Any time you are having trouble structuring your story’s plot and look for advice… God help you. It’s a heaving sea of templates and graphs and step-ins and theories and jargon, and many run to book length. Some, like “Hero’s Journey” verge on being religions.
I would suggest that you look for the simplest, most powerful skeleton key you can find. And I’ll be a little more directive; I think it might be this video by Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3 for Pixar. Yes, it’s about screenwriting. Yes, it deals only with the first act… but the principles are valid in any story, and once your first act is nailed down, you’re on your way. See it here: http://nofilmschool.com/2014/04/get-your-first-act-written-pixars-michael-arndt-shows-how-video/
An even simpler, and very time-tested, principle that cuts you to the chase is the concept of “tragic flaw”. Remember that from reading Hamlet and Macbeth and Sophocles? Anybody will tell you that your hero or protagonist or MC or whatever you want to call them doesn’t absolutely have to have a “tragic flaw”. But it sure does make it easier.
As Arndt says, faced with trouble, he can take the moral high road or the low road of his own weakness…and if he takes the high road you don’t have a story. Another term for “taking the low road” is “tragic flaw”.
But there is another way to set that mechanism up without there being anything wrong with your main guy. You don’t need a flawed main man—just hook him up with a woman who’s no good for him and let her do him wrong. My best-reviewed and most popular novel is “Sweet Spot”, featuring baseball star turned Mazatlan political journalist Mundo Carrasco. He’s a character that both men and woman alike find pleasant: he’s a main thing that’s made that book sell. But there is nothing really wrong with him. What he has, to generate conflict and dip him in the soup, is an obsession with a woman. And she is a femme most definitely fatale, no question in your mind that he should get the hell away from her. But what’s a guy going to do when he’s being led by the leading portion of his anatomy? He’s infatuated. That’s a real key to the appeal of that book: chicks dig the idea of a guy who’s so gone on a woman that he’ll follow her right down the tubes.
Hardly my original idea. I got the concept, and played up to it in the book, from a friend I wrote with on a Seattle paper; NYT best-seller Robert Ferrigno. And let me suggest that if you’re looking for a major read, check out his “Horse Latitudes”. It’s one of those signal books: the kind that when you asked for it in a bookstore you’d get that “Ah, you’re one of us,” reactions, like with “Another Roadside Attraction” back in its day. (By Tom Robbins, another Seattle ex-newspaper guy, by the way.)
But same deal. Danny is totally hung up on the wild and wicked Lauren and can’t get over her. The title image comes from horses jettisoned by Spanish galleons swimming after them, lost in the becalmed seas. He’s a goner without her, his life shot to nothing. And she is one scary piece of work.
Or, take a look at “Gone With The Wind”. Hard to imagine a more epic American novel than that, frankly, the proto-Romance novel and huge motion picture. And what do you see? There’s nothing wrong with Rhett: he’s a hell of a guy who would make women swoon and guys want to buy him a beer. But he’s hung up on Scarlett, who unfortunately is a self-centered, spoiled-rotten, little [expletive deleted]. Otherwise, there’d be no story. A perfect couple would hook up, weather the war and their own loss, and live happily ever after.
The classic Tragic Flaw, and probably the first time you heard the term in English class, is Macbeth. A great guy, but with a flaw that turns the play into a classic tragedy. But is the flaw really in himself? No; what he’s got is a monster old lady. And it brings down the house.
So look at the pattern. These iconic heroes don’t need to be on a Journey, they don’t need flaws to be ironed out by a Character Arc. They’ve got plenty of drama just dealing with the kettle of fish their women get them into.
Now before anybody calls “sexism” here—and I’d be happy for somebody to point me out examples of heroines embroiled by no-good men—I don’t think this is some intrinsic problem with women. I don’t read chick books, and it seems to me they tend to wind up with happy endings, but there is no reason it couldn’t work that way: A likely lass has it together but has to deal with getting shafted by following some jerk down the toilet.
What I’m saying is, it’s something to keep in mind for setting up the very crucial initial plot structure and whole conflict/need motivation and ignition. Boy meets girl, girl is rotten, boy ends up with his feet in the fire. Or vice versa.
The entire “tragic flaw” device predates the “Hero’s Journey” routine and is much simpler and easier to deal with. And you don’t have to memorize all those stupid steps or figure out what shape-shifters are. In a way it’s the ultimate strip-down of dramatic conflict: nice guy has a defect, which creates trouble that he has to deal with. And the cherchez la femme fatale twist on that streamlines it even more, in many ways. Which is why we see it cropping up in great books. Like, for instance, Genesis—pretty much the ultimate case of things getting screwed up for all eternity by the Little Woman getting a guy in trouble. Our boy is fine, gets led into complications by his rib and what-not, has to deal with it, and it still ain’t over.
But it’s not simply a matter of figuring things out, like a cheap detective novel. It’s not enough to realize you’re looking for love in all the wrong places, it can’t be just thought out and transcended: romantic recovery requires deep realignment, an emotional rebirth as profound as any “character arc”—the more so because it’s externalized and thus under no control at all. And compounded of love and sex—certainly two of the most powerful determinants in literature, if not life its own self. So right there, you have plot conflict in a teacup.
In fact, in some ways the plot can be seen as details attending the process of getting over somebody not right for you. It takes the whole novel for Rhett to get to the point of frankly not giving a damn.
And Rhett gets doubly shafted because he doesn’t get a replacement. He walks off into the sunset alone. But it’s more common to offer a consolation prize. In “Sweet Spot”, Mundo ends up with a great girl I’d be delighted to know… but he’s aware of the fact that at times she won’t fill the screen for him, that he’ll still miss the troublesome miss. In “Horse Latitudes” Danny finds somebody new worth his attention at the end. You could see the new improved squeeze as the embodiment of the character’s change.
Of course, in Macbeth nothing works out worth a damn for anybody and most everybody ends up dead, and the Bible ends up with mankind bedeviled for eternity. But that worked out pretty well, too: “The Scottish Play” gets crammed down the throats of bored kids in High School and the Good Book is the best seller of all time.