Monday, February 13, 2006

12 Steps to a Novel / Screenplay

It was in May 2004 that I first came across Vogler's book: The Writer's Journey : Mythic Structure for Writers.

Vogler, a motion picture producer and a story consultant to major movie companies, lists 12 steps in his book to structure a good novel/movie. He gives examples from different movies. (While I know many like to illustrate literary issues through movies, I still think it is a strained relation-ship given the two media are so different.)

In any event, I thought I'd bring the 12 steps here. Vogler takes a whole book explaining them, I think they're pretty self-explanatory.

1. Ordinary World
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. Ordeal
9. Reward (Seizing the Sword)
10. The Road Back
11. Resurrection
12. Return with the Elixir

This is not a formula, but a form, Vogler is quick to point out.

I'm not a big fan of 'writing books'. I prefer to learn by assimilation. That is, I prefer to read and learn from these fine examples (or not). But of course, each of us is different. Among those who read 'writing books,' the views range from the best book ever written on the craft to the worst one yet. Quite a range, although many think it is an improtant resource for writers.

To me, this 12 step program seems to apply more to adventure/fantasy movies/novels but Vogler gives examples even from The Full Monty. I guess one can tweak the meaning to apply it to other genres as well.

It is important to learn the 'craft' and to pay attention to what's going on, but it is also very important, in my opinion, to maintain a personality-uniqueness-originality.

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redchurch said...


When I first read Vogler's book I thought it was great. Over time, the 12 stages have become less useful simply because they are so broad/vague. That and I feel they are more a description of the way we (humans) naturally structure a story anyway. It's something inherent.

As for the originality comment--I don't think adhering to something like this dampens creativity or originality. Form, not formula as McKee concurs.

How important is constraint/structure/restraint to creativity?

I know a lot of people associate freedom with creativity. I think that is important, but I think a set of constraints to keep you creatively challenged are equally necessary.

What do you think?

melly said...

Okay Eric. I am smiling now.
I tend to be too harsh on things that have a whif of cookie cutter from them.

No, obviously you're right. Most of us, for example, maintain the basic plot structure (call it 3 or 6 part) and not necessarily in a linear fashion either.

And obviously if you look at these particular 12 steps in the broader sense then sure, one can maintain creativity and originality while using this 12 steps. But I'm afraid many writers would not look at it as a form, but as a formula. And these (while probably becoming bestsellers :) will sound like the same story.

It's important to remember that these books are not how-to books, but advice books and the writer should only take what s/he needs, deems fitting for h(im)er.

[[We should so totally invent words for s/he him/her - I feel a post coming up :)]]

redchurch said...


Yeah, there is a balance somewhere in there.

I often find my problems in writing my stories are related to either being too prescriptive/restrictive--locking myself into some totally hard-fixed thing, or too loose and freeform.

The truth is the writing usually isn't compelling in either extreme. The context, premise, plot incident has to be just as compelling as the words that describe it. Usually when I feel 'meh' about a section of story, it's because I went too far one way or another.

It's a case of...

"But this doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the story."


"This is too similar to everything else that has already happened or will happen!"

Speaking of cookie cutter as you say... it's a bit like baking. :)

Oh, and in place of he/she I just use they or their--some collective form.

redchurch said...

Oh, BTW - here is the one I use.

It's a combination of several from the various books on writing. I arranged them in a way I thought was more helpful.

For me it helps more as a general marker. Like a calendar or time. Say you agree to meet a friend at 7PM. You don't have to be there at exactly 7PM... you just know that sometime between 6:30 and 7:30 that you need to be at a certain place with certain people.

That's how I view plots/structure in a story.

You know--as writers we tend to go a little crazy when we get really into a part--we might miss our marks.

These guides and structures are just a little reminder not to miss our marks.

For me it's just about keeping things tight, punctual, and punchy. Timing. Pacing.

You need a backbeat, a metronome to keep your timing sharp. These structures are simply a metronome.

Nienke said...

This is great advice (comments included). I am a self-professed writing book addict. It's a great way to actually avoid writing.

Jonathan M. Dobson said...

I agree with Red Church. I routinely set up Parameter Quicks: rule-based flash fiction. Form needs power to live, power needs form to effect. Utility must meet Sense somewhere along the line, and they should fall in love.

I really like Red Church's graph of structure. It is concise. I'm going to use it for a short story, and for a 500 word explosion piece that covers all 3 acts. Should be fun - moo hoo ha ha ha! Thanks Red Church.

Another method: Elaboration. You begin with a seed (write out Red Church's three acts in sentence form, filling in the blanks), then elaborate each part of the seed. It's good times guaranteed. You can create ten or so seeds in half an hour, and then have a LOT of material to expand on.

Anywhowhatwhere. Happy writing.

Melly said...

Eric, perhaps I shouldn't have assumed you knew what I was talking about (I always do that - what? can't anybody read my mind???).

Anyways, when I said "basic plot structure (call it 3 or 6 part)" (and you can find and explanation of it here), I meant the usual: [Exposition, Conflict], [Rising Action, Climax], [Fallling Action, Denouement]. 6 or 3 parts, it doesn't matter.

What you did in the link you posted is follow this basic structure and give it more meat. Which is what I do too, only not as structured as yours.

However, following your particular 3 act story over and over would be following a formula. Writing each stroy to begin, continue and end the same, is, IMHO, a formula.

Now. There's nothing wrong with a formula. Most bestseller writers follow a formula. So by all means, I can't argue with success, but I can argue as for the name :)

Gosh, I can't stop laughing at myself.

Melly said...

Oh, and Eric, as for backbeat, I'd say to each his own. What works well for one writer isn't necessarily the best for another.
Just like with outlines, some swear by it, others can't do them to save their lives.
So if that is what works for you, that is what works for you and no one (hell, not even me :) can argue with that (even though I really want to :) Just kiddin'

Melly said...

Nienke, oh, you definitely hit a nerver there. Don't we all find something to help us procratinate. Which is really weird since when we write we love it so much, so why procrastinate??? :) One of the wrold's seven mysteries in my eyes...

Jonathan, first, I'll send you to the same place I sent Eric (redchurch) - plot's basic parts. Then I'll repeat what I told him. Structures, formulas, forms, it doesn't matter how you call it, it is still the same. But there's nothing wrong with that and if that's what works for you then that's what works for you and all the power to you :)

redchurch said...

Melly said,

"However, following your particular 3 act story over and over would be following a formula. Writing each stroy to begin, continue and end the same, is, IMHO, a formula."

I guess it's hard for me to see it that way, because *anything* can happen within those acts. The writer literally has the power to do anything they want within that framework. There is no prescription for what gets written or even how it gets written.

Also, every story must have a beginning, middle, and an end, right? So it doesn't really matter how you achieve that--you will be following some kind of structure (read formula) even if it is completely spontaneous.

Another thing to keep in mind; Anti-formula is a formula too! It's a formula that says, "Ok, I'm not going to follow any formulas."

That has its own consequences as a formula or ruleset. And in a way is self-denying--pretending not to be a formula when in fact it is--just along with all the rest. :)

In a way, there is no non-formula.

In formal logic it's the same basis behind coherence. To willfully choose to be incoherent requires a coherent decision in the first place. "I choose to be incoherent." - Well that's a pretty obvious coherent choice right there, negating/contradicting the philosophical statement.

I feel the same is true for using a formula. To pretend a formula that says "I will not use formulas" is somehow not a formula is a bit contradictory.

Oh... pooh me and my silly logic. :)

redchurch said...

Jonathon said,

"Another method: Elaboration. You begin with a seed (write out Red Church's three acts in sentence form, filling in the blanks), then elaborate each part of the seed."

This sounds like the Gary Provost Paragraph. "Once upon a time there was a protagonist. Then something happened. The protagonist had to rise to meet this challenge, and found themselves in quite a rut! So the protagonist struggled..." etc.

And I wholeheartedly agree. You can write your story out as a paragraph, and then just keep filling in between different lines and 'growing' it bigger.

Another way is to use mindmapping software like FreeMind or MindManager and set out all the chunks of your story, and build them out. This is a little harder, and suffers from a bit of the rigid restraint that Melly is talking about. But if you find your story wandering aimlessly, it can help.

When we're lost sometimes all we need to find our bearings is to make a decision. "This absolutely happens at a certain point in my story." BOOM--structure.

And I agree with her pragmatic view of things--whatever works. It doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you find a way that works. If I were to add to that, I would say it should be a continual process of self-improvement and trying new things. There's always room for greater efficiency. Might learn how to do it faster or better by trying other approaches, or synthesizing an approach between the various ones.

I know giving NaNoWriMo a shot was a shock to my system. I'm not used to being so completely spontaneous--I don't even like working that way. It's really not for me. I like to give my stories a bit of forethought, so flying by the seat of my pants across 30 days was like a drawn out, incoherent rambling session.

But I learned something from it; It's easier to look at a first version of a story and to see where it went wrong than it is to try and conceive a perfect story outright before you've even set words down. I already knew that. But NaNoWriMo just pushed it right back into my face again.

It's all good.

Melly said...

Oh, ouch Eric, stop it :)
My tummy's hurting... can't stop laughing. I like your style...

So without getting into a philosophical discussion (it's a debate-non-debate according to your rules-non-rules ;), of course each story has a beginning, middle and end. But a plot doesn't have to start at the beginning of the story. Hence the difference between plot and story and herein lie the source of what I would call formula - beginning each story with establishing scene then introducing protagonist and antagonist, for example, sounds too confining to me. And I stress, to me.

But like I said in previous comments, it really is a non-debate because what would sound confining to me, works very well for you, so it is a non-issue.

Just read your next comment and couldn't agree more - it's all good :)

Jonathan M. Dobson said...

Structures, formulas, forms, it doesn't matter how you call it, it is still the same. But there's nothing wrong with that and if that's what works for you then that's what works for you and all the power to you :)


Another thing to keep in mind; Anti-formula is a formula too! It's a formula that says, "Ok, I'm not going to follow any formulas."

The truth, subjectivity aside, is that even spontaneity is formulaic. Systems are created by any action, whether or not the action is perceived as systematic. When you "just come up with something", you are following the formula of spontaneity. This is not a contradiction of terms. The usefulness of the creative process is just that: it's creative, and it's a process. There is much good to be had from delving into the recipes of imagination, and the methods of inspiration.

Raw energy needs a container, the soul needs a body. The container needs raw energy, the body needs a soul. Otherwise, we've just got ghosts and cadavers. Power demands form, form demands power.

Melly said...

Jonathan, such great comments. This is great :)

I guess I look at spontaneity more as a method than a formula. A method like using an outline. Some writers use outlines (to varying degrees of detail), and some are spontaneous. I, for example, tend to use a rough outline, but my stories aren't told the same way. Some, I start telling at the end and some don't have an antagonist, for example.

Jennifer said...

I've actually read this book, well read parts skimmed others. It's an interesting book just on it's own, for some of the examples he uses and the way it made me look at things was a bit different than how I'd previously view things.

I'm one who liked to read 'writing books' then as I started writing more and more I realized I didn't always agree with them, thought they were poorly explained, or a person would be better served if they tried writing...

Now I tend to just read (as in novels) and mark good or bad books, passages, plots, dialogue...things I like dislike...I find that more rewarding --learning wise. Of course now I can pick out the afor mentioned points and such other elements of maybe it's just I don't (feel) I need the writing books anymore...

Melly said...

Jennifer, such wise words, but as you read in my post, I fully agree, so...

Perhaps, as you mentioned so wisely, it's an evolution thing. Nothing, in my eyes, compares to actual writing and reading. Learning from examples and from experience.

redchurch said...

I think part of it depends on how revolutionary or artistic you want to be.

I don't feel the need to reinvent the wheel. I just want to provide a story that's as entertaining as possible. To me that doesn't necessarily require re-invention. The aforementioned structures exist because they work.

For me that's good enough. I'd rather spend more time focusing on the branded and unique elements of my story than trying to significantly change the storytelling process itself.

I'm also not much Le Artiste. Art is not my concern. On one hand, I tend to think if you aim for that you're likely to fail. My other reason is that entertainment has more value than art to the casual reader. I'm approaching the craft from a pop/hit mentality.

They just want an entertaining story. So that's all I'm really concerned with. Admittedly short-sighted on the artistic front, but I'm not aiming for art.

That raises a question for all of you though. What are you aiming for?

Yzabel said...

I was confused for a moment, because this is exactly the "Hero's journey" as presented by Joseph Campbell--come to think of it, if I remember well, the Star Wars example is also in "The Power of Myth" (I need to read this one again, now, haha). But then, I suppose it has had lots, lots of influence over the past decades, it's not surprising to see it applied to writing.

Indeed, at first it seems more suited for fantasy/adventure stories, but I guess the fun is also in trying to twisting it! :)

Melly said...

Yzabel, Hero's Journey or was it Hero of a 1000 Faces, is indeed the basis of Vogler's book as far as I understand.

Spin doctors can twist almost anything, can't they? :)

Ryan Oakley said...

I see "12 Steps" and I run screaming.

Melly said...

My man :)

Nienke said...

As writers, most of us follow some sort of structure. I, for example, always use letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Does that mean that I have no room for creativity? No, it doesn't. In fact, many writers break even the rules of these structures.
Until we follow a 'formula' where all we change is names, places, etc., all (most?) writing is still unique. I agree with RedChurch's statement, "I guess it's hard for me to see it that way, because *anything* can happen within those acts. The writer literally has the power to do anything they want within that framework. There is no prescription for what gets written or even how it gets written," as it also applies to my example.

Melly said...

Whatever works for you, Nienke, is the right thing for you. It's all good :)

Anonymous said...

That's right. Campbell and Vogler's structure is too broad.

What one needs is something much more detailed. Because Campbell and Vogler's structure doesn't help you write stories.

Now when you deconstruct hundreds of successful stories, you get that deeper structure. A step-by-step guide.

check out

B.V said...

What do you think of young writers? I've found that a lot of teenagers write books, though few get published. I'm into poems, but whenever I get inspired with a "novel idea" I try it out and then eventually drop it...
I don't know when I would write a novel, how I would keep motivated, or what I would write a novel about...but I want to attempt one.
Any advise?