Narrative Structure

Now over to you...

  1. Suppose you have been given the story title When Aliens Invaded. There are different ways of approaching this. Please sketch out two possible story outlines (i.e. just what direction the story would take, not what happens in the end) in the boxes below:

  2. Now please take each of the approaches you have outlined and write the opening line for that approach. Apart from the title, this is the first part of the story that your reader will see, so it should try to grab the reader's attention. In coming up with the lines, you should bear in mind the principle of Show, Don't Tell.

  3. Here I have given you the opening part of an outline for two stories. In each case, please suggest a complication that shakes things up and drives the plot forward.
    a) Jenny is a very neat person - obsessively neat, in fact, with the motto "A place for everything, and everything in its place." She also has standard routine that she follows every day, with all her activities planned down to the nearest minute. However, one day, something goes terribly wrong.
    b) The Society of Gentlemen Assassins is a well trained group of men and women who take a great deal of pride in carrying out their grizzly assignments both cleanly and efficiently. They have never yet failed to carry out a kill, but then they receive an assignment that will test their skills and professionalism to the utmost.

The Hero's Journey

The Hero's Journey (also known as the monomyth) is a common template that is often used as a story structure. It is a very powerful framework, so much so that it has been used in stories as varied as The Epic of Gilgamesh (which is thousands of years old) and Star Wars. The pattern was first explained by Joseph Campbell and is rather complicated, with a large number of steps. However, it is often boiled down to these simple points:

  1. There is a hero (usually a man, although it can be a woman) who is leading an ordinary life.

  2. The hero is called to undergo a challenge or mission. He is often initially reluctant, but is persuaded to take the challenge up.

  3. The hero has to face and defeat a powerful enemy, who might well have some sort of supernatural powers. The villain is very powerful and the hero is no match for him.

  4. The hero falls under the influence of a mysterious mentor (teacher), often an old man, who guides him as he becomes more mature and teaches him the skills he will need to overcome the villain.

  5. The hero encounters an attractive woman, who becomes his "love interest". He will probably have to rescue her from the villain.

  6. The hero will meet and fall in with at least one sidekick. The sidekick is the comedy aspect of the story - if there are any jokes to be cracked, it will be the sidekick who cracks them.

  7. Through some miracle of fortune, the hero defeats the villain.

  8. The hero might or might not go back to his previous ordinary life, but, either way, he has been changed forever.

Not all examples of the Hero's Journey contain all these steps, but they all contain most of them. Star Wars is the prime example in modern times, but there are many others, such as Krull, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films.

Over to you again...

Please choose an example of The Hero's Journey that you have met, perhaps from a book that you have read or film that you have watched.

  1. What is the name of the film or book?

  2. Which characters in the film/book take the part of the following elements of The Hero's Journey. You can leave a box blank if that particular element is missing.
    Hero/Heroine Villain
    Love interest Mentor (teacher)

Sting in the Tail

This is a plot device, used a lot in films, where the author surprises the reader right at the end by revealing that everything the reader thought about the plot was wrong. This is called subverting the user's expectations. It is very hard to do convincingly, but if you can do it, it is very effective, and it will be the part of your story that people will remember it for. A sting in the tail is often called a surprise ending or a twist in the tail.

Here's a famous example: the film The Usual Suspects. The film is told in flashback by a character called Roger "Verbal" Kint (played by Kevin Spacey) to a police officer. He explains that he is a petty (small-time) criminal who, with a group of criminals, was blackmailed and forced into committing a crime by a shadowy crime-lord called Kaiser Soze. The main thrust of the film is that Kaiser Soze always remains hidden and nobody knows who he is. Right at the end, the policeman realises that Kaiser Soze is in fact Kint himself: He has been chatting to this crime lord for at least an hour without realising it! By that time, however, it is too late, and Kint has slipped through his clutches.

There are many other examples in films. How many of the following have you seen or heard of? The Others, Fight Club, Shutter Island, The Sixth Sense, The Wicker Man, Unbreakable etc. In each film, there is an element of foreshadowing, where the writer drops in subtle clues. When you watch the film the second time, you spot these clues and you think to yourself "How could I have missed that?"

If you are going to write a twist-in-the-tail story, the important thing is to start from the end. Write the twist first, and then work backwards, deciding how you can hide the twist and drop in a few clues for people to spot if they are sufficiently hawk-eyed. Make sure the twist comes as close to the end as you can, as it will overshadow any plot that comes after it. The twist should be based on the reader's certainty, i.e. the reader should be absolutely certain that the hero is a man (even though the writer has never actually said so), before the writer reveals at the end that the hero is actually a woman, and that changes everything.

Over to you one more time...

Here I have given you the start of two plot outlines. Please give a possible twist-in-the-tail for each one:

a) Peregrine is always insistent on arriving at work on time (or early). He prides himself on the fact that he has never been late once. One morning, everything goes wrong. His bus doesn't arrive, and when he manages to get on the next one, it breaks down a couple of stops later. Getting off the bus near his workplace, he realises he has left his briefcase on the bus and he has to rush after it to get the thing back. Eventually he arrives at work two hours late.
b) A woman becomes absolutely certain that her house is haunted. When she wakes up each morning she finds that objects aren't where she left them. She hears strange, unexplained noises and some of her possessions have gone missing. What's worse, she has been living in increasing isolation for several years and has no friends that she can talk to and ask for advice. The hauntings get worse and worse, and start to drive her mad.