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VoyagerCon 2021!

No new blog post today because I’m on a panel at VoyagerCon 2021! I’ll be talking with Kester Grant, Sue Lynn Tan and Kate Heartfield about retelling a classic at 3pm UK time on Saturday 11th September.

Tickets are free and you can get one here! https://harpervoyagerbooks.co.uk/2021/07/30/voyagercon21/

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Help Wanted: Damsel in Distress

We are recruiting a naïve and innocent Damsel in Distress to be rescued by our protagonist. This is a full-time role with an excellent set of benefits, perfect for a childhood friend or token minor royal seeking more opportunities for pining.

The Damsel will be expected to do the following:

  • Pine for their One True Love
  • Be kidnapped at least once a fortnight
  • Sigh wistfully while staring from the highest window in the tallest tower
  • Swoon
  • Tend to the hero’s wounds (note: no actual medical training is necessary, you will just need to mop their brow with a damp cloth and fret prettily)
  • Be extremely hot

The successful damsel will:

  • Have absolutely no practical skills whatsoever
  • Be kind to small children, old ladies, and all the animals of the forest
  • Always look absolutely immaculate even after being kept in a tower for seven years with no laundry, like seriously how do you DO that
  • Never, ever join in on the fighting
  • Be rendered completely helpless when grabbed by the upper arm by a suitably dastardly villain
  • Go from 0 to “and then they lived happily ever after” within ten seconds of meeting the hero

Note: Any candidates inclined to offer their hands in marriage to the villain in exchange for the hero’s safety should mark this on their applications, which will be reviewed by our Shipping Department.

The successful candidate will be provided with an unnecessarily large wardrobe, a protagonist to marry and/or sacrifice themselves for, and a prison to languish in (but, like, a nice prison. It’ll be a suite of rooms at the palace, don’t worry.) In accordance with the classic tropes, this role comes with a salary that is the equivalent to half your father’s kingdom. Please also note that swooning support staff will be provided, guaranteed to catch you before you hit the floor.

Please note we accept applicants of all genders for this role, as long as they meet our twin standards of uselessness and attractiveness.

How to apply: please send your application via a trusted servant, who will plead for the HR department to rescue you from your plight. Candidates who do not contact the HR department about their application, but instead sit at their windows and sigh about it, will be favourably noted. Please do not contact the HR department about your application personally, as that would display a level of competence which is not appropriate to this role.

– The Trope Recruitment Agency

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Third Time’s the Charm: Thoughts on the Three-Act Structure

So! As some of you may recall I did a blog post a few weeks ago about using the hero’s journey story structure. And now I’m going to do another one, because it seems like a good idea and I am tired. Also, structure is important and you should care about it.

The three-act structure is really popular and it’s in kind of…everything. Some people trace it back to Aristotle (no, really) so as you can imagine, it’s been used in plays, novels, movies – all sorts. It’s a real favourite of screenwriters in particular, but it’s quite literally been around for centuries.

It goes like this:

Act One: Setup

  • Exposition: set the scene! Introduce your protagonist, describe your setting, let your audience settle in with a cup of tea.
  • Inciting Incident: a thing has happened! It starts the plot!
  • Plot Point One: your protagonist decides to go all in on this plot business.

Act Two: Confrontation

  • Rising Action: have a series of shenanigans where the stakes get higher each time.
  • Midpoint: SOMETHING GOES WRONG. It’s awful, everyone is very upset.
  • Plot Point Two: post-darkest hour, your protagonist reflects on their life choices and (usually) doubles down.

Act Three: Resolution

  • Pre-Climax: you build up to the climax, as it says on the tin.
  • Climax: The most exciting/important scene, where everything comes to a head. Prepare for someone to get thrown off a rooftop or something.
  • Denouement: wind down from all that excitement and let everyone live happily ever after.

There are a few variations on the structure, as you may expect for something that’s been around for literally thousands of years. Some add more detail, some have less, but broadly, this is what they boil down to.

Insert cooking joke blah blah blah (image: giphy.com)

Straight away, you can see that this particular story structure is focussed around building momentum and tension in a narrative. Whereas the hero’s journey is more of a character-driven thing, this is a tool that’s designed to help you focus on pacing. There’s a reason screenwriters love this particular structure so much! Unlike the hero’s journey, this is also a structure that can fit with most genres of fiction, making it pretty versatile as well.

But that’s not to say that this particular tool can’t be used for character development. The setup section is key to this. This is the part of your story where you establish what your protagonist clearly cares about, and will drive them through the plot. It’s where you pose the central question that your story, and the actions of your protagonist, will answer. Forcing yourself to take the time to establish what matters to the protagonist will inform their decisions and motivations, and make sure that your main character has a personal interest in all those raising stakes. It also has turning points built in which explicitly state that you should be considering the effect that the plot has had on your character, directly encouraging you to develop them as a writer. Structure is always helpful in writing because it makes you think about where your characters are going before you actually start to write, and not only does this particular structure help with that, it’s also good for pacing as well.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. (When has it ever been, in 2021?) Like the hero’s journey, the three-act structure has its drawbacks. As with most one-size-fits-all story structures, it can be a bit restrictive if you follow it too closely, and you don’t always need to include all the points. It can also be a bit predictable. Because it’s been so widely used in the movies, I know in my bones that the big plan the heroes attempt about an hour into the movie is not going to work, and that when it gets to about forty minutes from the end, any character who’s been talking about retiring or going back home to their wife and kids should probably take out a life insurance policy.

Run, beloved mentor characters! Run!! (image: giphy.com)

But for me, the biggest problem with the three-act structure is that it’s so focused towards building tension. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always good to have a tool at your disposal that helps you keep an eye on pacing, and having a big exciting finish is always fun. But tension isn’t the only thing that you need in a narrative. The three-act story structure isn’t one that encourages a writer to build in quieter moments that let the events of the plot sink in. The plot points that reinforce a character’s decisions and push them towards the climax are direct responses to big, exciting events – and those are fine, but that’s not all you need.

Hayao Miyazaki put it best in an interview with Roger Ebert. I’m just going to give a short quote to prove my point, but here’s the article for those of you who are interested.

“If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”

– Hayao Miyazaki

And he’s got like, all the movie awards, so you know he knows his stuff.

Overall, I think the three-act structure is a much more useful tool than the hero’s journey. It’s more versatile, it covers more ground, and it’s not steeped in weird 1940s nonsense. But it’s all in how you apply it. As with most structures I think this one works best when it’s used as more of a rough framework, rather than as a list of points which must be ticked off one by one. It’s one more thing for your writer’s toolbox – and, as a fun bonus, it doesn’t come with Freud attached.

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Help Wanted: Nemesis

We are recruiting a dedicated and diabolical Nemesis to oppose our protagonist. This is a full-time job with excellent advancement opportunities, perfect for an overlooked henchman or neglected childhood friend seeking their next role.

The Nemesis will be expected to do the following:

  • Foil the protagonist’s plans to the best of their ability
  • Maintain a personal interest in the life of the protagonist (romantic interest is not necessary, but not discouraged)
  • Monologue
  • Engage in rooftop battles
  • Kidnap and/or menace the protagonist’s friends and allies
  • Step dramatically out of the shadows at critical moments
  • Laugh evilly

The successful nemesis will:

  • Look good in black
  • Be an excellent duellist (note: we accept all weapons, including rapiers, pistols at dawn, and a mind honed to a razor’s edge by years of careful planning)
  • Maintain a steady stream of witty banter
  • Have an unflinching dedication to taking down the hero, even if it’s in their best interests to focus on something else for a little bit
  • Have high levels of panache
  • Commit to a suitable aesthetic of their choice

A tendency towards puns (e.g. tying the hero’s girlfriend to a chair and answering her mobile with “Jane can’t come to the phone, she’s a little tied up right now”) is desirable, but not necessary.

The successful candidate will be provided with a lair, a full nemesis wardrobe and a weapon that best fits their aesthetic of choice. In addition to a sufficiently evil salary, this role also comes with an attractive set of benefits, including any trophies that you can take from the hero, the knowledge that they shall never be free of you again, and the certainty that you are forty percent of the audience’s favourite character.

Advancement opportunities, whether for those seeking to command their own set of henchmen or those looking for an enemies-to-lovers romance, can also be provided to the right candidate. For more information please contact our HR department.

How to apply: please send your completed application to the HR department in the most sinister way possible. Note that our offices are locked at midnight, but this should not present a problem to the determined applicant. Should you decide to pin your application to the HR Manager’s desk with a dagger, please note that this will not be returned to you, but any knives vanishing mysteriously in the night will be noted favourably on your application. (Please ensure that your dagger is labelled to prevent confusion.)

-The Trope Recruitment Agency

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We’re Going on an Adventure: Thoughts on the Hero’s Journey

One of the most intimidating things for a new writer is structure. That was definitely the case for me, when I started taking my writing seriously. Structure was a big, serious word that implied that I knew what I was doing, and I most definitely did not. But luckily, there’s a lot of helpful structural frameworks for writers looking to step up their game, and these helped me start thinking about my writing in a more careful kind of way.

The hero’s journey is one of these structures. It’s been used a bunch of times, and it quite literally pops up everywhere. But when I was looking for structural support (and no, I do not mean bras), I wasn’t sure if this particular framework was really for me.

Allow me to tell you why, in great detail!

YES WE DO JOHN THIS IS MY BLOG (image: tenor.com)

A brief overview of the hero’s journey for those of you who can’t be bothered to google it right now. The hero’s journey is the general term for a very specific outline of a quest narrative. The term was coined by Joseph Campbell in 1949, although a few other thinkers tried to nail down similar concepts. According to Campbell, this template could be applied to pretty much all classic hero stories, including a lot of folklore, myths and some religious texts. (Please join me in a collective yikes at the entire 1940s, but specifically this mindset.)

Campbell’s basic structure goes like this:

Part One: Departure

  • The Call to Adventure: what it says on the tin. The hero is called to an adventure.
  • Refusal of the Call: see above re: tins
  • Supernatural Aid: usually where the hero meets some kind of magical mentor/ally
  • The Crossing of the First Threshold: aka. the exact moment that we go into the magical world, start the journey, or cut the ribbon on QuestCon 2021
  • Belly of the Whale: not literally. This is more a final separation from the hero’s ordinary world, which can come in the form of a setback or trigger a metamorphosis. There’s no going back from this point, essentially.

Part Two: Initiation

  • The Road of Trials: quest shenanigans, on the road with your pals.
  • The Meeting with the Goddess: our hero gets some kind of magical present to help their quest, often from a magical lady.
  • Woman as Temptress: it’s all getting very 1940s in this step. There is a woman, she is a temptress, but we all know it’s going to work out because this is only the mid-point. Also sometimes the woman is a metaphor.
  • Atonement with the Father: this is really about confronting the ultimate power in the hero’s life, not necessarily an actual mentor/father figure, but what a name for this stage. Campbell, your Freud is showing.
  • Apotheosis: the hero achieves some kind of greater understanding which will allow them to complete their quest. It’s probably magic.
  • The Ultimate Boon: the hero has got the thing they were questing for! Hooray. Time for cookies.

Part Three: Return

  • Refusal of the Return: turns out magic is pretty sweet, maybe the hero doesn’t want to go back to being a pig farmer or something
  • The Magic Flight: look, sometimes the gods don’t want you to run off with their magic apples or whatever and they chase you. Rude of them, frankly.
  • Rescue from Without: magic takes its toll! The hero needs rescuing even though they’ve achieved their goal. Usually they are v wounded or something.
  • The Crossing of the Return Threshold: home time!
  • Master of the Two Worlds: this can be either a balance between physical and spiritual stuff, or literally being master of the ordinary and magical worlds. Myths, man.
  • Freedom to Live: in other words, they all lived happily ever after

This whole structure has been worked and reworked several different times by a few different people. You see a lot of the substages merged into each other or defined slightly differently, but I’m sticking with Campbell’s for the sake of this blog post. It’s worth noting that some of these options are either/or, and some of them get skipped over. Seventeen steps is a lot, after all, and it’s not even a nice round number. Also, not every step on this list gets the same amount of time devoted to it – The Road of Trials probably forms at least 40% of any given fantasy novel, but you definitely couldn’t say the same thing about The Refusal of the Call, for example.

So that’s the hero’s journey in a nutshell. But what does it mean for you as a writer?

This kitty has MANY opinions on Joseph Campbell, as do I. (image: giphy.com)

First things first: having a structural framework in mind when you’re writing something is really helpful! Especially something that has been tried and tested, as it were. If you don’t know where to start with big story concepts, this gives you an overall shape to your story that you can try on for size. It lets you identify the important moments in your story before you get to them, and that’ll inform how you set those parts up.

Also, it’s a good framework to use for character growth. The hero’s journey is explicitly about a hero leaving behind their normal life and putting themselves into an unfamiliar situation, and the effect that this has on them. It forces you to think about how this would change them as a character, and for a writer who hasn’t really considered this before, this can be very helpful. It also helps you keep an eye on pacing – although take my advice and pad out that Road of Trials bit if you want to have a book longer than like, three chapters.

But the hero’s journey definitely has its drawbacks as a story structure. As much as Campbell liked to say that this was ‘the monomyth’ that could be applied to pretty much every story out there, that’s not true. This only sets you up to tell one kind of narrative – that of a lone protagonist journeying into and out of a magical world in search of something. There’s a lot of other stories worth telling, and they don’t all fit this mould. What’s more, it’s difficult to transfer this kind of structure across genres. An SFF story would be a great fit for the hero’s journey narrative, but you’d have a much harder time making this fit in the crime or romance genres, for example.

Also, it’s quite a dated way of looking at stories – and not just because the plot points in this structure are so familiar that your readers will be able to see them coming from miles off. Campbell’s approach to story structure was rooted in the work of Freud and Jung, whose theories are now taken with something of a pinch of salt by the scientific community. Just as medical and psychological knowledge has grown beyond what it was in the 1940s, so has narrative and the stories that we tell each other. We speak about stories in a different way than we did eighty years ago, and readers’ expectations have changed along with that. The work of subsequent theorists updating this model only reflects that – in more modern versions of this structure, you don’t see stuff about “the goddess” or “the woman as temptress” as narrative points that must be hit. It’s difficult to write female characters that are engaging and multi-faceted if the structural framework that you are writing them in is already proscribing some very limited roles for them.

Luckily for you guys I have a WHOLE BLOG SERIES about why you shouldn’t do that. (image: giphy.com)

Don’t get me wrong, having a pre-made structure is a really useful tool as a writer. It makes you think about parts of your narrative which you might not have thought about before, be that character development, pacing or identifying the big plot beats. You can teach yourself a lot from frameworks like this.

But when I look at the hero’s journey, I can’t help but think of that saying: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Yes, it can be a useful tool, but it shouldn’t be the only tool that you use. Trying to fit every single story into the hero’s journey mould isn’t always going to make you a better writer. It isn’t going to fit every single story, and sticking rigidly to every single point is just going to make your work seem predictable. You don’t want your reader to feel like they’ve read your story before when they’re only twenty pages in.

A necessary part of developing your skills as a writer is finding tools that work for you. The hero’s journey is one of those tools, but it’s not the only one. It’s important to have a structure, of course, and this is certainly a very famous one. But it’s just as important to identify the right tool you need for the job. Branching out and realising when one particular approach isn’t going to work for you is one of the most vital skills a writer can have. It’s important to go out and find a range of different things to draw on, rather than sticking to just one kind of approach.

Maybe you could even make a quest of it.