The (Quiet) Hero’s Journey

My biggest love is for so-called “quiet” books. Books where the narrative is close-set, intimate and intensely personal. Give me all of the small casts, small stakes, and contained settings.

But when it comes to pacing, how do we keep a reader engaged in a story that doesn’t have immediately evident hooks? There’s no explosions, no heists, no immense political plots that will change worlds.

I write quiet stories—YA Gothic, with very small casts and microcosmic settings. And so many times I’ve found myself worrying: will readers/agents/editors think my book is too boring? Will they feel it’s not surprising enough? How can I stop my book from becoming “slow” when, on a surface level, there’s very little happening?

Can a story still be fast-paced and high-concept when it’s only focused on a single character and their small, personal journey? It can! And while a “quiet” story may seem vastly different from a high-fantasy, epic adventure, actually the structure for pacing out the major plot beats is very similar. It’s just a matter of re-evaluating what moments will occur during those major beats.

If you’re not sure what I mean by structure, here is a great overview. No matter which structure you use, most stories will have at least three main plot beats which you can use to scaffold a “quiet” narrative structure:

  • Inciting incident (the Call to Adventure)
  • Midpoint (The Abyss)
  • The Dark Night

Take a look at this article, which will talk you through how to identify these points in your story. Once you’ve found your Call to Adventure, Midpoint, and Darkest Night, how can you make those scenes stand out if the story is “quiet”?

 

Inciting incident

This is often called the Call to Adventure. And when you hear the term “call to adventure”, what springs to mind? For me it’s things like Gandalf showing up to invite Bilbo Baggins on a journey, or Hagrid arriving to tell Harry Potter “yer a wizard!”.

But the “call” can be much quieter and the “adventure” much smaller.

Take for example, S. Jae-Jones’ WINTERSONG. The call to adventure comes when the main character, Liesl, enters into a game of dares with the Goblin King to rescue her kidnapped sister. But the Goblin King has enchanted her family, bewitching their memories—nobody except Liesl knows her sister has gone. The situation here is centred on Liesl only: what she chooses to do will not impact the world, just her own life.

Tip: Make it personal. What incites the story doesn’t have to be an epic call to adventure. Perhaps it’s something as small as: moving to a new house. The opportunity to find the answer to a long-searched for question. Making a new friend. A stranger arriving in town.

 

Midpoint

This is the point of no return (cue Phantom of the Opera soundtrack!). Since the inciting incident, things have occurred that make going back to the way things were impossible. The character’s life is irrevocably changed. In a larger-scope story this might mean an important battle has been lost! A heist has been instigated! An enormous decision has been made! For example, the moment where Frodo chooses to take the ring to Mordor, putting himself at risk to save the entirety of Middle Earth from destruction.

In a smaller stakes story, the turning point of the narrative doesn’t have to be a cataclysmic event—it just has to feel that way to the main character. To use WINTERSONG again: at the midpoint, Liesl agrees to marry the Goblin King and become his queen. Having made this commitment, there is no return for her. She will forsake her life in the world above, never seeing the sunlight or her family again. She must now live out her new life in the Underground.

Tip: Place emphasis on emotional beats rather than physical ones. Make the turning points hinge on the personal experiences of the main character. A secret is revealed. A clue is discovered. A new commitment or a promise is made between the main character and someone else. There might be a romantic confession, or a first kiss.

 

Dark Night

This is the point where everything falls apart. The abyss, the lowest point, an impossible situation. Think of Sam and Frodo in Shelob’s lair: on their way to destroy the ring they become led to their doom. They’re lost in the dark and entirely without hope. Another example is THE HUNGER GAMES, when Katniss and Peeta think they’ve won. But then the Gamemakers to change the rules, and now only one of them will be allowed to survive.

How do you do create this on a smaller scale? Again, keep it intimate and personal. Worldwide, this moment may be inconsequential, but to the character, it’s cataclysmic. In WINTERSONG, the “dark night” comes for Liesl when she realises that her life in the Underground is slowly killing her: she begins to lose her sense of taste, of sight, of hearing.

Tip: Keep the plot character driven, and the stakes microcosmic. What happens may not change the entire world, but it changes the world for just one character—and that can be incredibly powerful. Make it intensely personal. Focus on the character’s feelings and values. What is the biggest thing the character fears to lose? If you take it from them, how do they feel? To escape this situation, what will they be willing to sacrifice?

 

Homework:

Take a look at the overall world of your story. The setting. The cast. The stakes. What would happen if you:

Made the setting smaller?

Example: moving it from a whole country to a single household?

Made the cast smaller?

Example: switching from an ensemble, multi-POV cast to a single, first person narrator?

Made the stakes smaller?

Example: centre the stakes purely on the main character. How does it impact them, personally? What do they, specifically, stand to gain or lose? 

If you’ve written a book that is “quiet” and you’re worried it will be “too slow”, take a look at the three key moments in the story. What happens in your inciting incident, your midpoint, your ending? Write each down on a piece of paper. Then beneath, brainstorm:

How can you draw this in and make it smaller?

What does the character value most, personally? How can that value be brought into this moment?

How does the character feel in this moment? Is this the first time they have experienced these feelings?

Does your character need more agency in this scene?

 

Finally, my biggest piece of advice is to read!

Some of my absolute favourite “quiet” YA books are:

WINTERSONG by S. Jae-Jones

THE COLD IS IN HER BONES by Peternelle van Arsdale

THE GOOD DEMON by Jimmy Cajoleas

HEART’S BLOOD by Juliet Marillier

CRUEL BEAUTY by Rosamund Hodge

ECHO NORTH by Joanna Ruth Meyer

THE LIGHT BETWEEN WORLDS by Laura E. Waymouth

 

And two examples of how a high concept story can be done “quietly”:

THE BONELESS MERCIES by April G. Tucholke

WILDER GIRLS by Rory Power

 

Good luck! And if you’re writing a “quiet” story, I’d love to hear all about it!

acs_0075Lyndall Kate Clipstone writes YA Gothic about kisses and curses. She is represented by Jill Grinberg at JGLM. She grew up running wild in the Barossa Ranges of South Australia. She attended the University of Adelaide, where she received a B.Arts (Hons) in Creative Writing, and spent many years as a youth librarian fostering a love of stories. Recently she has participated as both a mentee and mentor in Author Mentor Match. She thinks Sarah should have stayed in the Labyrinth with the Goblin King, and the Beast should never have turned back into a prince.

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