Kill the Cat: Storytelling Structures for Screenwriters Sick of the Hero’s Journey
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by "The Hero’s Journey."
Now that every screenwriter’s hand is up, let’s dispense with the myth that every story must be told in the tradition of "The Iliad." In the year of our Lord 2021, I think we can all agree we’ve grown beyond that paradigm.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a Hero’s Journey is the dominant form of storytelling in most fictional media: a single protagonist goes on a journey, surmounts great obstacles, and learns some kind of lesson at the end of it. It can be something as simple as a man coming to terms with his father’s death by building a baseball field (Field of Dreams), or a literal superhero saving the world and learning humility (Iron Man).
Even if you didn’t have a name for it before, you’re probably familiar with it, since almost every Hollywood movie follows this formula. Almost. Fortunately for us, there are plenty of examples to the contrary. In fact, entire genres of film thrive in alternative modes of storytelling.
Without further ado, here are three of those strategies.
#1 - Dual Protagonists
When Harry Met Sally, Finding Nemo, The Prestige, Warrior
Ideal Genres: Romance/Romantic Comedies, Buddy-Cop, Character Dramas
Any great love story—and any great rivalry—takes two. Like the name suggests, a story with dual protagonists follows two separate but equally important main characters. Not only does the audience get a choice on who to root for, but the greater theme of the story is often beyond the scope of one person. They often are fighting for the same goal, but they don’t have to.
Sometimes the protagonists have the same goal, but are fighting against one another to achieve it, like the two MMA-fighting brothers in Warrior, battling for a championship belt. In The Prestige, two rival magicians fight it out for supremacy in the burgeoning world of magic shows, and are willing to risk life and limb for a legendary magic trick. The theme is chasing the "magic" of an audience’s adoration, told through parallel narratives of two tortured men. As we watch their respective descents into mania, we see the rivalry consume them both as a force greater than either one of them. It’s simply a story that couldn’t be told from one perspective.
Or the protagonists could have different goals entirely, only to find something more important to work towards together. Almost every romantic comedy, from When Harry Met Sally to Crazy Rich Asians, follows this structure. Two people on different paths suddenly find themselves in love with someone not a part of their grand plan and must put aside their preconceived notions to take a chance on love. Conflict ensues, somebody cries, one or both of them quit their jobs, and they end up together. A tale as old as time.
But some stories require even more than two perspectives. Which brings us to ...
#2 - The Ensemble Cast
"The Expanse," Lord of the Rings, The Family Stone, Downton Abbey, Ocean’s 11
Ideal Genres: Sci-Fi/Period Epics, Heist, Sports, Contained Mysteries
Almost always, the ensemble cast structure is centered around a strong theme or goal for the whole cast. In Lord of the Rings, the goal is to defeat Sauron and destroy the One Ring. Now, if it were a traditional Hero’s Journey, it would have centered solely on Frodo Baggins—the ring bearer. Sure, the Fellowship of the Ring might be about the same, but The Two Towers and Return of the King wouldn’t exist, except for two bros doing an awful lot of walking with a little creature constantly clearing its throat and talking to itself. As much as we all love Gollum, the schtick might have gotten old after a while. We would also miss out on the incredible, epic battles at Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith, the March of the Ents on Isengard, Aragorn’s rise from a nomad ranger to the King of Gondor, and arguably the most badass scene for a woman in film (“I am no man.” *stabs an unkillable Witch King in the face, killing him*). That’s a world I don’t think any of us want to live in.
Epics are the blueprint for ensemble casts, but they don’t always have to be centered around one goal for all of its characters. Take the Amazon/Syfy project "The Expanse," for example. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the crew in "The Expanse" doesn’t have one singular goal, outside of survival in a solar system mired by war and societal collapse. While James Holden’s goal might be the destruction of the protomolecule threatening his species, Camina Drummer’s goal is establishing lasting power for her nation, The Belt, in a solar system that routinely exploits her people. The thing tying them together is the continued existence of the human race, all of which is under siege by existential (and extraterrestrial) threats.
However, your story need not be an epic tale in a far-flung time period to take advantage of the ensemble structure. It can work in a locale as small as a city block (Do the Right Thing) or even a single house (The Family Stone, Knives Out). So long as each of your characters have a pivotal part to play in the resolution of your story’s conflict, you can use the ensemble structure to your advantage.
#3 - The Villain’s Journey
American Psycho, Joker, Thank You For Smoking, "The Sopranos," Literally Any Martin Scorsese Movie
Ideal Genres: Satire, Thrillers, Prestige Drama, Dark/Black Comedy
If there were one note I could banish to the Phantom Zone, never to be seen again, it would be this: “your protagonist isn’t likable enough.”
I’m sorry, when exactly has that mattered? Was it when The Joker killed a bunch of people while laughing about it and the movie got an Oscar? Or was it when Patrick Bateman killed a bunch of people while laughing about it and the movie got an Oscar? Or was it when Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver killed a bunch of—oh, I get it. It’s because my lead’s a woman, and women have to be likable to sell in Hollywood. Cue eye-roll.
Misogyny aside, plenty of male characters get the same note, too. And it’s just as myopic. Never in the history of film has a protagonist had to be likable to get an audience to root for them. If that were the case, Martin Scorsese would be out of a job.
What a protagonist does have to be is fascinating. Whether that means they hold up an unflattering mirror to the viewer or society at large, or they show us a world we’ve never seen before, we naturally want to follow someone we want to know more about in spite of their flaws. In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman’s over-the-top bloodlust is a result of 80s wall-street yuppie culture. Even though he’s obviously a terrible person who murders women for the thrill, we gleefully follow along in his killing spree as he takes out even worse villains in the form of smarmy, sociopathic stock brokers. In Joker, we watch as a man’s humanity is slowly stripped from him through marginalization of his personality and brutal violence, until he becomes the very thing that destroyed him. In Thank You For Smoking, we watch an all-American cigarette lobbyist start and end as a shill for big tobacco, telling the audience to ‘sit and spin’ while he counts his money and cares for his kid.
If you find any of those people “likable,” seek help.
At its core, The Villain’s Journey is a biting deconstruction of the Hero’s Journey, injecting a sense of realism. Sometimes, a person’s motives aren’t good. Sometimes, people don’t change for the better. Sometimes, people just suck. The Villain’s Journey challenges the audience to find something meaningful and moral in spite of it all, which is what makes it an effective strategy—especially in a world where it feels like the villain usually wins.
Story can take many forms outside the traditional bounds of Hollywood. The most effective ones often do. So when the next agent or production company gives you the note that your structure isn’t working—and you’d rather eat live fire ants than succumb to the dreaded formula—use these examples of successful storytelling strategies instead.
No hero required!
*Feature Image: "Samson Slaying the Lion" (Adobe)