I don’t avoid a lot of subjects when it comes to writing fiction, but story structure has always set me cringing a bit. Okay, yes, I teach an online course based on Lester Dent’s pulp fiction “formula,” and I’m (unfortunately) fully aware of Joseph Campbell’s creativity-murdering Hero’s Journey, but too much “structure” just feels . . . icky to me in terms of storytelling. So how about this as a fast start that might then get you structuring your own story in whatever way you damn well choose—hopefully in a way that surprises and delights people who don’t give a crap what Campbell says you’re supposed to do.
One sentence, nine words:
The villain starts the story, the hero ends it.
And that’s all the story structure you’ll ever need.
One example might actually be enough to cement it. I’m a Dune fan, so let’s see if Frank Herbert used that structure:
Paul begins the story of Dune as an innocent, moving, along with his family, to the strange desert planet Arrakis. This move was not Paul’s idea but was precipitated by one of the book’s villains, the emperor, who has it out for Paul’s father and uses the more active villain, the Baron Harkonnen, as his weapon. Paul’s life is thrown into turmoil when the villains’ plans smash into his family and he’s pushed out on an epic struggle to set things right. Spoiler alert, he does—defeating both the baron and the emperor to seize control of the entire galaxy. The emperor (the villain) starts the story of Dune, Paul (the hero) ends it.
Simple? Sure, but then there’s all those thousands of words to actually make it happen.
I am willing to dig just a smidge deeper. James R. Hull, in his article “Protagonist and Antagonist: Beyond Hero and Villain” at Narrative First, puts both hero and villain in orbit around what he refers to as a “story goal”:
It all begins with the initial event or decision that creates the story’s problem. A chasm opens up and an effort begins to take shape—one with the sole purpose of resolving that inequity. The Story Goal represents that final step in the resolution process. Complete it and the characters have resolution. Leave it open and the problem persists far beyond the walls of the story.
This Goal then becomes a concern to everyone in the story. It is not simply the Protagonist’s Goal or an individual Goal of another character, but rather the Goal of focus for the entire cast. It is an objective goal.
This holds up under the example of Dune as well in that the ultimate goal for everyone involved is to be in control of the spice. The spice trade is everything to the single-resource empire Frank Herbert envisioned. If you control the spice, you control the universe.
But then the inevitable: But I don’t want to tell an old fashioned story of perfect hero vs. dastardly evil guy. I’m smarter than that and so are my readers, and we want to explore the shades of gray!
Fine. Your “hero” doesn’t have to be a particularly swell person. All this still works perfectly well for anti-heroes, as described in an uncredited article at Writer’s Digest, “Defining and Developing Your Anti-Hero”:
An anti-hero is a protagonist who is as flawed or more flawed than most characters; he is someone who disturbs the reader with his weaknesses yet is sympathetically portrayed, and who magnifies the frailties of humanity.
Who says that character can’t end the story? He might end it in a more violent way, in a less traditionally “heroic” way, but end it he does. And I remain unconvinced that we all really have a good shared definition of “heroic” to start with. My conflation of “hero” and “protagonist,” I’ll admit, might not always hold water.
In terms of structure, sometimes it makes sense to set the hero of the story at a remove, or as some might say, make a distinction between the “main character” (who we experience the story through) and the “protagonist” (the character who actually moves the plot forward to the end), as described in Dramatica: Theory of Story:
. . . a hero is a blended character who does two jobs: move the plot forward and serve as a surrogate for the audience. When we consider all the characters other than a Protagonist who might serve as the audience’s position in a story, suddenly the concept of a hero becomes severely limited. It is not wrong, just limited. The value of separating the Main Character and Protagonist into two different characters can be seen in the motion picture To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, the character Atticus (played by Gregory Peck) is clearly the Protagonist, yet the story is told through the experiences of Scout, his young daughter.
Okay, then nothing as reductive as “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it” will ever adequately describe all the nuances and twists in a well-plotted novel, but I think you’ll see that A-line still running throughout, whether the hero is an anti-hero like Dirty Harry (that story begins with the villain, too, by the way) or even in stories where it might be a little difficult—Mr. Robot jumps to mind, as does its intellectual cousin Fight Club—to tell who the hero is and who might be the villain, and anyway they might be the same character with two personalities. Still, it was “Tyler Durden” blowing up Edward Norton’s unnamed character’s condo that got the story of Fight Club off to a start, and Edward Norton shooting himself in the head in an effort to kill the devil within him ends it.
By all means, apply those shades of gray, whatever filters your imagination can conceive, but somebody has to start the story and that’s almost always the “villain,” and if your “hero” doesn’t end it, he/she/it was never the hero of the story in the first place.