Ever since George Lucas introduced Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces to screenwriting, it’s had a profound influence — not just on the movie industry, but on fiction in general. A quick Google search will bring up thousands of pages about applying Joseph Campbell’s work to novels, short stories, and even television commercials. I love Campbell’s work and think its popularity is well-deserved, but for myself, I need a guide that’s a little more detailed.
I recently read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and its sequels, and they’re certainly more formulaic — even algorithmic. You can start with nothing but a vague idea, a hook or a character; and by following his recipe, you’ll end up with a three-act movie, with every detail mapped out, and every minute charted and plotted. He practically hands you an invoice for the sandwiches for the extras.
But more importantly, Snyder tells you exactly why each act, scene, and minute is there, and how it serves the story. So if you decide you don’t want to tell a story exactly according to his formula, that’s fine — you’ll be able to break the rules responsibly. And you’ll know why movies and novels that don’t follow his formula usually fail, and sometimes succeed spectacularly.
A third book I found extremely useful was Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. This monstrous tome, Booker’s labor of love and masterwork, is brilliant in most places, and not-at-all-brilliant in others. The first half (which I found most helpful) is a crash course in the greatest works of European literature, as he reviews everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Grimm’s folktales, Greek myths to Cervantes, and weaves from them a coherent tapestry of human experience. I think the title is somewhat misleading, because more insightful, I felt, was his identification of the great drivers of plot — the Monster vs. the Hero, the Light and Dark family members, and the characteristics of other non-protagonist characters.
I sat down a year or so ago and wrote up a ‘map’ that combined the insights of these books into a single framework, for my own reference. The major headings are Campbell’s framework, and under each I’ve noted the terms used by Snyder and Booker, and any further elaborations they’ve added. References to Family members (Dark Father, etc.) are archetypes used by both Jung and Booker, and I’ll lay out their details, and how they relate to each other, in another post.
The Call to Adventure.
Variously called “Lowly Circumstances”, “Quest’s Call”, “State of Confusion”, and “Temptation” by Booker, depending on which of the seven basic plots is being kicked off for a given story. For Snyder, this is the “Opening Shot”, “Setup”, and “Catalyst”. Consists of these parts:
- A ‘visual’ that represents the struggle and tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins. If fiction is a shamanic journey, it’s important to give the reader’s subconscious a vivid image (or sound, or sensation) to lock onto. At the end of the story, a mirror ‘image’ will be presented that represents the change that has occurred in the protagonist’s life.
- A series of scenes that show the protagonist’s normal life, including the goals they were pursuing before the Call — i.e. what they were planning on doing if their character didn’t change. The setup shows what’s missing in the character’s life; and, invariably, what’s missing is a relationship with a member of the archetypal Family (Father, Mother, Sibling, Alter Ego, etc.). The Family member is hidden / disguised / unrevealed (except perhaps to audience; but the audience likes to know, so it’s often better / more ironic if the audience knows who the Family member is). To give a well-rounded view of the character, at least three scenes are often necessary, showing Home, Work, and Play.
- At the same time, the work needs to establish of the two ‘levels’ of the character’s life: where the Monster rules, and where it does not. In Booker’s terms, the Monster is the plague of the land: the beast threatening the peaceful kingdom; the tyrant who crushes the innocent under his heel; the poverty, disease, or character flaw that wreaks havoc in the protagonist’s life. At the beginning of the story, the Monster seems to be a simple fact of life, something that cannot ever be overcome. But part of the character’s world — the “Underworld” — is outside of the Monster’s influence; and by the end of the story, the Monster will be defeated, contained, or integrated, and the two worlds will be one.
- Finally, there is a disruption that calls the protagonist away from whatever plans, home, work, etc. they planned. Something comes out of the Underworld, and demands to be heeded. This is Snyder’s Catalyst.
Refusal of the Call.
Consists of three parts:
- A negative reaction to the call. A debate rages, either internally to the protagonist, or among the characters. Snyder calls this the Debate.
- An attempt to escape the call, which ends in failure. (If it ended successfully, the character wouldn’t change.)
- The final decision to move forward. Travel into the Underworld, where the Monster does not rule. Snyder calls this the Break Into Two (i.e break into Act Two).
Once the character decides to follow the call, some form of unexpected assistance appears. Usually the character expresses doubts, but is reassured and commits more firmly to the journey. Booker calls this the Gradual Progress. Snyder calls this the establishment of the “B Story” — when there’s a discussion about the Theme. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the unexpected assistance. Snyder calls this the ‘love interest’, because in many modern movies, this unexpected assistance comes from the love interest, but it need not be so. More particularly, this is a good place to put a plain statement of the story’s theme — what your story is about: the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the protagonist, but they don’t understand it (yet). In general, your story’s theme is: you need X, where X is provided by fixing the relationship with the archetypal Family member.
Crossing the First Threshold
The character takes the first careful steps into the Underworld — a realm of unknown danger. Often characters experience a first taste of the difficulties and setbacks that can occur in this realm. It’s the beginning of the journey or the Dream for Booker’s plots. This and the next two parts correspond to Snyder’s “Promise of the Premise” or “Fun and Games”.
Belly of the Whale
The first setbacks land the protagonist in a deeply difficult situation that seems hopeless, directionless. The character can remain trapped here for a long time, but eventually the decision to go on is made, and / or a way out is found. This is the beginning of the Frustration Stage for many of Booker’s plots.
Road of Trials.
A series of adventures of increasing danger and difficulty. This is the heart of Snyder’s “Promise of the Premise” and “Fun and Games”. If someone reads the blurb of your book, or sees your movie poster, this is the core of what they expect to be experiencing.
Meeting with the Goddess
The ‘enemy’ has apparently been defeated; or the hero has been seemingly defeated; now there is a brief respite. The protagonist discovers a new love — of a person or ideal — which consumes them and helps guide the next stages of their metamorphosis. The thing or person loved is an ‘other half’ or ‘missing piece’ that is crucial for the new character that will emerge from this process. This is the Magical Helpers of Booker’s Quest plot; and the beginning of the Isolation stage of Rebirth (because these helpers have been refused). Snyder helpfully breaks this into two parts:
- Snyder’s “Midpoint.” Snyder says, “Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want or doesn’t get what they think they want at all. But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.” In Booker’s Comedy plot, the protagonist often establishes a relationship with the Dark Family member, and / or screws up the relationship with the Light Family member.
- The end of Midpoint is the unraveling of the plot further. Snyder calls this “Bad Guys Close In”: doubt, jealousy, fear, and foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates. Externally, aliens invade; but internally the protagonist hasn’t learned the theme yet.
Woman as Temptress
Temptations appear which pull the hero away from the true path. This is a false love, a false missing piece — something which holds promise of completing the necessary changes, but which would lead down a bad road. Often the temptation is to become what you have been fighting, or otherwise be distracted from the goal, and thus remain forever in the Underworld. This is the beginning of the Nightmare Stage of Booker’s plots. Again, for Snyder there are two parts:
- “All Is Lost.” Snyder: “The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.” In Booker’s terms, the relationship with the Dark Family member sours, and / or all hope of establishing a relationship with the Light Family member is destroyed. The old self must die.
- “Dark Night of the Soul”. The main character hits bottom, mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
Atonement with Father
A confrontation with a being whose powers have been driving this whole process — Booker’s Monster. Whatever great enemy the character has been facing, whoever rules this Underworld realm, whatever power has been behind the resistance to change, this is the confrontation. Booker variously calls this the Death of the Monster, the Success on Personal Merit, and the Final Ordeal of the Quest. In Comedy, it’s the Breakthrough. For a Tragedy, this is where the story ends, and the protagonist loses. In Rebirth, this is where the protagonist suddenly changes course. Rebirth stories often explore the final stages in more detail than the other plot types. Snyder, who does not address Tragedy, breaks this up into:
- “Break into Three”. Snyder: “Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.” The Light Family member somehow reaches out to the protagonist; the protagonist has changed, allowing the connection to be made, and providing (in Tolkien’s terms) a eucatastrophe.
- “Finale”. Snyder: “The main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story.” The Finale covers all the ground to the end of Snyder’s template. He also provides a template for the “perfect” finale, which has five parts:
- Gather the team
- Execute the plan
- High Tower Surprise: shocking twist in plan
- Dig Deep Down – touched by the divine
- Execution of new plan
A period of rest and fulfillment before the beginning of the return stage.
The character receives a gift (or steals something!) which they can carry back to the normal world with them.
Refusal of Return
The character may not want to return; but eventually, for the story to continue and end satisfactorily, they must decide to do so. This is the reverse of the Refusal of the Call.
This is the reverse of the Road of Trials; it’s often necessary if the hero is escaping with the Ultimate Boon rather than leaving with the owner’s blessing. This is the Thrilling Escape of some of Booker’s plots.
Rescue from Without
This is the reverse of Supernatural Aid; it’s often aid from mundane sources, rather than supernatural ones.
Crossing Return Threshold
This is the reverse of Crossing the Threshold. The difficulty here is that the whole journey may seem unreal or idiotic to the normal world. It is often hard to return to the world without losing the Ultimate Boon.
Master of Two Worlds
The hero demonstrates the ability to live in both worlds at once, by calling on the Boon or other resources from the Underworld to secure victory in the normal world.
Freedom to Live
Reaction to the whole adventure, and decisions about next steps for the character. The reverse of the Call of Adventure; and the character’s changes are evident from the new goals and plans they’re making, in contrast with the old ones. Snyder sums this up in the Final Image.
This map is no substitute for the books themselves, but it’s my guide as I dive into the revision of my own book, Axon, Inc., and I’ll be referring to it as I update my progress on that.