Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 2: The Shape of a Story

This tutorial will focus on:

  • The differences between plot and narrative, and why each is important
  • The overall structure of a typical story
  • The Hero’s Journey as an example of classic storytelling
  • The deus ex machina, and why you should avoid it

Good storytelling is all about immersing the reader into the story. However, the story, or narrative, is a finely balanced and controlled structure; it is never randomly thrown together from flashes of inspiration.

Differences between plot and narrative

Firstly, let’s define what we mean by narrative. You might have encountered the term plot as synonymous with narrative (or story), but they are subtly different from each other. The narrative is the overall sequence of events that make up a larger structure (the story) as told from a particular viewpoint (that of the narrator or narrators), whereas the plot is a series of connected events that can be summarised in the form, “a caused b, and so led to c” (cause and effect). Plot can therefore be a much simpler (abridged) version of the larger, more intricate, and narrator-led narrative.

For example, the plot of Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft could be summarised thus:

“Lara finds an ancient meteoric artefact in India, and is commissioned by Dr Willard to find three similar artefacts hidden in various locations around the world. Finally, in Antarctica, Lara discovers that the artefacts can accelerate evolution when Dr Willard uses the artefacts on himself to become a mutated monster. Lara kills him and successfully escapes with the four artefacts.”

However, the narrative is somewhat more complicated, as anyone who has managed to overcome the challenges of this game will agree!

Cave opening 01

Good stories don’t happen by accident. They evolve out of carefully arranged components – the scenes and pauses we examined in Part 1: Planning Your Adventure. For now, let’s draw back and take a look at the overall shape of a story.

Story structure

There are several different kinds of story structure, but one of the most common and widely-recognisable takes the form of three parts or ‘acts’:

  • In the first act, we meet our main characters and the goal of the story (Introduction)
  • In the second act, our characters face a problem (Crisis)
  • In the third act, the characters overcome the problem (Resolution)

It sounds pretty banal to reduce something as complicated as a story to just three parts. But let’s apply it to some familiar examples and you can see how it can instantly reveal the shape of the story:

In Tomb Raider (1996):

  • Act I: we are introduced to Lara and Natla; Lara agrees to find a lost artefact.
  • Act II: Lara learns that the artefact she’s just recovered will allow Natla to destroy mankind.
  • Act III: Lara defeats Natla and saves the world.

In Tomb Raider (2013):

  • Act I: we’re introduced to Lara, her shipmates, and the leader of the island’s castaways. The goal is to survive and get off the island.
  • Act II: Lara discovers that a god-like supernatural being is preventing them from escaping the island, and hordes of bloodthirsty cultists and supernatural creatures are closing in on the survivors.
  • Act III: Lara defeats the island’s inhabitants – supernatural and human – and escapes with her surviving shipmates.

All the little bits and pieces that happen in the story suddenly fit into a much larger and simplified structure. Everything – from individual lines of dialogue to explosive action set-pieces – exists to fulfil one purpose, which is to advance the story onwards to the next act.

These two stories have other similarities in common. For example, both Natla and Mathias start out as friendly but are later revealed to be villains. Both Natla and Mathias engage Lara in a climactic final battle. Themes like this have become so ingrained in our storytelling toolbox that we usually refer to them as tropes or clichés.

Some people have made it their life’s work to compare cultures from all over the world and identify common or universal tropes and themes. It turns out they are more common than you might think! One of the most famous and influential scholars in this field was Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). His books, especially The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth, identify themes that crop up repeatedly in cultures despite them being separated by entire continents and many thousands of years. Tomb Raider fans should already be familiar with Campbell’s concept of the monomyth from Tomb Raider: Legend. During a visit to Peru, Lara, Zip, and Alister comment that the South American legend of Tiwanaku bears a striking resemblance to the European story of King Arthur. Obviously, Lara’s education included the works of Joseph Campbell!

Part 2 - Tiwanaku

The Hero’s Journey

The monomyth is sometimes called the Hero’s Journey, and I’m mentioning it here because it is one of the oldest and most widely-recognised example of story structure. It’s also a path of character development, whereby a character undergoes a transformation from one state (often young, innocent, and uninitiated) into another (usually mature, wise, and experienced). It is by no means the only story framework out there, but you will certainly have encountered it numerous times in fiction, in everything from Back to the Future to The Lord of The Rings.

Here, we’ll use examples drawn from the Tomb Raider universe to illustrate the stages of the Hero’s Journey. There are seventeen in all, but here they are listed in the three groups that conform to the three ‘acts’ we mentioned earlier:

Part I: Departure or Separation

  1. The Call to Adventure: our hero lives in a mundane world, but is presented with information that leads him to venture away from all he knows. Example: Lara eavesdrops on Father Patrick and Winston talking about a mysterious island, and this fires Lara’s curiosity to the point where she decides to stow away on Father Patrick’s boat to see the island for herself (Tomb Raider: Chronicles).
  2. Refusal of the Call: sometimes the hero refuses to act on the call to adventure for one reason or another – usually out of a sense of duty, responsibility, disinterest, or simple fear of the unknown. Example: Lara initially refuses Natla’s offer by stating, “I’m afraid you’ve been misled; I only play for sport.” (Tomb Raider (1996); Tomb Raider: Anniversary).
  3. Supernatural Aid: a magical or initiated helper appears to the hero to act as their guide once the call to adventure has been accepted. Example: Von Croy is the ‘renowned archaeologist-adventurer’ who acts as Lara’s guide on her first adventure in Angkor Wat (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  4. Crossing the First Threshold: the hero leaves the world that they know and actually passes into the unknown  – crossing the threshold between the normal world and the unknown world – for the first time. Example: Lara and Von Croy ‘breach the sanctum of the ancients’ in Angkor Wat (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  5. Belly of the Whale: the hero is taken fully into the unknown, and truly appreciates for the first time that they have left their old life and normality behind. Example: Lara and Von Croy enter the mysterious Iris chamber in Angkor Wat, which is distinctly different and more otherworldly than the style of locations they have encountered before, hinting that strange powers beyond our heroine’s understanding are at work (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).

Part II: Initiation

  1. Road of Trials: our hero must undergo a series of trials or tests as the first stage of their transformation. Example: Lara must defeat traps and activate complex ancient machinery to reach… oh come on, this is THE heart and soul of ALL Tomb Raider!
  2. Meeting with the Goddess: our hero meets with a powerful feminine character or representation of the goddess with whom he shares a special, usually enhancing, bond. This ‘goddess’ is a holder of knowledge or wisdom, a guardian, or the custodian of a particular object or information. They are benevolent towards our hero; Campbell talks about this stage as a return to the happiness or security of childhood. If the hero is herself female, she will meet the male version of this character. Example: Lara encounters Kurtis in the Louvre, who proves – by stealing the Obscura Painting but not harming her, and by demonstrating his Lux Veritatis powers – that he is a very special ally (Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness).
  3. Temptation: the hero is tempted to stray from or abandon their quest for some reason, for example material gain, the prospect of respite from their quest, or through threats if they continue. Sometimes this stage is called Woman as the Temptress, because it can involve a female figure who, consciously or not, tempts the hero away from their true path. Example: Bouchard asks Lara if she would “prefer somewhere safer than her friend’s apartment?” (Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness).
  4. Atonement: this is the point in the hero’s journey where they encounter the pivotal power that holds the balance between good and evil, success or defeat, in their grasp. Usually this figure is male, which is why this stage is sometimes known as Atonement with the Father. At this stage the hero often ‘dies’, either literally or figuratively, to undergo the next stage in their transformation. Example: Lara is reunited with Von Croy in Egypt, only to have them argue and him seal Lara inside the Tomb of Semerkhet, which symbolically ‘kills’ her and traps her in ‘the underworld’ (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  5. Apotheosis: meaning ‘to elevate to a divine or god-like state’, this stage sees the hero enter a state or place where they gain vital knowledge, peace, rest, or some other powerful fulfilment before returning to the ‘normal’ world. Example: it is while she is trapped in the Tomb of Semerkhet that Lara learns about the sun-god Horus, and how he must be summoned to defeat Set – which is the knowledge she needs in order to achieve her ultimate goal (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  6. The Ultimate Boon: the hero achieves the goal of their quest, which was the reason why they set out on their journey in the first place. It is the proof of the hero’s strength, skill, determination, and courage. Example: in Nepal, Lara reassembles all the collected fragments of Excalibur so she can wield it against her enemies and activate the dais to find her mother (Tomb Raider: Legend).

Part III: Return

  1. Refusal of the Return: having achieved their goal, the hero is reluctant to leave this state of enlightenment and return to normality. Example: Lara meets her father again thanks to the power of the Triangle of Light, and expresses her wish to stay with him/him with her (film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider)
  2. Magic Flight: often, having gone through many trials and dangers to get to their goal, the hero must now escape through even more dangers and trials. Example: having entombed Set deep beneath the Great Pyramid, Lara must still face the long and dangerous climb to reach the surface and safety (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  3. Rescue from Without: the hero might require assistance from guides or helpers to return to the everyday world. Sometimes this is because the hero has been injured or weakened by their adventures, or they don’t even know that return is possible. Example: Lara cannot escape the lost city’s Planetarium in Siberia before it collapses and traps her without the help of her faithful sled dogs (film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider).
  4. Crossing the Return Threshold: the hero must integrate the knowledge or boon that they gained during their Initiation back into the ‘normal’ world, often by sharing critical information or wisdom with others. Example: Lara asks Zip and Alister to start researching and contacting Professor Eddington because, “my father was right about everything, and there may still be time to do something about it.” (Tomb Raider: Legend).
  5. Master of Two Worlds: the hero returns to the ‘normal’ world they left behind. The hero has irrevocably changed, having proven their strength, determination, and wisdom beyond doubt. Example: Lara returns to the normal world on board a rescue ship, but stands apart from the rest of her shipmates, and a crew-member mentions that her scars suggest she’s been through things he doesn’t want to ask her about (Tomb Raider (2013))
  6. Freedom to Live: the hero’s newfound mastery means that they no longer fear death, and consequently have no fear of taking on challenges, going on more adventures, and achieving future goals, i.e. they are now free to live life in the moment, neither regretting the past or fearing the future. They often go onto become rulers, or mentors to the next generation of heroes, or they might set out on more adventures. Example: Lara bids farewell to her mother, formally laying her memory – and the journey that has driven Lara so far for so long – to rest, and she returns home (notably carrying Excalibur with her as a mark of her mastery) (Tomb Raider: Underworld)

As a writer you should remember that this structure, although famous and useful, is not the be-all and end-all of storytelling. There are literally dozens of different story frameworks. Some are naturally more suited to particular genres (for example, the ‘heist’ framework is a cornerstone of crime thrillers). It is well worth your time to research and compare different frameworks so you can better understand your own stories. It is fascinating and instructive to peel away the surface and analyse the mechanisms that are whirring and clicking away underneath.

The deus ex machina tripwire

A word of caution is appropriate here. You may have come across the phrase deus ex machina. Meaning, ‘god from the machine’, it originated in ancient Greek tragedy and has become a commonplace plot device in everything from novels to movies. A deus ex machina is any unexpected event, character, ability, or intervention that appears out of nowhere to solve an apparently unsolvable problem. Depending on how they are used they can be outrageous, funny (for comedic effect), or plain cringe-worthy.

Part 2 - deus ex machina

For example, let’s say that Lara has succeeded in defeating the villain but is now trapped in a cave full of steadily-rising lava and certain death. How shall we resolve this situation? If we decide to have another character suddenly appear with a rope and rescue helicopter – especially if we have given them no prior reason for being there at that very moment – then our resolution has become a deus ex machina. Even though this might make for a dramatic scene, your readers will feel pretty let down that Lara wasn’t able to use her own resources – for example her wits and athletic abilities – to make her own escape.

It is very common for writers to plan out elaborate and entertaining stories, but then realise that they have no obvious way to resolve the plot. They have, to paraphrase, ‘written themselves into a corner’. It can be tempting, under these circumstances, to write in an external factor that can swoop in and save the day – in other words, to make use of a deus ex machina. However, I would urge you to do everything in your considerable power to avoid this plot device. It hardly ever works convincingly, and even when you twist the rest of your story into pretzel-knots to make it seem justifiable, it will make your writing feel contrived, lazy, and artificial. Good plots should be able to resolve themselves using the characters’ own resources and abilities – they shouldn’t need to have something external to appear out of nowhere to solve your plot problems.

Key points for Shape of the Story:

  • The plot is a summarised version of what happens in your story (a leads to b, which causes c), whereas the narrative is a description of how your story unfolds from a particular character – the narrator’s – point of view.
  • Most stories are told in three acts that comprise an introduction, a crisis, and a resolution.
  • The Hero’s Journey, or the monomyth, is just one example of a universal story structure.
  • Deus ex machinas are often used when the writer is too lazy or too stuck to resolve the story using existing means – avoid them!


Joseph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey

Image credits:

Next time – Part 3: Hooking Your Reader

Creative Commons Licence
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 2: The Shape of a Story by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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