The Paths To Plot (Part 2)

In last week’s post we covered three of the many possible approaches to structuring plot: Bracketing, Try-Fail Cycles, and the Three-Act Format. Today, I wanted to go over one of the more famous plot structures, namely Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces–followed by a plotting method used by an author I hold in very high regard: Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson has talked about his approach to plot in several of his online lectures, as well as on Writing Excuses, and I have found his explanations to contain several extremely useful tools for practically any writer. But before I get carried away, let’s talk about the Monomyth.

  1. The Hero’s Journey (Monomyth): This could be an entire post onto itself, but I’ll try to cover the basic steps that make up the Monomyth. The general idea is that a common man faces a crisis, becomes a hero through the victory, and comes back different from when he first left. The sense of progress is created through a series of events:
  • Ordinary World: The Hero is in a place of ignorance (mundane situation), but something is not completely right with his life.
  • Call To Adventure: Something shakes up the situation (either an external force or something from within), causing the Hero to face the possibility of change. He may meet an impact character that will then extend this call.
  • Refusal of the Call: The Hero’s fear of the unknown causes him to refuse the call for change, however briefly. This can often stem from his sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, sense of inadequacy, etc., or come from an outside source.
  • Meeting the Mentor: Once he has committed to the change, the Hero often meets a guide, someone more proficient than he in the ways of the unknown. (This can even be the impact character, sometimes.)
  • Crossing the Threshold: The Hero’s commitment to leaving the Ordinary World is renewed, and he crosses into an unfamiliar–and often dangerous–realm, where the rules are not known to him. (The impact character often leaves here, usually by dying. This happens around the first quarter mark of the story.)
  • Tests, Allies, & Enemies: The Hero faces many tests, and makes both allies and enemies along the way.
  • The Approach: The Hero and his newfound allies prepare for the big push–or the main conflict of the story.
  • The Ordeal: The Hero becomes central to the conflict in the New World, and is forced to confront death (or face his greatest fear.) Through this confrontation he gains a new strength. (This marks the middle of the story.)
  • The Reward: The Hero takes possession of the treasure for which he confronted death, and there might be celebration, but the threat of losing the treasure still looms over his head.
  • Taking the Road Back: At this point, the Hero is driven to complete the adventure and take the treasure home (to safety), and so leaves the New World. A chase scene often signals the urgency and danger of his mission. (This usually marks the three-quarters point in the story.)
  • Resurrection: Back on the Threshold, the Hero is faced with the greatest challenge yet, forcing him to confront death on a higher level than before, and provoking a similarly greater rebirth. The part of the Hero’s life that wasn’t right in the beginning is resolved in this climax.
  • Returning With the Elixir: The Hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing the treasure that has the potential to change the world, just as he has been changed.
  1. Brandon’s Plotting Method: Brandon has focused his attention almost entirely on keeping the sense of progress going throughout the entire book, and it shows clearly in the way he approaches plotting. Here are some of the subplots he uses to maintain that sense of motion at all times:
  • Travel Log: The Hero has to get from one point to another, often demonstrated by a travel map in the front of the book. The origin for the sense of progression here is obvious.
  • Mystery: There is a big question that must be answered by the end. The progression is simulated by doling out clues along the way, keeping the readers on their toes for the next one.
  • Relationships: The characters must be stuck together (alone) at various times throughout the story for this to work, but a relationship is a great way to keep the sense of progress alive in any story. It doesn’t have to be romantic; it just has to progressively change from its beginning to its end.
  • Big Problem: The Hero is faced with a seemingly indomitable obstacle, and must break it down and work on each smaller piece until he overcomes the whole. The wording on the smaller pieces is what gives the sense of progress.
  • Time Bomb: This one is more of a universal one, and can be added to any of the above to aid in the illusionary sense of progression. It simply gives the subplot an impending deadline to be completed. In a mystery, the trail of clues might be getting colder; in a romance, the love interest may have a terminal disease, etc.

Seeing as he plots the ending first, then works backwards towards it, Brandon’s next step is to choose the subplots that will help him reach his intended ending. He lists all of the Relationships, Mysteries, Big Problems, etc. that will make up his overarching plot, then makes a list of bullet points detailing the steps necessary to accomplish each one. When it comes to the actual writing time, he will go through his bulleted list and divide them by chapter, doling them out until he has achieved the emotional payoff of the subplot’s ending.

So that’s it for plotting, at least for now. I’ll probably end up coming back to the topic quite frequently, but I wanted to move on to the next one in the Big Three of writing: Character.



Fulfilling Promises

Entertainment is all about expectations. One of the major differences between an epic fantasy reader and a short fiction reader is in the expectations that each of them have of their chosen form of entertainment. An epic fantasy reader is looking for complete and total immersion, and will only be satisfied when that is achieved–a feat that is nearly impossible in a short story. A reader of shorter fiction, on the other hand, is looking for that quick emotional punch that a shorter form delivers much more effectively than any other, longer format. In the end, they will each be satisfied only if their expectations are fulfilled, and so may not enjoy each other’s favorites to the same degree that another might.

One of the ways we can control reader expectations–and, by extension, reader satisfaction–is through the promises we make to them, usually within the first third of the novel. In the words of the immortal Dan Wells, on Writing Excuses, “The promises that you make at the beginning of a story are the promises that you intend to pay off by the end of it.” You’re setting up the story’s emotional payoff even as early as the first page–you may just not know it!

For example, a story that begins with a murder is commonly viewed as foreshadowing for a mystery novel. But what if the writer focuses on the fact that it was an ice giant that committed the murder, and that it was done in an attempt to steal a magical scepter from the victim? Now we’re dealing with a fantasy. Or, on a somewhat smaller scale, what if the dead body becomes a backdrop to a certain beautiful young lady that is distracting our detective from the details of the crime? The same scene, this time promising a romance.

As you can see, promises to the reader can often be as simple as the author’s choice of focus–but they are no less binding. A story that promises a mystery then switches halfway to a romance will leave many readers dissatisfied. In fact, it will probably frustrate both the readers that picked it up as a mystery, and push away those that wanted a romance, fulfilling neither of their expectations. The same would happen if the writer focused heavily on a certain aspect of the plot/setting/character, gave it the status of a noteworthy detail, then took it nowhere. This is equivalent to setting the reader’s expectations to an unforgettable excursion to Disney World, then taking them to your local theme park. Or just to the park. Or staying home. Regardless, ‘yanking the rug out’ from under your readers midway (with no foreshadowing) will almost never have a happy ending.

Promises are actually the whole reason for the necessity of foreshadowing, aka preparing the reader’s expectations in such a way that the payoff can be truly satisfying. This is why deus ex machina endings (when something completely unforeseen saves the characters from a seemingly impossible situation) are so unfulfilling. The reader has no expectations of the coming event, and so feels almost cheated. They feel there was no way they could have figured it out on their own; it was too unexpected. And so they put down the book.

Simply put, you should never break promises! This is one of the few absolutes of writing, proven to result in reader dissatisfaction more often than not. If you want to get that same effect on the reader–and be successful doing it–fulfill the promise in a completely unexpected, yet still inevitable, way. This will keep your reader on their toes, knowing they can be surprised, while still allowing them to know that you won’t cheat them out of their well-deserved endings.

Next week we’ll talk about the grit of plotting, namely the structuring of the plot itself, in such a way that it’s end fulfills any promises you have made to the reader.