“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.”
—Unknown

Story Structure With a Hole In It

Our guest today, PJ Reece, is a novelist who has published three novels, a screenwriter, and a world traveler. He has also just published a great book on story structure called Story Structure to Die For which he is now offering free. If you read it, my bet is it will change the way you write fiction. You can also check out his blog. Thanks, PJ, for joining us today. I know I, for one, am excited about what you have to share with us!

A few years ago I was heading for Hollywood.  My script had found its way into the hands of actors Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint.  Everyone loved it.  Then, one of them, Jack or Eva, killed it.  My story, they said, “devolved into melodrama.”

I retreated, determined to discover why fiction flops, and more importantly, “how fiction works.”  And I did.  I tell the story in a new eBook, “STORY STRUCTURE TO DIE FOR.”

This short book presents a deadly simple overview of the hero’s journey.  It’s a journey that inevitably leads to the Story Heart.  The Heart divides the conventional story into 2-Stories .  In that dark hole between Story One and Story Two, the protagonist must die (so to speak).

Hole Story Structure

Photo by José Stueffer

Here are some examples:

Take Moonstruck, starring Cher.

Her story splits at the moment she quits protecting herself from love.  It happens on a snowy night after the opera.  Remember?  She’s cheating on her fiancé who returns tomorrow.  She has to put this fiery infidelity behind her so she can marry some dud who will never cause her grief.  Audiences are cheering for her to “die” to that belief system, in favor of passionate, dangerous love.

Take Rocky, starring you know who.

He also wrote it, did you know that?  Rocky won “Best Picture” of 1976, and not because Sylvester Stallone’s one-arm push-ups are awesome.  It’s because the story splits in two when Rocky Balboa abandons the belief systems that have made him a bum.  Rocky is about a man waking up to the facts of his life.  Every scene serves to herd him toward the Heart of the Story where he glimpses his higher nature.

Take Good Will Hunting.

I’ve watched it twenty times and I still choke up.  We cannot but be moved by a character who realizes that his belief systems don’t work anymore.  Readers live for this moment.  It’s where the hero falls into the Heart of the story.

That’s why I like to say: “There’s a hole in my story and everything’s flowing into it!”

Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has suffered a tough childhood.  He doesn’t trust anyone.  His defense mechanisms ensure no one gets too close.  We know what the heart of Will Hunting’s story looks like—he must allow love in.  When it happens, it’s not a pretty sight.

The Two Stories in the Two-Story Structure

These scenes mark the dividing line between an unconscious life and one lived according to its higher nature.  The “before and after”, I discovered, constitute the basic building blocks of the best films and novels.

I’ve see writers get lost in the middle of their story because they don’t have the instinct for this dramatic trajectory.  Few do!  I didn’t!  So we keep rewriting.  Eventually, after years of rewrites, this paradigm will have its way with our stories.  But why wait?  Why not save time and frame up your story as 2-Stories separated by a Story Heart?

PRACTICE

Quickly describe your protagonists belief system and attitudes.

Next, imagine your hero without them.  What would she be like?  What would she do if she were suddenly free of the gravity field of her belief system?  What aspects of her higher nature would arise?

Write for fifteen minutes.

Then share your reflections with us in the comments section below.

Good luck!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Joe, thank you for offering over your blog today to PJ Reese. I’m a big fan of his.

    PJ, great post. I hadn’t thought about the idea of a protagonist “death” to move from the first story to the second, but it’s very helpful. Your examples here focus on fiction, but I can see them applied to any narrative arc, including the travel memoir I’m working on. Thank you!

    • Patrick, good to hear from you. You know, this so-called “death” — and the subsequent in-rush of a protagonist’s higher nature — just may well be the experience that readers are waiting for. It just may be “why readers read”. It’s another theory I’m working on.

  • Marianne Vest

    Thank you! I read your book. What I did was take a story that I’m working on and had decided was fairly well written but not much of a story plot wise and reassessed it. I spent several hours with it and now see that what I needed to do was to understand (f0r myself) what change in the protagonist occurred and why it was important for it to happen. That changed the whole arc of the story, now the emphasis is on the middle scene where the change in the attitude of the protagonist occurs. She embraces freedom basically, and stops worrying. Since it’s a short story we won’t know if she reverts but she doesn’t while I’m watching.

    I was thinking at one point (after fussing with my character for about a hour) that your ideas wouldn’t pertain to a literary short story, but they do!!! I am so glad I stayed outside with my notebook and kept working. At one point I was sure that I would just have to give up but I didn’t. Thank you so much PJ, I really think you gave me some insight that I needed right now. Thanks Joe for having asked you to give us that info, and thank God for the beautiful weather that let me sit outside when I usually would have given up in tears.

    • Marianne… I’m so glad to hear what you’re saying. I have been cautious about advising a short story writer to take me too seriously. The scope of a short story is obviously more confined. But, yes, as you imply, the story continues beyond “The End”. Many novels, too, leave the reader to extrapolate for themselves what fate awaits the protagonist after the book has been closed. I think the important thing is to take a character to end of their belief system. Without that, there isn’t much of a story. Last night, I watched the Oscar-winning “The Artist”, and it was a study in a character hanging on to this “silent” belief system. I won’t go into the ending, which I thought came close to the dreaded MELODRAMA. Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint would not be amused!

  • Marianne Vest

    Well I’m sorry about the post above. I didn’t punctuate the first sentence and now It won’t let me edit it. I hope it makes sense.

  • I can see my story line evolving to where I need it to be bc of your post. Thanks PJ!

    Before: My main character judges everyone because of her family’s bias towards another group with cultural differences*.

    After: She falls in love with someone from “the other group” and he opens her mind to his culture. This causes chasms in her little world. She realizes everything she has known to be fact is a lie bc of her love for him and his differences even though at certain times she has no idea why her heart wants to change.

    *It is set in the future and there is no specific cultures or religions being pinpointed.

    • Hazel, you write: “She realizes everything she has known to be fact is a lie.” Wow… that’s classic. That’s exactly where you want to deliver your protagonist–to complete and utter disillusionment. Life cannot go in the same vein ever again for this character. She’ll either kill herself or change. In the conventional story, where the hero has immense “will to live”, she’ll experience an arising of some aspect of her higher nature. This is simply the way the human organism works. Congrats on knowing your character that well.

  • I fear my protagonist is a little fragmented and my storyline that has to do with plot is too under-developed at this point to really give a complete belief system synopsis. However, I do know that the protagonist is going to be a nasty mean spirited character. Without those characteristics he would need to ‘get nice’ and I don’t know if I want that in my story … are there alternatives? I hope I’m making sense???

    • Your character reminds me of Jon Voigt in a film called “Desert Bloom”. Now here’s a troubled and nasty character. Protagonists aren’t generally so unlikeable. But here’s the thing — the writer gave us the occasional glimpse through this guy’s character armour. So, we, the audience, know that a human being lurks in there somewhere. In the development of this kind of story, it’s enough for him, at the end, to reveal just the tiniest bit of evidence that he has caught sight of his higher nature. Readers will imagine the rest. Without forcing your character to the point of his reconsidering the belief system that is ruining his life, readers won’t feel they’ve got their money’s worth. This breakdown of the protagonist’s belief system may well provide very real nourishment for the reader… AND the writer.

  • Great food for thought PJ. I’m finding as I apply so many of these great blog posts to my book, I evaluate it from different levels, which gives me the opportunity to make the story richer. This post was no exception.

    I’m not sure that my main character goes through that transition clearly enough. Her best friend, one of the supporting characters, certainly does. Interestingly, many of my main character’s important moments come through the death of someone else or the death of a dream. As I look at my story the undercurrent of rebirth is strong and could easily be drawn out even more clearly. That’s something that kind of surprised me and I think I like! Thanks for sharing your great advice with us!

    • It sounds like you’ve got the idea of a transcendant Story Heart well in hand. Regarding all your supporting characters and their “death” events, those will be powerful moments that help your protagonist see the light… somewhere down the line. Just be careful that “best friend” doesn’t steal the show with her own development. Or is she making a bid to become your protagonist? !!!

      • Yvette Carol

        Beck, I’m reminded of Kate de Goldi teaching us that she fought a minor character for some time before she finally gave in and made her the central character. Then the story worked better than she could have imagined!

  • This practice makes me wonder if my two parts are lopsided. I am wondering if I have started my story in the right place? At any rate, thanks for the thought-provoking post. I am working (slowly) on the structural middle of my novel right now. I think this will help me shape things. Here’s tonight’s 15 minutes worth:

    My novel opens with my main character, Rex LaCroix, already in a fairly broken place. He carries a burden of guilt with him over the failure of his marriage and his failure to protect his young son as it unraveled. He has returned, with his son in tow, to the place of his upbringing, a fishing lodge on a remote northern lake, to try to pick up the pieces, but he is a shell of himself. He is wasting away in a job well beneath his abilities; he has become blinded by apathy.

    The main storyline is a mystery set in 1934. While the events surrounding the mystery awaken Rex’s intellect, they also rob him of that which is most important to him: his family. As he fights to reclaim all that is dear to him, he realizes that he still has the capacity to be the father his son deserves and that he can rebuild himself from the very land he was born into.

    • Well, you’ve hooked me. I’m a sucker for father-son stories. It sounds like, despite your protagonist’s guilt as the story starts, that he is still hanging on to some old habit that caused all his grief in the first place. Just remember not to go easy on him. It’s human nature that we don’t open to the truth until we have exhausted all our bogus belief systems. Make sure he realizes that his old strategies are responsible for him losing all that’s dear to him. Bring him to a place of self-loathing, if you can. That’s the dead-end of all dead-ends. At that point, the protagonist will consider a “psychic death” as the only step forward. Ain’t writing FUN!

      • This is fantastic advice. I have already printed it off and embedded it into my outline. You have triggered some considerations that I think will bring my story to the next level. Thank you so much. And yes, writing is great FUN! (Or maybe we’re a bunch of weirdos around here…)

  • Wanda Kiernan

    Alexis believes in making safe and practical decisions about every aspect of her life. She likes to consider things, to understand all the pros and cons, so this way she can make an informed decision. Most people find her boring, but she really doesn’t care. She has built a careful life, and likes it that way.

    Alexis was scared, anxious, and nervous; feelings she had spent a good part of her life avoiding. Yesterday was her 10th anniversary at her job, and she realized she really didn’t like what she was doing or who she was working with. So today she was waiting outside her boss’ office holding her letter of resignation in her clammy hands.

    It dawned on her that what she really wanted to do was be a photo journalist working for National Geographic magazine. She’d have to go back to school, trash her old camera equipment and buy the latest and greatest, and would have to build a portfolio before a prestigious magazine would even consider hiring her.

    But that’s what she really wanted to do, and she was going to take a leap of faith for the first time in her life.

    • Your protagonist standing outside the boss’ office is a powerful moment. The story could end with her turning the doorknob to enter. It also sounds like another story beginning. Perhaps she has other belief systems that need to be dismantled before she really comes into her own. Did you see the Oscar-winning “The Artist”? The writer brutalized the hero over the entire last half of the movie, trying to get him to release his hold on his belief that the silent era of movies was not over. Never seen a more intransigent protagonist. And not sure in the end that he ever really “got it”. A little melodrama crept in there in the final scenes. Thanks for commenting, Wanda!

  • Wanda Kiernan

    I’m new to this blog, and I love the thought provoking blog posts and the opportunity to practice. Applying is what it’s all about. There is so much to this craft of writing that the only to get better is by doing. (I know, preaching to the choir, but I had to say it.) Also, I’m enjoying reading the comments of my fellow writers. Some good stuff here! (Thanks to Writer’s Digest for turning me onto to this blog.)

  • Joe, thanks for this great post and an introduction to PJ Reece’s works, blog and site.

    PJ, incredible advice in your post and on your blog. I can’t wait to sit down and read your book on story structure. It’s something I think I’ve been needing to fine tune for some time in my draft.

    • Thank you, Sherrey… I don’t think fine-tuning ever deserves to end. Even answering these comments is a mind-sharpening exercise, for sure. All the best.

  • Oddznns

    HI PJ, I’ve downloaded your book and will read it later.

    Question – can there be more than one hole and more than one resolution. I’m working on a novel that covers 60 years … and it has a lot of transitions.
    My hero’s belief system and attitude
    • Story one – Buddhist. What comes around goes around. So .. do no harm or watch out.
    • Story two – Fear, numbness
    • Story three – One act can redeem.
    My hero’s transitions
    • Childhood – My hero wants to go through life doing no harm, but he’s stuck in a war and must take sides. But he’s unlead and fatherless and hence sits on the fence.
    • Youth – He meets his leader(s) both of whom love him dearly, but being spies, can’t help deceiving even when they don’t want to. My hero takes sides. He also falls in love. Wanting to end the fighting quickly and hence get to peace – he ends up going to war. His compromise is to do what he can, wcausing as little harm as he can. Of course, there’s a lot of collateral damage!
    • Middle age – He’s rich and successful. He lives in America. Unfortunately, he’s still a spy. He’s filled with guilt and fear and is haunted by the question – when does he get his karmic come-uppance?
    • Resolution 1 – It’s not all about blind love, unquestioning filial obedience. I would die to save this man, but I won’t kill for him.
    • Resolution 2 – And I won’t kill someone to put him out of his misery either. As long as he’s alive he still has a chance to sort himself out. Once he’s dead … he’s gone.

    • The best stories — and the most lifelike — are ones that follow/force the protagonist through a series of disillusionments. That’s my opinion. Now, in your saga, you’ve got the opportunity to do just that. Your final crisis sounds absolutely petrifying. And indeed it’s exactly Arjuna’s dilemma in the Bagavad Gita. Very famous. Most western dharma dudes can’t even get their heads around it. So, if you bring your story to an end with your protagonist forced to make a decision that challenges (or supports) that age-old belief system… well, ahem… excuse me… but, Wow! You’ve got a tiger of a story by the tail. (give me a minute and I’ll come up with a more appropriate metaphor.) Go ahead, read my book quickly, then get back to writing. I want to read your book. Great stuff.

      • Oddznns

        Gotta go find out what Arjuna’s dilemna is. Thank you!

  • Oddznns

    I clicked send before saying thank you for the great post. And JOe, thanks for itnroducing PJ.

  • I had trouble posting last night so I thought I’d try again.

    I haven’t started my novel yet but I have a good idea about the protagonist and his beliefs.

    He is a man made hard by war, poverty, and lost opportunity. He served on a mountaintop in WW I and came to believe that only poor men served and died. He has believed for a very long time that with money you can set your own destiny.

    At the age of 35 he has enough money to care for the people he loves, but still loses them because of war and politics. He realizes it takes more than money to have a happy life.

    The chasm he leaps is believing money can solve every problem in life, only to learn that the love he lost was worth more than all of his money.

    Does that constitute the two-story concept?

    • Angelo… that’s a classic arc. The way you tell it, it sounds like your protagonist has woken up (to a degree) but then is left at the end as a tragic figure: “the love he lost was worth more than all his money.” The story can end there, OR he can sink into that even deeper hole and discover something even more elemental about life. What would your character do without the burden of his rational thoughts weighing him down? I don’t know him, so can’t say. But he would likely be seen to engage in some altruistic act… without it being sappy. His act would reflect his deepest most repressed self. I always like to say that, “in the opposite of our principles lies our truth.” That may be hard to swallow, but it’s worth examing. Our belief systems may exist to cover up our deepest nature. It’s grist for a few cafe think tank sessions! Good luck!

  • Yvette Carol

    Thank you PJ! Truly enlightening and informative post. In fact you are helping me enormously. I am all set to work on the second book of my trilogy, ‘The Grandfather Diaries’. It’s already written but needs ‘rewriting’ as you say. And now I can see why. I had gone through it and written out what happened chapter by chapter. I knew the structure was all wrong and needed recalibrating, only I have been hesitant and unsure where to start. So I shall download your book, again I thank you for the wonderful generosity there! And I shall also bear in mind what I have read in your guest post.
    As to my protagonist, the delightfully nerdy and nervous Aden Weaver….
    Aden starts out in book one and even in book two (though less so), believing he is a weakling, who has no value. He always felt like an invisible child.
    In book one he thought he would never rise to a challenge and he surprises himself by doing so at the very end.
    In book two he has discovered an enormous amount is expected of him and a great deal is riding on him accomplishing it. So now he is weighted down with not believing he is capable of being a leader, he feels ill with the burden of expectation upon him. He doesn’t believe he is special. He thinks he will not only let everyone down but worse, someone else may be injured or killed because of his failings.
    If Aden were free of these ways of thinking and regarding himself?
    Then he may well succeed. Not only that, he would save others along the way.

    • Yvette Carol

      Now, upon reading all the comments section I should probably add a word or two. In book one the changes Aden make come after finding out that everything about his world as he knew it was a lie, his aunt is his mother, his parents death was a lie, he is not who he thought he was.
      And then after he acts heroically and unlike himself, the book ends on the revelation that the grandparents who raised him were killed protecting him in final scenes.
      Book two begins with him and his team heading overseas on their mission. I want Aden fraught with grief and self questioning. He is scared. There will be many physical tests ahead. And the book ends with the sacred object they’re seeking slipping through their fingers.
      I think one of the problems is, as with Beck, that the story has two threads, one from the ‘goodies’ point of view, one from the ‘baddies’. And Ike Lee, who features prominently in the latter thread, almost has a more riveting storyline…

      • Yvette… sounds like you’ve got a compelling protagonist and situation. Aden proves in the first book that he is capable of acting in the face of his doubts. So we know he can do it again. Not that it makes it any simpler. (See below about “rejecting wisdom”)

        There’s a theory of mental growth that states that we go through a series of psychological “disintegrations” on our way to becoming authentic persons. So it’s very much true to life that a character would be thrown into an existential void again and again. With each passage through the fire, so to speak, and with each “reintegration” the person becomes increasingly altruistic. In the final stage, he’s entirely selfless. Few of us ever get that far. (name me one!)

        Re your “bad guy”, Ike Lee, the fact that his story line is so intriguing might not be the problem you’re imagining. But you’ll have to make sure that Ike’s actions serve to bring Aden to some realization of his own. The supporting characters in a story should all have a role in coaxing/pushing/convincing your hero toward his “waking up”.

        Without knowing the details of your story, I can say that the “sacred object” should be a metaphor for what it is inside Aden that he hasn’t yet realized. I’m guessing that for a reader, Aden’s journey toward “self knowledge” is more compelling than anything Ike does.

        Here’s another bit of story wisdom I’ve learned along the way — when the protagonist learns something about himself, it’s not uncommon that he would reject it. You could feasibly make a series out of a young hero serially rejecting each of his mini-enlightenments, because change is uncomfortable. It gets in the way of one’s cozy life and way of thinking. In the end, he will finally get it, for good. (maybe)

        Keep tuned to my blog, Yvette, because I pretty much talk about this kind of thing non-stop. Feel free to chime in with more questions then. And good luck… I think you’ve created a character and situation “with legs’. Cheers.

        • Yvette Carol

          Muchas Gracias PJ!!! I shall treasure this advice. It helps a lot. My eyes just about popped out on the ‘sacred object’ being an analogy for the sacred within him part. Woo. Because last night, in my pacing the house — as I grappled with the steps to his disintegration — I twigged on the fact that while every other member of his team (& tribe) revere the sacred object, Aden himself now DESPISES it!! Ha ha you’ve given me another key. I feel, I’ve been apprenticed to myself for so many years, and when the time is right, as they say, the teacher comes…. Re your blog, have you posted anything new since the book on structure? Because I subscribed but I haven’t received notification of any new posts….in which case I may need to do that again. I intend to stay tuned! My thanks for your time….

          • Yvette… I uploaded a new post yesterday, just an update on the progress of the eBook. You should have received an email notification… because I received one for myself. Let me know if it doesn’t arrive. I’ll have a word with my web mistress.

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