Beyond three and four act story structure, lies the Hero's Journey.
The Hero's Journey is the most usable story structure consisting of at least 106 stages and the template for successful contemporary stories, from Star Wars to Al Pacino Scarface to The Incredibles to War of the Worlds to The Dirty Dozen to Midnight Cowboy.
The Hero's Journey is a valuable template because:
a) It attempts to tap into unconscious expectations the audience has regarding what a story is and how it should be told.
b) It gives the writer more structural elements than simply three or four acts, plot points, mid point and so on.
c) Interpreted metaphorically and symbolically, it allows an infinite number of varied stories to be created.
One critical stage of the journey is the Final Conflict.
In the last act, the hero must finally battle with the antagonist.
Whether fiction or non-fiction, subtle or direct, psychological of physical, the confrontation follows a familiar pattern that encompasses time pressure, impossible dilemma, polarization, final antagonism, three catharses and possibly the Afterlife Act.
The Final Conflict contains 81 common steps that bring the story to a satisfactory close. This is very valuable, as the ending can be the hardest part of a story to write.
Often the hero is under time pressure to battle the antagonist. In classic good versus evil the antagonist will force the issue, by holding an ally hostage (Spiderman), attack with superior forces or similar. But time pressure is nearly always an element of every story, no matter what. In Midnight Cowboy for example, it is created by Ratzo Rizzo's illness and the need to get to Florida.
The antagonist will often put the hero in an impossible dilemma. He will have to save himself, his love or the world - he cannot do both. This seemingly impossible task is overcome and prompts the antagonist to take the threat more seriously.
There is also usually a polarization between the good and bad. The difference between them is highlighted visually, verbally and symbolically. This helps the ultimate catharses (there are three) have more impact.
The three catharses allow the audience to attain maximum emotional fulfilment. Catharsis 1 usually involves the antagonist realising he has lost and pleading for mercy on some level. Catharsis 2 usually involves the death of the antagonist, following a deception to regain control. Catharsis 3 involves the death of the lieutenant or some symbol representative of the evil. This process is very obvious and common in Bond films, for example.
The Afterlife Act is less common in modern stories but it still has a valuable place (Out of Africa, Conan the Barbarian). It is an ending that briefly informs us what happens to the hero after we leave him. This will be discussed in another article.
The 81 common steps of the Final Conflict and other story structure templates can be found at http://www.managing-creativity.com/
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Kal Bishop, MBA
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Kal Bishop is a management consultant based in London, UK. His specialities include Knowledge Management and Creativity and Innovation Management. He has consulted in the visual media and software industries and for clients such as Toshiba and Transport for London. He has led Improv, creativity and innovation workshops, exhibited artwork in San Francisco, Los Angeles and London and written a number of screenplays. He is a passionate traveller.