Monday, June 23, 2014

Wordcraft -- Finding the path through our stories, part II

At the last meeting of the Dallas Mystery Writers, professional authors swooned over Daniel J. Hale’s discussion of plot structure. After outlining the three-act (or as he termed it, the four-act) structure of novels, he applied his method to the 12-step Writer’s Journey work of screenwriter Christopher Vogler.

Vogler’s initial memo while working for Disney was based on the writings of Joseph Campbell. Later expanded into book form, it postulated that stories are based on mythological narratives in twelve specific stages, giving writers a road map of places that must be visited during the course of the story. Vogler termed these stages The Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor and Crossing the First Threshold; Tests, Allies and Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; Ordeal and Reward; and The Road Back, Resurrection and Return with the Elixir.

The Writer’s Journey method is taught in Southern Methodist University’s creative writing program which Hale teaches. Vogler’s terms map onto the three-act story discussed last week like this: Act One opens with a picture of the Ordinary World. It moves to the Call to Adventure, effectively the story’s “hook,” but often followed by the Refusal of the Call as the hero recognizes the danger of taking necessary action. A Meeting with the Mentor persuades the hero to undertake the necessary journey or other action, and prompting the him or her to Cross the First Threshold. Crossing the threshold is the decision point that pushes the story into its second act.

Act II includes a series of Tests and meetings with various allies and enemies, building through the Approach to the Inmost Cave and the Ordeal, Vogler’s apt term for the midpoint crisis that, in the three-act structure propels the story into the second half of Act II. At this point, the hero will gain some respite or knowledge from the encounter with the antagonist, the Reward that will aid the final struggle and precipitates the third act.

Act III opens with The Road Back, as the hero makes use of what he or she has learned in Act II, moving toward the climatic scene. Vogler’s term for the final struggle is Resurrection, followed by the Return with the Elixir. At this point, I find Vogler’s terminology sometimes more poetic than helpful. Sometimes the hero--Romeo for example--may die in the “Resurrection” scene. And “what the heck is an elixir,” is a question that‘s come up more than once in classes. I found it more helpful to recall that what Vogler terms Resurrection is more conventionally termed the story’s climactic moment. And the elixir is what the hero‘s world gains from his or her struggle (or even death).

In his presentation to the Dallas Mystery Writers this month, Hale emphasized that the twelve-step structure “is a structure, not a formula. It’s a tool to use to develop your story. Every character in your book has a hero’s journey. For some of your minor characters, you’re not going to see all their hero’s journey. What I do when I start a book is to layout the hero’s journey as a start. Initially, I will write the resurrection, which is the big fight scene, so I know where I’m going. And then (the course of the story changes) but I have a destination in mind.”

For more about the SMU creative writing program, see

I joined the Dallas Mystery Writers because I a) write suspenseful stories and b) was impressed by the curriculum at last year’s Mystery University it hosted. The speaker lineup for the monthly meetings is wonderfully informative for both pro and novice writers. See for meeting information and programs.


Other information for writers--Dallas-area fantasy/sci-fi conference FenCon seeks material for its annual short story contest, with payment in cash and prizes. Deadline is July 20. Or in you’re in grades three through 12 (or know an aspiring writer who is) FenCon’s Young Authors Short Story Contest offers cash, prizes and publication. Deadline is September 10. For rules and other information for both contests, see

(Next Monday--Don’t hate me because I scored a ticket to hear Diana Gabaldon speak at the Dallas Museum of Arts program. I’ll bring you news from the master--or should that be mistress?--of historical romantic fiction.)

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