HOLY CRAP! That all looks confusing, doesn’t it? That’s because it’s a combination of story theory but it all fits into the classic “Hero’s Journey” paradigm popularized by Joseph Campbell and based on … everybody. Read about it here.
Most modern story structure stuff is from screenwriting. That’s because “screenplay is structure.” Notice the above image has a timeframe at the bottom. That’s the minute in the movie where that thing occurs. (All things are general.) But this works for all dramatic narrative including the genre works of indie writers who may never have had a class in any of this stuff.
This is actually helpful! Don’t run off yet, we have color coming… and movies…
I know. It’s about screenwriting – it works for all of us: watch…
Here’s a much simpler diagram of the top image:
Watch the whole presentation here.
DECOSTRUCTING ON HIS KNEES
I’M GOING TO SPOIL THE WHOLE THING HERE, IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT. here
My intent is to show that structure is inherent in storytelling no matter whose brand or way of explaining it you resonate with. Knees is a novella, not a short story. For anyone who hasn’t read it the synopsis is:
A homicide cop often troubled by the shit he sees, gets relief from these inner demons by going to a BDSM club and finding a Dom (male) to beat the crap out of him, to break through the wall he erects between himself and the feelings he has to repress to be objective on duty. This is the worst shit yet and needs a special Dom.
There’s a gigantic diagram <– see it in the original – I’ve cut into pieces that shows the basics of structure for six movies. I’m going to show how On His Knees, which just looks like a 14k sex scene to a lot of people, also follows the classic structure.
ON HIS KNEES: ORDINARY WORLD
The story opens with Hunter in the shower trying to wash away his tension. This is his ordinary world. But …
He didn’t need to see the sharp-shadowed outlines on his body to know his muscles remained taut, the ligaments and tendons stretched. And no amount of time under the shower was going to change that. Not after today’s scene.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CALL TO ADVENTURE?
In this story it happened in Hunter’s world 2 years before. It is still placed in the narrative after the ordinary world through a flashback to the first time he meets Dom Camden Snow. In standard structure, the hero refuses the first call:
And Hunter did …
I wanted to give him everything, simply because he existed. And looked at me.
He reached out and put a hand on the side of my neck, his thumb skating lightly along my jawline and down, across my larynx. My insides turned to water.
Don’t pick me. Please.
Hunter spends two years walking by Cam, refusing the call. Until his need sends him to seek out the one who can lead him on his quest for freedom from psychic pain: his true mentor, Camden Snow.
I found him tonight, as always, already aware of me – waiting for me to find him.
This time, I didn’t look away.
Cam’s chin came up, his head back, his gaze not challenging, but direct. You know my terms.
A frisson of fear spiked adrenaline through my system. My balls drew up, but my cock rolled over—I could still walk past him.
The club’s sounds subsided as those nearby became aware of the dynamic in play between us. They knew he did what he wanted, where he wanted. In private or public. Merciless.
He tilted his head. Well?
The last thing I needed was mercy.
I dropped to my knees.
Dropping to his knees is Hunter Dane crossing the threshold. In the classic structure, the hero immediately faces tests. And so does Hunter as Cam does exactly that. He humiliates and uses him in front of the club crowd to test his commitment and resolve to surrender. Then Cam asks for the ultimate commitment…
Cam touched his lips to Hunter’s ear, again. He spoke without force. “There are no limits. You have no safeword. You do nothing I do not order. I don’t stop until I’m done.”
He waited, but Hunter made no movement or protest.
“You have one chance to walk away. Once I restrain you, nothing and no one can or will rescue you. I am all there is.” Cam released him.
THE APPROACH TO THE INNERMOST CAVE
Cam leads a bound Hunter Dane to a huge playroom where he locks everyone out and them in. This is the “outer cave” from which they will approach the innermost cave, which, in this story, is within Hero. He is prepared by being stripped, required to perform actions that are challenging, but not onerous.
But as they move deeper into the “cave” the demands are greater. Hero, stripped of his armor, is tormented in expected and unique ways by his mentor, preparing him for final battle. This is Hero’s “all is lost” moment—nothing is familiar, he is totally without his usual tools or controls. He breaks down and begs, but his pleas go unheeded.
This dark, powerful man had needed Cam to master him, and now he had. Hunter also needed Cam to break him. Now, finally, he could.
Cam takes Hunter to the “Innermost cave.” Represented by a special kind of whole-body restraint device, Hunter is forced to face his demons.
THE REWARD AND THE ROAD BACK
In this story, the reward is not a throne or a rescue or a treasure. The reward is freedom from inner tyranny, a suffering so extreme Hunter Dane secretly fears he cannot survive it.
But he wisely gave up control when he first entered this quest. His reward for sacrifice, after a last ultimate ordeal, is his own freedom. And that was the key to his survival.
Cam takes Hunter, broken and exhausted, to the safety of an inner sanctum: his road back.
THE RESURRECTION AND THE ELIXIR
In the morning, Hunter awakens in bed with Cam. In the “resurrection” we find Hero changed, the character arc complete.
Hunter showers (washing away the past and pains of the ordeal), gets food (replenishes his strength) and swings wide a hidden window to the bright sunlight of a new day. (rebirth)
In this story, the first of a series, Hunter, himself, doesn’t realize how profoundly he has and will change. He gives an account of the reward, treasure found at the end of the quest…
“Here’s the thing. You gave me everything I needed last night. I’m not sure there’s anyone else who could have done what you did.”
Cam looked skeptical.
Hunter smiled. “I slept. No dreams, no drugs, no alcohol, no nightmares. I slept. Hard. For almost eight hours. And this morning, I’m good. It’s remarkable. You gave me that. And – I want to do something for you.”
What’s the “elixir?” What is the indelible, immutable thing every hero brings back? The change in themselves, the character arc, which is the only reason to write or read a story—the hero’s journey. Not into space or out of a closet or into a new job or a new romance. It’s the hero’s journey into—and out of—themselves.
Harry Potter brought back his true self. He was a wizard, he owned his magic and nothing and no one on Privet Drive could ever take that away. Luke Skywalker brings back his acceptance of his destiny.
Hunter Dane’s character arc goes on for 6 books. Now, he has his treasure, but he doesn’t quite recognize what it is, or what he is, or that he has entered a fundamentally new place through the courage of ultimate surrender and trust. He’s not quite sure what Cam is, but he is not willing to simply walk away, as he always has before.
Hunter has discovered possibility. Cam has made his mark on Hunter, that is the elixir—the indelible, immutable thing. And that is the call to adventure that is the thruline of the next five books.
NOBODY IS RIGHT AND THERE ARE NO RULES.
Sort of. If you read up on character types, one can fulfill several functions or you can skip some. There are a variety of lists.
As for structure, my books rarely have “all is lost” moments. Maybe they’d be better if they did, but I don’t think they lend themselves to my structure.
What about your stories? Do you orient your reader at all with an “ordinary world?” You don’t have to. But it does serve the purpose of allowing them to get “into” the character and story and adds some drama to your first plot point, that call to adventure.
They refuse. People hate change even when they want it. It can be a short refusal or a complex one. You don’t have to follow any pattern set by anyone. But it is good to be familiar, to have the tools in your writer’s kit.