Friday, April 3, 2015

The Big "W" and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey Story Arc

Writing a book is hard work.  So it helps to get help--anything that has worked before.  What makes a story satisfying?  What keeps us reading?  One writer who has solved this question for many of us:  Joseph Campbell, his Hero's Journey, and the W structure that evolved from his work.

Campbell offered a classic definition of mythic structure in storytelling.  The narrator, the hero, starts a quest and faces challenges that change him or her by the end.  It's the structure you see in so many films, books, and classic fairytales.  Most movies out of Hollywood follow this structure. 

In the big W, there are three defined sections, or three acts.  Each gives the story a certain kind of movement, up or down.  The sequence creates a W, falling action and rising action, back and forth. 

Since a book is a big project, this template can make order out of your pages of chaos.  First question to ask yourself:  can you divide your story into a rough beginning, middle, and end?  Good. 

Next questions:  Does the beginning provide a challenge, an initial crisis (also called a "triggering" event because it's similar to pulling the trigger on a gun--it must propel change).

In the middle, do events get more complex?  Maybe the initial crisis becomes bigger.  Maybe more a problem isn't solved as easily as we expected.  Do positive events change someone's life in some way, causing their own problems? 

Finally, is there change by the end?  Do things resolve at all?  What is different about your hero by the final page?

These are the basic elements of the big W.  Use its template to check your book's structure.  You may find some pieces missing!  If so, read on.

Act One:  Set Up a Strong Beginning
Dilemma must be present in the beginning of your story.  In my writing workshops, we read recently published books to locate the opening dilemma, the triggering event.  Often it is on page 1 or 2.  That's normal in today's publishing world--readers want to know what's at stake, right out the gate.
Some writers question this.  They prefer what I call the Tolstoy approach.  Tolstoy used the first seven chapters of War and Peace to set up his characters, setting, and background information.  You may love this slow entry into books, but would Tolstoy be published today?  I'm not certain.  If you're interested in being published, you may have to set aside this slow entry idea.  You may have to move your backstory out of the way.

Backstory is the background of the story--and so many writers place it first.  I once read a student's mystery manuscript, where backstory comprised the first four chapters.  As a reader, I lost interest fast.  I skimmed ahead to where something happened.  Backstory is history.  It's not electric for your reader now.  Readers are smart--they want to get into the problem first, then hear about how it happened.   

Ask yourself, Is the dilemma presented immediately and clearly? Is it big enough to propel the entire book? Remember that a triggering event should be an externalized action without which the story would not happen.
Act Two:  Accelerating the Tension in the Middle  
Act two is the next two legs of the W, the upside down V.  It offers a rising action first.  Hope, new ideas, a friend, a possible solution!  The rollercoaster cranks up a steeper slope, we get a new view, and the tension builds.  After  a tiny pause at the top of the grade, act two drops like a stone.  Another falling action plummets us to a new low.

Act two, or a book's middle, is a tricky part.  It's easy to get sleepy here.  How many books have you abandoned as a reader, after a great start, because of the slow down?  The big W helps you avoid that.   

I like to call act two the arena of "new complications."  It should make your hero's journey a lot more complex.  Does it?   

By the end of act two, things are at the lowest point.  We encounter a crisis of greater magnitude than any other moment in the story.   Things really fall apart now.   The tension is intense, with a sense that there's no way out. Ask yourself:  Do my act two make everything more complicated?  Does the bottom of act two contain the worst moment in the book?   If not, then think about ways you can show the dilemma worsening.   What complications can you add to heighten the tension?   Make sure what you are revealing feels much more complicated than at the first turning point.

Act Three:  Finishing with a Surprise
Act three is the final leg of the big W.  It offers a rising action, an upward movement--new solutions, the mystery solved, a new identity for your hero, a new perspective.  

Whether something unexpected is revealed or a new level of understanding brought to light, make sure the dilemma of your book is resolved.  Or if not resolved, at least talked about why it's not resolved.   I'm not talking Hallmark card saccharine stuff here.  Just some tying up of the mystery.

Act three is like a big exhale of tension.  It delivers a new level of clarity about the story or subject. Your characters might  realize how much they have grown, and how overcoming all those dilemmas earned them their insights.
Ask yourself:  Does my book have a new revelation or realization or discovery at the end of the story?     

Not all writers like this big W theory of story structure, but it has been a lifesaver for me.  It's helped me produce and publish so many books, that I can't imagine not having it in my back pocket.  It helps me check my creative flow against something solid and structural. 

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