Most people are familiar with ‘the Hero’s journey’, arguably the most common story archetype for adventure stories featuring a ‘hero’ as the protagonist. Even those who aren’t aware of the term ‘Hero’s Journey’ are well aware of the popular story pattern; Hero gets called to an adventure, meets helpers and mentors, faces trials and obstacles, gets to a climactic point of no return, reaches a transformation/evolution to overcome that, and then returns to his/her happy ending. Naturally, every story has its own variation and unique style of representing this journey but the key elements will always be there. Similar to how there are hundreds of types of cakes out there but each one of them is still going to have flour, milk and eggs at its core. Considered cliché by many, the Hero’s Journey has withstood the test of time for a reason, it works. All that said, this isn’t an article about the Hero’s Journey. I want to introduce you to a different journey; The Writers Journey.
As you can probably guess, the Writers Journey is simply the archetypical steps a writer goes through to create the story he/she delivers to the public. Just like the hero’s journey, it has many variations and each individual has his/her own processes and methods to create his/her story but they all go through some version of the following steps:
Idea and Concept:
This one’s obvious. Every story, project, creation etc begins with an idea. Which when fleshed our a little bit, becomes a concept or a premise. If we could take a look into a writer’s brain, we’d typically find hundreds of ideas and concepts in there. A writer’s challenge a lot of times is deciding on which concept to go with and actually create a story from. Ideas come from everywhere so as a writer I’m always observing my environment and everyone in it. For example, I could be taking the metro to work one day and while on the train I see a young lady speaking into her Apple Watch. That could get me thinking and give me an idea like “what’s if instead of talking on the phone or setting a reminder, she was actually keeping a voice log of the activities of a guy she’s following?” Then after thinking about the idea, let’s say I like it so I decide to come up with a story with this as my premise: “A young under cover FBI agent covertly following the activities of a mysterious man going through town.”
Understanding your story/Theme:
Once I’ve come up with my concept, the next step for me is to discover what my story is really about. Discover the kind of story I want to write. Some writers prefer to come up with an actual plot first and then bring out the theme ‘organically’ from there. I prefer to do this step first because it helps guide the plot and makes that process a little easier for me. Understanding your story can as simple as asking yourself what you want the message(s) of your story to be, who you want your audience to be, or even just the purpose of the story. Is it a psychological thriller that you want to make people be on the edge of their seats all night? Do you have a profound message you want people to hear from a certain point of view? Is it a feel good Rom-Com? Figuring this out early makes the process of writing so much easier and you can even look at similar stories with similar themes to get references and templates. The options you have at this stage are almost limitless depending on your idea/concept. Let’s take our premise from the last section for example. Is it going to be a suspenseful thriller focused on gradually exposing the mysterious man’s affairs and raising the stakes after each reveal? Can it start out like that but develop into a romantic story after she’s caught ‘stalking’ him? Maybe focus more on our main character and make it a character-driven comedy about a struggling FBI agent who’s getting her last chance on a job? Once you understand the type of story you’re going to write, you can now begin creating your world.
Creating your world/finding the setting:
This part of the process can be the shortest or longest part depending on A. What type of story you’re writing? And B. How big of a role is the world going to play in your story? On the short side, all a writer might have to do is decide what city and time period the story is set in I.e. the Setting. If he/she wants his story to be set in the city he/she currently lives in and in present day time, then that writer probably won’t have to spend a lot of time on this step. Depending on the story the writer is writing, he/she might not even care what city it’s in and leave it a mystery. A character-driven story focused on a man facing depression after the loss of a family member could be a story where we never even find out what city he’s living in, and we wouldn’t care. However, it’s not always just about figuring out the city your character is in or what time period he/she’s in. Sometimes, the geographical setting doesn’t matter as much as the physical setting of where your character will be spending the story in. Writing a High school comedy would mean more focus on the high school setting and ‘after-school hangout spots’ as opposed to the city they’re in, and even after that, you’d have to figure out when exactly the story is taking place. The difference between even 2008 and 2018 is sizable and each offers a unique setting almost exclusive to that specific time period. What if your story isn’t non-fiction? What if it’s a huge sci-fi action thriller? Or an out-of-this world fantasy? Then you’re going to be thinking about a lot more than the time and place setting, and that’s where it can get complicated. This is the part where you build your world. Not just the cool gadgets and weapons your main characters are going to be using, you’ve got to figure out the little details too depending on how different your world is going to be than the real one. If it’s a sci-fi thriller set 50 years from now, you can assume that a lot of the ‘life systems’ we have now will still be in place then, with a few technological advancements here and there. However, if it’s a fantasy set in a new world entirely, then you’ll need to think about making new ‘life systems’ like weather, transport systems, what people spend their time doing, the culture and way people interact etc. Possibilities are limitless so you’ll have to decide on how important all the details you create are going to be to the story. Sometimes you might even need to create the history of your world if it might come into play in your story. That’s how much thought can potentially go into creating a world for your story, and I haven’t even started talking about adding special characters like aliens or making a superpowers/supernatural story where you’d need to worry about stuff like power systems and sources. The point is, this part of the process can take a while. While writing Drifters, I spent months on this part, figuring out every detail in the new world, coming up with my power scaling and sources and even writing an elaborate history for the new world as well.
Let’s say that we decided to write about the FBI agent premise, and let’s say we wanted this to be a comedy about our undercover FBI agent, who despite appearances, hasn’t been very good at her job and is on the verge of being terminated if she can’t succeed in one last espionage mission to successfully follow her target, the mysterious man, who’s suspected of being an potential terrorist. Based on our premise, we know it’s going to be non-fiction and set in the modern day era. So let’s solidify that and say it’s set in New York City in the year 2017. Next step is going to be getting to know the most important players, our characters. This part is one that seems straightforward and definitely can be, but it’s also a part of the process that the best writers put the most emphasis on. Whether it’s a character-driven story or a plot-driven one, creating your character the right way before writing out the plot could be the difference between a great story and a bad one with plot-holes everywhere. The first part of the process is easy, what’s our main character’s name? How old is she? How does she look physically? Etc. Basically you do your character profile. Every writer gets this one down almost unfailingly. Some writers take it a step further and write about her past. I believe people are largely a product of their environment and experiences growing up, so understanding what your character went through growing up and who she was around helps me get to know who my main character is now. Ultimately, the most important (and often shunned) part of this is understanding your characters goals. What does she want? Both on the surface level and on an intrinsic level. Knowing your characters goals helps to establish conflicts that make sense and helps guide you when she has to make choices throughout the course of the story. A superheroes goal is always going to be saving people on the surface level, while an archetypical super villains goal is going to be hurting people on the surface level. That’s a natural conflict that we know will occur because based on their goals. They’re set up on a collision course from the beginning. Now on an intrinsic level, our superhero’s true goal might be to redeem himself because long ago, his best friend died right in front of him and he feels responsible for it. What if it turns out the villain is his best friend from way back when, and all of a sudden his intrinsic motivation to save people is gone and replaced with a confusion about his purpose in life? Does his surface goal of saving people remain the same? See how understanding your characters goals unlocks new paths for your story to take? Knowing those goals also helps you know the decisions your characters are likely to make during your story. A character working as an accountant in a big firm who’s surface goal is to be financially successful and make as much money as possible doesn’t seem likely to get involved in underground crime to make some more money. However, what if his intrinsic goal is to make enough money to save his very ill Mom who needs an expensive surgery to survive? Now, the decision to get involved in that big crime seems more reasonable to us. We can even take it deeper than that. Let’s say our FBI agent, Linda Groover, who’s been struggling to fit in as an undercover agent because of her naturally bubbly, loud and flamboyant personality, has a surface goal of wanting to be a successful undercover agent. The first question that should pop into the audience’s minds, is why does she want to do that? Why is someone with that kind of personality interested in espionage work? That’s where knowing her background would help. Linda grew up in a mostly single parent household with her Mom, who has a similar personality to Linda. Her dad was an FBI agent himself so he was always away on missions and couldn’t spend as much time with her as he should have. Because of his serious and stern demeanor, she never felt loved by him and always sought to make him proud. After hearing all that, it’s starting to make sense why Linda would go into the FBI field. After finding out her dad was a high ranking undercover FBI agent, Linda made it her goal early on to get to his rank one day. After playing sports (to try and impress her dad) and training her whole life, Linda was physically impressive enough to get into the field but her personality had kept her from succeeding in the undercover field itself and moving up rank at all. Knowing her intrinsic goal of making her dad proud, we see why this is so important to her and knowing that this mission to catch the terrorist is her last chance, that raises the stakes even higher. On the surface, it’s her last chance before she gets demoted to a non-field agent, but to her, it’s her last chance to try and make her dad proud. Now that we have a pretty good grasp on Linda as a character, all we got to do is replicate this with all our main characters in the story and do a less comprehensive version for our side characters.
Writing the Story/Plot development:
Finally, the fun part. Before actually writing the script, novel, short story etc, you got to have the plot. This is the part where we take all the information and details we’ve established in earlier sections and put them all together in the events of our story. Doing all the steps in the other sections should make this part a little easier. Knowing what kind of story you want this to be should help you decide the ending before you even start. Understanding your themes should help with writing and structuring your story from beginning to end. Knowing your setting and world will expedite the time spent on thinking about the environment and how it impacts the events in your story. There are a number of ways to structure the events and plot points in your story. Three Act structure is the most popular way to do it but there are other templates available to guide you though writing your story. ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is another example. Ultimately it comes down to your style and preference. I like to write my story first and then go back to see if I can use the three act structure to improve things and restructure my plot a little. For our story about Linda, we know that this a feel-good comedy with a theme about being true to who you are mixed in there, so my ending is going to most likely be a happy one where she may not necessarily meet her surface goal of being an FBI undercover agent, but she’ll achieve her intrinsic goal of making her dad proud. Knowing those goals, the surface conflict is obviously successfully following this mysterious man while overcoming her tendencies to blow her cover or lose focus. Since this is a comedy, what if I threw in a comedic curveball? Let’s say that as usual she’s discovered by her target, but in a wacky turn of events, she finds that he’s not the guy she’s actually supposed to be following. She had been tailing the wrong guy! And to make matters worse, she also finds out that this guy is also an undercover FBI agent, one that the agency sent out to cover up her inevitable blunders. Introducing this spin works perfectly with my themes. Now not only can I add in a classic romance B-story/sub plot, but what if this very successful FBI agent is eerily similar to her dad and being around him helps her understand that just because her dad never showed it, doesn’t mean he wasn’t proud of her? I’ll leave the rest of this story up to your imagination, but I’m sure you’re already thinking of all the different possibilities that could be the climax, resolution, and significant plot points of the story. Now this isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster or a New York Times best seller by any means, but it has the makings of a good story. One that was written in a little over an hour and a half simply because I used my version of ‘The Writer’s Journey’. If you’re new to writing or have an interest in getting into it, feel free to use my version of it as a guide to create your story. Once you do it a couple of times, you’ll be doing it a different way entirely, and that’ll become your own ‘Writer’s Journey’.