receive new life or some kind of treasure, physical or figurative, and reemerges with a deeper understanding of himself and the world around him. Having found himself on the edge of his or her seat, the reader now knows what the hero doesn't: there's a reward coming, but it can be snatched away at any moment because having come through the Ordeal is only half the battle.
  9. The Reward: Having taken possession of the treasure he has won in the Ordeal, the hero soon learns or demonstrates that this is not the complete victory that was needed. Something holds him back and he risks losing the treasure once again through misunderstanding, incomplete knowledge, pursuit, or betrayal. The reader feels edgy and filled with anticipation, eagerly turning the pages even more quickly.
  10. The Road Back: With only a quarter of the story left to go, the hero has the end of his journey in his sights. He is more determined than ever to finish his task and take the treasure home, and he takes leave of the Special World to take it back with him, but forces that he hasn't fully vanquished yet bedevil him. This may be his own demons or character weaknesses, or antagonists who physically chase him and put his life in danger. The reader knows the battle is coming, but can't help but feel the false sense of triumph or defeat along with the hero.
  11. The Resurrection: Well on his way home, the hero faces a final, epic do-or-die-trying battle. Finally, he must resolve the polarity between what he wants and what he needs. He makes a final sacrifice and dies and is reborn again, but this time the experience is greater and more complete and lasting. The reader doesn't know which way the story will go this time--the hero could win completely, partially, or fail. 
  12. Return with the Elixir: The hero either makes it home or heads of on another leg of the journey with some kind of treasure or knowledge that has the ability to change the world he knows in the same way that he himself has been changed by the lessons he has learned and the gifts he has won.  The reader has empathized deeply with the story and feels rewarded by the meeting of his expectations on the story structure level and is therefore able to focus on appreciating all the unique twists and turns and bits of magic that the individual author has created to embellish the framework.
Consider your own story against the above pattern. Can you see the similarities? Can you see where you're missing any of the elements, or where you need to heighten them?

Let me try giving you the same structure in a slightly different way. There are thirteen basic questions, and by answering them, you can make sure your story is going to work at the primal level.

  1. Where does your story truly begin and how does this show or hint at some unhappiness on the part of your character, a secret yearning or problem in his or her world order? Give a one-sentence or brief paragraph description that sets the stage of the world and situation that is "normal" for your character and hints at the problem that makes continuing like that untenable? 
  2. Who is your protagonist and what are the special traits, strengths, and weaknesses that will come to play in the plot? Get down to the core personality characteristics and skills of your character that lead him or her into trouble and back out of it. What is your character clueless about? What's his or her fatal flaw? How does what he or she needs to resolve in his or her world conflict with what, deep down, he or she needs to make him or her whole as a person?
  3. What's the inciting incident? What event tips the scales of the current status quo and makes the character first start to confront what's wrong with his world so that he/she is unable to continue leading his or her current life?
  4. What's the first big decision on which the story turns? What's decision does the protagonist make after the inciting incident that leads him or her out of the normal life and into the action of the story? How does that contribute to his/her self-awareness or outlook about the life he/she has been living?
  5. What happens to the protagonist as a result of that decision? What characters does he/she encounter and how does the situation worsen, endangering him/her physically, mentally, or emotionally?
  6. What's the midpoint twist? What happens that drives the character into an EPIC change of thought, behavior, character, or plot/direction? 
  7. What's the change in the character's emotion? How does the midpoint incident change the protagonist's awareness of self, own character, understanding of other character's or of the circumstances to make them see the world differently than before? How does this lead to a new decision for how to proceed?
  8. How does incomplete understanding the protagonist just gleaned lead to a catastrophe that snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? It looks like whatever plan the protagonist concocted is going to work, but there was something wrong with it and just when the protagonist looked like he or she was going to win, something catastrophic happened to make everything go wrong at the last minute. This could be the antagonist out-maneuvering the protagonist, but why didn't the protagonist see that coming?
  9. What does this realization, coupled with the catastrophe, make the protagonist see when searching his or her soul at this darkest moment? The protagonist is utterly defeated, emotionally as well as physically. Not only have things gone pear-shaped, but he or she has to face the truth about something in his or her life or character that makes it seem impossible to continue. 
  10. How does the protagonist pick up the pieces and find the strength to continue? Somehow, the protagonist digs deep and discovers that he or she has to keep going. Not only that, but now fully armed with self-knowledge, he or she makes a decision that will lead up to the final make or break confrontation. This can set him or her up for defeat or victory, and the knowledge doesn't have to be accurate. That all depends on whether you want a happy ending, or whether a happy ending is even possible. : )
  11. What's the final confrontation? How do all the events so far lead to a coming together of the parties where the story question can be decided once and for all? If possible, this should pit not only the antagonist against the protagonist, but also the protagonist against him or herself by forcing a decision that makes him or her give up either what he or she needs to be complete as a person against what he or she needs in order to effect the change in circumstances that needed to be repaired.
  12. How did the final confrontation change or resolve the situation? Tie up all the loose ends and subplots, not just for your main character but for all the main characters, and look for some way to underscore the theme of the book, the lesson that you want the character or the reader to take away.
  13. Where does the story end? Leave the reader with a snapshot that suggests what will happen in the future and shows the change in the characters circumstances and character from the beginning of the book.
The questions are really just another way of wringing the story out of your heart and getting it on paper. Chances are, if you love your story, you already know the answers. If you don't, dig just a little bit deeper, and you'll be bringing your book to a level that readers will intrinsically recognize as a "solid" story. One that meets their unacknowledged but nevertheless deeply rooted expectations.

Bottom line? The structure is adaptable. There are no hard and fast rules to how you apply it, nothing that says write this, then that, then that. Don't think of The Hero's Journey as a restraint on your creativity, but rather as the cushion that you can use to hold your reader comfortably enough so that he or she can appreciate your creativity in applying the structure to the story that only you can tell.

We'll take a deeper look at some of the elements in the coming weeks.

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.

Purchase Compulsion Now:

Praise for Compulsion:

"Boone’s southern gothic certainly delivers a compelling mystery about feuding families and buried secrets, not to mention a steamy romance.” — Booklist

“Skillfully blends rich magic and folklore with adventure, sweeping romance, and hidden treasure . . . An impressive start to the Heirs of Watson Island series.” — Publishers Weekly

"Darkly romantic and steeped in Southern Gothic charm, you'll be compelled to get lost in the Heirs of Watson Island series." —  #1 New York Times Bestselling Author Jennifer L. Armentrout

"A fresh twist on the Southern Gothic — haunting, atmospheric, and absorbing.” — Claudia Gray, New York Times bestselling author of the Firebird, Evernight, and Spellcaster series

"Compulsion is a stunningly magical debut with a delicious slow burn to be savored. I want to live in this story world!" — Wendy Higgins, USA Today and NYT bestselling author of the Sweet Evil Trilogy from HarperTeen

"Beautifully written, with vivid characters, a generations-old feud, and romance that leaps off the page, this Southern ghost story left me lingering over every word, and yet wanting to race to the compelling finish. Martina Boone's COMPULSION is not to be missed." — Megan Shepherd, Author of THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER

"Martina Boone's COMPULSION is the perfect southern family saga, charming and steamy on the surface, with cold-blooded secrets buried down deep. What more do you want? More time to read it, that's what." — Kendare Blake, author of ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD and ANTIGODESS

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