Lately, I’ve had many discussions on the hero’s journey and how we structure a story that follows that most traditional of story arcs.
Usually, the first half of the book is easy for me to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first, very rough draft, I begin to struggle.
The rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. Once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.
The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment and give it form on paper. When it is finished, the rough draft is basically made of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalogue of events: who did what, where they did it, and why. We are beginning to know our characters, but in the original version, we may not have a handle on how to portray their reactions so they are organic and true. The character arc is uneven and making the story seem real becomes a challenge.
The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character/protagonist over the course of a story. Stories that interest me have a strong character arc: the protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events he/she experiences, they are transformed, frequently changing for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.
The third quarter section of your story begins with the midpoint crisis. From there we are barreling toward the final showdown that begins the final scenes, and from there we are racing toward the conclusion. The third quarter of the story is crucial because the seeds planted by the events of the first half must bear fruit here, forcing a visible change (usually a positive change) in the behavior and outlook of the protagonist and his/her friends. Sadly, some books fail to live up to their promise when they arrive at this point, and the reader gives up.
In a book where the storyline follows the hero’s journey, at some point in this third section, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. This is your opportunity to learn who they really are as human beings. The events leading to this place have combined to break the character down to their lowest emotional state. They must emerge from this section remade as a stronger person, ready to meet whatever awaits them at the final showdown.
And you must make it believable, done in such a way that it feels natural to the reader.
If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?
As I said, for me this part of the rough draft is often difficult to write because often in the first attempt to just write the story down, the protagonist and his motives are still somewhat unformed. But if you are following the hero’s journey, by the end of this section, your main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Their world has been shaken to the foundations, and they no longer have faith in themselves or the people they once looked up to.
- How is he/she emotionally destroyed by the events?
- How was her/his own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
- How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
- What makes him pull himself together and just keep on going?
- How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?
This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which he is taken down to his component parts emotionally, and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.
By the time you finish writing this part, you should have come to know your character and how they will react in any given situation.
Paying close attention to making this section emotionally powerful in your first draft will pay off when you begin the second draft. In the rewrite, the story always evolves into a greater, more polished version of the original.
Taking the rough draft and rewriting it is absolutely the most important thing you can do. It is when you are deep into the second draft that you realize some plot twists don’t work as you devised them, and they must be reworked. Also, you begin to find and smooth out grammatical errors and awkward prose.
I write my work in four drafts. The first, rough draft rarely is seen by other eyes than mine. It is me thinking out loud through my keyboard and is not ready to be seen by anyone else but me, so if I ask you to look at a section and tell me if I have gone off the rails or not, feel honored! Few are ever offered that privilege.
The second draft is what goes to my beta readers.
The third draft is what emerges after the first readers’ comments have been taken into consideration.
The fourth draft is what goes to my editor.
While your story will have serious issues in the rough draft stage, at least by time you are finished with it you will know your characters. They and their motives will be clear, offering up the ideas you will need to shape the second draft of your manuscript, making it into the believable story of a real person’s journey through life-changing events.
Image: the Hero’s Journey, by scan from an unknown publication by an anonymous poster, in a thread, gave permission to use it. Re-drawn by User:Slashme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
6 responses to “#amwriting: the third quarter of the novel and the character arc”
How about in a 3-act story?
(Just blew your mind, didn’t I?)
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You always do, Stephen. You always do!
“Once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.”
Oi vey . . . the staying power required for these longer works! 🙂
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You are right, Shannon–this is the difference between an amatuer who just shoves a nanowrimo novel up on Amazon with no edits, and a professional author who crafts the book. My first publisher did the former with my first book (which will never again see the light of day) so I learned this lesson the hard way.
The hero’s journey is especially well adapted to fantasy or sci-fi that has strong forces of good and evil and features a main character with enough assets and enough at stake to stand up to the epic battles that inevitably ensue. Because it requires a return trip to the familiar world to bring back the golden ring, or wisdom or whatever is needed to save that world from what threatens it, this story structure is ultimately satisfying to audiences who want their problems solved and bad guys vanquished. It requires technically a four-act story structure because of the return home. A three-act structure ends with the final action taken after the point of no return and doesn’t follow a return home (sometimes that will show up in the epilogue or denoument).
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So true! Which is why I love tales that follow the hero’s journey–sometimes i just need to see the good guys/underdogs win!