Novel Plotting: The Problem with the Hero’s Journey

There are two kinds of writers. Plotters, those who plan out the events of their stories before they write, and pantsers, those who write without knowing where they’re going.

I have been (and probably always will be) a pantser. This is fun for me while I’m writing, but hell when trying to put together a novel. So, I thought, I’ll give plotting a try.

I can see the allure. You know as much as you can about everything. You get everything organized and figured out up front. Of course, all of that can shift when you go to actually write out your grand master plan, but you’ll have avoided many mistakes and plot holes before putting any words together.

But how do you plot a story?

(To the Google Machine!)

I ran into the Snowflake Method, the Save the Cat method, and, among others, the Hero’s Journey. As a recovering English Literature major, I was already familiar with the Hero’s Journey. Here’s a rough explanation. It’s a theory posited by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that all stories in all cultures can be reduced to the same seventeen stages. His book explains the stages and provides examples from a wide variety of classic, mythic, and folk tales. It is super dry, but interesting, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 17.00.34

Writers make use of this by structuring the events of their stories to match Campbell’s seventeen stages, which generally results in a satisfying story that is recognizable to the general population, but (ideally) different enough that the general population isn’t bored.

I attempted applying the hero’s journey to Nora, my protagonist without success. There seemed to be more to her story than the stages were allowing. The hero’s journey didn’t fit.

In 1981, a student of Joseph Campbell named Maureen Murdock asked him about how the hero’s journey applies to women. His answer was deeply unsatisfying to her–essentially, that women don’t need to make any kind of journey. They’ve already “arrived” and simply need to realize it. So she began writing the book that in 1990 would become The Heroine’s Journey: Women’s Quest for Wholeness. Based on her experience as a woman and a therapist, Murdock created her own stages and compared her theories to myths and the stories of modern-day women.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 17.01.05

The problem with the hero’s journey is the same as that of any novel-plotting scheme that claims it works universally. It doesn’t encompass all stories. Campbell’s “proofs” (all the sample stories that match up with his stages) were written or recorded in patriarchal cultures by those who had the privilege and gender to write. Popular methods like Save the Cat that create mainstream content do just that. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure my content is particularly mainstream. And I don’t think I want it to be.

Have you been to the movie theater lately? Watched Netflix or Hulu or HBO with real discretion? Our stories are sick and suffering and dying. Maybe because they’re inbred versions of the same old hero’s journey. Maybe our most successful storytellers are just throwing half-assed stories out there trying to make a quick million. Maybe our stories are being forced into a mold they just don’t fit.

The hero’s journey doesn’t fit the story I’m trying to tell, and I suspect, doesn’t fit many of the stories I’ve loved. It might not fit your story, either. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t, or that if it does, it’ll be a bad story. I’ve read some amazing hero’s journey stories.

But if you’re plotting out a story like I’m trying to do (with the sweat, blood, and tears of a true pantser), know that you don’t have to tell the hero’s journey. There are other stories out there, and they need to be told.

 

 

 

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Published by

Allison Wall

I'm a writer writing about my writing life. There's a lot of writing. And writing about writing. You get the idea.

4 thoughts on “Novel Plotting: The Problem with the Hero’s Journey”

  1. I agree! We’re told too follow the rules, stay within the lines, don’t make noise. But that’s the thing; I want to make noise! The problem is finding out how to make noise and get published (or self-pub and get read).
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Allison,

    First off, I am so glad I found your blog! I so rarely enjoy writer’s blogs, but so far, you’ve given me a lot of good food for thought.

    So… Some thoughts on this post…

    First off, yeah, sounds like Campbell has (had? I think he’s passed) some serious issues to work through regarding women. I’m sort of glad someone has taken the time to write a woman-oriented version of his archetypal work. (The “sort of” is probably obvious to you already, given your discussion of our culture’s “state of story”.)

    I had honestly never thought about the fact that his evidence is seriously “cherry picked” – whether intentional or not – and compromised since he is writing from a seriously compromised position in white patriarchy.

    But would a woman’s version be any better?

    How much of “[o]ur stories [being] sick and suffering and dying” is because we are always on the lookout for formulas. And how much of our desire for tight plots and plotting methods are based on a period in our lives that have passed? How many novels have you read where there is some tacked on sub-plot or story arc that didn’t add much, but were needed to push some story from the category of novella into the category of novel? (Novels being so much easier to market than novellas.) Is it possible that the eBook revolution will allow us to have stories that hit their length more organically? And maybe that will dispense with the need for Hero’s Journeys or even Heroine’s Journeys?

    Anyway, I used to be a meticulous plotter. Now I’m much more of a pantser. My current WIP – which may be one of my favorites – is definitely a seat of the pants affair. And my last piece – which a lot of my beta readers tell me is my best – was one, too. Before that, I rarely started anything without knowing the opening, the ending and 60-80% of the middle.

    How much of that was really worth it? I don’t know.

    Maybe this emphasis on plots is a reaction against the excesses of a lot of the narrative experiments that didn’t satisfy the broad population of readers. I don’t know.

    It’s starting to look like this comment could use more structure, doesn’t it?

    Like

    1. Thank you so much for reading! I’m glad you’re finding thoughts and ideas that are useful to you, and happy to connect with another writer! 🙂

      I do think we as writers need to educate ourselves about and support underrepresented stories, but I also totally agree–when we get stuck on any story formula, whether it’s underrepresented or dominant, we are in danger of being untruthful as storytellers. I’m reading about the philosophy of Zen Buddhism right now, and there’s a huge emphasis placed on spontaneity and naturalness. I hadn’t applied that concept to my writing yet, but it definitely applies somewhere in this conversation, I think.

      I recently heard a writer speak at a conference who said he uses a combination of plotting and pantsing (such a hilarious word). He’ll do significant world building and plot a little ways into the book, then write, maybe/maybe not sticking to the plot, and then, when he gets stuck, he’ll pause and plot again. I’m trying this out right now, but don’t have concrete thoughts about it yet…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. >I’m reading about the philosophy of Zen Buddhism right now, and there’s a huge emphasis placed on spontaneity and naturalness. I hadn’t applied that concept to my writing yet, but it definitely applies somewhere in this conversation, I think.

        Absolutely. I feel like when I’m “pantsing”, I’m tapping into a part of myself that knows what needs to be done. I think this is kind of like the Zen idea of “no mind” or “the natural mind” – if I remember my Zen Buddhist terminology correctly. (Although, sometimes I have felt like the words are coming from a source outside of myself. But perhaps that is a romantic illusion. I don’t know.)

        >He’ll do significant world building and plot a little ways into the book, then write, maybe/maybe not sticking to the plot, and then, when he gets stuck, he’ll pause and plot again.

        That’s what I did with my novella The Mice Waiting, Wailing. I had an opening that was really strong. It came to me almost complete and out of the blue. But I didn’t know where it was going. So, I just sat down and wrote it until I hit a wall. Then I stopped and sent it to my very patient beta reader, who could usually intuit what I was up to and give me really good feedback. Armed with that feedback, I might totally change the events or the dialogue and then I’d push forward, writing until I hit a wall.

        With TMWW, I had to re-write the ending a couple of times. And there were quite a few periods when I had to put it down and just let it sit until the next few scenes started to form in my head.

        >I’m trying this out right now, but don’t have concrete thoughts about it yet…

        I’m very eager to hear how it goes for you. If you have any insight, please share it! Writing can be horribly lonely.

        Liked by 1 person

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