When it comes to the structure of our story, as writer’s it’s too easy to say, “I’ll just let my characters play it out. I don’t need to follow a formula.” That works for some writers, but for most, structure is what helps take the story in our mind and allow it to flow properly. It could be something as basic as the three-act structure to something as calculated as using Proppian Analysis.
A good place to start your story, especially if you’re a beginner, is with Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” from his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It follows the typical three-act structure, but it breaks it down into easy plot points. You don’t have to use all of them and you don’t have to complete them in the same order, but having a ball of string to get you through the labyrinth of your story ideas can make all the difference.
The first act is called the Departure. Your character is in their primal stage where the audience gets to know them before their character development takes place. We must see all that they are and will leave behind for the purpose of the story.
Call to Adventure
Your protagonist is given the choice to make great changes in their life, good or bad. This could be something they discover on their own or someone leads them to.
Refusal of the Call
A character who leaps at the prospect of change and entering the unknown will seem unrealistic. Think about your own life. While some people may have no qualms leaving their comfortable life to go way out of their comfort zone, most people will need time to come to grips with this change in plans.
Not all characters will go willingly, either. Think of how John Wick was brought out of retirement by the desire for revenge. Many times this refusal happens right before the character is catapulted into the conflict.
Meeting the Mentor
Usually, the protagonist can’t do it alone. If they could, there would be no need for character development. A mentor can be in many different forms, but are usually seen as someone who grants the protagonist something that helps them move forward. A weapon, knowledge, or even offering the protagonist their own skills. In Proppian analysis, this could be seen as a donor cycle.
Crossing the First Threshold
The hero may have committed to the adventure, but this is their first foot forward. This is the point of no return. It doesn’t have to be a physical crossing, in fact, in most stories, the first threshold is the first hurdle the character jumps over on their progress of development. Once the character does an action that changes an aspect of their character, there is no way they can go back to the same life they had.
Belly of the Whale
While the character may have taken the first step toward change, this is the final separation of what the hero knew to be true to what they know now. It’s a stage of enlightenment where some sort of wool over their eyes is removed due to their actions. This is the red pill from The Matrix. It throws the protagonist into the next stage: Initiation.
This is the time for your hero to be tested. This is the trial by fire that will forge your protagonist and give them the character development that they need to make it through the plot. It won’t be easy and it shouldn’t be.
The Road of Trials
Your hero will enter a series of tests that move them forward through the plot and help break down their character to allow room for development and growth. They will fail many, but when they overcome the trials, they move forward to the next step.
The Meeting with the Goddess
Most of the stepping stones so far have been pretty self-explanatory, however, this one is often up to interpretation. It doesn’t have to be a woman or a goddess or even be a meeting. All that happens is the hero has bestowed a gift that helps them on their journey. In older stories like The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, this was the moment where Ishtar (although also the Temptress) or Athena gift the hero with a special ability or tool.
While it’s not used so literally in stories now, it is still a moment where the hero is granted a reward for their hard work. This is where they have gained some sort of fame or notoriety and from that, they are granted access to something that they couldn’t have before their current character development.
The Woman as Temptress
Most of the titles that deal with a specific character are more like symbols. In this, the hero won’t necessarily be meeting a woman, but they will be tempted. Think of it this way: your hero has undergone a character development in a short time and now have to confront what that means. Maybe they are more powerful or less selfish, but they’re only halfway.
We’re all human and we know how difficult it is to change. This could be where your protagonist struggles at the top of the hill of their development. This is when they’ve burned out of their momentum and must decide whether to give in to their fatigue and roll all the way back down or push their limits and make it to a point where they know they can move forward. Not all make it over that hill.
Atonement with the Father / Abyss
This is that hilltop. The protagonist must confront what it is that is holding them back from achieving their complete character development. Since the father is symbolically the figure who controls the power of life and death or a tight grip over the protagonist’s life. Everything the character has done has led up to this confrontation with themselves (abyss) or an external force (father).
Your protagonist has finally achieved that sweet, sweet character development. They’ve gone from making and selling weapons to saving lives (Iron Man 2008) or from working independently to becoming part of a team (Ready Player One). Your character has made it. This may also become a lull into vulnerability as the danger is not over yet.
The Ultimate Boon
The goal of the protagonist is achieved. It may not be what they were seeking, but it ends up being what they need or never knew they needed. In Shape of Water, Elisa is healed and given lungs by the creature even though that wasn’t the plan.
While this is usually the resolution of the story, some films, like The Hitman’s Bodyguard, lead to a final act from the defeated antagonist force before the storm goes quiet.
Refusal of the Return
The protagonist may pause before returning to their life before the adventure. This could be because they are not the same person they were and do not find that life appealing anymore or because they worry they may regress and return to that person they once were.
The Magic Flight
This is where something goes wrong and the hero must escape with the “boon” or the product of the adventure. Flights aren’t always successful. In Baby Driver, Baby and Deborah surrender at a roadblock, their flight cut short. However, he still has his freedom from the crew of thieves.
Rescue from Without
Sometimes, the transfer from one world (chaos and conflict) to the other (normalcy) can be too difficult for some protagonists and they need help. This could be nurturing from wounds or rebuilding their life that was destroyed as a catalyst to their leaving it. It is always good to note that your protagonist doesn’t have to go through all of these steps alone. Sometimes part of character development is letting others in and working as a team.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
This marks the end of the adventure. The story is done. While the character has wisdom from the events and may have made allies along the way, the conflict has been resolved. The tricky part is whether the character decides to retain this wisdom and continue to practice it and maintain their character development, or whether they are tempted back into old habits. Characters aren’t perfect.
Master of Two Worlds
With this wisdom, characters now have a new perspective of the world around them than they did before the journey. They can share this knowledge and create a better world or keep it to themselves and make their lives better. Maybe this knowledge is too dangerous to pass on to others who didn’t go through the process your protagonist did, but they can use it to keep those who are ignorant safe. Like the final balance between Venom and Eddie in Venom.
Freedom to Live
Having flown so close to the sun, your protagonist now has an appreciation for some simple things. They may know better, but approach life with more excitement and curiosity than before. Perhaps they lost a friend along the way and have learned to appreciate others more. Not all characters end happily, but if they do it stems from their character development and the trials that tested them along the way.
While Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is a favorite beginning structure for writers whether they’re just starting out or whether they have a small idea that they want to develop quickly. It’s not for everyone and it’s not meant to be the end-all be-all of story writing.
If you want to test your own skills, outline a story and see how many points you hit. Coincidence? Maybe, but the reason it’s taught is because it works. I may be able to take apart The Wizard of Oz with this structure, but that doesn’t mean it was written with it or that you have to use it. Writing should never feel like a chore, so if following this structure sucks, then stop using it. There are several other approaches and structure styles that you can try and I encourage all writers to find the one that works best, even if that’s writing by the seat of your pants!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.