By Jax Hunter
Welcome to the next installment of Story Tips From the Big Screen. This monthly column (to be posted the second Monday of each month) explores screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story.
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Last month, I gave you an overview of the Hero’s Journey. This month, we’ll look at the first section of that mythic structure. For the most part, the steps we’ll work with this month are those that make up Act I in our story.
Review: Do you remember the pattern - get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him out of the tree? Ready to get that hero or heroine up that three? Then let’s begin.
Step One - the Ordinary World.
This part of the book is the opening, in which we get to know the protagonist, see his values, his character, and maybe even his flaws. It shows the reader the hero’s comfort zone. It is given so that the reader will have a baseline to measure the hero’s growth. Ideally, it will be as different as possible from the Special World into which the hero will soon be forced.
The ordinary world may be rather ho-hum, or it may be a world of excitement. For example, a military hero may be very comfortable dodging bullets, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or hanging from the side of a mountain. (Can you tell I’m writing military romance at the moment?) Take a man like this and put him into a situation where he has none of his tools, none of that excitement, and you have a man up a tree.
In the Wizard of Oz, the Ordinary World is represented in black and white, the Special World in technicolor. It’s the boring world of a Kansas farm where a young girl dreams of no more problems. In Wizard, this world foreshadows the Special World Dorothy will soon be blown into. Your hero’s Ordinary World may do the same. For Luke Skywalker, it’s another farm in a galaxy far, far, away. His problems, though, are fairly similar to Dorothy’s.
Step Two - The Call to Adventure - also known as the Inciting Incident.
This is the part of the book, ideally as soon as possible, in which the problem, challenge or adventure shows up. This Call throws off the balance of the Ordinary World. It establishes the game and the goal becomes clearer. It may be as simple as the hero running out of options.
For Dorothy, she’s faced with an angry Miss Gulch who wants to take Toto away. Auntie Em, Dorothy’s sanctuary, is unsympathetic to her plight. The only answer is to run away.
For Luke Skywalker, the Call takes the form of a hologram of Princess Leia, begging for the help of Obi Wan. “Help me Obi Wan, you’re my only hope.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
Heroes hardly ever respond to the call with a hearty heave-ho. Like us, they tend to cling to their comfort zone and to the status quo. Which brings us to the next step:
Step Three - Refusal of the Call.
During this part of Act I, the author has the opportunity to point out the clear and present dangers inherent in the hero taking on the challenge. This is a time of fear and waffling for our hero.
Sometimes, in this part of the book, we see a Threshold Guardian that blocks the way for our hero. In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy runs into Professor Marvel who convinces her that she needs to go home. She’s an example of a hero that willingly leaves her comfort zone - because she doesn’t see the comfort there.
In other stories, we meet the mentor briefly at this point. In Star Wars, Luke runs into Obi Wan, but ends up turning away from the Call and going home. Refusing the Call often leads to tragedy, as we see when Luke arrives home to find his family dead and the homestead in ruins. In this case, the refusal didn’t RESULT in the tragedy, but many times it does.
Step Four - Meet the mentor.
This step can be separate, or it may be hidden within the other steps. Sometimes, there really is no mentor. A Mentor, though, does not have to be a person. It can be a map, a book, or even the hero’s strong code of honor. The Mentor stage is defined by a time of preparation for our hero, where he is given advice, training, guidance and, sometimes, magical equipment with which to enter the fray.
Be careful, in this stage, to avoid the typical mentor who has become a bit cliched: the wise old woman or man, the fairy godmother or wizard. If you do use these characters, make sure you twist them a bit.
Dorothy has many mentors in her journey. The most obvious may be Glenda, but she only shows up three times, when Dorothy can go no further without intervention. Nowadays, readers may prefer heroes who don’t rely on intervention. However, Dorothy has mentors, of sorts, in the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. The Wizard, himself, becomes a mentor. And we can’t forget Toto, who is with her every step of the way and in whom resides Dorothy’s intuition.
Luke, of course, has Obi Wan, who trains him to trust the force and who gives him his father’s light sabre.
In some stories, the mentor is simply a sounding board for the hero, someone who listens to and encourages him along the way.
Step Five - At the end of Act I, we come to Crossing the Threshold.
This is the turning point at the end of Act I that propels us into Act II. The hero finally commits to the journey, sometimes after a swift kick in the pants from the mentor, sometimes because he has no choice. Often, we see a Threshold Guardian here, an obstacle that stands between the hero and actually getting into the Special World. The hero may need to engage this Guardian, kill him and absorb his power. Or, it may be a matter of just pushing through the obstacle, or simply acknowledging it.
At this point, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Next month, we’ll look at Act II steps in the hero’s journey.
Until next month, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard)
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.