I’ve recently joined a quest of sorts. No swords, jungles, or dragons—just laptops and search engines.
And it started with an unfortunate truth: Men rule the world! Which is too bad. Because we all see where that’s gotten us. Putin, Kim Jong-un, Stalin, Hitler, Saddam, Pol, Vlad… I began to include U.S. politicians here but the list suddenly got way too long.
Not surprisingly, many people have said that men also rule our stories, the fiction we create and consume. But I’m not talking about how most stories feature male characters rather than female characters.
I’m talking about male-psyche driven story structure, the steps that stories usually follow as they develop. The sequence of events that has become so familiar that we equate it with a well-told story. We’ve lived with this model for so long that we automatically expect a story to hit certain beats as it builds to a satisfying—usually loud and often bloody—conclusion.
But what about female stories? A female story-structure model? Is that a thing?
A side note here: I’m asking about screenwriting structure, not female stories in novels and plays, which have received lots of attention via feminist criticism over the years.
But in screenwriting, while some people have explored this idea, there is no widely embraced female story model and the subject isn’t often discussed. Or taught. Why not?
I don’t know. But I want to know—shouldn’t all screenwriters?—so I’m sharing with you some of…
WHAT I’VE LEARNED SO FAR
To start, when we say “male story structure,” what do we mean? You probably know the basic model though it travels under many different names: three-act structure, five-act, beginning-middle-end, 22 steps, 8 mini-movies, linear structure, the Hollywood formula…
And of course there are variations: mythic structure, nonlinear stories, ensemble, episodic, serialized stories that are still linear…
And there are variations of the variations: genres and mixed genres that emphasize specific aspects of the basic model.
But whatever a story’s length, however many story arcs or character arcs it might contain, the flow is still almost always this: a character encounters something and changes course; other characters compete, confront, and complicate; battles are fought, dramatic stakes grow, characters develop, or don’t; big showdown, the good person wins, the end, Amen!
OK, but that’s just a sequence that introduces, builds, and resolves dramatic tension. So what? That alone doesn’t make it “male.” What makes most stories male, aside from usually featuring male characters, is their dependence on characters thinking and acting in goal-driven, often aggressive, competitive, confrontational ways. Fighting to achieve victory, power, justice, or win a prize. Fighting to accomplish something or beat someone. Most broad-appeal stories feature direct engagement, conflict, conquest—there’s a lot of testosterone on the screen.
And it’s a very successful formula. It develops in a dynamic and exciting way, it reflects how humans struggle for survival on a primal level, and the form clearly resonates with the people who’ve long controlled entertainment media, men.
OK, but not all great stories feature men. What about Hidden Figures, Wonder Woman, Legally Blonde, Ripley in Alien, Anna in Frozen, Thelma, Katniss, Issa, and Mrs. Maisel? It’s a long list. But do these “female stories” employ a different structure model? If so, what is that model?
LEADING THE QUEST
Perhaps the best known of the people asking that question is Dr. Maureen Murdock, a psychotherapist who published the book The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness in 1990. She created a template for female stories after studying Joseph Campbell’s famous model for mythic story structure.
You’re probably familiar with Campbell’s model. Known as the “hero’s journey” or “monomyth,” it presents a foundational story that’s been repeated countless times throughout the world, throughout the ages—and it completely ignores women.
Correction. Women are included in Campbell’s model but they are reduced to the role of muse or temptress, or a mystery that the man must solve, or they’re the prize or just a secondary prize that the man wins and takes home to mom. The model is entirely male-centric; a man ventures forth, a man does battle, a man wins the prize and returns home. When Dr. Murdock, one of Campbell’s students, asked him why women can’t be protagonists in mythic stories, he famously stated, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”
Whoa. Dr. Murdock was not pleased. And like any good protagonist, she did something about that. She created a new story paradigm, one that features the psycho-spiritual journey a modern woman might experience, and named it the “Heroine’s Journey.” Murdock’s model follows a circular path as Campbell’s does but is driven more by self-discovery than external goals. In her 10-step model, key distinctions include:
· As the Heroine begins her quest for whatever her goal is in the story, society’s biases against women force her to repress certain feminine values and traits (e.g., intuition, creativity, nurturing, emotional expressiveness) and start playing by men’s rules. She “identifies with the masculine,” gains leverage by embracing certain male traits, and forges ahead on her quest.
· Later, the Heroine meets with success along her “road of trials” and gains confidence, but she struggles against assumptions that females are somehow inferior or less capable. Despite her outward success on her journey, she comes to feel hollow and grieves her “Separation from the feminine.” Looking inward, she discovers a need to reconnect with the feminine traits she had repressed in order to pursue her quest.
· Ultimately, the Heroine reclaims those feminine traits and integrates them with the positive masculine traits she had adopted (e.g., be tough, be bold, be tenacious) that had empowered her to succeed on her external quest. And as in any good quest, the Heroine’s journey is profoundly transformative; it is only when she embraces a balanced blend of female and male traits that she is finally able to achieve true fulfillment and complete her journey.
Dr. Murdock deserves much credit for bringing female story structure into the limelight but her model has not gained wide acceptance as a blueprint for female stories. This is partly because the Heroine’s Journey draws heavily from mythic structure while most modern female stories do not follow that (quest-to-a-strange-world) path. And then there are the phases of Murdock’s model that suggest that only men are born with the traits needed to accomplish difficult or dangerous tasks—that’s just wrong, as is especially clear today. (And Murdock herself is proof of that.)
But her premise that great female stories can be about a woman discovering her strengths, her worth, escaping oppression, finding her voice, living her truth—that stuff is real and fresh, and it resonates. And that launched a whole new conversation.
SEARCHING FOR THAT MODEL
A number of writers and critics have commented on Dr. Murdock’s work and added to it, some even proposing their own versions of a female story model. Notable examples include…
In 2010, writer Kim Hudson published a book inspired by Campbell’s work and presenting her version of a female story model, titled The Virgin's Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening. The 13 stages in Hudson’s model do an excellent job of suggesting psychological factors that might drive a female- or even a male-centric story. While the model hasn’t caught on as a new approach for female stories, partly because it too resonates strongly with mythic structure, her paradigm does propose a fresh focus on how a protagonist might drive towards a “creative, sexual or spiritual awakening” rather than pursue yet another dangerous quest for some grand prize.
In 2021, a folklore scholar named Maria Tatar published a book, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, that explores female character archetypes and evolving gender roles in fiction. She is a fan of Joseph Campbell’s work who freely declares that she is not trying to suggest a new structure model. Instead, her book looks at how female characters have artfully and sometimes heroically circumvented male oppression as they accomplish deeds by leaning into their “curiosity, compassion, and concern.”
Of course, not everyone agrees that there is room or even a need for a separate female story model. Some pretty smart people have made pretty convincing arguments against the idea, pointing at content like Hidden Figures, Wonder Woman, and Frozen as examples of how one structure fits all when it comes to a protagonist’s gender.
And maybe they’re right. Maybe the familiar narrative flow that we associate with three-act structure—a goal-focused beginning, middle, and end—is necessary to almost all broad-appeal stories. Because as Aristotle liked to say, “a good story imitates life.” In life and in stories, something happens, people act and react, and the situation is resolved one way or the other.
Perhaps that’s enough and all that’s needed is a contemporary update, an alt version of modern linear structure that replaces male-centric elements with gender-neutral elements.
Then there’s this new kind of story that’s been popping up in recent years, driving shows like the sitcom Hacks, the film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and several of today’s teens-seeking-answers series. Compelling stories in which a female protagonist has accepted society’s oppressive view of her and is pursuing a goal in a man’s world, all very familiar. But then something happens and events cause her to pause. She reconsiders her life, her flaws, her mistakes and values, and deliberately changes course. She turns away from the familiar male story path or at least makes that a lower priority, and looks inward to find her truth and act on it, and live it, and speak it.
Do those stories reflect an evolving new story model? Or just Traditional Structure 2.0?
And just to hurt your head, we’ve been discussing female stories here—what story model might best serve characters, writers, and viewers who have embraced some other gender identity?
I don’t know. Nobody knows, yet. And that’s partly because story models, with all their conventions and steps, surface only after a new story form has already taken shape and found an audience. Aristotle’s model reflected the plays of his day, Campbell’s was based on myths across the globe, today’s Hollywood gurus take their cues from what they’ve seen on a screen.
It feels like something’s happening here, maybe something big, but we’ll have to see where the next waves of female stories take us to find those answers.