A Story Begins with a Hero: Save the Cat! Creates a Character

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“So, no, I’m not here to change your process. I’m here to enhance your process.”

That’s a quote from the introduction to Save the Cat! Writes A Novel. The book’s author, Jessica Brody, goes on to state that her book isn’t so much a collection of guidelines about plotting or pantsing, but rather a consideration of story structure. That’s the great appeal of Save the Cat! Writes A Novel.

Story structure is universal; an author’s process is specific to an author.

But then I got to chapter one, and right away, from the moment Brody suggests using hero instead of, say, main character to label a book’s protagonist, I sensed a hero’s journey redux coming my way. Then again, I should have known after reading the introduction. After all, the hero’s journey is THE structure writers have been crowing about since the second half of the last decade.

I, however, have always felt uneasy about the hero’s journey. It is a veritable glass slipper, and heels have been sliced off to make a foot fit.

So, quiz time. What is the hero’s journey?

[1] A basic pattern that informs all storytelling, one based on a universal psychology

[2] A framework to analyze stories with

[3] Both [1] and [2]

[4] Some nonsense bullshit

Depending on who you are, you’ll answer either [1], [2], [3], or [4]. While it’s too early to tell, Save the Cat! Writes A Novel will probably fall firmly into [3]. Any book espousing guidelines for story structure essentializes storytelling by default, which means Save the Cat! Writes A Novel will most likely present its reader with not only a basic pattern that informs all storytelling but also a framework by which you can analyze your current work in progress. Or any book, for that matter.

Brody writes:

“Because whether you’ve ‘pantsed’ your way through a first draft, and now you have to figure out what to do with it to make it work, or you’re starting out with a shiny new idea and you want to plot in advance, it’s all the same thing in the end. We all have to do some plotting work somewhere, somehow.”

But what if you’re just starting on your novel writing journey? Where does Save the Cat! Writes A Novel suggest you begin?

A Story begins with a hero

That’s right. Instead of beginning with, say, a marketing strategy or a premise, you dive right into character building. According to Brody, crafting an “interesting, memorable, and relatable” hero requires:

A problem: or a flaw that needs fixing

A want: or a goal that the hero is pursuing

A need: or a life lesson to be learned

This is Brody’s three ingredient recipe for what she calls a flawed hero. As you can see, the word “flaw” is doing a lot of work here: a flaw can be a character trait, but it could also just be something like being poor. In Save the Cat! Writes A Novel, the dullest hero would be God as anything short of omnipotence, by Brody’s open definition, is a flawed condition. On the plus side, this means coming up with a “interesting, memorable, and relatable” hero should be easy peasy. Unless your chosen protagonist is God, that is.

Thinking about these three aspects of your character’s life will in turn inform two aspects of your story:

The A Story: which is the external story

The B Story: the internal story that usually end’s in a character’s transformation

Novel writing, then, is the matching of the A story to the B story, by arranging a “marriage” between story and character. While this suggests a kind of equality between the two, for Brody, the B story is by far the more important one: “The true story of a novel lies in the hero’s need, which can also be called the internal goal, the life lesson, or the spiritual lesson.”

Such alchemical transformation is, of course, fundamental to the hero’s quest. The hero experiences the events of his story and returns to his or her status quo irrevocably altered. Brody suggests that fictions have several such “universal” and transformative rasas: (1) forgiveness, (2) love, (3) acceptance, (4) faith, (5) fear, (6) trust, (7) survival, (8) selflessness, (9) responsibility, and (10) redemption. Brody says all books fall into these 10 categories. Of course, if you ask Victoria Lynn Schmidt, she might offer 54 different story themes, not including a blank one.

So, then, what about me and my current works in progress?

Let’s just say, I felt a knee-jerk resistance while reading the first chapter of Save the Cat! Writes A Novel. For starters, the hero’s journey has never excited my imagination. The only book I’ve ever read that replicated the hero’s journey in an almost paint by numbers manner is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and while that book is wonderfully imaginative- as is everything Gaiman writes, I didn’t find the story particularly gripping. (Of course, I’m not the right age demographic, but still).

The nice thing, however, is that since I’m using Save the Cat! Writes A Novel in conjunction with the snowflake method, I already had the external parts of the story somewhat figured out. My heroes and heroines had a story goal: a want or a problem. What they lacked was a defined need- a life lesson to be learned. I’ve played around with Brody’s ten options and tried to shoe horn my character into one or another of them. Each time, it feels like an assault.

My characters resist.

I resist.

Let’s just say that this week’s adventures in outlining has ended in failure.

Thank you for reading. This is post three in a series on becoming a plotter. Come back to see if this dyed in the wool x-treme pantser can change their spots. 

So You Wanna Outline Your Next Novel? Where Do You start?

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Where do you begin your novel plotting journey? Let’s see if Fräulein Maria has any advice about learning a new skill.

“Let’s start at the very beginning,” she warbles while sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere. “A very good place to start.”

Well, you can’t fault advice like that! She goes on to say:

“When you read you begin with A-B-C,
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi”

In short, you start with the basics!

But if that’s the case, where then do you start with the novel?

The answer to that is marketing, of course!

Know your target audience: marketing considerations, part one

In his writing guide, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson suggests you begin by imagining your reader.

Is she a woman? Is she a man?

Old? Young?

A teenybopper or a tyke?

Most writers will think, me! That I am my own target audience [see note]. After all, I’m not an anomaly- not much of one anyway- which means other readers just like me exist out there in the world. They will read what I write because in some sense they are me.

That’s sound thinking.

But I’d say this is the wrong way of looking at marketing. Publishing prefers clear-cut borders, and to see these borders structurally, and in the flesh, one can simply go to their local Barnes and Noble and see for themselves. There you will observe books split by age demographics: Adult, Young Adult (YA), Children. And also, by category: fiction and non-fiction being the two largest divisions. According to Ingermanson, old people only read non-fiction.

Of course, we know real readers don’t inhabit any such boundaries. Adult readers happily read YA and sometimes children’s books. Teenagers read books written for adults. And some children read YA or adult fiction. Heck, some kids read non-fiction. I certainly did when I was a wee child.

Anyway, Ingermanson suggests that there are psychological benefits to imagining your ideal reader. Chief among these is that their imaginary existence will provide much-needed motivational fuel as you tread the long path of completing your manuscript. They will also look over your shoulder as you scribble or type, hoping to be satisfied with the content of your output. Which leads us to reader expectations.

Know your genre: marketing considerations, part two

The next thing a writer must consider when using the Snowflake Method is their novel’s genre.

As there is an unfortunate association between genre and the target reader’s gender (and possibly age), oftentimes, your chosen genre will determine who your book’s audience will be. It will also determine what the cover of your book will look like. Will it be a man dashing into the shadows or a bare-chested buck striking a manly pose?

More importantly, when it comes to writing the actual book, genre conventions will have to be met. The choice will set what the basics of your novel’s story will be: how the narrative unfolds. Let’s hope that we writers have a basic knowledge about our most basic readers. As someone who reads widely, I often feel that my knowledge about genre expectations is inadequate.

But what about me?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to try outlining three different novels. The first step of snowflaking is to write a 25-words or less, single sentence that states your book’s genre and its basic premise. Mine were all varieties of horror: a paranormal mystery, a slasher thriller, and a literary horror. The premises all fell within a word count of 22 to 28 words. So, mission accomplished!

Also, as a bonus, I jotted down comp titles, which means I now know just where Barnes and Noble will shelve my books.

So basic marketing done!

Thank you for reading. This is post two in a series on becoming a plotter. Come back to see if this dyed in the wool x-treme pantser can change their spots. 

Note: Ingermanson’s Goldilocks character says that her target audience is everyone. My silly answer to that question would be, anyone who likes a good story. I suppose my response is part and parcel to reading widely, across genres. I approach books with few story content expectations.

The Heroine’s Journey: Disillusionment, Alchemic Transformation, and Philip Marlowe

The Heroine’s Journey

While researching the Hero’s Journey for my last blog post, I came across an alternative called the Heroine’s Journey. It was devised by psychologist Maureen Murdock, and like Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Heroine’s Journey was never meant to be a primer on writing novels. Murdock’s book, The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, is about redressing our society’s unbalanced value system, which privileges rapaciousness and greed over kindness and compassion. The character going through the Heroine’s Journey will first become disillusioned by the male sphere she has entered, after which she will be reborn as a spiritual warrior with the “male” and “female” aspects of herself reconciled and in harmony (wholeness).

While the Heroine’s Journey is interesting as a concept, using the problematization of the “feminine” as a framework for every female centered story seems too rigid for general use. I also object to story outlines that tell you what your book should be about. By contrast, the midpoint section (the dark cave) in the Hero’s Journey is open enough to let a writer explore any theme as long it is binary Alchemic transformation: “despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate” (Vogler). While the Hero’s Journey still makes demands on theme, the transformation can be anything you want, including a return to the feminine.

Since the publication of The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, many writers have adapted the Heroine’s Journey for fiction much in the same way Vogler adapted The Hero with a Thousand Faces. One version appears in Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s book, 45 Master Characters. I haven’t read it, but it is summarized on the Heroine’s Journey’s Wikipedia entry. Here is a condensed, side-by-side comparison of the two:

Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey

  1. The heroine actively enters a sphere outside of the domestic (the “masculine” sphere)
  2. The heroine becomes disillusioned
  3. The heroine seeks the feminine
  4. The heroine reconciles both sides of her nature

Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey

  1. The heroine becomes disillusioned
  2. The heroine will react to disillusionment
  3. The heroine’s reaction will be a failure; she will react again by reconnecting with the feminine
  4. The heroine reconciles both sides of her nature with a little help from a friend

Like Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, Schmidt’s version is also about disillusionment. The chief difference is that the heroine in Murdock’s version becomes disillusioned at the story’s midpoint, while Schmidt’s heroine learns that the world isn’t perfect at the inciting incident point.

I think I prefer the original Murdock version. Because it follows the heroine’s journey into a “masculine” world, the narrative framework gives ample space for world building and the layering of themes. It is also closer to the original Hero’s journey because the return to the feminine feels like a transformation. By contrast, Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey produces a heroine that is very reactive and one that seems to fail a lot.

I also love the idea of characters finding balance and synthesis, but how exactly do you get character to this destination?

This prompted me to think about stories that fit the Heroine’s Journey pattern. I couldn’t really come up with one. I suspect if anyone ever wrote a back story for my favorite detective, Philip Marlowe, he or she might use the Heroine’s journey. He’s very masculine and feminine, a compassionate strongman. But I suppose his transformation into a spiritual warrior would be incomplete. He still has an asymptotic yearning for perfection- the alchemic transformation. The final destination of the Heroine’s Journey wouldn’t be enough.

And that is the secret to writing noir.

I’m Not a Pantser. I’m an Extreme Pantser.

The Derek Murphy System

I’m not just a pantser. I’m an extreme pantser.

Most pantsers begin with a story concept- a “what if” or a setup. My process begins with a walk. I could be anywhere- on my way to a bus stop or trawling through a supermarket. As I amble along, lost in my thoughts, an image will pop into my head. The first few times it happened, I ignored it. But then one time, I came home and wrote down what I saw. And that’s how I started writing novels.

Once I have the image on paper, a context to them will emerge. Then characters will appear, and these will bring other characters as well as a setting. Scenes will form as characters come into conflict, which will suggest other scenes, until eventually a story forms. It’s only then that I start seeing a plot. After that, I exist in a fictive dream for months until I finish the final draft.

While this is a fun way to write, a major drawback is that you don’t always end up with a salable high concept work of fiction. After writing two books this way, I’ve concluded that this is a poor strategy for getting published. Of course, it was never a strategy in the first place.

After coming to this realization, I started looking into alternative writing processes. Last week, I came across a blog post here on WordPress about novel outlining.

The article spotlighted an uber-novel outline developed by Derek Murphy, one of the hundreds of novel writing gurus one can find on these here interwebs. According to the creator, this outline is good for most “commercial fiction,” though he doesn’t elaborate which genres. The outline he provides not only focuses on elements of a story but also their placement in the novel on a chapter by chapter level. Murphy identifies 24 story-plot points, all of which originate from the Hero’s journey as described by mythologist, Joseph Campbell, and popularized by Hollywood development executive, Christopher Vogler. Using the Derek Murphy System will produce a novel with 24 chapters.

Vogler’s Hero’s Journey overlaid onto the three act structure

That’s pretty neat.

But then I started thinking about it, and my initial enthusiasm waned. Part of this is my pantser nature. A part of it is not.

One issue is point of view. Murphy uses the Hero’s Journey as the source for his guideline, which is a natural fit for him as he is a YA science fiction/fantasy novelist. But even if the Derek Murphy System is appropriate for fantasy, the outline ignores something basic to that genre, namely multiple points of view. The Hero’s Journey typically centers a single hero. It highlights the transformation of one person. So, it’s hard to know how to deal with other POV characters in the 24 chapter outline. Do they get their own hero’s journey? If there are three POV characters, then do we get 24×3 chapters in a book.

Also, I find the Hero’s Journey an odd way to think about non-fantasy genres or even writing in general. Murphy’s outline has the inciting incident at chapter 3 or 4, but this is too late for say a mystery or a romance. And aspects of the Hero’s quest, such as the mentor, don’t necessarily appear in those genres. Sure, mysteries and romances can have them, but it’s not a key genre trope. Philip Marlowe, a detective who most typically resembles a hero, doesn’t have a mentor. Rarely does he have allies and friends. He’s usually a loner. A solitary man against a dirty, rotten world.

(Let’s be honest. Most heroic myths don’t have all the elements of the Hero’s journey either)

And a lot of novels these days are two books in one. Many of the urban fantasy novels I’ve read over the years are one part action adventure and one part erotica. How is the writer supposed to incorporate the Hero’s Journey into such dual fictions? Likewise, if you are writing a mystery for the first time, what you want to consider while outlining is not only the detective’s character growth but also other basic aspects of mystery fiction such as the placement of red herrings.

In conclusion: a template like this is useful, but it has its limits. And if you think back to the last few books you’ve read, very few (by which I mean none) will have any structural similarities with the Derek Murphy system. There’s a reason for that.