Writing a story is dead easy. Don’t believe me? I’ve written two novels, and I can barely keep myself alive most days. It’s a giant secret, but the truth is anybody can write a story that mostly works and is predominantly not crappy. Just ask Chuck Tingle, author of perennial Internet favorite, “Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt“.
It all comes down to picking story structures that work for you. For the last two weeks, we’ve been covering my personal story structuring device, Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. This is a distillation of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, which is a seventy-year-old book about one very specific topic: the fact that all stories follow a structure, and that that structure is largely the same, no matter the story.
All of which is to say writing is dead easy. Last week, we looked at “You” (yes, you). Join me today for the second part of the eight-part story circle: need. And, for those of you playing along at home, remember, our eight steps include the following:
- You (a comfortable character the reader inhabits)
- Need (wherein the protagonist starts to yearn for something)
- Go (an unfamiliar situation happens, often without our protagonist’s agreement)
- Search (they have to adapt to the change over a period of growth)
- Get (they receive whatever it was they wanted in the first place)
- Pay (they have to pay a terrible price)
- Return (they return to the familiar situation, but)
- Change (they’ve changed and their old problems are no match for them now)
So, enough mucking around. Let’s get to it!
A Word On Descending Into Dreams
If you look at the story circle below you can actually see how, in addition to being divided into eight equal pizza slices, it can also be divided into two hemispheres. Asleep and awake. Sound ominous? It should – this is life and death, also known as storytelling. Every story can be seen as a descent from the safety and security of the waking world into the mystery and danger of the world of our dreams.
Sometimes it’s as low stakes as intergalactic warfare. Sometimes, it’s as dangerous as falling in love. Whatever the case, our story structures start “awake”, go to “sleep”, and come back with something from the other side to help our hero get back on top of our life at home. And that’s the point.jpg
Pull Your Story Up
For a story to be a story, something has to be wrong. Someone somewhere will show you examples of stories that have succeeded without any conflict at all because the world is crazy and we’re dying. But your character needs a something, and this is where they’ll get just that.
Things are off-kilter in their world, and this is where they’ll start to find that out. This is where Zach Effron wakes up in bed with ten beautiful women, walks over to a window, and thinks, “But what I really want is to be a world class chef”. If there are aliens coming to Earth to pick a fight, we’ll see their ship enter our solar system right about now. If someone’s cheating on someone else, we’ll start to see that here.
This is an important step. Whether your book starts on a high or a low note, we need to be shown right now that things are imperfect. Characters might have the best life or the worst right now, but whatever life they have, they’ll start to want something else. To be richer or smarter, to find someone better for them or just to be single.
Their wish, by the way, is going to come to them later on. But not in ways they expect.
The Call To Adventure (Sometimes)
A big part of story structures is something known as the “call to adventure”. This is an exterior thing that comes into our protagonist’s life and, literally or figuratively, pulls them out and into the story you’re about to tell. It could be a person, like some mysterious stranger or Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or it could be a thing, like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.
If you present your protagonist with this call, it’s customary for them to refuse it. They won’t want to follow Obi-Wan to fight space wizards. They’ll refuse to go inside the haunted house to get their ball back, and there’s no way in hell they’re staying in that car when Trinity offers them a nice walk back in the rain. They want to stay at step 1, and the call to adventure wants them to press on, so they’ll fight back.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily necessary. It’s popular because being scared of change is such a natural human reaction in these moments, but this is completely up to you.
Some Final Notes
As we begin wrapping up this chapter of our ongoing story structures lesson, I’ll turn back to Dan Harmon for more choice words from his own theory. “Remember: Calls to adventure don’t have to come from an actual messenger and wishes don’t have to be made out loud.”
This is important to keep in mind. Old fashioned stories about princesses and dragons wear their hearts on their sleeves with soliloquies about the hero’s deepest desires. In modern literature, we try to show instead of tell, so look for ways to make your character react to the world around them like someone in this stage of the story.
Don’t say: “I just want to find love.” Create a situation where someone who wants to find love would be very uncomfortable, and show us that as loudly as you can. We’ll get it. We’re a pretty bright audience.
My two books are “Bay City Monsters” and “Nails in the Sky“. What did you think of today’s Story Circle step, “Need” and how it helped pull our story along from its warm, safe bubble? Sound off in the comments, and join us again next week for a look at step three: Go.