Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details, from Dan Harmon’s Channel 101 wiki.
1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
Establish a protagonist. If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon. Fade in on a room full of ambassadors. The President walks in and trips on the carpet. We are the President. When you feel sorry for someone, you’re using the same part of your brain you use to identify with them.
I wouldn’t fuck around if I were you. The easiest thing to do is fade in on a character that always does what the audience would do.
2. Need (but they want something)
Something ain’t quite right. This is where we demonstrate that something is off balance in the universe, no matter how large or small that universe is. If this is a story about a war between Earth and Mars, this is a good time to show those Martian ships heading toward our peaceful planet.
It’s also where a more literal, exterior “Call to adventure” could come in, at the hands of a mysterious messenger, explaining to a dry cleaner that he has been drafted by the CIA. Frequently, the protagonist “refuses the call.” He doesn’t want to go to step 3. He’s happy as a dry cleaner (at least he thinks he is).
Remember: Calls to adventure don’t have to come from an actual messenger and wishes don’t have to be made out loud.
3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
Crossing the threshold What’s your story about? If your story is about an infatuation, this might be the point where our male hero first lays eyes on the object of his desire. The key is, figure out what your “movie poster” is.
What would you advertise to people if you wanted them to come listen to your story? A killer shark? Outer space? The Mafia? True love?
It doesn’t matter how small or large the scope of your story is, what matters is the amount of contrast between these worlds. In our story about the man changing his tire in the rain, up until now, he wasn’t changing a tire. He was inside a dry car. Now, he opens his car door and steps into the pouring rain. The adventure, regardless of its size or subtlety, has begun.
4. Search (adapt to it)
The road of trials. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell actually evokes the image of a digestive tract, breaking the hero down, divesting him of neuroses, stripping him of fear and desire. There’s no room for bullshit in the unconscious basement. Asthma inhalers, eyeglasses, credit cards, fratty boyfriends, promotions, toupees and cell phones can’t save you here. The purpose here has become refreshingly – and frighteningly – simple.
In Romancing the Stone, Michael Douglas cuts the heels off of Kathleen Turner’s expensive shoes with a machete. Then he throws her suitcase off a cliff. If she’s going to continue to survive in this jungle, she literally needs to drop her excess baggage and lose the fancy pants.
We are headed for the deepest level of the unconscious mind, and we cannot reach it encumbered by all that crap we used to think was important.
5. Find (find what they wanted)
Meeting with the goddess. I’m using the phrase “meeting with the goddess” because Joseph Campbell thought about these things longer and harder than me. Syd Field calls this “the mid point.” Catchy. Robert McKee probably calls it “the nexus of inclination” or something. Unless I’m mistaken, African Americans call it Kwanza.
This is where the universe’s natural tendency to pull your protagonist downward has done its job, and for X amount of time, we experience weightlessness. Anything goes down here. This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability.
If you’re writing a plot-twisty thriller, twist here and twist hard.
Twist or no, this is also another threshold, in that everything past this point will take a different direction (namely UPWARD), but note that one is not dragged kicking and screaming through these curtains. One hovers here. One will make a choice, then ascend.
6. Take (pay its price)
Meet your maker. As you might expect with a circular model like this, there is a lot of symmetry going on, and on the journey back upward, we’re going to be doing a lot of referencing to the journey downward.
Half of the circle has its own road of trials – the road back up. The one down prepares you for the bed of the goddess and the one up prepares you to rejoin the ordinary world.
7. Return (and go back to where they started)
Bringing it home. For some characters, this is as easy as hugging the scarecrow goodbye and waking up. For others, this is where the extraction team finally shows up and pulls them out- what Campbell calls “Rescue from Without.” In an anecdote about having to change a flat tire in the rain, this could be the character getting back into his car.
For others, not so easy, which is why Campbell also talks about “The Magic Flight.”
This is a great place for a car chase. Or, in a love story, having realized what’s important, the hero bursts out of his apartment onto the sidewalk. His lover’s airplane leaves for Antartica in TEN MINUTES! John McClaine, who at step (1) was afraid of flying, now wraps a fire hose around his waist and leaps off an exploding building, then shoots a giant window so he can kick through it with his bloody feet.
Strangely enough, he will soon find himself back in the same room where the Christmas party was being held.
8. Change (now capable of change)
Master of both worlds. In an action film, you’re guaranteed a showdown here. In a courtroom drama, here comes the disruptive, sky-punching cross examination that leaves the murderer in a tearful confession. In a love story, the man runs across the tarmac, stops the taxiing airplane, gets on board and says to his lover:
“When I first met you, I thought you were perfect. And then I got used to you being perfect, and everything was perfect, but then I found out you weren’t perfect, and we broke up, and then I realized, I’m not perfect, either. Nobody’s perfect, and I don’t want a perfect person, I just want you. Let’s move in together. I’ll sleep on the wet spot. You can keep your cat, I’ll take allergy medicine. And when you’re a hundred years old, I’ll clean the shit out of your diaper.”
And then, of course, the old woman and/or large black man seated next to the love interest looks at her and says, “Well, what are you waiting for? Go to him!”
Harmon’s post on his story breaking process is also brilliant:
Start with random IDEAS. Ideas can be anything – Poop is an idea, America, pickles, the number six, a raccoon, anything.
(both via @glinner)