I’ve been learning a lot about story for a long time now.
I don’t know when I first started down this path, but I can tell you it was in late 2009. My friend and fellow author Bryce Beattie pointed me toward a site called StoryFix.com, and I found someone there in Larry Brooks who opened my eyes to something I’d not been able to get my head around since high school: The three-act story structure.
Basically, that got me started on studying the structure of a story. I practiced using the method Larry posited – which actually wasn’t three-act, but four-part story structure – and trying to build stories around it so they’d have all the key elements in place. I knew, deep in my heart, this is what I’d been lacking as a writer all along.
When I could dissect a movie on the fly and identify the milestones as they came, and I could teach this to my young children (at the time, eight and four respectively), I knew I had the hang of it. With a story idea in mind, I dropped one of my previously planned novels onto the structure and proceeded to hang the elements where I thought they belonged.
That book turned into my novel Scales of Justice, and it was, in my mind, the best thing I’d written to that point in my life. I had all the elements, even if I missed some of the timing (I think my “set up” ran long, but I got a hook and inciting incident in early.)
It turned out, it wasn’t the best book it could be anyway, but that probably wouldn’t be the case no matter what. A reviewer on Amazon showed me I’d missed the obvious ending to my novel somehow and so, it ends much flatter than it should. But before that, I thought I had something special. It’s just there was… something missing. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
While I worked on Scales, I continued seeking more and more in-depth story structure information, believing somehow I must have missed something. What I stumbled on was The Hero’s Journey, a story model by Chris Vogler, based on the work of Joseph Campbell in his study of myth and story from around the world called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vogler’s work, The Writer’s Journey, condensed and clarified the ideas in Campbell’s work to a workable degree. (I found out about The Hero’s Journey model while reading James Scott Bell’s excellent Plot and Structure, in which he points out how The Hero’s Journey correlates and integrates to the standard three-act structure he uses. Magnificent!)
Armed with yet another story planning method, I searched the web until I found an outline template I could use to work up a story in The Hero’s Journey model. So, with another story already planned for the most part in my head, I sat down with my wife and we hammered through THJ outline form, filling in the pieces of my story and developing it further until we felt we had something.
As a matter of practice, I also took my beloved four-part story structure map and its five milestones and have always used THJ in conjunction. Since two are better than one, I figured I’d have a well rounded story in place when completed. And I did.
But, it wasn’t as well rounded as it could be, and when I discovered still another method a few months later which added and compounded the depth and richness of a story, I was floored. I had to have it. I began to incorporate it right away.
More on that next time.