Writing Lesson #6A: Using Christopher Vogler’s Plot Circle To Develop Your Romantic Story

My first encounter with Christopher Vogler’s book “The Writer’s Journey” was during my screenwriting study. “The Writer’s Journey” has completely changed my approach to stories as a reader, a viewer, and a writer. I highly recommend it to any writer who wants to get better with the craft of creating a good story. I use the principles of this book when I teach my class Outlining and Creating Your Romance Novel, to help my students develop a better romantic plot.  I chose not to use this book as the class textbook because of two reasons: A. This book is not an easy read and it might scare some students who are taking their first steps in writing. Instead, I prefer to explain the theory in class and let the students decide if they want to read the book. B. I wanted to use a more genre-oriented book to help my students understand the different aspects of writing romantic stories. “The Writer’s Journey” is not specific to any genre. For my class textbook I have chosen to use Leigh Michaels’ “On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells”. 

This post is a brief summary of the class where I explain in more detail Vogler’s story structure and how to use it in creating a romantic plot.  I use the movie Pretty Woman to demonstrate how to use Vogler’s  steps in a story.

The basic story structure and the most well known one is the three acts structure: Beginning, Middle, and End. In Writing Lesson #5 I explained how to begin a romantic story. Most writers, when coming to write a story, have a clear idea of how they would like to start it. Writers also have an Idea of how they would like to end their story. It is while working on the middle of the story where many writers get stuck. The middle of the story is the biggest part of the story and it requires many events and crisis to keep the story moving.  In addition, the stage of writing the last chapters of a story has its own challenges. By this stage most writers are exhausted, sick and tired of the story and the characters, and eager to finish writing the story, so they can start working on the next story that they have in mind. As a creative person you will find out that the creative process does not stop with one project. Your mind keeps on producing ideas for future stories. The last part of the story is actually the point where writers need to gather all of their energy, or what is left of it, and create a “life or death” situation that will keep readers on the edge of their seat all the way to the end.  To be able to produce such a dynamic and captivating story, before your imagination quits on you due to exhaustion, you want to work on your story outline.  This is where Vogler’s book comes in handy.

Christopher Vogler's Plot Circle


Act I - Separation: 1-5 (ordinary world)


1.     The Ordinary World

Exposition. Introducing romantic protagonists. Contrast. Polarity.

In the previous lesson I mentioned that this part is used when writing literary fiction or movie scripts. In this part you introduce to your readers/viewers the romantic protagonists of the story in their everyday life before meeting each other.  A great romantic story starts with great romantic protagonists. Even if you skip the exposition as a romance writer, you should still work on a good sketch of your romantic protagonists, before you even start developing your plot. To learn more about this see lesson #2:Developing Your Romantic Protagonists.  If you feel that your romantic story needs exposition – make it brief. Romance readers want their romantic protagonists to meet as soon as possible.

The opening of the movie Pretty Woman shows Edward as a wealthy successful businessman who is not very successful in his romantic life and Vivian, a poor street hooker with a golden heart.

2.     Call to Adventure

Temptation. Conflict.

If you write a romance novel – this is where you start. You can always use dialogue and thoughts to close information gaps and tell your readers more about your protagonists, their background and their motives. In this stage something happens to cause two polar people to come in contact with each other and to trigger their relationship. Both the man and woman feel physical attraction between them, but resist it because of different reasons: Internal conflict (Psychological), or External conflict (Social, religious etc.).  See lesson #3: Creating A Compelling Romantic Conflict.

Pretty Woman – Edward was lost in LA. He had stopped on Hollywood Boulevard to ask for directions and met with Vivian who was waiting for a customer. Vivian had entered his car, which she ended up driving to his hotel.  Despite the fact that Vivian was not a sophisticated escort girl that a man like Edward would bring to his expensive hotel room, he asked her to spend the night with him. 

3.     Refusal of the Call

Avoidance. Excuses. Threshold guardians

Romantic protagonists feel that there is something special between them, but choose to ignore or suppress this feeling. They make up reasons to be in each other’s company but do not admit love. Threshold guardians are people who try to caution protagonists or stop them from this relationship. It can be a parent who does not think his son/daughter should get involved with the other protagonist, it can be a child who does not want their parent to have a relationship with someone new, an ex-partner who hopes to revive the old flame, a business partner who suspects the motives of the other romantic protagonist, etc. Threshold guardians can be mentors or villains. To learn more on this subject see lesson #4: Using Archetypes To Enrich Your Romantic Story.

Pretty Woman – The next morning Edward offered Vivian to spend the week with him. He had explained his offer by the fact that he was in town for a week on business and wanted a professional woman to accompany/entertain him without emotional attachments.  He gave Vivian money to shop for appropriate clothes for the week. Threshold guardians: Stuckey, Edward’s lawyer  - was not happy to hear that Edward had found himself a girl that he didn’t know or approve of. Women at the boutique – by judging Vivian’s appearance, refused to help her.

4.     Meeting the Mentor

Mentors are not always used in romance but they do add some depth to the story. Mentors can be a parent, sibling, friend, business partner, etc. A mentor is a source of wisdom, a person who gives advice and directs the protagonist towards the desired outcome. You can use one character as a mentor throughout the story, or you can have several mentors that show up to give their message and disappear. A Mentor in a story can also act as a Threshold Guardian  (step 3).

Pretty WomanMr. Thompson, the hotel manager appeared at first as a Threshold Guardian; when Vivian was back from her failed shopping trip he did not let her go back to Edward’s room. Then he turned out to be a Mentor when he referred Vivian to a friend of his to help her shop for a dress. Later that day, he gave her a lesson with table etiquette to prepare her for her dinner date with Edward. By the end of the story Mr. Thompson hinted to Edward that the limo driver who was assigned to take him to the airport had taken Vivian home the day before. Edward used this information to reunite with her.

5.     Crossing the Threshold 

 1st Threshold. Rough landing

Take two polar protagonists that have a strong physical attraction between them but refuse to admit it, give them a challenge and let them jump into it. Don’t make them lick honey: throw some challenges at their direction, right after they have agreed to cross the first threshold. Use Threshold Guardians, Villains, or invent a crisis that they will have to deal with directly. At this stage your protagonists tell themselves all kinds of stories and excuses why they are doing what they are doing but would not admit the truth. At this stage they might not even be aware of the truth. This is the point where the story gets rolling and the two romantic protagonists start a journey of adventures, challenges, and crisis until they admit their mutual love by the end of the story.

Pretty Woman – Agreeing to spend the week together was crossing the 1st Threshold of the story. During this week they encountered several difficulties and learned new things. Vivian needed to learn quickly how to behave like a high-class lady – not an easy task for a street hooker. Edward, who did not care about anyone before, found out that he cared about Vivian. During the week they had spent together, Edward and Vivian learned to know each other, change each other’s life and… well you know the end. 

To be continued in Writing Lesson #6B.

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