Tag Archives: hero’s journey

Breaking Rules

Students, seminar attendees, and visitors to our online writing guide have complained that my insistence on knowing (and adhering to) traditional story structures ignores “real art” in favor of production and publication.

“You can break the rules after you master the rules,” I respond. “And then, only break them when you can defend the choice.”

Imagine my frustration when a play was rejected because it lacked the “journey” of the main character.

When I decided to write a play without a complete Hero’s journey, it was an intentional act (pun), a choice to parody a genre. There are characters in myth and legend that do not change. They don’t mature. Mocking that notion of the invariable being seemed promising.

One of the readers providing coverage clearly didn’t get the joke. The comments on the coverage sheet indicated the story needed a clear journey and transformation. Oops. My choice must not have been obvious.

There are two lesson: 1) breaking the formula is risky; 2) if the reader doesn’t know the original, parody doesn’t work.

The other reader did like the script and scored it “highly recommended,” but you need to run the gauntlet to be produced.

Both reviewers liked the dialogue, the wit, yet only one got the joke. That isn’t good. I’m not sure following the traditional formula would have helped.

Will I break the rules again? Of course. But I also understand the risks.

Book Reviews, Part III

Concluding our survey of book review formats, I want to explore the “analysis” or “coverage” that publishers and editors sometimes provide to authors. In the film industry, script coverage is something many screenwriters pay a consultant to provide. Knowing what others think about your manuscript helps identify when you didn’t quite accomplish your goals.

Too many of the aspiring writers I meet confuse professional coverage with traditional reviews. One writer recently told me, “Friends and colleagues love the manuscript. The coverage I received couldn’t be right.” Yes, it could be right. You can submit the best written literary work of all time — and it could receive a thumbs-down from the reader.

Coverage Analysis versus a Review

Only one criteria matters to an editor or reader providing coverage: Will a work attract a large audience? No audience, no book, play, or movie. Publishing and producing are expensive endeavors. If your work isn’t going to appeal to a sufficient number of people willing to pay money for it, nothing else about the work matters.

No single factor decides what will or will not have a market. Some works with average plotting have a market thanks to appealing characters. Other works are simply well-timed to the marketplace. The tastes of publishers and producers also matter.

I’ve had writers ask what the point of a coverage and analysis report is, especially if the coverage isn’t meant to make you a better writer. The real question is how you define “better writer” and why being better matters. Better at what? Coverage defines better as “marketable” and interesting to the largest possible number of people.

A literary critic has different understanding of better writing, often reflecting his or her academic grounding. Some critics embrace experimental literature and film, while the audiences for such works is relatively limited. Magical realism might impress a literary critic, and obtuse references to literary traditions might warm another critic’s heart. But, will the work sell? A literary critic is supposed to focus on what the public should read and watch, not what they actually consume.

If you would rather be a literary great than a commercial success, don’t pay for coverage of a manuscript. Instead, take some courses at a good MFA program.

SUMMARY OF EVALUATION

Formal coverage begins with a few sentences stating if the work should be published/produced. If the evaluator has concerns, he or she might mention them in the summary. Some publishers and production companies use a simple “A through F” grading scale. A work with an A or B grade moves forward, while everything else is tabled.

I’ve seen one-sentence coverage summaries, both positive and negative. Some of these have been humorous, probably unintentionally. A science-fiction writer I know received the following summary: “Good story, interesting characters, no way it would sell.” Welcome to the business.

MARKETABILITY

When considering a market, there are various groups readers consider. Does the work appeal to everyone? There are works called “tent-poles” because they are expected to turn a huge profit, propping up a producer or publisher. These are summer blockbuster films and Oprah list books. They aren’t made or published to stand the test of time: they are meant to sell, and sell big.

Film studios also describe films in terms of male/female, youth/mature, YA, tween, family, and so on. The “four-quandrant” work promises to deliver men and women of all ages. The “key demo” (the ideal demographic) in film and TV remains the 18-to-25 block. In publishing, you want either the YA (young adult) or the “mommy” reader. Yes, “mommy fiction” is derogatory — the Fifty Shades of Gray trend is called “Mommy Porn” for a reason though. We know that the largest reading segments are girls and women. The YA group from 12-to-18 and the 25-to-45 group drive book sales. (Maybe the college years are too busy for mass market book reading?)

Think about your audience, even as you decide what to write. Romance books sell. Think about the two types, though. We have the Twilight series and the Fifty Shades books. Right now, paranormal is hot, with distinct segments in the YA and adult markets. It is difficult to market books to men. Movies for men? Much easier to sell, from raunchy comedies to action films, young men are a good market for screenplays.

If you don’t know your market, don’t expect the coverage reader to tell you what the market is for a manuscript.

GENERAL LITERARY ELEMENTS

Don’t expect a reader to offer much in the way of literary criticism; they focus on the potential market, not the potential for a lasting legacy. Still, readers offer minimal guidance for writers. You tend to receive more feedback the closer a manuscript is to being optioned. If you receive a lot of comments, that’s a good sign. Readers don’t waste time with hopeless causes.

PLOT

Expect to be told when the plot’s pacing is off, especially if events move too slowly or events don’t advance the plot in any clear way. What you might believe to be an essential event might not be so obvious to a reader.

STORY

Stories are wrapped around plots and characters. Readers focus on if the story appeals to the widest possible audience, or a well-defined (and profitable) audience. Read about loglines. If your story cannot be conveyed as a logline, readers will likely give a pass to the manuscript — and I don’t mean a passing grade, either.

http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Tips/Logline/logline.html

POINT OF VIEW

Readers look for a “sympathetic” point-of-view when they provide coverage. The assumption is that audiences want to see a story told through a likable, trustworthy character to whom they can relate. The point-of-view does not need to be that of the hero; companions are often the guides through a film or book. The key is that the perspective should be consistent.

Film presents a bit of a problem, since your primary guide might not appear in every scene. In books, the common mistake is mixing point-of-views within a chapter or scene. Think of every scene as a self-contained narrative, from one character’s perspective. That character can only know what he or she experiences.

Try to emphasize the scenes with the primary guide. Viewers and readers try to imagine what the main characters do and don’t know. When the audience knows too much, because you’ve let the point-of-view slip to an antagonist, then some of the mystery and suspense is lost. Your audience wants to be on the edge of their seats. Controlling the point-of-view allows you to control the audience.

THEME

Popular books and movies tend to have simple, easy to appreciate themes. Good wins, usually, and the theme is obvious. Don’t confuse a theme for a thesis or moral, which is an argument supported by the work. A theme might be “Accepting people despite differences.” A thesis would be, “Accepting others leads to a better understanding of yourself.” Yes, popular stories teach a lesson, but the theme is what you can sell in a short logline.

STRUCTURE

To sell a work, start with a three-act structure. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, I suggest concentrating on the “Hero’s Journey” model for your structure. That’s not because there aren’t other formulas, but because coverage readers like the journey models taught in film schools.

I’ve argued this with emerging writers and literary writers: structure matters when you want to sell a story. That assertion does not imply every story must adhere to the formula coverage readers expect. You are free to break whatever rules you want — but don’t expect an easy time selling a work that doesn’t adhere to the simple three-act structure.

CHARACTERIZATION

Make your character distinct. You don’t want characters that are similar to each other. Also, the protagonist and antagonist in a story need motivations. They need backstories. You should know the details of a character’s life, even if those details are never in the story. Coverage is going to focus on whether or not an audience is going to enjoy a character.

Not every “enjoyable” character is good. Darth Vader is enjoyable. Freddy Krueger is enjoyable. Characters that are odd, a little quirky, and distinctive are enjoyable. An audience should want to follow your characters, good and bad, because they are larger than life.

DIALOGUE

Dialogue sells books and movies. Since film has drifted away from narration (voice over), books are starting to do the same. As a result, the dialogue between characters is how readers learn what a character is thinking. Write good, tight dialogue; every word matters.

SETTING

Coverage readers look at settings in two ways: 1) How expensive would it be to film? 2) How much will audiences care about the setting? Cheaper is better for film, while more elaborate and amazing is better for some types of book. Remember, books are an escape from reality for many readers — and it costs nothing to create a setting with words.

If the setting is essential to the story in a book or script, be sure to research the details. If the story could take place anytime, anywhere, then you’ll be focused on the characters.

DESCRIPTION

Script readers want minimal description and narration in a film or stage script. As they say, “Let the director do his (or her) job.” Scripts are sparse, only 4500 words or so for a full-length feature. That’s the length of a short story. You cannot afford to get lost in detailed descriptions.

For a book, paint with words. Be as descriptive as possible. You are the director, the cinematographer, the set designer, and more. The book author is all-powerful. Use that power, but use it wisely. A manuscript analysis will indicate if you need to add description. Rarely does an analysis suggest less description, but it does happen. Describe what matters.

What I Want in a Story

When I read a story, I’m a “journey” reader. I want to read the “hero’s journey” or the “personal journey” story. I’m starting to believe more novelists and short story authors should read screenwriting books. Too many novels are poorly paced, with no compelling character development. I’ve admitted that I’m not a literary reader. Give me a fun story.

I am not every reader, but if you look at book sales the ones that are chart toppers are the ones with great character development. Young adult literature authors are particularly aware of the need to tell compelling journey tales.

If you aren’t familiar with the journey structure, read about screenwriting. Why do I suggest screenwriting books? Because they are about structure: Hollywood readers reject scripts that don’t follow standardized structures. In feature film scripts, the mythic journey is a standard formula. In screenwriting, the journey goes by many names with slightly different models, but these differences aren’t nearly as substantial as their proponents claim.

Chris Huntley, author of the essay “How and Why Dramatica is Different,” describes six popular “journey” models in these words:

  • Syd Field describes a dramatic structure he calls The Paradigm, which is a plot structure with a Main Character woven in.
  • Michael Hauge describes two throughlines as the Outer Journey (plot) and the Inner Journey (journey to fulfillment for the Hero).
  • Robert McKee describes two throughlines blended together—collectively called The Quest and the Central Plot.
  • Linda Seger describes an “A Story” or “story spine” as the major thread of a story coupled with Main Character development.
  • John Truby describes two throughlines blended together in his “22 Building Blocks” of story (which is an expansion of his 7 Major Steps in Classic Structure). These two throughlines are similar to Vogler’s hero’s inner and outer journeys.
  • Christopher Vogler describes two throughlines as the Hero’s Journey and the Hero’s Inner Journey.

My point is that blockbuster films (as opposed to art films or experimental films) are generally stories about personal development and discovery. There is a clear plot “spine” of events in a main character’s life upon which the story is constructed. The story is about a person becoming something, someone, different.

I’m not suggesting any one screenwriting book over another. I have a shelf of them. Read them all. I also recommend reading blogs by screenwriters and every screenwriting magazine (all two or three of them) you can locate in a bookstore.

In a future blog entry I will explain why the journey model is such a compelling model for mass market novels.