Writing stories: journeys and character transitions (tip 37) 2

D.D. Johnston explains in five minutes everything you need to know to understand every story ever told. Enjoy!

Click this link to open the story planner worksheet that accompanies this video.

Video transcript follows below:

I have a theory that almost every story ever told is represented by this picture. Stories are about a character negotiating the dangers and opportunities presented by another place. In many folk tales, the character leaves the village and enters the woods. But here I mean for the village and the woods to stand for any places that are known and unknown. The village could be Kansas; the woods could be Oz. The village could be Gaylord Focker’s flat in Chicago; the woods could be his girlfriend’s parents’ house on Long Island.

But once we accept that the village and the woods can stand for many different places, we can soon see that most stories are of two types. In one story the hero goes into an unknown place; this is the plot of Homer’s Odyssey, The Travels of Marco Polo, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, The Hobbit, Stand by Me, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and countless other texts. In the other type something comes out of the unknown place; this is the plot of Beowulf, The Seven Samurai, Jaws, War of the Worlds, Poltergeist and countless others.

Of course, the endings change. Sometimes the characters are forced to stay in the new unknown place for ever, as in the story of Adam and Eve. Sometimes they’re happy to stay in the new place as is eventually the case for Dick Whittington in London. Sometimes the danger in the unknown place defeats the protagonist, as was the fate of the original Little Red Riding Hood. But very often the hero will overcome the danger and return to the known place, sometimes with treasure, or love, but often with nothing to show for it besides experience.

Similarly, when something comes out of the unknown place to disrupt everyday life, it could prove too strong for those in the village, as in Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, but more often, as in Beowulf, The Seven Samurai, and Independence Day the heroes will repel the thing from the unknown, and the village will return to normal. There is of course a third option – maybe the hero will make peace with the thing from the unknown. For instance, when Enkidu threatens Gilgamesh’s kingdom the two must fight, but once they’re all wrestled out, they become besties until death does them part.

In older stories the known and unknown places are likely to be geographically separate because people lived in small communities and the unknown lay beyond the boundaries of those communities. But in more complex societies, the unknown is often on our doorsteps, and so increasingly the other place needn’t be geographically different – the journey into the woods could be a change in circumstances: from being poor to being rich as in Cinderella or Trading Places; from being single to being in love, as in Romeo and Juliet or Breakfast at Tiffany’s; from being a hero to being a villain, as in Macbeth or The Godfather.

So this drawing truly does describe almost every story ever told. But it’s not the whole story, because in the stories we love the most, the hero is changed by the action – even if she ends up back in the place where she started – by the time the Hobbit returns to the village, he’s much wiser than he was when he embarked. Stories such as James Bond films, where the hero doesn’t show any potential change, tend to feel superficial. In every James Bond film, Bond enters the woods but when he returns to the village he’s totally unchanged.

A character should have a psychological journey as well as a journey of circumstance. But the psychological journey is simpler because there are only two options. Either the hero starts off like A but ends up more like B. Or the hero starts off like A, almost becomes like B, but ultimately ends up staying like A.

For instance, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day has a journey of circumstance – he begins in the village of the known, in which time progresses with a steady chronology, but he finds himself in the woods of the unknown, in which he’s forced to live the same day over and over again. Getting back to the village involves him changing as a person – at the start, he’s selfish and bitter and unkind; but during the story he learns to be generous, helpful, and loving.

It’s a pretty dramatic change, but then he has a long time to make that change – according to whatculture.com, Bill Murray is stuck in Groundhog Day for 33 years, and 350 days. But even a realist short story that takes place over a few hours is likely to be a subtler version of the same formula.

Consider Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Cathedral.’ The narrator’s village is his own home where he likes to be left alone to drink beer, smoke pot, and watch TV. But his life is disrupted when from out of the unknown there comes a visitor – a blind man who is friends with his wife. The narrator is uninquisitive, narrow-minded, and unkind. During the story, he is left alone with the blind man. His objective is to avoid awkwardness and carry on as he is. To do this, he has to interact with ‘the blind man’ and involve him in what he’s doing. Some of his prejudices about blind people are disproved. In the end, he’s inspired by trying something new. He closes his eyes and holds the blind man’s hand as they draw a cathedral together. He feels close to another person. His horizons have expanded. He says, ‘It was like nothing else in my life up to now.’ With this psychological change, his journey in circumstance is resolved – like Gilgamesh, he has made peace with the thing that came from the unknown.

Below you’ll find a link to a worksheet that will help you reflect on your story and determine what the key transitions and journeys are. Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Cornelia Kopp, AKA Alice Popkorn. It is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of her work here: http://alicepopkorn.wix.com/alicepopkorn-


  1. Pingback: Free writing critique: ‘Watching Bees’ by MD Commerford « Online Writing Tips

Let us know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s