Whatever you’re writing, a comic book, screenplay, novel, you better make sure you have a great story. Readers want to go on a journey. They want to see the relatable or un-relatable, incredibly interesting character you created go through hell and come out the other side either a winner, or a loser with a new understand of the world. They want to be entertained.
Too often beginning writers want to break the mold and throw the traditional story structure out of the window. They have unique worldviews, they’re creative enough to re-invent the wheel, they don’t want to do something that’s been done millions of times before. Truth is, they are just being lazy. I know because I was a beginner at one point. I thought I could get away with not fully understanding or following the rules, and I was wrong. In the beginning, I was only thinking about myself—my experience as one of the rare brilliant novice writers. I wasn’t thinking enough about the reader.
Readers want to go on a journey and because they want to go on a journey, your character must go on a journey. It doesn’t need to be epic, your character doesn’t need to slay dragons or meet the love of their life, but it’s imperative that they go through something.
One of the earliest mistakes I made as a writer was being too gentle on my characters. I made them, I loved them, I didn’t want to be mean to them. I didn’t want to break their hearts, I didn’t want them to embarrass themselves, be mean to people or say the wrong things. They knew more than I did about relationships and the world around them; they were better than me.
So, there I was living vicariously through my characters, living life over as a “good” person in a kind world, and boring the pants off my poor friends who were kind enough to review my work. I learned the hard way that no one wants to read about the all-knowing, god-like character that always knows the right thing to say, or the right way to behave. That person is totally un-relatable and probably really unlikable—I wouldn’t want to talk to that person at a party much less hang out with them for a whole novel. And they don’t want to read about an absolute caring and sympathetic world, because it isn’t that way. Life on earth is royally unfair and full of suffering. People are imperfect, the world is imperfect, and so, your stories must reflect that reality in order to connect with your very human, very flawed readers.
If you really are interested in mastering the art of storytelling, it’s helpful to understand the root of our current model of story structure. When I first began getting serious about writing, a regular at one of the restaurants where I worked, a very successful TV writer, suggested I read Joseph Campbell starting with The Hero With A Thousand Faces. He warned it would be a bulky, rigorous read and advised me to keep a dictionary nearby. It took me a couple of months to get through it.
The myths were were extremely difficult to get through, given their origins in different languages, with hard to pronounce character names and settings, and repetitive plots. In the end it was worth it and the repetition made sense. All of the myths I read were told in completely separate parts of the world, some in societies buried in remote, isolated jungles, and originated thousands of years apart from each other. Amazingly enough, most of them shared similar structural elements and a recurring character known as the archetypal hero. Joseph Campbell named the recurring structure the mono-myth as it is described here:
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
Tada! You can skip it now. I read it for you. You’re welcome. You can go straight to Christopher Vogler's, The Writer's Journey where he simplifies Campbell's findings and creates applicable step-by-step guidelines to plot and character development.
Any writer will tell you that the fastest way to learn how to write is by doing. I'll throw in there failing, even humiliating yourself a little bit. But, before you dive in, it is nice to have a solid foundation, to know a little bit about the history of your craft, theories, and to learn all about structure. Then, of course, you can do whatever you want with the information.
Below I've provided a list of books that I found helpful. Like every hero, every writer's journey is completely different. These are merely the highlights of my educational journey—I've read dozens of other books that bored me to tears and didn't teach me anything new. This list covers enough different territories that they won't bog you down with too much repetition. They should fill in the gaps and leave you with a good understanding of why you're telling your story, how to organize plot and the art of creating a captivating hero.
*Click the book title for a link to Amazon or BETTER go to your local library or neighborhood bookstore to purchase
1. Joseph Campbell
You absolutely must know who this man is and be familiar with some of his work if you are curious about your craft, which I hope you are.
This book might be one of the most important books written on the subject of all time but, like I said, it is a doozey. I would recommend buying it used and skimming through it if for no other reason than to know that Joseph Campbell isn’t lying to you: humans have been telling the same stories over and over for thousands of years and every true hero has a journey. Put it on the shelf next to Ulysses, Infinite Jest and other books you intend to read but never will.
If you want a taste of Joseph Campbell but don't have the patience to sit through his book, watch this interview. Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell have a riveting conversation about the hero’s cycle in literature, our own lives, and how George Lucas applied it to his Star Wars films. You can watch part of it here, or rent the full interview at your local library.
The interview has also been transcribed into a book, which you might want to have. I took so many notes in the interview, I ended up just buying it.
Vogler outlines Joseph Campbells's theory in this book and creates a step by step guideline to creating your story and developing your characters. You'll learn more about the hero's journey in this book than in any of the others. Highly recommend.
Nobody motivates and weeds out the wannabees like Robert McKee. He gets to the point and teaches you everything you need to know about story. He’s succinct and always right. He also has workshops you can attend if you've got the dough. Do it! Read this book!
3. Using Screenplay Format to Plot Your Story
If you want a straightforward way to lean how to structure your novel, webseries, or short story, I’d look to the structure of screenplays. If you’re building the bones, these tools are all you need. When writing my first novel, I whipped these two books out and took notes on my story.
This is the Green Eggs and Ham of screenwriting but the lessons here can be applied to any format you choose to tell your story. Blake Snyder breaks down the “art” of writing a blockbuster movie in this easy to read how-to book. Besides the frequent references to Blank Check as being a flawless screenplay, this book serves as an excellent guide to structuring your story. It also helps you to always know what your book is about and teaches the importance of an elevator pitch – ALWAYS know what your story is about and have an idea of your audience. It also teaches you how to prepare a logline, a tool that I use for pretty much everything I sit down to write. I’ll talk about this more in a future post.
Another excellent book about screenwriting if you want to go in depth and get another point of view from a person that doesn’t list Blank Check as one of the greats. He doesn’t always agree with Blake Snyder’s ideas. I’d recommend reading both books to get a more rounded education.
Please feel free to comment and add your favorite books for learning how to master storytelling below.