My recent article where I was trying to unravel the mysteries of writing what I call Procedural Fiction and a conversation I had with my friend Don have left me thinking about the different ways writers use to structure stories. For most people, the Hero’s Journey is the one true method by which stories are written (an innocent enters a new world, is transformed by it, and returns a more mature and seasoned adult) and this is the basic structure which Hollywood follows today almost religiously. In fact, most of the Story Formulas you’ll find if you click that link up top are variants of the Hero’s Journey in one form or another.
However, that isn’t how all stories are structured. In fact, there are a lot of other ways to structure and tell a story that aren’t heroic journeys at all, or where the heroic journey element is merely a background to the real story.
So what different ways can we structure a story?
- Personal Transformations (hero’s journeys- see Dan Harmon’s Story Wheel)
- Situation Driven Stories (where the hero is a pawn of the plot/circumstances which surround them and pull them into the story – see the Lester Dent formula)
- Standard Procedurals (where the hero is following a series of preset steps to accomplish a goal – see the 12 Chapter Murder Mystery formula)
- Setting Driven Stories (where the story is really about the setting and the character’s place in it)
- Creativity Driven Stories (where the character is trying to create something, and the building of that thing forms the basis of the story- see my Procedurals article)
- Education Driven Stories (where the character is trying to learn something, and learning how to do that thing (for the character and audience) is the real focus of the story)
- Explorational Stories (where the hero is going out into a new world and the exploration of this new setting and its wonders is the focus of the story- see Procedurals article)
- Collection Based Stories (where the hero is trying to gather something or find something, and the act of collecting that thing and how it affects those who follow this path is the focus of the story- Gotta catch ’em all!)
I’m sure there are more, but I’m missing them, feel free to make suggestions in the comments. 🙂
Most of these will have a Heroic Journey/Personal Transformation story happening within them on the part of the character, but not always. It’s perfectly normal in a situation-driven story for the main character to change little or not at all by the end of the story, which is why it’s not a heroic journey.
The key is how the setting/world around the character is being used. If the setting is only there to further the growth of the character in a certain direction, then the story is a personal transformation story. However, if the setting or situation and how exploring it affects the character is the real focus, then it isn’t a personal transformation story but a story about the nature of that setting or situation.
Example- Bob the Cricketeer.
- In a Personal Transformation story, the game of Cricket is a vehicle to transform Bob into the person he needs to be to fulfill his deep inner needs.
- In an Education Driven Story, Bob’s entry into the world of Cricket is a vehicle to explore Cricket, anything Bob goes through is a natural side effect of exploring the game of cricket and is there to show how CRICKET affects its players, not how Bob grows as a person.
Both stories might end at the same point (or not) with Bob being a newly confident master of playing cricket, but they got there through different paths and the stories will be shaped and structured differently. The Education Driven Story could, however, end with Bob having learned nothing but skills and having made a few friends, and be exactly the same person at the story’s end, and it would still work as a story as long as the audience learned all there is to know about Cricket. However, if the point was Bob’s Personal Transformation and he didn’t transform, then that story would have failed.
I think it’s important to be aware of these differences because they give the writer more control over the story and how they can shape the story. If I try writing a Murder Mystery as a Hero’s Journey, for example, the audience will likely get confused and annoyed because they’re expecting a Procedural structure and I’m trying to give them something else. Likewise, it shows that not every story needs to be a hero’s journey, although many stories do make a nod toward that structure in one form or another. (Or at least go through the motions of a Heroic Journey without actually having any real change.)
What do people think? Am I on the right track here? Am I missing something? Feedback is welcome because I think there is more to it, but I’m still puzzling it out.