A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had recently completed the comprehensive outline for my work in progress. For me, it was relatively easy once I got started, but finding the perfect method to work with proved quite difficult. So, in hopes that I can make the outlining process easier for other writers who, like me, haven’t written an outline in quite some time, I want to share my process.
For my outline, I used a mixture of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” and the 3-Act, 9-Block Structure. Neither of these techniques are my original creation and I make no claim to inventing them. Everything I am about to share with you is inspired by the following sources: Katytastic’s YouTube video, Brittany Tenpenny’s blog posts, and this post on The Hero’s Journey from yourdictionary.com.
Let’s start with “The Hero’s Journey.” What is it? The Hero’s Journey “template” that I followed is a 12 step process that allows the writer to map out the major plot points of any story. Yes, I said any story.
Seeing as the process is called “The Hero’s Journey,” you might think that this form of outline can only be used for genres that include some kind of quest, like action, adventure, or even retellings of classic fairy tales. I used to think the same way. Many posts and testimonies I read swore that this method could also be used to guide a romance, but didn’t give concrete examples. Today, I intend to change that. I’m going to use three different movies to show you exactly how this outline works, and some of the the versatile ways it may be applied.
This post will contain spoilers for The Hunger Games, (HG) Letters to Juliet, (LJ) and Titanic (T). I chose these three movies because, in my opinion, they span a wide range of genres: action/adventure, romance/adventure, and of course, the classic tragic romance. Let’s get started.
Step One: Establish the Ordinary World. This is pretty self-explanatory. What is the character’s life like prior to the first major conflict?
HG- Katniss takes care of her sister, Prim, and her mother, who has not functioned well since Katniss’s father died in a mining accident years prior. She lives in the slums of district twelve, sneaking between the wires of the fence to hunt for food in the woods with her best friend Gale. Katniss sells most of her kill at the Hob to provide for her family and entered her name in the Reaping 17 times to secure extra grain to eat. The Reaping is a yearly event in which a boy and a girl are chosen from each of the twelve districts to compete in a fight to the death, known as the Hunger Games.
LJ- Sophie is a fact-checker for a pristine journal in New York. She desperately wants to be a writer, but can’t work up the courage to tell her boss. Her fiance, Victor, is a chef in the thick of preparing for the opening of his new restaurant. He supports Sophie’s ambitions, but is much more interested in his food than her dreams.
T- Rose is engaged simply to solve her family’s economic woes and she does not wish to marry her fiance, Cal.
Step Two: Call to Adventure. This is the first major conflict in the story that gets things started.
HG- The Reaping, when Prim’s name is called.
LJ- Victor and Sophie arrive in Verona. Victor wants to meet with vendors of his new restaurant, but Sophie wants to see the sites.
T- Rose contemplates suicide to get out of the marriage by jumping over the side of the ship.
Step Three: Refusal of the Call. The protagonist or main character rebuffs the opportunity, usually for reasons born out of fear, but not always.
HG- There is no refusal of the call from Prim, but instead, an acceptance from Katniss when she volunteers in her sister’s place; a decision born out of fear for her sister’s life.
LJ- Sophie refuses to go see the truffles that Victor wants to show her, and opts instead to explore the city by herself.
T- I would argue that Rose’s refusal has been swapped with Step Four, so we will get to this in a moment.
Step Four: Meet with the Mentor. This is the first time the main character encounters a friend– someone to help them, who often spurs the story forward.
HG- For Katniss, this is a literal, meeting with a mentor, as she is introduced to Haymitch, who will advice her throughout the games. Haymitch also gives the viewer a bit of context into how the games work, and what challenges Katniss may face later on.
LJ- While exploring Verona, Sophie comes across Juliet’s house, where she sees a woman taking the love letters that people have stuck there throughout the day, off of the wall. She decides to follow her and discovers that she is one of the Secretaries of Juliet. She works for the city and, along with her three friends, answers all of the letters with return addresses on them. Later, Sophie goes back to the wall and finds a fifty-year-old letter that was never picked up. She brings it to the Secretaries, who encourage her to answer back. Thus, creating a catalyst.
T- Rose is saved from jumping over the side of the ship by an artist named Jack Dawson. They form a friendship and she realises that she would rather spend time with him than Cal. This is where the refusal comes in, as she initially tries not to reciprocate Jack’s advances for fear of her mother’s reaction.
Step Five: Crossing the Threshold. The protagonist either leaves their normal world, or a large shift is caused in their normal world, and the stakes of the plot usually heighten.
HG- Katniss does this several times, but the largest and most obvious is her entrance to the arena when The Hunger Games officially begin.
LJ- A man, Charlie, Comes to the restaurant where the secretaries of Juliet usually work, questioning which of them wrote the letter to his grandmother, Claire. Sophie admits to doing so and Charlie explained she has now come to Verona to search for the love of her life, whom she ran from fifty years ago. Sophie and Claire meet, and Claire agrees that Sophie can come with them on the journey, as Sophie hopes to document it in a story.
T- Rose realizes the ship is headed for an iceberg.
Step Six: Test the Hero. This, again, should be relatively self-explanatory. It’s where the “meat” of the story happens, and often takes a good chunk of the narrative.
HG-Throughout the Games, Katniss faces several tests in order to survive. She must kill her other opponents and evade being found or tortured by the devices of the Gamemakers.
LJ- Sophie, Charlie, and Claire journey to find Claire’s love Lorenzo, traveling far and wide, but to no avail.
T- Rose and Jack run to try and warn Cal and Rose’s mother. Cal does not find the sinking ship as important as getting Jack away from Rose. He found a sketch that Jack made of Rose in their stateroom, and plants the Heart of the Ocean, his engagement gift to Rose, in Jack’s pocket, resulting in his arrest when he is accused of the theft. Rose hurries to free him. They try to save as many as possible as the ship sinks.
Step Seven: Approach. This is where, after facing many trials, the hero must change their approach in order to succeed.
HG- For me, Katniss has two approaches, but the biggest one occurs when the Gamemakers announce that, if two people of the same districts are the last ones standing, they both get to go home. After this, they focus on working together to get home, instead of being determined to sacrifice themselves for each other.
LJ- After one search for Lorenzo leads Sophie, Charlie, and Claire to a cemetery, Charlie encourages her to give up the search, and Sophie begins to think perhaps they will never find Lorenzo.
T- Cal tells Jack he can get them both on a lifeboat, Rose gets on one.
Step Eight: The Big Ordeal. This is the Hero’s largest challenge. Everything has been leading up to this,
HG- The final conformation between Katniss, Peeta, and Cato at the Cornucopia.
LJ- On the way to bring Sophie back to her hotel after the last day of looking for Lorenzo before Sophie must return home, Claire asks Charlie to stop at a vineyard she recognizes. The young boy working the field is a spitting image of Lorenzo when they were younger.
T- Rose decides she does not want to be without Jack and jumps back on the boat. Cal takes a gun from his pocket and chases after them, aiming to kill Jack. Cal exhausts his bullets and opts to escape on a boat by holding a child.
Steps Nine/Ten: Reward and Going Back. This is the point where the ultimate goal is accomplished or failed, and things begin to return to normal.
HG- Katniss and Peeta are the last two standing after Cato is killed.
LJ- Lorenzo comes home to the vineyard, and he and Claire reunite. Sophie returns to the hotel to go to the airport, even though she is hesitant to go back to Victor, having fallen for Charlie.
T- Jack and Rose survive, for now.
Step 11: The Final Test. This is the last and often most difficult test, though not necessarily the most climactic.
HG: The Gamemakers take back the decree that two tributes from the same district can make it out alive, forcing Katniss and Peeta to kill one another. Katniss would rather die than do that, as would Peeta, so instead, they each move to swallow deadly Nightlock berries, banking on the fact that the Gamemakers would rather have two Victors than none.
LJ- Sophie breaks up with Victor, choosing to attend Claire and Lorenzo’s wedding alone in hopes of confessing her feelings to Charlie. She finds him there with a girl named Patricia, whom she was told was his ex-girlfriend. She excuses herself from the reception.
T- The boat splits in half. Jack and Rose plunge into the water. Jack helps Rose onto a piece of driftwood, but it can only hold one person’s weight, so he treads water and dies before they are rescued.
Step 12: Return. This is where everything wraps up, also known as the resolution.
HG: The Gamemakers stop Peeta and Katniss from swallowing the Nightlock, and let them both go home. They are crowned Victors, but their actions have sparked rebellions in the districts.
LJ- Charlie goes after Sophie, who them confesses her feelings, but concludes by saying it doesn’t matter because he’s back with Patricia. Charlie explains that this Patricia is not his former girlfriend, but his cousin. The two reconcile and agree to give a relationship a try.
T- Rose is rescued.
I use this outline as a starting point, because I think it’s helpful for seeing the “big picture” and overall arc(s) of the story. The 3-Act Structure is more detailed, and further breaks down these major points, so I use it to refine and add specifics, such as adding trails to the “Tests” step, and to clarify any loose ends. I hope this post has been helpful in explaining “The Hero’s Journey” and some of it’s various applications. Next week, I will post the first part of my explanation of the 3-Act, 9-Block Structure strategy.
Challenge of the Week: Was this helpful to you? Do you agree or disagree with the parts of the stories that I cited in each step? Why?