Many amateur writers, myself included, have fallen into the trap of what is commonly referred to as “pansting” – that is, writing by the seat of one’s pants. Understandably so, as it does have a certain romanticized appeal, but at a certain point I had to accept the fact that I am not Stephen King or GRRM, and writing a story without a proper outline was just only going to land me in the ditch.
Since there are as many methods to go about outlining as there are writers, I will go over basic plot structure that is present in pretty much all genre fiction. If you intend to earn any money from your work, then your story should follow these basic principles, what is commonly referred to as “The Hero’s Journey”.
If you’ve been searching for writing tips, it’s probably more than likely you’ve heard this concept kicked around more than a soccer ball – but if experienced writers and publishers and editors keep pointing it out, then we should assume it has some merit.
I’m not going to go so far as to say every story follows this model, but if you’re like me and wish to write fantasy or sci-fi that satisfies readers, it’s a concept worth being familiar with. Joseph Campbell’s “A Hero With A Thousand Faces” is more of an anthropological analysis of ancient mythology than any sort of model for fiction writing, but it does show how the human mind has evolved (or conditioned) to produce emotional responses to certain storytelling elements, so it’s worth being at least somewhat familiar with. If you are more interested in writing unconventional literary fiction this need not apply.
The Hero’s Journey can be modified any number of ways – specifically the order in which certain plot points or story elements are introduced – but it will more or less follow a specific pattern that, if done well, shouldn’t be readily obvious to your readers. Usually, it’s represented as follows:
- The Ordinary World
- Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
- Point of No Return
- First pressure point/plot twist
- Second pressure point/plot twist
- The Final Battle/third plot twist
Don’t think of it as a formula that stifles creativity – you’ll still need to exercise those creative muscles if you want to produce a satisfying story that provides a catharsis. They also do not need to go in this order necessarily – they can be combined or shuffled around to fit the needs of the story (especially so when dealing with more than one protagonist or if the story is part of a trilogy/series). Before I go on I’d like to point out that there’s a difference between Story Arc and Character Arc (although they should go hand-in-hand), which is why I reject the traditional “Hero’s Journey” template. I’ll briefly go through each of these points and (maybe) expound on them in later posts.
The Ordinary World
The life of your protagonist before everything goes topsy-turvy, sometimes acting as an anchor that prevents your MC from accepting the Call to Adventure. Keep in mind that “ordinary” does not have to mean “mundane”, such as the typical fantasy trope of the farm boy in a sleepy village (which is subsequently destroyed). It just needs to be a life that your MC is accustomed to which contrasts the events of the plot (i.e a violent gang member who suddenly finds themselves having to work for the police).
Inciting Incident/Call To Adventure.
This is basically the beginning of the conflict and should occur fairly early in the story – in some cases, it can be done parallel to the ordinary world depending on how fast-paced you want the story to be. The MC still has the option to turn away, but for one reason or another is compelled to breach Point of No Return – sometimes these events can be considered interchangeable (i.e. Frodo bringing the Ring to Rivendell, but is compelled to volunteer to carry it to Mordor as he has already fallen under its spell by this point).
The Point of No Return
As the name suggests, this is when the MC can no longer return to their previous life – either because it is given up (Will Turner helping Jack Sparrow commandeer The Interceptor) or because it is destroyed (the death of Owen and Beru at the likely hands of Boba Fett). or because it is destroyed (the death of Owen and Beru at the likely hands of Boba Fett).
First Pressure point/plot twist
The first major conflict with the antagonist or their forces which alter the plot’s initial set up (i.e. The Millenial Falcon being pulled into the Death Star). This may also be an opportunity for the protagonist to take action (rescue Princess Leia) before the conflict is resolved (escape), allowing them to progress along their character arc. Usually followed by a new revelation or exposition and the protagonist realizes that the stakes are higher than previously thought.
This will be the first major failure for your protagonist(s). Perhaps they had some plan to defeat the antagonist but were thwarted, possibly betrayed, resulting in the villain acquiring greater power. During the character arc, the midpoint typically coincides with the Low Point, or Apotheosis, where your protagonist approaches the Despair Event Horizon (however this may also occur near the climax). Following the midpoint, your protagonists either receive a new revelation that suggests Hope still remains, or they decide to continue fighting anyway despite the near-certain prospect of failure. Can be combined with the Second Pressure Point.
Second Pressure Point/plot twist
The second, (possibly third) major conflict with the antagonist, also resulting in defeat, usually due to a mistake made by the main protagonist. Consequences may include a (second) death of an ally, an injury, or some other disaster that drasatic puts into question their likelihood of success. This can occur immediately before or even alongside the Final Conflict (climax), depending on how many protagonists your story has.
The Final Conflict/Choke Point
This is, obviously, the highest point of tension (climax). The Low Point (or a second low point if one already occurred during the midpoint) may happen just before the peak is reached. The main character’s risk of achieving their fail state is highest at this point, and so to the consequences. Depending on the type of story and previous set up, your protagonist may succeed or fail but learn some sort of lesson (i.e. they lose a tournament but learn how to cope with and accept disappointment). Either way, the major conflict is resolved (but only temporarily if this is part of a longer narrative such as a trilogy or series).
This isn’t always necessary, but depending on the complexity of the story it may be required in order to tie up any loose ends. It can also be used to provide further catharsis, especially so for the more minor characters. As a standalone story, it should provide complete closure.
If part of a trilogy or series (or even just potentially so), the denouement can provide an open ending that leads to further installments.
These are, of course, merely guidelines and not hard-set rules. Attempting to follow them too rigidly can result in a story that feels stiff and formulaic, but understanding these elements can help build greater emotional impact for your audience.