You ever wonder what makes a great story a popular story? To movies and books such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dune, Harry Potter, Narnia, and even celebrated video games like StarCraft, there are five simple themes that underlie the plot. These classic themes are found in many others, and they add tons of flavor to the story. If you follow this simple formula, you’ll churn out a pretty darn-good story!
The first element is a young, naïve but likable main hero. A lot of stories start out this way. The character doesn’t HAVE TO be naïve, but this can help you in various aspects of character development. A young hero is likable and relatable to. Young means room for improvement, and the reader appreciates it when you allow the hero to grow with them. It builds a feeling of kinship with the hero, an element that can be used like a sledgehammer in your advantage.
The YLBSNH (Young, Likable But Slightly Naïve Hero…Killer acronym, I know) has been used in bestselling books and blockbuster films alike. In Star Wars (Hence, the pic at the top,) Luke Skywalker is a prime example. Luke may not be the most heroic of heroes, nor the strongest, nor the smartest, but he still makes a good hero. Why? We all have a soft spot for the underdog. The more sympathy you can build around your main hero, the better. Frodo, from LOTR, is also a good example.
The second element to making an award-winning story is the possible girlfriend/love element. Now, listen: you may not want to write about any of that mushy-gushy crap that constitutes dime novels, and precious few people do. However, a slight romance (managed RIGHT, mind you) can build emotional trauma and deeper sympathy for the characters. Some say this doesn’t pair well with a young hero, because some variation of annoying teenage romance will occur. This needs careful handling.
Again, I point you to Star Wars for proof of this: we do get a slight romantic interest between Luke and Leia throughout the beginning of the saga (Although the focus slowly shifts to Han…Brilliant move, Lucas), but it’s no teenage love story (though they are both young). Although the story might not end with marriage or finalization, the element just needs to be there. You can finalize it in later books, but don’t leave the thread untied. There’s always those readers who say “But when are they gonna get married?”. Don’t disappoint them.
The third element, and, most important in my opinion, is the wise councilor/mentor character. In fantasy, he/she frequently takes the form of a wizard. In science fiction, a scientist. This character helps the main character and any of the main character’s friends through the story. This character doesn’t necessarily TEACH the main hero, but does guide him through the story with advice and wisdom. This character could also be described as the “mover-and-shaker” of the plot, and is frequently disliked by the rest of the cast.
One great example of this would be Gandalf, everyone’s favorite wizard. He helps the main hero(es) through their problems and hardships, sets actions in motion that lead to the climax and ultimate victory of the main characters, and brings unwanted but useful tidings of the future. He is the ultimate Wise Councilor. In Star Wars, the Councilor is Ben Kenobi. Remember, this character can have the most behind-the-scenes action and the most plot influence. In the lesser-well-known universe of StarCraft, this character manifests itself in the alien Zeratul, a not-so-well-liked prophet. This is the most important element in an award winning story, and it allows you to fix every plot hole and craft great plotlines.
The fourth element is a classic plotline. By “classic plotline” I mean one of the well-known plots used in western culture. A few examples of this would be Revenge, Hero’s Journey, Mystery, Race Against Time, etc. Pick a simple and easy problem for the center of your plot (An enemy invasion, a person on the run, a mega-weapon, a murder that needs solving, and more) and stick with it. This one’s self-explanatory, and it will be easy for you as well as your reader to follow the plan of the story.
The fifth and final element of a good story is the nefarious (and clearly evil) villain. Some people like to fill their story with morally compromised heroes and villains that aren’t REALLY bad. To that, I say “HA!”. Ridiculousness. Idiocy. Who wants to read a story about a “good guy” who isn’t really good? Or a “bad guy” who isn’t really bad. For goodness sake, make your villain EVIL! Make him/her do horrible, clearly evil things like murder and thievery. Maybe even be a little creative. Or, maybe you don’t. Just avoid the weak and kinda-vaguely-not-bad villain.
We see clearly evil villains throughout great stories. The villain Sauron, in LOTR, has plans for world domination and enslavement of the free peoples of Middle-Earth. Obviously evil. Darth Vader, from Star Wars, strangles Captain Antilles at the beginning of the movie. He blows up planets of people. It doesn’t have to be really specific or even very personal; it just has to be clear. Building disdain for a good villain is a wonderful plot device.
And there you have it. The secret formula used in concocting the best stories on earth. Just choose a YLBSNH (Again, with the acronyms), a love interest, a Gandalf/Zeratul, a classic plot and a very evil villain, and you’ll have as much fun writing this story as your reader will have reading it.
Good luck, and happy writing!
4 thoughts on “The 5 Archetypes of an Award-Winning Story”
YES! I was so happy when you said the villain had to be REALLY evil, not that wishy-washy, kind of good and kind of bad, confusing nonsense. It’s so important to have your main protagonist and antagonist to be just that, a PROtagonist and an ANtagonist. It’s okay to have uncertain characters, not quite knowing which side to choose, and those characters can even be very intriguing to readers, BUT they must be a side character or it ruins the story.
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Yeah! That’s one of the things that annoy me the most in popular culture: morally compromised heroes and immorally-compromised main villains.
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Love this post! Everything you see in such great movies is perfectly described right here, well done! And, if I may, “What?! Why?! How?!” What Antilles is that????!!!!! Not Wedge Antilles I hope, Vader killed the man, Wedge we know, did not die by Vader. So who was that?! I really need to review the beginning of the movie.
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