No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The 4-Act Story Diamond

Update: new version of the 4-Act Story Diamond graphic here.

I don't believe in the three-act screenplay story structure. It's four acts, plain and simple. I said so ten years ago on Jack Stanley's Scrnwrit list, and nothing has changed since. Four acts, no more, no less.

I'm sorry those screenwriting gurus sold you on three acts and then five acts and then seven acts or -- what are we up to now? Nine? Twelve? Look, we're all grasping for the magic template that will reign in the chaos and tame our wild stories, so I don't blame you for listening to those guys.

The four acts were there all along and the screenwriting gurus knew it, or at least sensed it. Certainly Syd Field knew it, although he failed to make a clean break from the dogmatic Aristotle three-act structure.

I swear, if I hear once more that line about "Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him down"... It's a god-awful illustration of the three-act structure and an even worse representation of storytelling. I wouldn't be surprise if every time he hears it, looking down on us from his heavenly pantheon, Aristotle gets the itch to hurl a lightning bolt at the speaker. I've yet to learn of any working screenwriters struck by real lightning, so I'll go ahead and assume Aristotle's patience runs a lot deeper than mine.

So what on earth does that pithy gem describe, really? I get that the 'up a tree' part stands for Act One: the inciting incident, the trigger, the destabilisation of the hero's world, jeopardy. And I get that the 'rocks' represent Act Two and conflict. It's not mentioned but it's a given that the rocks get larger and meaner with each throw, to create rising conflict.

... then get him down... ?? Is it just me or is that just a teensy bit anti-climactic? As a third act that simply will not do. Not around here.

Having exhausted our supply of rocks, it's time to get serious about making tree-guy suffer. Remember that chainsaw you stole from the set of Evil Dead: Army of Darkness? (Yes, I know about that; No, I never told The Chin, but I think he suspects.) Go get it. Because the writer's job is not to get the hero out of the tree. Your job is to make your protagonists suffer to the point where they have only one way out, where only one thing can transform the suffering into a solution: change.

I'm talking earthquake-fault-line-sized change. I'm talking about straddling the abyss with one foot on either side as it groans and cracks and widens beneath your hero, forcing a decision to go left or right, zig or zag, one way or the other, or do nothing and perish. At that moment, for the hero, standing still is no longer an option.


Get him down
, indeed. Replace this with Get him to change and I'll be partially happy about the whole sordid tree affair.

OK, we were talking about screenwriting modelers. Some of these guys hedged their bets with their three-act structures by introducing little fudges to the middle of the second act, to help explain that amorphous thing dogging them near page 60, that annoying lump under the carpet they couldn't beat down -- the 'tentpole' or 'midpoint' in guru speak. They wanted their models to have the semblance and effect of a four-act structure without needing to chop in two that long middle act. They wanted page 60 to behave like an Act boundary without having to acknowledge it as an Act boundary.

Here's some advice: forget the screenplay gurus and their pet theories. Instead of paying $200 to sit on your ass and be lectured to by some guy in a tweed suit whose name will never appear on under a Writer - filmography title -- instead of that, go out and figure it out yourself.

Yes, teach yourself. Find a list of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time, pick five titles, and go buy copies of the screenplays or download them off the Net. Don't spend your $200 to have some guy tell you about the gold; go buy the gold!

And don't think you can get away with only referencing electronic copies of scripts. Get copies of the real deal, the stuff you can hold in your hands and thumb through and fold the corners and curse at when the front-cover brad holes tear away and you have to sticky-tape them back together. Out of all the scripts on my shelf, my favourite is not the Revised Fourth Draft March 15, 1976 of The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the "Journal of the Whills" by George Lucas; my favourite is my own 147-page draft of an unfinished script titled Oblivion. At some point long ago, my daughter mercilessly scribbled all over the cover. There's black pen and red marker, green and purple and orange pencil, some indecipherable shapes, creases, smiley faces, and my kids names scrawled here and there, among other doodles. Magic stuff. So, novice scribes, work with electronic copies of screenplays, yes. But as soon as you can, get your hands on paper copies of scripts that were actually used in movie production. Reading a screenplay on your computer monitor gives you very little sense of page layout, for one. More importantly, you don't get the buzz of excitement that comes from holding an actual screenplay, a screenplay identical in all respects (except for the atoms it's built from) to the one that Spielberg or John Ford or Hitchcock or [insert favourite movie director here] held when making the movie! That's the gold: screenplays. For the novice screenwriter it's the only currency you need to deal in (after you've learned the craft of writing and storytelling).

So you've got your five screenplays culled from the list of 20 top-grossing movies of all time.

Read them. Again.

And again.

Now, break down those scripts in terms of conflict and change. With practice you'll get good and fast at it.

Look at the elements in conflict and determine which realm they belong to:

  • Protagonist against self
  • Protagonist against family, friends, lovers
  • Protagonist against own society
  • Protagonist against another society
  • Protagonist against nature
  • Protagonist against god (links back to 'self' conflict)

Having identified the major hotspots (points of conflict) in a script, next identify which ones lead to transformations in character or situation. If you're looking at a well-told story, all conflict leads to some measure of change, but for our purposes we want to identify the most significant, dramatic instances.

In a moment we'll go through a couple of produced screenplays and do exactly that. But first, and without further "procrastibation" (skip and go ask Craig), here is the one true screenplay structure:

Act One, 1–30
One Ring to rule them all
Act Two, 30–60
One Ring to find them
Act Three, 60–90
One Ring to bring them all
Act Four, 90–120
And in the darkness bind them

For these leaner times of idealized 100–105-page screenplays, those act boundaries fall roughly every 25 pages, with a couple pages more at the end to handle your post-climax denouement.

For those ready to flame me for being an arrogant s.o.b. for claiming the one true screenplay model, I was kidding. Of course there's no single method for structuring a great screenplay. And yet, did I just hear some of you utter a heartfelt sigh of relief?

I'm not surprised. Gone is that crazy, elastic, pace-sapping 'middle' section running sixty loooong pages. That midpoint/tentpole is still there at page 60, but now we're allowed to give it the same importance as the other 'turning points.' It's now a fully fledged Act boundary.

Go examine the Story Diamond (click on the thumbnail at top right). Spend a few minutes studying it -- in fact, print it out and jot your own notes all over it as we work through some examples. Every act ends with a turning point, where the story direction swings around sharply, whipping off in a new direction. All four turning points are critical story moments that affect the characters deeply and yield significant consequences. They are moments of no return, where something is changed forever and there's no going back to the way it was before. Plans must be drastically altered, allegiances are forged or broken -- that sort of thing.

As promised, now we'll play with some real-world examples and see if they fit the four-act paradigm.


You probably saw that coming -- if you've read one of my earlier posts. Just a terrific action script with some solid character foundations.

Script length: 105 pages.

Let's look for the first turning point that marks the end of Act One. Where does the story first take a sharp turn due to an action that cannot be revoked? Where is the first significant change in the protagonist, Ripley?

Bam! Page 18, no doubt about it.

Burke, just tell me one thing. That you're going out there to kill them. Not to study. Not to bring back. Just to burn them out... clean... forever.

That's the plan. My word on it.

All right. I'm in.




An empty starfield. Metal spires slice ACROSS FRAME, followed by a mountain of steel. A massive military transport ship, the SULACO. Ugly, battered... functional.

Ripley is now committed. She accepted her new Call To Adventure. There's no way she can back out and return to Earth. She has crossed over from her Home domain into the Netherworld.

Moving on, let's root out the Act Two turning point. This is the half way marker. We can expect to find any of several key events: a near-death experience, a reversal in some aspect of the story, a new approach, etc. Let's look at the script...


What's the position?

Can't lock up...

Talk to me, Hudson.

Uh, multiple signals... they're closing!

Go to infrared. Look sharp people!


Dietrich, standing near a wall of the structure, grips her flamethrower tightly. She doesn't see the nightmarish figure emerge from the wall behind her. It strikes, seizing her. She FIRES, reflexively, wild. The jet of flame ENGULFS FROST, nearby.

Crowe and Wierzbowski turn, horrified, to see the human torch drop his flaming satchel full of pulse-rifle magazines. They run. VOOM! They are catapulted forward by the blast, with Crowe striking a pillar head-on.



This is about as good as it gets for turning points, at least for action stories. We have a big confluence of conflict and change:
  • Reversal: the marines have just discovered what happened to the colonists. The mission was supposed to be Search and Rescue. That mission has abruptly turned into Get the hell out of here, alive! The hunters become the hunted.

  • Near death experience for the marines.

  • Ripley's worst fears are now realized: she's face to face with not just one but a whole nest of aliens.

  • As shown on the Story Diamond, they have crossed over from the Netherworld to a very Evil Domain.
And all this happens on page 50, at the halfway point in the script.

The final turning point, at the end of Act Three, is likely to lie around page 75 or so.

I think we have a winner at page 79:

Sssh. Don't move. We're in trouble.

Newt nods, now wide awake. They listen in the darkness for the slightest betrayal of movement. Ripley reaches up and, clutching the springs of the underside of the cot, begins to inch it away from the wall.


She snaps her head around. A SCUTTLING SHAPE LEAPS TOWARD HER. She ducks. The obscene thing hits the wall above her. Reflexively she slams the bed against the wall, pinning the creature inches above her face. Its legs and tail writhe with incredible ferocity.


A figure appears at the observation window, a silhouette behind the misted-over glass. A hand wipes a clear spot. Hick's eyes appear. He steps back. WHAM! A burst of pulse-fire shatters the tempered glass. Hicks dives into the crazed spiderweb pattern and explodes into the room. He hits rolling, and slides across to Ripley. He gets his fingers around the thrashing legs of the vicious beast and pulls. Between the two of them they force it away from her face, though Ripley is losing strength as the tail tightens sickeningly around her throat. Hudson leaps into the room, flings Newt away from the desk to go skidding across the wet floor, and blasts the second creature against the wall. Point-blank. Acid and smoke.

So we have Ripley and Newt experiencing near-death. We have another massive revelation (Burke's treachery) that spins the plot in a new direction. Lump on top of this a new crisis with the aliens breaching their perimeter and forcing them to hightail it out of their stronghold. Clearly we have begun the final dash for the home plate and the final conflict.

We are into Act Four, and Ripley has entered her Martyr phase (RIPLEY: We're not leaving!).

Well, this article is getting long, so I'll leave further script-act analyses for future posts. Have a play with your favourite screenplays and see how many easily fall into the four-act story model.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

How To Be A Screenwriter In Three Easy Steps!

"Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."
-- Herman J. Mankiewicz to friend Ben Hecht, urging him to come to Hollywood, circa 1928 (Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia)

Before you dust off your screenplay and hot-foot it to Hollywood after reading that quote, remember, this was almost 80 years ago, when Hollywood was starting to get comfortable with the idea of 'the talkies'. Title cards were no more. The technical marvel of recorded dialogue had arrived, and it radically redefined the job of writing for the screen. But for smart former news reporters like Mankiewicz and Hecht, adapting to the new medium was never going to be a problem.

In 2006 some things have changed. Screenwriting is a mature craft, we have global real-time connectivity, and moviemaking is a billion-dollar industry. Still there are idiots competing for your screenplay sale -- there's just a lot more of them. A planet full. Ahead in this article, I write about how the internet has made it so much easier for anyone to learn the trade. That's good. What's not so good is that studio readers, agencies, and production companies get flooded with scripts from bad writers. It's tough enough you have to compete with all the smart screenwriters out there without this legion of wannabe screenwriters jamming the channels and screwing up the signal-to-noise ratio.

So don't think it's gonna be easy. But you know what? If you learn everything there is to know about screenwriting (as if!) and you keep plugging away at it day after day after day... eventually you will sell a script and earn the title of Working Screenwriter.

How to be a screenwriter in 3 easy steps:

  1. Learn how to write
  2. Learn how to tell a story
  3. Write a screenplay using everything you learned in steps 1 & 2
  4. Profit!

Is it really that easy?

Of course it is! We're all about simplicity, here at Rage Against The Page. The only step out of your immediate control is number 4. For that one, you'll still need to put in a lot of work, but little of that work will involve writing or storytelling. Step 4 is all about networking and shmoozing and getting your killer screenplays into the hands of the right people. But if you faithfully accomplish steps 1 through 3 then you're miles ahead of the wannabes out there who jumped right to Step 3 and wonder why Step 4 hasn't kicked in yet.

Steps 1 and 2 are interchangeable. You don't need to know storytelling to learn how to write well and vice versa. Tackle each separately or in parallel. I recommend studying them simultaneously, but go with whatever works for you.

Writing is the nuts and bolts: working with words, arranging compelling sentences, assembling those sentences into logical paragraphs, and so on. Imagery, brevity, sentence length, composing ideas -- yadda yadda. Once you've learned the craft of writing, that skill naturally improves all your communication channels -- diary, email, letters, documentation, novels -- not just your screenplays.

Storytelling is all about the ideas, baby: characters, motivation, unfolding events, conflict, change, beginning, middle, end. You don't need sharp writing skills to tell (by voice) an engrossing story. Likewise, you can author a well-written document without using a single element of storycraft -- although, I would argue just about any piece of writing becomes more engaging with the addition of story elements. Consider the following:

Shopping List
  • One head of broccoli
  • One cup egg mayonnaise
  • Ten slices bacon
  • Half cup of sugar
  • Two tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • Half cup sunflower seeds
Yawn. But what if a shopping list could tell a story?

Shopping List
  • One head of broccoli. Mary's new boyfriend probably loves broccoli, same as her. I bet they have sooo much in common. I wonder if anyone choked to death on broccoli. Must google that tonight. With any luck, Martin will be the first.
  • One cup egg mayonnaise. Better get the Lite kind. I could stand to lose five pounds. No, ten according to Mary. Note to self: when your girlfriend asks you to step onto the scales, DON'T. It'll end in tears. Yours. For five years not once did she mention my weight, and all of a sudden out come the calorie counter books and comments like, "Wear your other jeans. They make your butt look tighter." Me: "What are you saying? That my ass looks like a watermelon squeezed into a condom? Is that what you're saying?" Her: "Sweetie, I'm not the one who's been absent from the gym for a month." Uh-huh. Well, Sweetie, maybe if you had skipped gym for at least a month then maybe your personal trainer, Martin, might've found some other girl to chat up and steal from me. How about them apples, huh? Wait, no apples in this recipe. Next comes...
  • Ten slices bacon. I dunno about that. I may as well just strap it to my hips and call myself Fatty McBuns. Sure, I'll have no trouble attracting stray neighbourhood dogs, but it's not a good look now that I'm back in the singles meat market. Is there some kind of tofu replacement for bacon? I'll ask that girl at the meat counter. She seems to know her meat. What's her name? Anthea? Andrea? No way was I gonna stare at her name tag. Don't want her thinking I'm checking out her rack.
  • Half cup of sugar. Hell, I'll just ask for her name. I'm a modern guy. Be up front, get it all out there right from the get-go. Was there a ring on her finger when she passed me my chicken kebabs yesterday? Don't think so. Damn, all I can remember is those eyes. Green. Circled with the blackest eyeliner I've ever seen on a woman. The eyes of a cat before it pounces on a quivering mouse.
  • Two tablespoons white wine vinegar. Wine. Does cat lady like wine? I could ask her about what wine goes best with what meat. That's innocent enough. Work around to what she likes to drink. Sounds like a plan!
  • Half cup sunflower seeds. OK, I'm done here. Time to go shopping. Then to gym. Now, where the hell did I put those jeans that give me the tight buns?
Hardly a riveting story, but you get the idea.

Where were we? Right -- steps 1 & 2, learning the crafts of writing and storytelling. I'm not going to say much about how to learn those two crafts. Google and the Net have made your job infinitely easier. Way back when, I had to send away to Hollywood's Script City to get my screenplay copies, waiting three or more months for them to crawl all the way to Australia and my doorstep. I had to plow through library shelves and magazine stands to learn from the pros. You'll be able to learn all that and more in a tenth of the time I took. No excuses for you, buddy.

So let's assume you spend a couple years banging away at learning the crafts of writing and storytelling. We can go ahead and put a big fat tick against those suckers in our list. Mission accomplished: you can write good and you know how to tell a story well. Congrats. All we need is for you to write that outstanding screenplay and the check for $250K up front (with a $100K backend) is yours for the grabbing. Yoink!

Step 3. Right away, I should point out we've got a little sub-task to complete, if you haven't tackled it yet: screenplay format. If your script isn't in industry standard format, it won't get read, no matter how brilliant the story or how effective the writing. It will get glanced at and immediately dismissed as the work of a lazy wannabe screenwriter and tossed in the bin. If you really annoy the reader, he or she will toss your script and open up the Big Book of Screenwriting Shame and jot down your name and address in there. Once your name is in the Big Book, my friend, your screenplays will be read by exactly nobody anywhere ever.

Harsh, yes, but fair. Hey, I did try to warn you.

But if you stay out of the Big Book of Shame, if you take the time to ensure every page of your screenplay has correct spelling and formatting, then you have a fighting chance at getting your masterpiece eyeballed. Talking about it now, I'm reminded about a call I got from my agent a coupla years back concerning my horror screenplay Fresh Prince of Hell-Air, which he'd sent to one of the major studios.

Agent: "Mr Mogul read your script accidentally. He thought it was the new Kasdan spec. However, he did like it and wants to buy it for mid-six figures."

Me: "Holy... Are you kidding? Dude, they never read my stuff! I'm in their Big Book of Shame, remember?"

Agent: "Yes, I wondered about that. Wait a sec', doll face. Got a call on the other line. Hang five..."


Agent: "You there, slugger? That was Mogul's PA. Turns out, the script he read was in fact the new Kasdan spec. The mail department had already dumped your script in the furnace that warms the llama enclosure at the studio petting zoo."

Me: "Right. So... can we push for low-six instead?"


Me: "Hello? Hello?"

A properly formatted screenplay is the price of admission onto an agent or producer's desk. Pay careful attention to format. Content should be the only thing that varies between your screenplay and Jim Cameron's script for Titanic. You will not tilt the playing field in your favour by getting creative with your formatting. You are not William Goldman. Enough said.

Reality check time for Step 3. You can write. You can tell a story. You know screenplay format.

It's time.

Write. Your. Screenplay.

That's all I'm going to say about that. For now. I'll have more to say about this step in future blog posts.

Yes, I listed a fourth step, and this post is titled How to be a screenwriter in 3 easy steps. Step 4 has nothing to do with becoming a screenwriter. If you write screenplays, you are a screenwriter, just not necessarily a successful one. You can rightfully call yourself a screenwriter and not get that eye twitch that announces the lie to everybody in the room. But that's all. Don't pat yourself on the back just yet. Until you make your first sale, that screenwriter title is all that separates you from the million other apes swatting away at a million other keyboards.

Can you be a successful screenwriter without making money at it? Absolutely not. Don't kid yourself. You achieve nothing by writing scripts that will never come to life on a movie or television screen -- nothing except that right to call yourself a screenwriter.

How to get successful when every day in Hollywood it rains scripts? Good question. Why would anybody look at your screenplay instead of the hundred other screenplays they trip over every day?

Think of the money. Great bulging sacks of green stuff. Huge overflowing barrels of hundred dollar bills. Fountains jetting liquid gold into the twilight sky. OK, so that last one isn't even possible, maybe, but don't let it stop you from dreaming. Let the thought of your first screenplay sale drive you forward. Let it convince you to do one more rewrite, one more polish. Take a moment to think about Jim Carrey in 1987 writing himself a check for 10 million dollars as inspiration, and about Carrey slipping that check into his father's pocket at his father's funeral in 1994. Think about it carefully, because you're going to need some equally powerful motivation to keep you going through the times of self-doubt and depression. They will be many and prolonged.

Yes, think of the money. Because I guarantee you, right now, every A-list screenwriter in Hollywood is thinking very hard about the money, and how to make sure you get none of it. Well, I'm telling you, one of those fountains of gold has your name on it, my friend. And if you don't believe that in your heart of hearts then put down your copy of Hero With A Thousand Faces and get the hell off my blog :-)

To finish, here are some more quotes from screenwriter Ben Hecht:

"For many years Hollywood held this double lure for me, tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle. Of the sixty movies I wrote, more than half were written in two weeks or less. I received from each script, whether written in two weeks or (never more than) eight weeks, from fifty thousand to a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. I worked also by the week. My salary ran from five thousand dollars a week up. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1949 paid me ten thousand a week. David Selznick once paid me thirty-five hundred a day."
"A movie is never any better than the stupidest man connected with it."
"I've written it was easy money -- and that's a misstatement, if you examine the deed. Writing cheaply, writing falsely, writing with 'less' than you have, is a painful thing. To betray belief is to feel sinful, guilty -- and taste bad. Nor is movie writing easier than good writing. It's just as hard to make a toilet seat as it is a castle window. But the view is different."
-- Ben Hecht, Charlie, 1957


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Alien 5? Have I got a deal for you!

Update: see this post for a Wikipedia history of Alien 5 rumours.

I want to write the next Alien screenplay.

I want to pull the franchise out of the toilet and make it potent again. But, alas, people like Paul W. S. Anderson, writer of Alien vs. Predator, conspire to keep the lid down and the toilet door barricaded shut. The Aliens franchise is not escaping the sewers any time soon, if those people have their way.

Aliens in the sewers. Wasn't that the plot for Alien 3? Or 4?

Now and then I press my ear to the toilet door, and for a second I think I hear splashing and a faint gurgle, like there might still be life in there -- a claw reaching out from the S-bend, perhaps. No. I've pretty much given up hope.

Probably Ms Weaver is the sole force that can return the franchise to the screen (but read on for my idea about how to restart the franchise without her). So it's unlikely we'll see another Alien film anytime soon. Unless Ridley Scott tosses his hat back in the ring...

"... when interviewed in 2005 after the release of Alien vs. Predator, Scott stated that the franchise had been wrung dry and was no longer interesting to him. However, another interview has stated he is regaining some interest and that the fifth film might happen after all..." - link

But it's not all gloom and doom. There is one thing that keeps me awake at night. One thing that sends shivers down my spine when I start to contemplate what might have been. What might be. Here's what sets my imagination racing. It's on page 55 of the Aliens script, scene 107:

NOTE: The following screenplay content has been reformatted to fit this page and does not represent standard script format.

Wake up, pendejo! I'm gonna kill you, you useless fuck!

Hicks pushes her back. Right in her face.

Hold it. Hold it. Back off, right now.

Vasquez releases Gorman. His head smacks the deck.

Hey... hey! Look, Wierzbowski and Dietrich aren't dead, man. Their signs are real low but they ain't dead.

They turn to see Hudson at the MTOB monitors, pointing at the bio-function screens.

Well I guess we better just go back in and get them.

I ain't going back. Fuck that.

Hudson is pale, his voice panicky.

You can't help them. Right now they're being cocooned just like those colonists.

Yes. That's right. Wierzbowski and Dietrich aren't dead, man.

To refresh your memory, Dietrich is the female soldier toting the flamethrower who gets ex-ed out by the very first direct alien attack, about 70 min in.

Wierzbowski is... well, underused. He has no speaking lines, as far as I can tell from a quick skim through the script. It's as if Jim Cameron forgot about him entirely until the moment he gets blown into a pillar when a satchel of burning explosives ignite (thanks to Dietrich's spastic flamethrowing while the alien pulls her to the ceiling).

Now, admittedly, these two-bit characters don't strike me as having an indefatigable lust for life. Cameron put them there as alien fodder, pure and simple, and they dutifully played that role. Because we know so little about them, these two characters are blank slates. Their backstories could be as rich and fascinating as Hudson or Hicks. Not that we get oodles of backstory for those two guys, sure, but you just know Hudson and Hicks have stories to tell. Dietrich and Wierzbowski have the same potential.

So consider this: by the time the marines regroup after the first head-on alien attack, and then Bishop delivers the bad news that the emergency venting is gonna blow in four hours, vaporising everything in a 30-km radius, what possible scenarios could play out for Dietrich and Wierzbowski?

I have a few ideas.

What if Wierzbowski regained consciousness while cocooned? What if he got himself free, somehow, and then rescued Dietrich, and the two of them located a salvageable dropship or other means of transport... they don't need anything fancy, just something that can get them, say, 50-km from where they are right now, and do it within four hours.

Oh, but you're asking, Sure, let's say those two escape the clutches of the alien hive, but how do they know about the imminent threat of the emergency venting?

Sorry. I'm not on the the studio payroll yet, so I'm going to leave that brainstorming for another day.

However... I figure at least one of them is clever enough to cobble together a comms device so they can eavesdrop on the radio chatter coming from their holed-up marine buddies. The problem is, it's one way only. They can listen, but they can't contact their colleagues.

And that brings us to a fun thought: having escaped the aliens, what if Dietrich and Wierzbowski are trying to break through the barricades and defenses to join their buddies inside the compound? That would be a bit hairy, I imagine, what with the aliens trying to do the same thing.

Here's more playful conjecture. By now you'll have realized that I'd like to jetison Alien 3 and 4. That's not hard to do. They are sufficiently removed from the core of the alien franchise (1 and 2) that they can be cut loose with barely a whimper. Space travel lets us play with timelines, as evidenced in this scene from Aliens, so there is a lot of wiggle room for plotting around the awfulness of 3 and 4:

Have they located my daughter yet?

Well, I was going to wait until after the inquest...

He opens his briefcase, removing a sheet of printer hard copy, including a telestat photo.

Is she...?

Amanda Ripley-McClaren. Married name, I guess. Age: sixty-six... at time of death. Two years ago.
(looks at her)
I'm sorry.

Ripley studies the PHOTOGRAPH, stunned. The face of a woman in her mid-sixties. It could be anybody. She tries to reconcile the face with the little girl she once knew.

Cancer. Hmmm. They still haven't licked that one. Cremated. Interred Westlake Repository, Little Chute, Wisconsin. No children.

Ripley gazes off, into the pseudo-landscape, into the past.

No children.
(a beat, then)
I promised her I'd be home for her birthday. Her eleventh birthday.

Hmmm. Ripley's daughter, eh?

It's a nice character moment for Ripley, connecting her extraordinary deeds in space with her commonplace life on Earth, and highlighting the sacrifices she's endured. For plotting purposes, it sets up Ripley's mother-daughter connection with Newt. But maybe also, in the back of his head, Jim Cameron knew he was unlocking a door he might step through one day, if he continued with the series.

Does that or does that not scream at you, Mr Producer, about a revitalised Alien franchise that takes place somewhere during the fifty or so years between the events of Alien 1 and Alien 2? A sub-franchise, so to speak, where Ripley's daughter takes the starring role. A daughter whose mother never made it back for her eleventh birthday, as promised. A daughter who, for all of her adult life, knew her mother was out there somewhere in the depths of space, but didn't know if she was alive or dead. What kind of person would that daughter grow up to be? Again, I have a few ideas.

Amanda Ripley.

We know that Ripley's daughter married, had no children, and died of cancer at sixty-six. We know that she spent a lonely eleventh birthday waiting and waiting and waiting some more for her mother to knock on that door and greet her with an armful of presents, a bright smile and wide, loving eyes, and a hug that wouldn't end for five minutes. What about everything after?

I can tell you now, folks: between the ages of eleven and sixty-six, that woman lived a life you would not believe... and yes, her life, like her mother's, turned out to be intimately connected to LV-426 and those creatures...

According to, Amanda Ripley was alive in Cameron's treatment for the film, turned in to the studio 0n September 21, 1983:

"Ripley's daughter was alive, and Ripley had a disheartening videophone conversation with her, where she blamed Ripley for abandoning her by going to space."

UPDATE: I dug out my copy of the the Alien II treatment, by David Giler & Walter Hill and James Cameron, dated September 21, 1983. Here's the section about the videophone conversation:


The Med-tech helps Ripley place a vid-phone call to her daughter.

The conversation is short and devastating.

Ripley remembers her daughter as a bright ten year old living with her ex-husband before her last trip out. She is unprepared to see an arthritically crippled old woman who icily accuses her of abandoning her when she chose her life in space. Even after 60 years, the pain and loss well forth, and the image of Ripley unchanged by the years only triggers hatred in the old woman.

Ripley clicks off.

But enough about Amanda Ripley. That's just a quick shout-out to the studio execs who are scratching their heads about how to kick-start a new alien franchise without Ms Weaver, should they desire to make it so.

Now, back to LV-426, where we left Wierzbowski and Diertrich desperately trying to get back to their squad mates, failing, and realizing they need to get out of the blast zone before the vent blows. There's a technical conceit here that I think would work beautifully.

Imagine revisiting the section of the Aliens from the point where Hudson notices that Wierzbowski and Diertrich are still alive (p.55; scene 107) until Bishop picks up Ripley and Newt (p.100; scene 187). Imagine replaying that whole section of plot... but from Wierzbowski and Diertrich's point of view, as they escape the egg chamber and try to regroup with their marine buddies, all the while trying to evade the aliens, too.

The new movie and the old movie (Aliens) would cross tracks here and there at certain familiar points. We'd overhear snippets of familiar dialogue over Wierzbowski and Diertrich's jury-rigged comms device. We'd catch fleeting glimpses of the other characters when Wierzbowski and Diertrich almost catch up with them, before those two are driven back by advancing aliens or the marines' anti-alien perimeter defenses. A fun plot device, IMHO.

Let's say that Wierzbowski and Diertrich realise that the clock has run out. Despite their desperate efforts, they've failed to communicate their survival to their fleeing marine buddies, and if they don't leg it now then they'll be toast when the vent goes critical.

Let's continue to speculate that they get clear of the blast zone just in time, by whatever device the screenwriter can dream up. At this point, Ripley's dropship is punching through the stratosphere, and she's about to have her bitch-slap with Queen Bee.

Back planetside, Dietrich and Wierzbowski have a brief moment to enjoy surviving the blast. What now? The alien queen is gone. What of the surviving alien horde? What other survival challenges do Dietrich and Wierzbowski face?

There is a lot of fun to be had here by the hypothetical screenwriter tackling this continuation of the Alien storyline. In my case, I see Wierzbowski going a little nuts after a while, and becoming a Kurtz figure: joining the natives, becoming king of the remaining aliens and leading them off the planet. For Diertrich, an opposite path: trying to stop Wierzbowski, for example. Anything's possible. But this time, Mr Producer, whatever road you take, let's care about the characters, please.

As a final note to my Alien franchise musings, here are some brief notes I scribbled, years ago, while thinking about how to revitalise the series:

Parallel the situation with the rabbit virus: a small number of hosts are infected with the virus and sent out to infect the host community. One possibility is that some powerful alien race infected the 'derelict' aliens with the 'facehugger' alien, intending that the derelict alien hosts return to their community and spread the 'virus' -- wiping out their race. But perhaps the derelict aliens realised what was happening and they deliberately crashed their ship on LV426. Or perhaps the crash was just an accident -- the facehuggers evolved too quickly or something. This leads to many other possibilities. What if Human Government scientists were the ones who infected the derelict aliens and sent them back to destroy their home world? This would explain why a fleet of 'derelict' alien spacecraft appear in our solar system, ready for war with mankind. Or perhaps the fleet is from the aliens who infected the 'derelict' aliens. Having released the facehuggers, they arrive expecting to find all life wiped out in this region of the galaxy.

So, finally, here are a couple scenes I wrote for my Alien 5 movie.

The first intros Amanda Ripley and gives you a hint of what her profession might be. The second scene is the 'Alien 5 opening scene' you'll find elsewhere on the net, the one that's been floating around for years.

NOTE-2: With the screenplay content that follows, watch for bits of formatting that don't belong in a writer's draft. As I cast my eye over this old stuff of mine, I see I was trying to direct as I went along (and edit, too!). That's fine... if you're a writer-director like Jim Cameron. Not fine for a writer trying to get his or her script read. An important quality for a writer's draft (which is all drafts leading up to the one that sells) is flow. You don't want a lot of mechanical formatting interrupting that precious story flow. Give 'em the show first and leave the business for the shooting script.




Apparently an indoor tennis court lit by powerful floodlights. Two teenage couples at either end, playing doubles. Serve, smash volley, lob... they're having a competitive but friendly game.

AT THE ARENA DOORS, another group of teenagers enter. They're all a little drunk and have obviously just left a party.

ON THE COURT, the players spot the new arrivals and greet them merrily before returning to the game.

AT THE DOORS, a boy in a baseball cap whispers conspiratorially to the group. Smiles all round. A girl moves to a panel near the door. On it, several levers and dials. She locates a keycard in a slot, removes it, and takes hold of a lever. Baseball Cap kicks over a nearby bucket of tennis balls, nods to the girl at the switch.

ON COURT, a player is about to serve. Up goes the ball...

AT THE PANEL, the girl yanks the lever...

And the ball keeps going up. The players rise off the court. No trace of gravity. The partying teenagers kick off into the air, twisting, rolling, screaming with delight. The players get into the fun, bashing away at the dozens of balls now drifting around them. It's a free-fall free-for-all.

WE MOVE UP through the mayhem of criss-crossing balls and tumbling teenagers, OUT THROUGH the top of the transparent dome of the arena, AND CONTINUE BACK, as the arena dwindles to a point on the surface of...


A vast space station in earth orbit. Our blue-green planet looks magnificent behind it.

FOLLOW a small spaceship as it approaches an external docking bay. The ship lands near others. An automated access corridor extends to link the ship to the main complex.


Two male service personnel stand at one of many hatchways along the long corridor. This hatch is marked BAY 41. Technician #1 carries an A4-sized datapad, the other holds some sort of scanning equipment. They watch a small screen next to the door as a demure woman with a briefcase approaches the other side of the hatch. The technician with the datapad thumbs a panel button.

Welcome to Gateway Station. Please insert your transit card.

On the monitor the woman inserts a card somewhere offscreen.

It emerges from the panel on the technician's side. Technician #1 removes it and inserts it into the side of his datapad. Touches the datapad screen a few of times. BEEPS.

(to partner)
Jessica G. Martin. Authorised.

Technician #2 palms a switch. A light over the hatch flicks from red to green and the hatch hisses open.

The two men are momentarily awed. It's not often they get to lock eyes on a lady this classy. The woman looks to be about 30 and is dressed in a stunning outfit -- obviously tailored for the boardroom, but it does little to tame the raw femininity of her presence. She greets their momentary paralysis with a beautific smile.

Is there a problem with my transit permit?

Technician #2 nudges his dumbfounded buddy.

Problem? No problem.
(another beat)
My name's Dave. Dave Bennett.

Technician #2 chokes back a laugh at his partner's lame reply. Business Lady plays along good-naturedly.

Dave. Great. Look, fellas, I'm on kind of a tight schedule, so can we ...

Tight schedule, yes, of course. Tight... Your card ...

He pulls it from the datapad and returns it. Business Lady gives him another amused look. Technician #1 snaps out of it, realizing he and his buddy are blocking her way. They hot-foot it to one side.

Oh, right. We'll just, ah, finish doing our ... doing our, ah, thing.

She strides away down the corridor. Technician #2 glances down the open hatchway, puzzled. He calls after her:

Excuse me, ma'am. Is your pilot staying on your ship?

(over shoulder)
Pilot? You're looking at her. Have a good shift, fellas.

Hello Mrs Bennett!



Technician #1 and #2 stand at the hatch to BAY 75. Same routine as before.

Welcome to Gateway. Insert your transit card please.

The card appears in the panel. He runs it through his datapad as we saw earlier. BEEP.

Green light, but...

But what?

Says Jessica G Martin. She came through an hour ago, remember?

Yeah, yeah, your future ex, I remember. Mark it for follow-up. Some idiot in data entry must've crosslinked the files again.

Technician #2 activates the door. It hisses open. They look in. Then look at each other in stunned shock. And look again at the beautiful, well-dressed woman standing in the hatchway. She's almost a mirror copy of the business woman the techs encountered earlier: same hair-do, same briefcase, same clothes almost down to the last accessory. There's one big difference: this woman has a bitch of an attitude. She's trying to light a cigarette but her lighter won't hold a flame. Behind her is a harried-looking pilot.

Christ, what's the story? Did somebody turn down the oxygen in here?

(quietly to buddy)
It's de-ja-vu all over again.

Ah -- there's no smoking allowed on the Gateway, ma'am.

Fucking wonderful. You know, I really hate getting this close to Earth. No smoking, no this, no that. All you goddamn puritans with your restoration policies. You want to turn Earth into some holy Mecca tourist attraction. That's the only reason for the big clean up. Dollars. I've done the research, buddy. They're going to market earth as the wellspring of humanity and charge admission. Bottom line, dollars.

The techs move from stunned shock to silent confusion. Who the hell is this arrogant lady? Tech #1 glances at his datapad.

Another reporter? Some big event happening today?

No, I'm not just a reporter. I'm a public information specialist.


What did you say?

Public information specialist. P-I-S spells piss.

Now it's the woman's turn to be speechless. She snatches her card out of Tech #1's datapad, pushes them aside. As she storms away:

Goddamn grease monkeys! Your supervisor is going to hear about this!

(quietly to Tech #2)
Hello bitch queen of the universe.

Definitely the wicked step-sister.



A backdrop of stars, traces of colorful galaxies.

INTO FRAME AS WE MOVE BACK: A BEACON. Old, scarred. One side crumpled from an explosion. Weyland-Yutani emblon visible. The beacon's navigation light blinks erratically.

BACK FURTHER revealing an astronaut with a HANDHELD JETPACK nearing the beacon. A TETHER snakes out behind the figure.

CONTINUING BACK shows the tether attached to a SPACESHIP built like a giant Swiss army knife -- a repair ship. On one side of the ship: B42-GOV/WY-FRONTIER 'BERTHA'. Inside the open cargo bay sits a NEW BEACON, this one a sleeker model than the one outside. Its nav light strobes eagerly.


CONRAD, mid-20s, wearing Weyland-Yutani overalls, floats weightless and inverted at the cabin ceiling. He retrieves a thick manual from a compartment then kicks off toward the main viewscreen, where TIBBS, fat and in his 50s, is buckled into a pilot chair. Tibbs sucks purple mush through the straw of a food container. His straining t-shirt reads: W-Y LITTLE LEAGUE - GO COLTS GO! Conrad slips a headset on. They watch the astronaut on the screen.


DEBBIE, 20-ish and sassy, fires the jetpack to align herself with the beacon. She grabs a hand hold, climbs over to a control box, and attaches a tether from her suit harness to part of the beacon.

That's it, we're hitched.

Can I kiss the bride?

No, but you can kiss my ass.


It's a deal. Listen, that damaged panel looks unstable. Skip the
external and go straight for diagnostics, okay?

You're the boss, Conrad.

(to Debbie; mouth full)
Ah, technically I'm the boss. I've got twenty years with the company; Conrad's got six months and an uncle in personnel.


Debbie uses a small tool to pop open the panel. Buttons, a screen, and two large switch-breakers inside. She thumbs the two switches. Buttons light up. The screen flutters to life with: AUXILLARY POWER ON / MAX 50 MINUTES FULL LOAD/ COMMAND? The screen glitches intermittently.

The pile is down. Backup power seems okay, though.

Patch in a filter just in case.

She takes a small electronic unit from her utility belt. In her other hand she uses a gun-shaped tool to squirt some sticky goop on the back on the unit, which she jams onto the rim of the control panel. She hooks it up between the main tether and the control panel.

All set. You should have a clean feed now.

The screen flashes through some menus, then fills with a stream of data.


Still eating, Tibbs watches a nearby monitor blur with data.

That's affirmative.

Tibbs and Conrad work the ship computers.

What's the verdict? Do we salvage?

(scanning readouts)
This one's pretty much brain dead.

Don't go all technical on me.

The analysis shows multiple fractures in the substructure. Too risky to bring it onboard for a strip-down so we'll just go with standard procedure and deep-six


So that was a yes or a no?

Ah, Debbie, I believe that was a negative.

Okey-dokey. How do we blow it?

See that big red button labeled "self-destruct"?

(looking hard)
I don't see it.

That's because there isn't one. Young lady, you really should have paid attention during basic training. We prime the reactor for detonation from here. Standby. Conrad, give me the core activation string.


(from manual)
Delta charlie dash one seven zero.

D-C-one-seven-zero. Confirmed.

The beacon's control screen now reads: EVENT DELAY (MINUTES)?

It's showing some kind of timer.

(bouncing it off Tibbs)
Ten minutes to get her back and unsuited, ten minutes to move to a
safe distance. Say fifteen minutes contingency. Thirty-five?

Thirty-five minutes is ample.
(he types)

Return to deploy the new beacon, then dinner and a quick game of Scrabble -- we'll be in hyper-sleep and headed for home within a couple
hours. Outstanding.

Debbie watches the screen shuffle through menus. A countdown appears: 35 MINUTES TO POWER CORE IGNITION.

Warm up my slippers. I'm on my way.


An alarm sounds. The two men jump to the controls.

Proximity alert. Picking up a huge neutrino echo. Somebody's dropping out of L-space right on top of us.

Nobody should be out this far ...

There's a shitload of matter influx. Too much for just one ship. Looks
more like a fucking planet!

Debbie! You copy that? We've got L-space activity! Hold on!


A portal opens, squeezing into normal space. A wall of light. Blinding. Debbie cringes in the beacon's shadow. Conrad and Tibbs shield their eyes. Then ... all light gets sucked back to its pinhole origin. Where there was nothing is now a vast fleet of alien spacecraft. Twenty in all. Several makes and sizes, but all follow the same basic design. We've seen their type before... on LV-421 -- the derelict spacecraft with its crop of deadly facehuggers.

A red-blue energy wave ripples outward from the fleet. The shockwave is brutal but losing energy fast as it dissipates.


The main viewscreen splits into windows showing the beacon, the energy wave, and a rapid visual scan of the alien fleet.


Fuckers didn't even knock first.

Oh Christ. Here comes the Phase shift aftershock.

Debbie! Use the beacon as your shield. Get behind the beacon!


Debbie sees the approaching shockwave and clambers sideways to get behind the beacon.


The blastwave hits them. It buffets the ship for a few seconds. Sends objects cascading through the weightless cabin. Scrambles all electronics. Systems fail. No power.


Debbie hugs the beacon as it goes tumbling. It reaches the end of the tether and jerks tight, nearly throwing Debbie off. The momentum sends Bertha and the beacon spinning around each other in dizzying circles.

Debbie regains her hold. Stars whirl past. She looks at the control screen. Dead. All lights off.

Bertha, Bertha, you copy? The beacon just lost backup!


Tibbs and Conrad recover from the impact, scan the computers.

The blastwave fritzed our power too.

Whoever that is out there, it's not us. And they're headed this way.

Debbie, get back in here now!

Tibbs rips off panels and frantically examines wiring and componentry. Conrad watches Debbie's image on screen.


Debbie can't detach the tether. The blastwave has twisted the catch, snagging it in the hook. She yanks at it but it won't budge.

Damn this mainline, Conrad, it's stuck!

C'mon, Deb, detach and get your ass in here on the double.

She pauses as the beacon suddenly stutters back to life. The nav light flickers on, the control panel lights up, and the screen returns with the countdown timer. But there's a difference that freezes Debbie's blood in her veins: the timer reads: 4 MIN 50 SEC TO REACTOR IGNITION (NO RECOURSE).


Oh shit. The power's back but the timer is down to four minutes!

What? Four minutes to detonation?

No power, we're tied to a bomb, and we're surrounded by aliens. This was not in my fucking contract!

(working frantically)
Check the fineprint.


Debbie stabs at keys on the beacon's control panel. She gives up and pounds it with her fist in frustration.

Cancel the self-destruct order! Tibbs, transmit the code now!


Negative. It's too late for that. There's no failsafe under five minutes. No recourse. We can't stop it.

Listen to me, Debbie. Cut the mainline. Use your suit laser.


Debbie presses a switch on her glove. A pencil-sized laser extends over her index finger. She points it at the tether linking her and the beacon, activates it with her thumb. A narrow beam starts biting into the thick cable. The beam cuts out, flickers, cuts out again, returns.



The Bertha's power returns. All systems back online. Tibbs whoops and leaps into the pilot's chair. He begins programming the nav computer.

Deb, the ship's back online. We need to put some space between us and that fucking beacon!

How much time?

Three minutes. Repeat, three minutes.

Tibbs powers up the engines.


The ship stabilises, no longer spinning, and begins accelerating smoothly away.


Debbie clings on as the beacon whips around and gets towed behind Bertha.

Hey, what the...?


Tibbs! What are you doing?

I'm getting us the hell away from that alien fleet. It's no coincidence they appear where a recon beacon is out of action. They probably disabled it in advance.

We don't know that. They could be friendly!

Sure, maybe they're just out here for a picnic.

Tibbs stares Conrad down, then secretly hits a console button.


The cargo bay doors begin to close.

CLOSE ON DOORS as they scissor shut, severing the tether line. Internal wiring sparks.

The beacon is left stranded as the ship accelerates away.


Debbie watches the ship leaving. She takes a deep breath before turning back to the job at hand. One minute thirty left on the timer.

Well, guys, the bad news is I won't be joining you for dinner...


Shit! SHIT! Tibbs, we lost Debbie! Turn the ship back!

Damn you, there's no time! We'll all die. I'm sorry, Debbie.

Fuck sorry -- turn back now!

No! Conrad, it's okay. You guys can make it. Thanks to me, I might add. As usual a woman saves the day.

You're one in a million, Debbie.

(works the faulty laser)
Damn straight. I'm smart as well as good-looking. And let's not forget my wonderful fucking personality.

I won't forget.

I'm taking the ship to L-space. We'll have entry speed in one minute.

I agree with Tibbs -- this is some kind of invasion...

The laser has cut most of the way through the tether joining Debbie to the beacon. She switches off the laser, grabs her jetpack and the glue gun, and squirts a couple of big dollops of the sticky resin on the front of the jetpack. Then she sticks the jetpack to the beacon. Resumes cutting the tether. The timer dips below one minute.

You're kind of sweet on me, aren't you, Conrad.

I ... yeah, I guess so.

Too bad, sweetheart, because I also happen to be fantastic in bed.

I was counting on it.

The tether between Debbie and the beacon severs. She slaps a switch on the jetpack -- the rockets fire full on, blasting her in a backward somersault as the beacon launches away from her, toward the alien fleet.

Yeee-hah! Go baby go! Go tell em not to fuck with us!


Tibbs is preoccupied with getting the ship into L-space. Conrad is numb. He watches Debbie's plight on the viewscreen.

Hey! She cut herself free! And she did something to the beacon. It's headed for the fleet.

Shit. We just fired the first shot. If they were friendly they won't be now.

Wait. The beacon...


tumbles slowly through space. At least she's alive. She tries to keep watching the beacon as it diminishes... then grows larger -- the beacon is COMING BACK in her direction! The jetpack has put it in a loop!

Yeah, whatever ...


Five seconds left on the counter. It's going to pass within 100 metres of Debbie ...


Like a searchlight, a continuous beam shoots from one of the big ships.


The beam surrounds the beacon in a cocoon of energy. The timer reaches zero. Debbie watches in awe. The powerful explosion is contained within. The beam ceases.


A second beam shoots out from the same alien craft.


is caught by the beam, all motion arrested. The beam begins to pull her toward the big alien craft.

Debbie? Debbie?

I'm alive. I'm being pulled back to their ship. Guess they want to meet me.
Can't blame em, I'm such a fine specimen of womanhood ...


Conrad and Tibbs are strapped into the pilot chairs. They exchange a horrified look: what will the aliens do with her?


A smaller vessel fires its weapons.


watches the missiles streak past her.



Almost ready...


Incoming fire! Punch it now!

L-drive online--


Too late. The missiles obliterate the Bertha.


is almost at the alien vessel. She witnesses the distant explosion, then disappears through an access port underneath the ship.



Saturday, January 07, 2006


Hi, Folks.

Thirteen years ago I wrote the following article. I just googled, and the three hits on "andrew ferguson megaplotter" are dead -- nothing in google cache, either. Those three amigos will surely disappear soon, so I'm blogging it now for posterity.

I've learned a lot about story crafting in those 13 years since, and I was tempted to completely overhaul this thing, but I decided to go so far as fixing the spelling errors and leave it there.

Raw as it may be, looking upon it now, it does hit the major beats of the Hero's Journey, and it still offers a good starting point for novice writers and screenwriters.

Over the coming months I plan to dump in here a plethora of writing research and knowledge, accumulated over decades, in the hope that other writers will find it useful.


Version 280293
Compiled by Andrew Ferguson

(For clarity, I use a male hero throughout this text. However, reference to one gender is intended to encompass both genders.)


The hero at home and the call to adventure.


Unforeseen events destabilize society and a solution is required. FORCES OF EVIL have seized the balance of power. If the evil forces are unknown, the question of Who/What/Where/When/Why/How arises.

just prior to his call to adventure. He is a nonhero in a humdrum, mundane world -- a world in need of rejuvenation. *He* also may be in need of rejuvenation and healing, be it physical, emotional, psychological, or all three. He may or may not be aware of this need.

At home the hero may be in conflict with his family. The hero- to-be is often the youngest son. Sometimes, one parent or family member is conspicuously absent from home. The mother image may be split into a diabolical stepmother and a natural mother who is no longer around. The hero's father is likely to show exasperation toward his adolescent son's naiveté and foolishness. This criticism is shared and amplified by the hero's older siblings. At home, the hero has few allies. Yet he is the chosen son, the son who will ultimately outperform his older and more experienced siblings. He is the least well equipped and supposedly the least likely to succeed. But although the young hero would appear to lack merit, luck is on his side.

For all his shortcomings, the hero possesses one characteristic which sets him apart from his fraternal rivals: compassion. While brute strength and intelligence are hereditary, compassion and humility must be learned. This is why even the most untalented youth can become a hero. The hero's compassion extends to the natural world: the animals, the water, the sky. Before being summoned to his quest, the hero must undergo a test of character to prove himself worthy of the natural and supernatural assistance he will receive from helpers during his journey. Of all the tests, tasks and trials that will befall him, this first test is most important, because it establishes his privileged status. Once he displays his compassion -- with its attached implication of humility -- he can do no wrong, even when he violated interdictions, disregards warnings, or ignores instructions.

We find out the hero's PERSONAL GOAL (foreshadowing what he wants to achieve) and his deepest FEAR (foreshadowing what he wants to avoid but will inevitably face). The hero has a DOMINANT CHARACTERISTIC which inhibits his efforts to achieve his PERSONAL GOAL.

The PROBLEM may only affect the hero tangentially at first, or it may not appear to be all that significant or serious.

At first, much of the action is small scale and provincial.

The villain carries out reconnaissance, finding out about his victim.

We see the hero display the nascent strengths which earmark him as a potential hero.

A blunder -- apparently the merest chance -- reveals a NEW WORLD. Or, the violation of an interdiction or command causes the PROBLEM.

The villain deceives his victim, who may unwittingly aid the villain to accomplish his intentions. The villain injures, harms, or deprives a family member.

** CRISIS **

The hero reacts to the crisis according to his INHIBITING CHARACTERISTIC.

amid the sequence crisis. He is usually the archetypal Wise Old Man -- the herald of destiny who will trigger the hero's inner awakening and set him on the path of transfiguration. The hero will soon begin his rite of spiritual passage which, when complete, will encompass the death of his old self and the rebirth of his new identity. Although he may appear insignificant, the mentor is the one with the special knowledge, skills, and artefacts, which he will use to prepare and train the hero during his early adventures. He has limited magical powers and formidable fighting skills.

This guide has long watched the hero and is aware that the character is the focus of great hope, for only the person with the right qualities can find and possess the PRECIOUS OBJECT. The partnership of the mentor with the hero works to balance the hero's weaknesses and enable him to perform the superhuman deeds that he could not accomplish unaided. through the guide, the hero recognises his strengths and weaknesses and reconciles them.


the hero may return to his familiar, unremarkable life. Because of this encounter, which has opened the hero's eyes to a new world of possibilities, his old life may no longer seem tolerable.

The hero may or may not attempt to deal with the PROBLEM, depending on how much is personally at stake for him. He may adopt the cause for the sole purpose of furthering his own motives, or have the cause forced upon him. In the first case, the hero is a SEEKER-HERO who willingly leaves home to commence his specific quest; in the second case he is a VICTIM- HERO, forced by circumstance to leave home. During the adventure, the hero may swap from the role of seeker-hero to that of victim-hero, or carry both roles at once. Or the roles may be split between two heroes, one subordinated.

If he does act, the hero might only succeed in complicating matters (though he still believes the problem is manageable). If he doesn't act, the problem becomes compounded anyway, and the hero finds himself personally at risk.

But he underestimates the problem's seriousness or misinterprets its nature or allows his character flaws to cloud his judgement, and consequently a major complication arises. The problem veers off in an unanticipated and far more dangerous direction, with the impending consequences suddenly much more severe. The new gravity of the situation demands an urgent solution.

** CRISIS **

The hero again reacts to the crisis according to his INHIBITING CHARACTERISTIC, but not quite as strongly -- because it has already begun its reversal.

If the hero ignores the call to adventure, a series of signs of increasing magnitude appear until the call can be refused no longer.

by benign or malignant forces, otherwise he proceeds voluntarily.

The hero may enter the new world in order to escape his oppressed home conditions; he will meet far more perilous situations in the terrain in which he seeks refuge.


The hero commences his search and moves into the netherworld where he encounters tests, obstacles, learning, discovery, and preparation.

(or is drawn into it against his will) and moves out of his drab, oppressed world into the magical foreign realm where he will be transformed from the ordinary to the extraordinary. This place is the stage for the deeds that will comprise his later history.

Initially the hero may underestimate the difficulty of the quest ahead, but he gradually loses his naivety as the journey unfolds.

for its whereabouts are not originally known. He is a traveller between two worlds: the outsider who becomes the insider, the rebel who turns conformist, the victim who triumphs over his oppressors.

as his first test, beyond whom lies the unknown. The guardian's job is to ward off any who are incapable of encountering what lies beyond. Those who cannot understand a god see it as a devil and are this defended from the approach. The hero may conquer or conciliate the power of the threshold, or he is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died. The threshold passage is a form of self-annihilation -- the hero goes inward to be born again.

which must be overcome in order to achieve his goals and defeat the enemy.

From there the hero moves through a series of unfamiliar settings, sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying. It is a place of strange beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delights.

He undergoes training, learning, and preparation for the trials ahead -- we learn along with him. He discovers that the quest will be more dangerous than his initial expectations.

The hero struggles to tackle the problem head on. Because of the interaction of his faults and virtues, he makes mistakes and misjudgements which cause complications, hindrances, obstacles, and disasters, one after the other, each being more terrible than its predecessor.

The enchanted world that he has entered contains not only monstrous adversaries, but also humane helpers in a variety of benign forms: fellow travellers, well-wishers, unexpected allies, agents of his supernatural guide, etc. -- some of whom join his quest. The hero must undergo tests before he receives magical tokens from donors or the assistance of helpers. The hero does not always react positively to these tests. Some helpers may begin as hinderers, hinderers as helpers. But without this added assistance the hero would fail.

The headstrong young hero frequently lacks the good sense to follow the advice of his many helpers. Disregarding their instructions inevitably leads the hero into complications, crises, and catastrophes.

Some of his assistants in the quest are good-natured comics. The hero's new friends are diverse in character and attitude, and whereas his adversaries are generally human, the hero's allies are generally of other species. As the hero grows into a figure of responsibility and authority, so do his friends and colleagues.

Often, one of the hero's band is an observer/commentator.

A series of tests screens out the unworthy, revealing the true hero(es) of the party. Members of the group die as the quest progresses.

Individual members' skills often excel those of the hero, and this allows him to call on their particular talents at specific times. The hero's helpers and donors are grateful beneficiaries of his deeds. When the hero finds himself facing an impossible task, a helper with the proper attributes is at hand. Ultimately, the credit for the achievements of the helpers shift to the hero. Although the hero may not have been instrumental in the tasks, in the end he acquires these attributes of his helpers, gaining their strength, courage and wit.

Outsiders must win admission into the group.


the nurturing, intuitive Earth Mother;

the Shadow Figures/Reflections (positive and negative);

the mischievous Trickster archetype, who revels in creating chaos through its wit and cunning, and who sometimes helps, sometimes opposes (but eventually aligns himself with the forces of good);

animal archetypes, both good and evil;

the Anima and Animus, the female reflection of the male and the male reflection of the female.

Assistance may be in the form of gifts (protective amulets, artefacts), information, protection, sustenance, etc.

The characters draw upon combinations of the six personality types: the Innocent; the Orphan, who seeks trust; the Wanderer seeking clarity; the Warrior, who wants power; the Martyr, in search of love; and the Magician, who seeks joy.

Rituals from the past (old world) are enacted, as well as of the present (new world).

Finally, when things seem that they cannot get any worse ... they do.


In attempting an all-out solution, a catastrophe tosses the hero out of the frying pan into the fire. His prospects plummet instantaneously from terrible to hopeless.

His INHIBITING CHARACTERISTIC has also reached the midpoint of its transformation and is now neutral, i.e. it is no longer negative, but it is also not yet an ENHANCING CHARACTERISTIC. From this point it will grow to become the positive reflection of it's originally negative aspect.


to emerge from the catastrophe of Act Two in one piece.

The choice to continue with the quest is reaffirmed -- with fewer illusions -- and he sets about tackling the problem from a new angle.

begins to take a personal interest in the hero and his friends now that they have proven themselves to be a more serious threat than he at first supposed.

A subsidiary enemy, who is evil but less powerful than the Supreme Enemy, and once himself a champion of the good side, has ambitions of dethroning the Supreme Enemy and usurping his power.

*** CRISIS ***

For the first time, the hero's inhibiting characteristic is now an enhancing characteristic, mild though it may be right now.

tempts the champions of good to join him in deposing the Supreme Enemy and ruling the kingdom together in peace. This is summarily rejected as a false solution: it would amount to the heroes doing the right deed for the wrong reason.

Despite the inevitable complications, the hero finally gets on top of his situation; he seems to be making headway and a solution to the problem appears to be at hand. The hero's spirits soar. But the fact is, he has not yet learned his LESSON fully, despite his escape from the catastrophe, and is therefore doomed to failure by his own hand.

*** CRISIS ***

Although his enhancing characteristic is now strongly positive, an ironic tragedy befalls the hero when he is tested for the second time. Despite the hero's newfound confidence, a tiny unforeseen element of failure wrecks his plans. All his efforts and achievements appear wasted.

and in danger of losing all.

Also at this point, important good characters may be in the hands of the evil forces, and true identities and motives are revealed.

At this blackest moment the hero often has a death experience which leads to a kind of rebirth.


his greatest fears, the nature of his deeds, and the true nature of the situation. He may learn the true identity and motivations of the people he is dealing with. The QUESTION may appear to have been solved, with only the CHASE remaining.

a quick way to bail out of the quest and thereby cut his losses. Or he may be tempted with a SHORTCUT: a way to achieve his personal goals without the need to resolve his inner conflict -- this at the expense of his global goal. This is the dilemma: the choice between his personal needs and those of society.

If he does back out and use this trapdoor or shortcut, it is only temporary. He may be using either to his advantage, fooling those around him. Or he may be turned back to the quest path by an event, reminder, friend, remembrance, token, realization, etc. Whatever, the hero is rejuvenated, his determination redoubled, and he storms ahead on his path to death or glory.

the hero learns a GLOBAL LESSON or TRUTH about his situation, and he now understands what must be done. Whatever the hero's choice, it involves great SACRIFICE and presents his gravest RISKS so far. With grim determination he reaffirms for the last time his choice to go on and then moves boldly forward, aware that this is his last chance and knowing he will soon meet his greatest triumph or his greatest sorrow.

it may be treasure, the princess, recognition, knowledge, the Truth -- and flees. The forces of evil give chase. The hero faces his final obstacles and challenges. Sometimes the hero is incapable of fleeing or refuses to do so, in which case he must be rescued by his comrades.

while fighting the superior enemy in order to facilitate the escape of the hero's party from the enemy fortress. He returns later in the form of a transmogrified spiritual being. Whether he likes it or not, the hero now has the leadership of the quest resting on his shoulders alone.

one last, desperate time, doing the things he knows how to do, using props and skills and knowledge foreshadowed earlier in the story. His actions initiate an escalating series of events which lead inexorably toward the hoped-for solution.

*** CRISIS ***

The hero's enhancing characteristic (formerly the inhibiting characteristic) is now only one step away from completing its full reversal.

He arrives home, sometimes unrecognised by his family.

If the apparent solution to the QUESTION proves wrong, the question resurfaces.

The subsidiary enemy attempts to defeat the Supreme enemy and is destroyed. The Supreme Enemy prepares for the confrontation with the hero.

If the story involves fraternal rivals who vexed the hero in his pre- heroic days, they often reappear at this point. Or a false hero attempts to take the hero's place. The brothers pilfer the hero's riches, usurp his power, try to alienate him from the land. In this final contest the prize has escalated to become the princess and the kingdom, and the punishment is death. But the hero prevails because he is no longer the naive, weak boy his siblings remember him to be. He was singled out in the first act and made singular in the second. Now is his opportunity to eliminate all competition and prove himself the sole heir to the highest office in the land: the throne.


The conflict splits into two arenas: a one-on-one fight between the hero and the Supreme Enemy, and a battle between the forces of good (led by the allied shadow figure) and the forces of evil.

If the QUESTION still has not been answered truthfully, it is answered here.

The hero is tested for the third and final time. Despite having the key to the GLOBAL SOLUTION, the hero is thwarted unexpectedly at the last minute when the Supreme Enemy uses the hero's unresolved personal conflict against him. It appears that the hero is finished. But unlike the tragedy of the Act Three crisis, this failure opens up an unforeseen and fleeting possibility which the hero can exploit, if only he can resolve his personal conflict. He does, and this last course of action leads to the complete solution of the THREAT/PROBLEM.

His enhancing characteristic is now the complete reverse of what began as his inhibiting characteristic.

At the return threshold, the forces of the otherworld must remain behind, so this is where the final desperate struggle usually occurs.

During his battle with the Supreme Enemy the hero is subjected to more than mind and body can bear. He and the quest are saved at the last minute by external intervention, allowing the enemy to be destroyed. [Note, this is different to Deus Ex Machina.] This reinforces the notion that "a man alone cannot conquer death.


The false hero is exposed.

The hero applies the Personal Lesson or Truth he has learned. It "heals" him or enables him to achieve self-worth. He is given a new appearance and is recognised by his family.

The guilty are punished, demeaned and demoted. The chief villain has his downfall initiated by the hero and completed by Fate, in accordance with poetic justice. In contrast to the hero's mercy toward animals, he remains singularly uncharitable when it comes to dealing with his human rivals. Even brides and brothers are dispatched without hesitation once their deceit is uncovered. Treachery is punished as swiftly as compassion is rewarded.

There is celebration and rejoicing, but there is still work to be done: the rebuilding of the ravaged world.

The hero returns to his mundane world and restores it with the spoils of his quest -- be they Artefacts, Knowledge, Truth or Lessons. His world changes accordingly, reflecting a shining new reality. He integrates what he has learned into his daily life and then his transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is complete.

He is rewarded both by society and Fate, and he receives generous compensation for his sacrifices. His heroism is celebrated with ceremony, ritual, and public honour. His rank is elevated both privately and publicly.


The hero may be physically maimed in his battles. This becomes his badge of courage that further distinguishes him from his peers in the mundane world.

Often the Shadow Figure gets the princess instead of the hero, who ends spiritually comforted but alone.

The outnumbered forces of good accept military discipline and serve voluntarily, but the Supreme Enemy must rule his evil forces with ruthlessness and fear.

The society contains a religion in decline while an evil demigod spreads a new corrupted religion. In wild and remote places, an honoured, near- extinct remnant of an ancient knightly order preserves a spiritual and military heritage during the current dark times.

The importance of individual, family, and clan honour is emphasised. In times of crisis or before conflict, characters often remind themselves and others of their noble heritage, thereby drawing courage and strength.

Heroes are usually anti-utopian and reject the grandiose empire building of totalitarians, instead favouring a free association of states.

The evil leader cannot understand the hero's motives beyond thinking the hero wants to usurp his power and replace him.

Conservative character who cannot meet the challenge or adapt to change are doomed.

The rebel forces are in fact counter revolutionary. The Supreme Enemy is the actual rebel, having overturned the natural order of things.

The hero's character growth occurs when he discovers how he is similar to the nemesis and how he is different to his shadow figure/reflection (positive and negative types). He must overcome his fears and recognise the darkness within himself and draw strength from it.

The hero's group become a professional unit and remain stoic in the face of danger and death.

The hero's inner conflict is tested several times as the quest progresses. It is not until the climax that the hero overcomes it.

To parallel the hero's growth from negative to positive, there is often a character (related to the hero) who reveals the reverse path: from positive to negative. The hero has two reflections: one positive and this other negative one. The story charts his downfall, as opposed to the hero's ascendancy. This character is a friend who becomes a foe; a helper who becomes a hinderer. He is an example of how the hero may have turns out has he himself followed the dark path. In battling this foe, the hero is in fact struggling with the potential for evil within himself.

The seven roles in fairytales, according to Propp, are: villain, donor (provider of magical agents), helper, princess (or sought-after person) and her father, dispatcher (sending hero on the quest), hero, and false hero. Only the hero is pure; other characters share various roles: helper; helper-donor, bride-helper; donor-helper, bride-counsellor; donor, bride; forced-donor, bride-tester; hostile-donor, bride-villain; villain.

The family romance: according to Freud, the family romance forms around the time a child begins to free himself from paternal authority. A growing sense of dissatisfaction with his parents, stemming from a sense of injustice, of being slighted or neglected, leads the child to fantasise that he must be a stepchild or an adopted child. Even after puberty the child's imagination may continue the task of ridding himself of his own parents and replacing them with those of higher social rank. He fancies himself the child of a prominent statesman, a millionaire, an aristocratic landowner -- of a person possessing the very qualities his own parents seem to lack. Freud noted that the new, exalted parents are equipped with the same attributes of the actual, humble parents. This suggests a degree of nostalgia for the days when his own mother and father seemed the most noble persons on earth.

The story requires a reversal of all the conditions prevailing at the beginning: the despised become beloved, the poor are enriched, the humble are enthroned, and vice versa.

Whereas heroes receive help only after proving their humility and compassion, heroines receive assistance only after they have been abased and forced to learn humility. Heroes suffer by taking the credit for the accomplishments of helpers and supernatural assistants; heroines suffer by being forced into a lowly social position. This process of humiliation and defeat ends in a rapid rise in social status through marriage and signals a loss of pride. [NOTE: this element is certainly prevalent in traditional tales, particularly fairytales. Debasing heroines in modern stories leaves the writer open to the accusation of misogyny. But if you debase your hero, who cares? :-) ]

The more naive the novice hero, the more foolhardy and fearless he is. This means he will be more likely to rise to the challenge introduced at the beginning of the story. Naiveté implies fearlessness in the form of foolhardiness, which can translate into courage and cunning. Sometimes a hero's stupidity can be so extreme as to utterly disarm his antagonists. As well as being a handicap, naiveté is a natural defence available to a hero unwise in the ways of the world. His naiveté gets him into trouble, yet this forces him to confront and outwit adversaries and thereby show his heroic qualities. Violation of a prohibition is a common occurrence. The trials and tribulations that befall the hero often result from his inability to heed a warning or prohibition.