A Hero Goes On A Journey . . . or A Stranger Comes To Town
There is one and only one plot which exists in all of story. Not ten. Not twenty-one. ONE. Pick any play, any novel, any movie and they all follow this same master plot.
“But what is this magic mystery plot upon thy devil’s tongue of which you speak?”
Glad you asked.
A Hero Goes On A Journey, or, A Stranger Comes To Town.
“Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute!” you say. “That’s two! You just lied, and now I hate your face!”
“Nay!” I say. “Two hearts that beat as one.”
You see, A Hero Goes On A Journey and A Stranger Comes To Town are the same plot simply told from different points of view.
I wish I could take credit for this writer’s nugget of knowledge, but one must give credit where credit is due. I chanced across some writerly advice penned by one James Hudnall many years ago, in which he explained the singular plot theory which changed my writing life forever.
So how do you know which of these two master plots that are really one in the same fits your protagonist’s bill?
Drumroll, please . . .
. . . the Inciting Incident.
I’ll go more in-depth into what an Inciting Incident actually is in a future post. But for now let’s just assume you already know what it is, that it takes place as soon as possible after setting up the protagonist’s Ordinary World, and that it introduces your protagonist to the main story conflict to come.
Oh stop your whining.
Here’s the gist: the Inciting Incident (or “exciting incident” as some prefer to call it) is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem. Everything up to and until that moment is Backstory; everything after is “the story.”
Peter Parker, meet radioactive spider. Aaannnd … bite!
Hey, Italian Stallion! How would you like a shot at the world heavy-weight champion Apollo Creed?
Oh poor, lonely, computer hacker Neo, everything will be okay. Just follow the white rabbit.
Frodo, meet ring.
Now back to the point before it disappears. A Hero Goes On A Journey, and A Stranger Comes To Town. If your “Hero” needs embark on a Journey to solve the main story conflict, then they are obviously a Hero going on a Journey. But wait for it… because if you switch that protagonist point of view to someone outside that journey, and make your new protagonist someone whose town said Hero passes through, then guess what? Now your Hero on a Journey becomes a Stranger coming to Town.
Does the Inciting Incident which disrupts your protagonist’s Ordinary World originate via circumstances External from their Ordinary World? Then it’s A Stranger Comes To Town, otherwise they would simply continue living their normal life uninterrupted. Maybe boxing promoter George Jergens offers your protagonist bum-boxer a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the world heavy-weight title. Though the “stranger” doesn’t have to be a literal person. It could be a mysterious package, or an email issuing grave news, or a letter of inheritance from an unknown relative passing, and so on.
Does the Inciting Incident which disrupts your protagonist’s Ordinary World originate via circumstances Internal to their Ordinary World? Then it’s A Hero Goes On A Journey, for if they could solve their new problem without ever leaving their Ordinary World then it’s not really a problem and that makes a short, boring story. Maybe a close relative has been harboring a secret finally revealed and now your protagonist Frodo must take their evil magic ring to the Council of Elrond in Rivendell.
Dwight V. Swain, author of the fantastic and highly recommend book Techniques of the Selling Writer, explains that all protagonists seek one of three things as their main story goal:
1. Possession of something.
2. Relief from something.
3. Revenge for something.
And I concur.
There is nothing new when it comes to Plot, only the interesting twist you apply to the protagonist’s point of view.
Is your protagonist a hero who embarks on a journey? Or does a stranger come to their town and change their life forever?
Choose wisely, or just flip a coin. Either way, your Hero will always be a Stranger to someone somewhere.