More about structure and plot

I’ve just finished reading Vogler’s Writer’s Journey (Mythic Structure for Writers) and am in the process of absorbing it. It is a complicated but thorough blueprint for what sells, what readers find satisfying and want to go back to. Actually, that is slightly inaccurate – Vogler’s main experience is in Hollywood, so it is really a guide to writing and producing films that cinema goers and DVD buyers will find satisfying. But the essence of it is the craft of telling an engaging story, regardless of the medium you use to communicate that story. So, once you’ve analysed the difference between novel writing and screen writing, it is a very useful volume.

Interestingly, it doesn’t only apply to fiction. I was watching an incredibly moving documentary – Not Dead Yet: Jason Becker – and I realised it almost perfectly followed the structure that Vogler outlined. I noticed this when I saw a scene in the middle where they had people reacting to news of Jason’s death (as I’m sure you can guess from the title, they were misinformed). But they put this section in just the place that Vogler suggests you place a death and resurrection scene.

So I am now convinced that Vogler’s 12 steps on the character’s journey works for film. And I’ve also read about plot structure for books. Basically, it’s the same, but the one I’ve read breaks it down into three stages, with two doorways in between the sections. The doorways do match up to steps on the journey, so apart from the placing, it’s not too different. And the key thing about Vogler’s plan is that it has to be dynamic and flexible. If you stick to it rigidly, then your work will be wooden.

A look at two of the most archetypal film series – Star Wars and Lord of the Rings – reveals how to layer and use the template to add depth and complexity. Multiple characters all have their own journeys that overlap and interact with each other. While Han Solo is on the path to being less self-centred and working more for the group, Luke Skywalker is learning to become a Jedi and resolving his issues with fatherhood. Another layer of complexity is added when you consider that each film in a series has to stand alone, with a beginning, middle and end, but also the whole series has the same over-arching structure. Even Darth Vader has his own character journey and development within the series.

In a sense, what I’m doing now is trying to forget what I’ve learned. Or rather, make it subconscious. Like driving a car, I don’t want to be always thinking, clutch, throttle, gears, I want to move to thinking I need to change gear, and eventually on to just driving naturally. That’s where I’m heading with my writing – to be aware of all the rules, and structure and plot, but at the back of my mind. Hopefully I’ll just be writing the story that needs to be told, and it’ll only take a few tweaks at the editing stage to make it into an engaging story.

I am also very interested in the layering effect of having even the minor characters following some sort of path. They may not being having a fully developed character journey, but that doesn’t stop them from growing and changing. Also, to convert a screenplay system into one for novels, I’m combining it with the traditional 3 part structure and the theory of having an increasing series of setbacks leading to a major crisis.

And, I am aware that there are seat of the pants writers out there, who just start at the beginning and work through to the end. In a way, I have more respect for them, because if they are successful (and Stephen King is the most famous who springs to mind) then they have a natural feel for what people want to read without having to resort to a structure.

What do you think? Is there a universal structure that applies to most media, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, book or film?

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