The Beats

Graphic of the hero's journeyAny discussion of Star Wars in terms of the writing and storyline always comes around to Joseph Campbell’s seminal work on mythology, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Since the release of Star Wars in 1977, almost every movie that’s been a hit, and quite a few that weren’t (many far from it), has followed this formula. That’s not to say it’s formulaic, but think about your favorite action movie, buddy cop movie, or even romantic comedy. Will Smith, Mel Gibson, and Cameron Diaz all heed a call to action (fight the alien invaders, hunt down the bad guy, date the really hot guy). They resist, then cross the threshold (the aliens bring the fight to Will, the bad guy goes after Mel or someone close to him, Cameron is forced into proximity with the hot guy.) You can probably figure out the rest. Not every story or even every movie follows this pattern, but it is the most recognizable plot structure across almost every culture. We’re wired for it. Every person wants a cause. Everyone needs a mentor. Everyone wants to win a struggle. It’s in the Bible. It is the Hero’s Journey, and if not every writer builds their work around it, every writer should at least know it.

I’ve studied the Hero’s Journey over the past couple of years. When writing Jim Winter’s final (and still unpublished) novel, Holland Bay, I found both the female protagonist, a disgraced cop, and a young gangbanger with a conscience, both follow the pattern, even if I wsas going for an extended episode of The Wire when I wrote it. (You don’t know The Wire? Go to HBO and binge watch it right now!) When I wrote what is now Season 3 of The Compact Universe, I found both protags followed it as well, though there are exceptions in that story.

And there should be. The Hero’s Journey is not a rule book. It’s not the way every story should be told. It is a polite suggestion that simply has been taken over and over again. Where it was more useful to me was breaking down a story into “beats.”

Many writers talk about writing by beat to speed up the process. It helps them design story arcs and put stories together faster. What brought it home for me was the late Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. “Save the cat” is the ultimate goal of every protagonist in a story. What’s his or her motivation? Why do we care? Snyder broke this down into beats – Introduce character, throw them into a situation, make their life hell, let them achieve the goal.

Should you do it as a writer? You should consider it. But slavishly following the Hero’s Journey, even when reduced to about 8 plot points that can create a story arc for you, might also resort in writing that sounds forced, such as “I have to kill the mentor off because it’s that point in the story.” Well, what if that ruins the rest of the story?

Rules on writing are merely a starting point. It’s your job to use or reject them as your work calls for them.

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