What if your Story Doesn’t Fit in One Structure?
Every story has an intrinsic structure. Beginning, middle, end. Turning points. Rising tension. Conflict. Climax.
An author has a number of structures to choose from when crafting her story, including the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise. These two structures are mirrors of one another. They describe the same structural elements in a story, but from different perspectives.
The Hero’s Journey is the protagonist’s journey into the greater world.
In the Hero’s Journey, the hero leaves her village in search of adventure. She endures trials to attain an external treasure. She is transformed, often redeemed, by her adventure. She returns to the village carrying the treasure she sought. In the Hero’s Journey, the hero’s transformation enables her to conform to the village’s expectations.
The Virgin’s Promise is the hero’s discovery of her own power.
In the Virgin’s Promise, the hero stays in the village. She struggles with conformity, discovers her inner light, and dares to share it with her community. She is the treasure the village needs. In the Virgin’s Promise, the village must transform to accommodate her intrinsic value.
The Hero’s Journey leads her to conform to external expectations. In contrast, the Virgin’s Promise allows the hero to break free of external constraints.
A writer can employ both structures in her story, allowing her to create a more nuanced protagonist and a story that satisfies on several levels.
You can find an example of this in Rocky. In the movie, Rocky Balboa is a loan shark’s enforcer, using his fists to collect on overdue debts. He’s an outsider in his community, a thug. He’s afraid to claim his dream of being a boxer, and so lives a small, constrained, lonely life.
But his mentor sees more in him, and challenges him to live up to his potential. The opportunity to do that is thrust upon Rocky when he is given the chance to fight the world champion in a championship bout. In accepting the challenge, Rocky must both leave his ordinary world in search of adventure, and he must discover his inner light and reveal it to his community.
Although the community wants Rocky to return with the championship belt as the treasure, the world champion is a formidable foe. Rocky’s wish is to go the distance, to fight all fifteen rounds, something no other fighter has ever done against Rocky’s opponent. At the end of the fight, Rocky loses in a split decision. But he’s survived fifteen brutal rounds.
He defines his own victory, seizes his own treasure. In going the distance he shows the world that Rocky Balboa is someone very special. Although he doesn’t return to his community with the treasure they wanted, it must accept the treasure he brings or lose him and be less than it was. The community must acknowledge his unique accomplishment.
The movie satisfies the Hero’s Journey structure by showing Rocky enduring trials greater than any boxer before him. By transforming, becoming a better man. He’s no longer Rocky, the loser knee breaker with the impossible dream. He carries the treasure, the world’s admiration for going the distance, the gift of possibility for all, back to his community. If the community accepts his treasure it can thrive.
The movie also satisfies the Virgin’s Promise structure. He stays in his community. He discovers his gifts, develops them, reveals them and acknowledges his intrinsic worth. By living up to his full potential he becomes Rocky, the famous boxer with a future. He becomes the treasure. His community must transform to accept the change he brings. It is no longer a community that limits its members to narrow, working-class aspirations. It can accept members with broader aspirations, different dreams.
Rocky was made in 28 days for $1.5 million.
The result? It earned $225 million, won the Oscar for best picture in 1976 and is now on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best movies of all time.
In the class I’m teaching next month, I discuss a number of story structures, among them the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise, and show how layering and combining structures can help you to build your own deeper, more nuanced stories.
LAYERED PLOT TECHNIQUES
with Terrel Hoffman
August 4-31, 2014
In her previous life Terrel Hoffman studied physics, researched superconductors and wrote documentation for engineers. In her current incarnation, she writes paranormal romance and steampunk fantasy, and teaches writing topics like this one. In addition to her degree in Physics and her educational forays into math and technical writing, she has trained to be a life coach. She is a certified guardian ad litem, has mentored at-risk kids on probation and has served as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in dependency. She holds memberships in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and RWA National, as well as several regional RWA chapters in the Pacific Northwest where she lives. The two cats who share her home assure her she is their property, and act accordingly.