I have created a twelve-step story analysis, The Secret Language of Stories (SLOS) that I use both to plot my novels and to teach writing to students. It’s based on The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. One of the things I have most enjoyed about using the twelve elements of SLOS to teach story analysis is when I see the lights go on in a student’s eyes. Because the steps of the process are so concrete, they quickly begin to see examples in the stories all around them. As they recognize the tools that authors use in their stories, people of all ages become more observant and more aware of the options available to them when they write stories of their own.
I like to start my conversation about stories by contrasting the OLD WORLD, or the world of everyday where the story begins, with the NEW WORLD where the characters will soon find themselves.
Even in fantasies, the hero begins in what is his or her ordinary world. This may resemble the everyday world of common folks, such as the home of Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle on Privet Drive, Dorothy’s farm in Kansas, or the city of Phoenix where Bella lives before she takes off for Forks.
On the other hand, the ordinary world of the hero may be something quite foreign to the reader. In the novel, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen begins the story by slipping through the fence that is supposed to keep the citizens securely confined to District 12, a poor region whose main industry is coal mining. She meets her best friend, Gale, in the woods to go hunting, for what looks like a fairly ordinary activity, until we realize that Katniss could be shot for going outside the fence. Then we learn that District 12 is part of a dystopian society called Panem, a post apocalyptic world that used to be the United States. It has since been subdivided into 13 Districts run by a corrupt and power hungry Capitol. No one talks much about District 13. They were obliterated when they tried to rebel against the masochistic central government.
The inciting incident and CALL TO ADVENTURE occur when Katniss’s sister, Prim, is chosen during a yearly lottery called the Reaping to take part in the Hunger Games. Each of the twelve districts must send two teens to the Capitol to prepare for this brutal ritual in which the participants must kill each other, one by one, until only one contestant remains. The winner gets a new house in the Victor’s Village and extra food for their district for an entire year. But Katniss refuses to accept this fate for her younger sister, and insists on taking her place.
She soon departs for the NEW WORLD of the Capitol with Peeta, the son of a baker, who is the other tribute from District 12. There she and the other tributes spend time PLANNING and PREPARING for the games. With the help of the stylist, Cinna, who has been assigned to her, she receives a complete makeover and some cool outfits. The vicious games are going to be televised after all, and the participants receive gifts based on audience approval.
Her assigned MENTOR, Haymitch Abernathy, a man who is the only other person from District 12 to survive the Games, seems like a hopeless alcoholic, driven to drink after confronting the horrors of the Games. In spite of his weaknesses, he offers her sound advice and helps her to secure the sponsor gifts that could mean survival.
Katniss and Peeta finally enter another NEW WORLD, the Arena, where they must learn a whole new set of rules if they are to make it out alive. I won’t discuss the midpoint or the climax of the book, because I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I will make a suggestion for teachers who plan to read this remarkable book with their students, and for anyone else who wants to read the story on their own.
As you read the descriptions of this dystopian society, make a list of the rules of Panem. On a separate piece of paper list the rules for the Arena. When you’ve finished the book, brainstorm ideas for your own dystopian world and create a set of rules for your imaginary world! You might even want to create a game played by the citizens.
To learn more about the twelve step story analysis I use to teach writing and to plot my books, see the tab on this blog entitled THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF STORIES.