The Hidden Agenda of Classic Design and the Hero’s Journey

Arch Plot Structure by Ingrid SundbergFrom my previous posts outlining the major beats of classic design  (aka: arch plot, the universal story, mythic structure, the hero’s journey, etc.) you’ve seen that this design is very precise. If done well this “universal story” creates a satisfying story experience where all the pieces seem to fall effortlessly into place. It’s clean. It’s inspiring. It’s tempting to use such a beautiful template to organize our stories as well.  And at first glance – why shouldn’t we? After all classic design is touted as:

“… the story of life. Since before time was recorded, it has been transforming simple words into masterpieces … [it] is the undercurrent of every breath you take, every story you tell yourself, and all the stories you write.”  –Martha Alderson (The Plot Whisperer)

Aristotle’s story structure works, and in fact it is the only structure that has ever worked, because it is a mirror of our own views on the universe.” — Lisa Doan (Plot Structure)

girl-looking-in-mirrorIn his book Story, Robert McKee has the grace to acknowledge other plots, but goes on to point out that a writer must earn a living at writing, and according to him you can’t do that without arch plot because “classical design is a mirror of the human mind.” 

With these kinds of endorsements why would you ever consider an alternate story structure?

Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member Shelley Tanaka posed the following question in one of her lectures:

“Is there such a thing as a universal child?”  

I’m sure you know the answer to that question. So how can there possibly be such a thing as a universal story? How can there only be one story of life, one view of the universe, or one mirror of the human mind?  Katie Bayerl notes in her graduate thesis that “a single narrative structure, no matter how flexible, can’t possibly address the diverse needs of readers.”

And yet we are constantly encouraged to use this one form of design.  

In Anatomy of Story, John Truby points out that “one of the great principals of storytelling is that structure doesn’t just carry content; it is content.”  And McKee says that: “Our appetite for story is a reflection of [our] … need to grasp the patterns of living … Fiction [is] a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality … story is a metaphor for life … [it] gives life its form.”  So, if we seek story as a guide for how to live our lives, and if structure is the content that reveals that guide, then we ought to consider what this one universal story has to say.

Katie Bayerl notes that the hero’s journey plot is “comforting in its familiarity and in its emphasis on an individual’s ability to triumph over adversity … it is the dominant American narrative of progress and individualism. For writer’s who don’t question those belief systems the hero’s journey may feel like the best way to tell a good story. For those with an agenda of empowerment, it may appear like the only option.”

hero with a thousandAnd for Joeseph Campbell (the founder of mythic structure), it turns out he may have had an agenda of empowerment. Bayerl notes that he “became obsessed with the hero’s journey because he was troubled by what he perceived as the despair of his times; he believed that elevating heroic myths would heal the collective psyche. Campbell explains how the hero myth can support healthy psychological growth when people recognize their own problems in the ordeals of the mythic … and are reassured by the stories that give them abundant, time-tested strategies for survival, success, and happiness.”  This is exactly what Truby and McKee meant when they said structure can be used as a metaphor for how to live our lives.

But what are the psychological implications of this structure?

1)  Are Our Lives Defined by Lack of Desire?

By creating a story design that is driven by goals and desires, are we saying this is the only way in which to define our worth and success? Bayerl asks: “Does it mean our lives must always be defined by lack of desire? Are we failures if we cannot independently solve every problem that faces us? Must we all be heroes?”

Empty box2)  Does it Create a False Sense of Values?

When a plot is goal-oriented and revolves around achieving a task (getting the girl, saving the world, winning the race, etc.) does it create a false sense of values? Instead of searching for wisdom, do we put value in the search for an external goal only to find ourselves disappointed?

3)  Does it Limit Our Vision to Only One Aspect of Existence?

Diane Lefer quotes Ursula Le Guin in questioning if this structure isn’t a rather “gladiatorial view of fiction” one where we’re “… taught to focus our stories on a central struggle, [and] … by default base all our plots on the clash of opposing forces. We limit our vision to a single aspect of existence and overlook much of the richness and complexity of our lives, just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable.”

4)  Is it Socially Coercive?

Young adult author Amy Rose Capetta’s lecture on catharsis discusses how a pleasurable catharsis can be the result of Aristotelian structure, but she goes on to introduce Augusto Boal’s opinions on the matter, wherein he suggests that this type of catharsis is socially coercive. Capetta explains that “Boal was convinced that catharsis as it was presented by Aristotle, was not just normative in that it returned the audience to their default emotional state, but that in fact it served a socially normative function, reinforcing and upholding the status quo.”

success key5) Does it Perpetuate an Untrue American Myth?

And lastly, Malcolm Gladwell’s non-fiction book Outliers, has pretty much de-bunked the modern American myth that if you set yourself out a goal, and you try hard enough to overcome the obstacles, you’ll succeed. This simply isn’t true. So why do we continually write stories about hero’s overcoming obstacles and succeeding in the end as if it is the natural order of things?

Is it possible that the hero’s journey myth, is just that – a myth. After all, it does initially derive from stories of mythology, and not actual experiences. Not to mention that the popularization of this design is relatively new. Yes, it shows up in ancient works and the classics of western literature. But it’s elevation as the end-all be-all of storytelling started in the 1950’s with Campbell’s research and was greatly escalated by the influence Star Wars on American film. Is it possible that  arch plot and mythic structure are the predominant storytelling paradigm of our time and not a universal story?

Am I saying that we shouldn’t use this storytelling plot and structure?

No.

But I think you should ask yourself why you’re using it, and not use it blindly because there’s an implication that it’s the only type of design that exists.

Don’t fret! The coming posts will introduce you to the wide variety of plots and structures that will take you beyond arch plot and mythic structure. Stay tuned and see how many options really are available to you!

WORKS CITED:
Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. New York: Adams Media, 2011.
Bayerl, Katie. “Must We All Be Heroes? Crafting Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction.” Critical Thesis. Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2009.
Bayerl, Katie. “Must We All Be Heroes? Crafting Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction.” Graduate Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montepelier, VT. July 2009.
Capetta, Amy Rose. “Can’t Fight This Feeling: Figuring out Catharsis and the Right One for Your Story.” Graduate Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montepelier, VT. Jan 2012.
Doan, Lisa. “Plot Structure: The Same Old Story Since Time Began?” Critical Essay. Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2006.
Lefer, Diane. “Breaking the Rules of Story Structure.” Words Overflown by Stars.  Ed. David Jauss, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. 62-69.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: IT Books, 1997.
Tanaka, Shelley. “Books from Away: Considering Children’s Writers from Around the World.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. Jan 2010.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. New York: Faber and Faber Inc., 2007.

What is Arch Plot and Classic Design?

As an introduction to my series on Organic Architecture, I thought I’d start out with the ol’ granddaddy of plot structures: Arch Plot. You probably already know all about this plot structure, but to make sure we’re all on the same page, I wanted to do a quick overview.

The Hero's JourneyArch plot has lots of names. In your time as a writer, you’ve probably run into arch plot under one of these titles:

  • Classic plot
  • The hero’s journey
  • Goal-oriented plot
  • Aristotelian story shape
  • Energeia plot
  • Three-act structure
  • Hollywood screenwriting structure
  • The Universal Story

Arch plot is a goal-oriented plot where, “for better or worse, an event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a Quest for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it” (McKee, 196).  Film examples of arch plot include: Toy Story, The Godfather, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Etc. (Most American Hollywood films use arch plot).  Book examples of arch plot include: Harry Potter (Rowling), Hunger Games (Collins), Speak (Anderson), Pride & Prejudice (Austen), Hamlet (Shakespeare), The Odyssey (Homer),  etc.

A story that uses classic design has eleven basic story sections. Depending on which books you read these story beats all have different titles. I’ve culled the information below from a variety of different sources, each of whom give arch plot design their own title (i.e. classic plot, the hero’s journey, etc.), but at its core they’re all talking about the same design. For the major sequences and beats, the header titles use Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey terminology, and under that you’ll see a list of the same beat termed differently by others. Thus, what Campbell calls the Call to Action, McKee calls the Inciting Incident, and Blake Snyder calls The Catalyst.

THE ELEVEN STORY BEATS OF ARCH PLOT:

Arch Plot Structure by Ingrid Sundberg

ACT ONE

The Ordinary World: The hero’s life is established in his ordinary world.

This story beat is also known as:

  • The Known
  • The Set-Up
  • The Status Quo
  • Limited Awareness

Call to Adventure: Something changes in the hero’s life to cause him to take action.

This story beat is also known as:

  • TheInciting Incident
  • The Call to Action
  • The Catalyst

Refusal of the Call: The hero refuses to take action hoping his life with go back to normal. Which it will not.

Also known as:

  • Threshold Guardians
  • Defining Moment
  • Separation
  • Reluctance
  • New Situation
  • The Debate
  • Meeting Mentor

Crossing the First Threshold: The hero is pushed to a point of no return where he must answer the call and begin his journey.

Also known as:

  • Energetic Marker 1: End of the Beginning
  • The Point of No Return
  • Committing to the Goal
  • Act One Climax
  • Plot Point One
  • Break into Two
  • Turning Point One
  • The Threshold
  • Awakening

ACT TWO

Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The journey through the special world is full of tests and obstacles that challenge the hero emotionally and/or physically.

Also known as:

  • The Fun and Games
  • Resistance and Struggle
  • Rising Action and Obstacles
  • Belly of the Whale
  • Push to Breaking Point
  • The Special World
  • Road of Trials

Mid-Point: The energy of the story shifts dramatically. New information is discovered (for positive or negative) that commits the hero to his journey.

Also known as:

  • Energetic Marker 2: Halfway Point
  • Mid-Act Climax
  • Moment of Grace or the Mind-Fuck Moment
  • Moment of Enlightenment
  • Commitment to the Journey
  • Progress

Approaching Inmost Cave: The hero gets closer to reaching his goal and must prepare for the upcoming battle (emotional or physical).

Also known as:

  • Challenges and Temptations
  • Grace and Fall
  • Resistance and Struggle
  • Complications and Higher Stakes
  • The Bad Guys Close In
  • Intensification
  • Preparation
  • Rising Action
  • Obstacles

Inmost Cave: The hero hits rock bottom. He fails miserably and must come to face his deepest fear. This causes self-revelation.

Also known as:

  • Energetic Marker 3: Crisis
  • Dark Night of the Soul
  • Abyss and Revelation
  • Plot Point Two
  • Act Two Climax
  • The Major Assault
  • Death of the Ego
  • Death Experience
  • Rock Bottom
  • The Ordeal
  • The Crisis
  • Big Change
  • Epiphany

ACT THREE

Final Push: The hero makes a new plan to achieve his goal.

Also known as:

  • The Descent
  • The Sprint

Seizing the Sword: The hero faces his foe in a final climactic battle. The information learned during the crisis is essential to beating this foe.

Also known as:

  • Energetic Marker 4: Climax
  • The Climax
  • Seizing the Prize
  • Transformation
  • Finale
  • Break Into Three
  • The Final Incident

Return with the Elixir: The hero returns home with the fruits of his adventure. He begins his life as a changed person, now living in the “new ordinary world”.

Also known as:

  • Transformation and Return
  • Rapidly Falling Action
  • The Road Back
  • Denouement
  • New Life
  • Resolution
  • Aftermath
  • A New Status Quo
  • Return to the New Ordinary World

“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.” – Gary Kurtz (Film Producer)

Bibliography:
Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. New York: Adams Media, 2011.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Second Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
Chapman, Harvey. “Not Your Typical Plot Diagram.” Novel Writing Help. 2008-2012. Web. 6 Oct. 2012.
Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Revised ed. New York: Delta, 2005.
Gulino, Paul. Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Hauge, Michael. Writing Screenplays That Sell. New York: Collins Reference, 2001.
Marks, Dara. Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc. Ojai: Three Mountain Press, 2007.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: IT Books, 1997.
McManus, Barbara F. Tools for Analyzing Prose Fiction. College of New Rochelle, Oct. 1998. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005.
TV Tropes. Three Act Structure. TV Tropes Foundation, 26 Dec. 2011. Web. 11. Sept. 2012.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.
Williams, Stanley D. The Moral Premise. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006.