the outer journey

October 17, 2008

A plot can be divided into 3 acts, and narrowed down to 6 story stages.

Stage 1

is the setup, the first 10% of a story (in a screenplay, the percentages are fairly rigid, less so in a novel). We introduce the hero in her everyday life. It’s the starting point. The “before” picture.

ready for the outer journey
ready for the outer journey

Here, you want to create empathy for that character, establishing an emotional connection between the reader and the character. Some ways to create empathy:

Generate sympathy. Make her the victim of an undeserved misfortune. A poster child. 

Put her in jeopardy. She is in danger of losing something important–her life, fortune, job, etc.

Make her likeable. Make her kind, good-hearted, loving. Show her as well-liked by others. Movie example–this is Tom Hanks’s trademark, even in Road to Perdition in which he plays a ruthless assassin. We first meet him coming home to his loving family.

Make her funny. People like being with those who make them laugh. Also, funny people say things that are politically correct, the sort of thing “proper” people would never say aloud.

Make her powerful. Good at what she does, like an action hero or crack lawyer.


In Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen generates sympathy by being the geeky librarian girl forced to work with the hot guy on the Christmas program.

Stage 2

is the initial glimpse of the hero’s desire. It occurs at the 10% point. Character is forced or tempted into some new situation. There might be a change of geography–she goes somewhere. The goal is to get acclimated.

At the 25% mark, something happens in the new situation that forces her to declare a clear, visible goal. Turning Point #2. It might mean a change of plans: “Now I have to achieve this goal.” It needs to be very specific. (Maureen: Now I have to save the library by making nice with the owner of the land on which the library sits, so he won’t sell out to a developer.)

Here, the outer motivation is established. It’s the most important turning point in the story. If this goal is revealed too soon, the story could fizzle. Or if it’s established too late, we’re past caring.

Stage 3

is the plan in motion to achieve this new specific goal, and the plan seems to be working. (Maureen knows if she casts the benefactor’s grandson in the lead role of the pageant, the owner will reconsider selling the land to a developer.)

At the midpoint of the story, we reach Turning Point #3. The hero passes the Point of No Return. She is fully committed, bridges burned, there can be no retreat. She can never go back to the person she was in Stage 1. In Shrek, the bridge literally burns behind Shrek and Donkey. There might be a verbal declaration. (Maureen hears Jabez sing and takes a leap of faith, casting him in the lead even if it means burning the bridge with the land owner.)

Stage 4

introducing increasingly difficult complications. The stakes get higher. It’s becoming more difficult to achieve the goal. The outside world is closing in, and failure will cause her to lose her destiny.

At the 3/4 point, we have Turning Point #4, a major setback. Something happens, a crisis that makes it feels as though all is lost. The plan is out the window, there’s a symbolic (or literal) death and they’ve given up. (Maureen learns the plan to save the library has failed because the funds aren’t there; now the library is doomed to close forever on the last day of the year.)



Stage 5

is the final push. The hero tries to get back to the ordinary world. But it doesn’t work, because she burned her bridges. Here, she makes a decision or is forced into it–she must make one last attempt. Every ounce of strength is poured into this attempt, it’s the resurrection stage. Turning Point #5

is the climax–the moment which must resolve what we’re rooting for. The reader needs to see success or failure with no ambiguity. We need to know once and for all what the outcome is. (On Christmas Day, everyone in town contributes to save the library.)

Stage 6

is the Aftermath–a glimpse of the new life ahead. This can and should be brief. Riding off into the sunset, final kiss, etc. I use a lot of symbolism here. In Just Breathe it was actually a comic strip. 🙂

Tomorrow, I’ll post the notes about the Inner Journey. This was my favorite part of the workshop.


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