Stage & Screen
Robin Catesby, Associate Editor, Stage & Screen
Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
The Hero's Journey is an incredibly tenacious set of elements that springs endlessly from the deepest reaches of the human mind; different in its details for every culture, but fundamentally the same.
The Writer's Journey
Michael Wiese Productions
When I sat down with script
consultant Bill Johnson for last issues conversation (The Promise of Premise, Vision, issue #1), we covered a number of
topics -- a storys promise, the three-part premise statement, and a key
element to developing the emotional impact of a script, the difference
between story and plot. Plot
is the scripts sequence of events; the action
of the script. Story is
whats beneath, defined by the emotional arc and the premise.
In a strong script, plot events contain an emotional resonance
because they connect to the scripts story.
In a weak script, theres no resonance.
Things happen, Johnson says, but no one feels anything
about it. Often this is because the script strayed from its story arc,
or it lacked a story to begin with.
After our discussion, I felt a need
to explore this further -- to figure out exactly how the connection
between plot and story can make or break a script. I dug back not only into my stacks of earlier screenwriting
notes, but into short story workshop notes as well -- theres much
overlap in structural theory between the two.
I looked for clues to story telling with a strong sense of cohesion
Balance, that was vital: strong
scripts maintain a sense of balance between plot and story.
But, to take it a step further, they also employ the craft of
symmetry -- a symmetry between the outer and inner landscapes of the
The dual landscape of a heros journey
Imagine youre at a lake. Its
a perfect day, not a cloud in the sky.
Across the lake you see a spectacular mountain range.
High jagged peaks, slender valleys; the edge of the world that
meets the sky is described in sharp angles.
Now imagine this edge from left to right as a journey -- the path
your hero takes up into the heights of action, battling the forces that
oppose him, scaling that final climactic summit before his descent to
Below all of this, the lake, and in
the lake, a perfect reflection of the heights above.
Here, even in the intangible mirror, you can see your hero, scaling
the depths of the reflection -- the echo of the outer world.
Here below, in perfect symmetry to the tangible plot above, is the
heros inner journey. The
story. Here is where we find
The shape of the mountain range is
not important. You can work
with Syd Fields three-act paradigm, Robert McKees 5-part narrative
structure, John Trubys seven steps and 22 building blocks, or the
stages of the heros journey. All
will take you to your destination. What
is important is that the shapes do echo.
That you do not have the Himalayas above and the plains of Kansas
First Steps of the Journey
To create this isomorphic
landscape, its essential that you address the needs of your hero on
both a plot level and a story level.
For this, think of your hero as having not one, but two goals.
Ive seen this defined a number of ways - false goal/true goal,
want/need, outer problem/inner problem.
Whatever the terminology, the key is, the outer goal (or plot goal)
drives the plot of the script, and the inner goal (story goal) drives the
story. Another way to break
it down might be that the story goal is reflected in the scripts
premise, while the plot goal is often summed up within that catchy
one-sentence pitch. (Its
Die Hard on a bus tells us
that Jack Travens plot goal in Speed
is to keep the bus from blowing up.)
itself is easy to break down this way.
The promise of the film -- its deeper issue -- has to do with
reconciliation; John McClanes desire to reconcile with his wife.
The three-part premise statement, (as defined in Bill Johnsons
book A Story is a Promise) is Courage
to face adversity leads to renewal.
While the plot of the film is hinted at in this premise statement,
note that there are no specific references to terrorists or exploding
buildings. Instead, it
addresses that broader issue of human need -- the need John McClane has to
find renewal. So, to go back
to our dual goal approach:
John McClanes plot goal is to
defeat the terrorists.
John McClanes story goal is to
reconcile with his wife.
This dual approach leads to a much
stronger story than say, Die Hard 3,
where McClanes only goal is to defeat the mad bomber.
Keeping plot and story connected
Lets go back to the symmetry of
the lake. Each mountain top
above defines a moment of action that drives the plot of your script; each
reflected peak below defines a moment of emotional impact along the
character arc of your hero. If
the two landscapes dont match -- Himalayas vs. Kansas -- then obviously
physical and emotional events arent going to match.
Youll be left with action that lacks emotional impact, or
emotion that isnt manifested in the plot.
Draw a picture of your landscape
and label the peaks. Sometimes
it helps to give a peak more than one label.
Plot point two, for example, might be the same thing as your
heros Dark Night of the Soul. Now,
each step of the way, think about the connections.
Does this event move my hero emotionally, or does it leave them
stagnant? How can I tie in
this plot revelation on page 60 to my heros inner journey? How can I tweak this moment of action to give it a thematic
kick? How can I take this
moment of character revelation and connect it to my end of act II car
chase? Use your
antagonists arc and the arcs of your supporting cast to build upon your
premise and tie events together. Use
recurring images, lines that echo through the story, foreshadowing.
Of course the landscapes cant always mirror each other so
perfectly that every emotional realization occurs simultaneously with
every peak in action -- sometimes it takes a character a scene or two for
an event to sink in -- but if youve created a string of major plot
events with no connection to the story at all, then chances are your
audience will sense that disconnect as well, and leave the film
Growing your characters
Remember, too, that in order to
create that inner landscape of story, your hero must grow.
She must have an arc, an inner journey to make.
You can use the dual-goal approach to emphasize this journey and
develop a complex and engaging protagonist.
Choose your heros goals carefully.
Dont give her a story goal and a plot goal that are both easily
obtainable. She should have to work hard for them and -- heres the fun
part -- she shouldnt be able to get both of them at once, not without
some sacrifice. The growth
comes in the choice your hero faces.
Perhaps she has a clear plot goal at the start of the script, but
her inner story goal is unspoken. She
may not recognize it in herself yet, because a character flaw prevents her
from seeing past her outer desires. As
she grows on her journey, she comes to recognize that the story goal is
important too. In fact, it
might be just as important as the plot goal.
Perhaps even more important. Perhaps
she eventually has to make a choice between the two.
In My Best Friends
Wedding, Julia Roberts character follows this exact progression.
Her plot goal is to break up the wedding at any cost.
She is ruthless, conniving and manipulative.
Her opponent is sweet and charming and perfect in almost every way.
Can she possibly succeed? Well,
in a word, no, because what she does instead is grow. She learns that there are more important things in life than
stealing a husband-to-be. In
the end, she moves past her flaws and instead takes the path that leads to
Another recent film that serves as
a good example is David O. Russells Three
Kings. Major Archie Gates
(George Clooney) begins the film with a clear story goal -- a search for
reason. I dont
even know what we did over here, he remarks [since the quote isn't
strictly a question], early in the film.
Hes a seasoned and cynical soldier, and hes come to question
the entire action of Desert Storm. Once
the plot kicks in, his plot goal is clear: Get the Kuwaiti gold.
His inner drive never leaves him, though, and manifests itself
through his actions and his relations with his fellow soldiers.
As both plot and story progress, it becomes clear to Archie that
there are far more important things to do in the desert than steal gold.
Iraqi rebels are in desperate need of help, and the U.S. Army is
doing nothing to aid them. The story goal becomes clear: make a difference, save these
people. At the climax of
Russells excellent script, Archie and his two companions are faced with
a choice -- save the rebels or keep the gold.
Why do the three kings of the films title choose
story goal over plot goal? Character
growth. They begin the film
with major character flaws -- selfish, cynical, willing to put on blinders
to the horrible aftermath of war -- but by the end, each character has
grown in his own way. Each
has moved far enough along his inner journey that the choice is clear:
give up the gold.
Here are a few more examples of
films that contain the dual goal/dual landscape of story and plot.
Notice how often the hero either is faced with a choice between
goals, or must sacrifice something of value to accomplish both.
Also, remember that your hero need not even be aware
of her inner goal at the start of the film, and that the outer goal may
not become apparent until the plot kicks in.
Roses plot goal is to survive
the sinking of the ship.
Roses story goal is to break free from the bonds that society and her impending marriage have placed on her.
In Star Wars,
Lukes plot goal is to aid the
rebels in destroying the Death Star
Lukes story goal is to discover his true identity and become a Jedi like his father.
In Lethal Weapon,
Riggs plot goal is to work with
Murtaugh in defeating the drug smuggling ring.
Riggs story goal is to resolve
the grief he feels over the death of his wife.
In Galaxy Quest,
Jason Nesmiths plot goal is to
save the Thermians from destruction.
Jason Nesmiths story goal is to regain his self-respect and the trust of his fellow actors.
If we take each one of these films
back to our mountain lake and follow the dual paths of inner and outer
landscape, well discover how symmetry manifests itself all along the
journey. How in Lethal Weapon, the
plot begins with an apparent suicide of a young woman -- an event that has
a clear impact on our suicidal hero.
How in Star Wars,
Lukes final shot to destroy the Death Star coincides with the climactic
moment in his character arc where he chooses to trust in himself and in
the Force. How in
Titanic, Roses leap of faith, to trust Jack implicitly and follow
his path to freedom, is a literal leap of faith off the stern of the
In each instance, the scriptwriters
chose plot events that had a deeper resonance, and created moments -- even
at the height of action -- that touched upon the storys premise and
upon that basic issue of human need that drives the hero forward.
This symmetry of landscape, this reflection of the inner world upon
the actions, deeds and reversals of the heros fortunes, can elevate a
script above the endless stream of action clones and empty bits of fluff,
and turn it into something with emotional impact, and (as is clear from
the examples above) box office staying power.
Spend some time at your lake, give
each of your major characters a story goal as well as a plot goal, explore
the mountains above and below, and see where those dual journeys take you.
Story is a Promise, Bill Johnson, c.2000, Blue Heron Press,
ISBN 0-93085-61-4. For more
information, visit Bills website at www.storyispromise.com
Writers Journey, 2nd Edition, Mythic Structure for Writers,
Christopher Vogler, c.1998, Michael Weise Productions, ISBN 0-941188-70-1