You may have heard this old writing advice about how to structure a story:
Act One, chase your hero up a tree; Act Two, pelt stones at him; Act Three, get him down again as gracefully as possible. [source]
Our bestselling authors take that quite literally: Both Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen get stuck high in the air while bad guys* “pelt stones” at them from below.
This post is a follow-up to Why Your Hero Should Eavesdrop and Make a Bad Assumption, where we looked at how Harry Potter eavesdropped on Professor Snape, and Katniss Everdeen eavesdropped on Peeta Mellark. Both heroes misinterpreted the situation by assuming that Snape and Peeta were “bad guys,” when they are actually secret “good guys.”
Now the heroes are further along on their journey but still relying on that bad assumption. Harry is flying during a quidditch match and thinks Snape is jinxing his broom. Katniss gets trapped up a tree and thinks Peeta is working with the Career tributes below.
Here’s how the next steps in this series play out:
1. Prior to this scene, the hero believes the secret good guy is bad.
- Harry sees Snape limping and nursing a dog bite on his leg. He concludes that Snape must have had a run in with Fluffy, the guard dog, while trying to get past it. “That’s where he was going when we saw him — he’s after whatever it’s guarding!” (HP Ch.11).
- Katniss sees Peeta with the Career tributes and concludes that he is working against her. “This teaming up with the Career wolf pack to hunt down the rest of us. No one from District 12 would think of doing such a thing!” (HG Ch.12).
2. The hero is up high in the sky.
- Harry is in the air playing quidditch and waiting for the snitch. “Way up above them, Harry was gliding over the game, squinting about for some sign of the Snitch.” (HP Ch.11).
- Katniss is in a tree and waiting for the Careers to go away. “I’m fast, though, and by the time they’ve reached the base of my trunk, I’m twenty feet up.” (HG Ch.13).
3. The hero has some downtime and shows off.
- Harry stays out of the way until the snitch arrives. “When Angelina had scored, Harry had done a couple of loop-the-loops to let off his feelings.” (HP Ch.11).
- Katniss climbs up on the thinnest branches that the Careers can’t step on without cracking. She also calls out to them in a sarcastic way. “The air’s better up here. Why don’t you come on up?” (HG Ch.13).
4. The secret good guy is on the ground.
- Snape is in the crowd watching the quidditch match. “Ron grabbed the binoculars. Snape was in the middle of the stands opposite them.” (HP Ch.11).
- Peeta is still pretending to work with the Career tributes. “I try to make eye contact with him now, but he seems to be intentionally avoiding my gaze as he polishes his knife with the edge of his shirt.” (HG Ch.13).
5. The real bad guys “pelt stones” at the hero.
- Quirrell uses a jinx to make Harry fall off his broom. “Harry’s broom had given a wild jerk and Harry swung off it. He was now dangling from it, holding on with only one hand.” (HP Ch.11).
- The Careers attempt to climb Katniss’s tree and shoot arrows at her. “‘Here, take this, Cato,’ says the girl from District 1, and she offers him the silver bow and sheath of arrows.” (HG Ch. 13).
6. The hero’s friend attempts to help.
- Hermione thinks Snape is doing the jinxing and heads over to perform a charm of her own to set his robes on fire. “Hermione had fought her way across to the stand where Snape stood, and was now racing along the row behind him . . . “(HP Ch.11).
- Rue warns Katniss about a tracker jacker nest in the tree. “Then, without even rustling a leaf, her little hand slides into the open and points to something above my head.” (HG Ch. 13).
7. The hero is helped at the secret good guy’s expense.
- Hermione sets Snape’s robes on fire. She also knocks over Quirrell, which breaks his jinx. “. . . [S]he didn’t even stop to say sorry as she knocked Professor Quirrell headfirst into the row in front.” (HP Ch.11).
- Peeta is stung by the tracker jackers that Katniss dropped. He exposes himself to the Careers when he helps Katniss get out of there. “‘What are you still doing here?’ he hisses at me. I start uncomprehendingly as a trickle of water drips off a sting under his ear.” (HG Ch.14).
8. This help causes the hero to come down safely.
- With the jinx broken, Harry gains control of his broom and can fly and land safely again. “Up in the air, Harry was suddenly able to clamber back on to his broom.” (HP Ch.11).
- Katniss is able to make her escape from the tree and the area below from both Rue’s help (in pointing out the tracker jacker) and from Peeta’s help (in delaying Cato from attacking her). “Sick and disoriented, I’m able to form only one thought: Peeta Mellark just saved my life.” (HG Ch.14).
9. The secret good guy’s status remains in question for the rest of the novel (and entire series).
- Is Snape good or evil? It’s a question that remains until the last book. Harry thinks Snape is a bad guy, even though Hagrid says he isn’t. “‘I’m tellin’ yeh, yer wrong!’ said Hagrid hotly. ‘I don’ know why Harry’s broom acted like that, but Snape wouldn’ try an’ kill a student!'” (HP Ch.11).
- Will Peeta harm Katniss? She wonders why he saved her immediately after this scene, and she is still wondering in the third book of the series (after he’s been brainwashed by the Capitol). “Is he simply working the Lover Boy angle he initiated at the interview? Or was he actually trying to protect me?” (HG Ch.15).
Why it Works
Both Harry and Katniss are helped by a secret good guy– someone they assumed was a bad guy!
The results aren’t identical: Harry stubbornly continues to believe that Snape is acting against him, while he has no clue about Quirrell. Katniss is not sure about Peeta, but she certainly knows the Careers are her enemies.
Just like the previous post in this series, miscommunication is key.
By putting the hero in the air, a channel of communication is broken. (It’s not like Katniss can pull Peeta aside and ask what’s going on.)
This means that the hero, the hero’s friend, and the secret good guy all have to make the best decisions they can, based on the limited information they have access to. If they could communicate freely, but just chose not to, the reader would be groaning about them acting irrationally.
Here, the physical space between the players allows everyone to act on their bad assumptions, thus drumming up conflict while furthering the theme of blurring the lines between good and evil.
Let’s put an index card for “hero in air; secret good guy on ground” in Chapter 12 of the Master Outline. (Remember when we counted the number of trials in the middle of the hero’s journey and rated them as win, lose or draw? We had a placeholder index card in Chapter 12 for “trial #8: draw.” This is now that scene.)
*As always, I use the phrases “good guys” and “bad guys” as a generalization. I know that it is not that clear cut– no need to write me a stern e-mail. 😉
Writing Maps Giveaway!
I have three lovely maps from the people at Writing Maps to giveaway! Writing Maps are illustrated “creative writing prompts that will inspire you to transform people, places, objects and memories into stories.”
More about the maps:
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I will randomly select three winners on 4/18 and announce them in my e-mail newsletter (so make sure you are signed up!). Learn more about the maps at WritingMaps.com. Good luck!