Thoughts on Mythic Structure: Crossing the First Threshold

This is Part 4 of my series on monomyth, or the hero’s journey.

1. Crossing the first threshold is the transition from Act 1 to Act 2 of your story.

Up to this point, your hero is still connected to her ordinary world. In many models of mythic structure, the first part of the story is referred to as “separation,” the second “initiation” and the third “return.” Crossing the threshold is the final separation from everything that is familiar to the hero and begins her initiation into a new world–the world of the adventure.

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Raising the Stakes in Your Story

Back to the Future (1985)

Writers often get notes that they need to “raise the stakes” in their story. Here are some thoughts on how to do that:

1. A simple formula to determine what is at stake in your story:

If my character(s) don’t do X, Y will happen.

Continue reading “Raising the Stakes in Your Story”

The Symbiotic Relationship Between Character And Plot

clerksIt kind of aggravates me when people—writers included—differentiate between plot-driven and character-driven stories.

Basically, because character and plot are not mutually exclusive entities.

When people say character-driven, they usually mean stories that feature characters sitting around and talking a lot. They think of these stories as basically plotless.

I’ve heard Kevin Smith’s film Clerks cited as plotless. Certainly, for a good portion of the film, characters do a lot of talking. They don’t go anywhere but the store where the main character is a clerk.

But . . . stuff actually does happen. And that’s all that plot means—what happens in a story.

For instance, main character Dante talks a lot about his ex-girlfriend Caitlin.

And then, Caitlin shows up.

That’s something happening. That’s plot.

An anti-smoking activist buys some coffee in the store and starts hectoring people who come in to buy cigarettes.

That’s something happening, that’s plot.

Dante talks to his current girlfriend, who blithely confesses to some of her sexual history—which shocks Dante and changes his relationship with her—and she totally doesn’t get why.

That’s plot AND character at work together.

So in the case of Clerks, while the plot is episodic, it still has a plot.

Plot doesn’t necessarily have to mean car chases or aliens landing from outer space or characters planning and executing a daring robbery. Plot can also have small, quiet events–which can still have a big impact on the characters.

Plot-driven usually means that characters react to what happens in a story and act only in ways that suit the plot. For instance, a bunch of characters who are wimpy suddenly and bravely face down a hoard of attackers, shooting them with guns—without ever having picked up a gun in their lives.

AND THEY’RE SUCCESSFUL.

Then later, if it suits a plot point, they become craven cowards again.

That’s obviously an exaggeration, but it illustrates the point. Characters only behave according to what the plot dictates at a certain point in plot-driven stories.

This kind of storytelling usually results in readers and audiences rolling their eyes and wishing they had saved their money for some other form of entertainment.

But some people who claim they write plot-driven stories just mean they enjoy writing stories with big, noisy events, instead of quieter, smaller events. They think character is not as important to that kind of story, but I would disagree with that. Some of the most memorable characters are in grand stories that have plots full of big events.

Instead of looking at story as plot-driven vs. character-driven, I suggest looking at plot and character as having a symbiotic relationship. One feeds the other. This would be regardless of whether a plot has a ton of big events, or less action and mostly quieter events, such as in Clerks (though it does have one big and shocking event).

Let’s take an example from history as an illustration of what I mean. King Henry VIII famously changed the course of European history because he insisted on dumping his first wife Katherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, in the hopes of begetting a legitimate male heir. Because the Catholic Church refused to grant him a divorce, he broke with the Church.

I’ve often thought that if Henry had been a different sort of person, this would never have happened. Another king might have stood by his first wife, even though he had no male heir. Another king might have become tired from wrangling with the Church and given up after a while. Another might have never been susceptible to the charms of an ambitious woman like Anne Boleyn in the first place. Another might have married off his only daughter very young in the hopes of gaining a grandson as his heir. And so on.

So Henry’s character most certainly had a profound impact on shaping history.

But what would have happened if we could change one or more of the EVENTS he was reacting to when he changed history?

Such as, if one or more of Katherine of Aragon’s sons had survived infancy. Henry’s motivation, he claimed, was that he desperately needed a male heir to prevent civil war. If he had had legitimate sons, that motivation disappears.

Or if his brother Arthur hadn’t died and had become king instead of Henry.

Or if the Church had refused to give Henry permission to marry Katherine, who had been his brother’s widow (something that played a huge role in Henry’s quest for a divorce).

Or Anne Boleyn had been content to be just his mistress.

Or the Pope had agreed to the divorce.

Or Katherine had agreed to the divorce and retired to a convent.

Now the story changes and the outcomes most likely would change. In the first three instances, would he still have fallen for Anne Boleyn? Maybe. But it’s far less likely that he would have changed the course of history because of her.

I must point out that the last three examples are of characters being made weaker to suit a weaker story. Characters easily giving the protagonist what they want will cut a story off at its knees. There is no question that one reason this chapter of history excites people’s imaginations to this day is because many of the characters involved were implacable, complex individuals.

But again, if we change outside events, the story becomes something quite different.

Now I’m going to skip to another historical event altogether—Hurricane Katrina. (Bet you never thought you’d come across a blog post that links the movie Clerks with Henry VIII and Hurricane Katrina!) Just before it hit New Orleans, I was discussing with some of my co-workers the preparations—or lack of them—even though the city had almost been hit with a catastrophic hurricane not that long before Katrina, and it had been pointed out then that their emergency plans were woefully inadequate. If they knew it could happen, why had they not made more preparations since then, I asked?

“Because people are reactive,” answered one of my co-workers.

I think she hit on something very true, and it’s true of characters in a story, too. They can be bouncing along just fine—or maybe not so fine— before the story opens, but then SOMETHING happens to shake up the status quo, something that forces them to react, then to act. In the best stories, the way they react and act are very specific to the characters.

Even if you’re a “panster” (make up plot as you go along) it’s still important to keep in mind how your characters are going to react and act in the face of events you throw their way. That’s the symbiotic relationship between character and plot.

Seven Things You Need To Know About Deus Ex Machina

1. What it means: deus ex machina is Latin for “god in the machine.” It’s a literary term that dates back to the time of the ancient poet Horace. Greek tragedies would sometimes resolve plays by having one of the gods come down from Olympus (on a crane, hence the term machine) and tell the characters how to resolve their problems and conflicts. Today, the term is used to describe a plot contrivance where someone or something other than the main character(s) brings about the resolution of the story.

2. What it’s not: a catch-all phrase to describe any plot twist people don’t like. For instance, the plot twist for M. Night Shyamalan‘s Signs has been rightly reviled by audiences, but it’s not deus ex machina. It just made the invading aliens look stupid. The characters figured out the aliens’ weakness, so they were actively involved in the story’s resolution.

Help arriving at an opportune time is not necessarily deus ex machina if the characters had something to do with it. For instance, in the classic Western Stagecoach, the cavalry arrives while the stagecoach is attacked by Apache warriors. It’s not deus ex machina because the characters had sent a message to the cavalry before they set out on that dangerous leg of the journey.

3. The key to avoiding deus ex machina: active characters making tough choices, no matter how difficult or impossible they seem. Don’t take the resolution out of the hands of the main character(s). How the story ends should reflect choices the characters have made throughout the story.

Think about the ending of Gone With The Wind–it would have been easy for author Margaret Mitchell to give Scarlett everything she said she wanted because of Melanie’s convenient death. Now think about the choices Scarlett made throughout the story, and how they converge in that final scene.

I’ve seen the ending of Shakespeare in Love cited as a deus ex machina, when it’s not. Queen Elizabeth does not make the choices for Will and Viola, she only articulates the situation. While circumstances that existed at the beginning of the story force them apart (he’s already married, she’s forced into an arranged marriage), they still achieve their goals. Will sets out to write a play that shows the true nature of love and succeeds. Viola sets out to become a player in the theater and experience true love and succeeds. They both knew the limitations of their relationship from the beginning. They made the choice to proceed when they knew it couldn’t last.

Even if your main character doesn’t achieve a stated goal, make that resolution his or her choice, i.e. the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

4. You can get away with it in the middle of the story–sometimes. Vladimir Nabokov used deus ex machina in his novel Lolita by having main character Humbert’s wife die in a car accident after his failed attempt to murder her. Readers will accept a convenient twist of fate far more in the midst of the story than at the end–especially when the convenient twist of fate sparks a new and engrossing direction for the story. In this case, Humbert running away with his nubile stepdaughter.

5. You can get away with it at the end of the story–rarely. The end of Jurassic Park is often cited as a case of deus ex machina, since the characters only escape a Velociraptor attack by the timely arrival of a Tyranosaurus rex. The reason it works is because even though the chances of surviving are practically nil, the characters actively try to escape the raptors, they’re not sitting around waiting for help to arrive.

H.G. Wells resolves War Of The Worlds by having the Martian invaders suddenly die off because they did not have an immunity to bacteria on Earth. Again, the deck is stacked so high against mankind that Wells gets away with it. This was less the case in the updated film remake of a few years ago, because technology has advanced so much since the story was originally written.

6. It’s forgivable in a comedy – in comedy–the broader, the better–it’s not considered a bad thing to use deus ex machina, as long as the characters have suffered a great deal for our amusement.

It works particularly well if it’s part of the joke, as in Dumb & Dumber. The two heroes are forced to walk down the interstate after a break-down and a bus full of bikini models happens by. They turn down the models’ offer of help and walk off, lamenting their bad luck.

7. When in doubt, don’t use deus ex machina. Even though there are exceptions to the rule, it’s usually best to avoid it. Readers like characters who make the tough choices.