Tired of things blowing up? Of cars racing through the Paris streets, and skidding onto sidewalks and knocking down flower carts? Having a hard time staying awake through a bunch of clearly fake CGI monkeys for the brief moments when Alexander Skarsgard might take off his shirt and put on a Tarzan loin cloth?
I’m not saying that films and books driven by female protagonists don’t have these kinds of moments, filled with running and action, and the occasional explosion. But what about quieter narratives starring female main characters, stories where the violence is institutional, or societal, or based on the character’s own fear?
Last month, I had the pleasure of participating in BinderConLA, a writing conference for women and gender variant writers. I did a workshop on “The Heroine’s Journey.” Because I was surrounded by women (loved it!) I started thinking about the structure of a movie I saw this past awards season.
What I’m about to reveal applies to all different forms of female driven storytelling– film, fiction, non-fiction and memoir.
I’m breaking down the plot of HIDDEN FIGURES. A script co-written by a woman, based on a book by a woman, about women. The only explosions here are inside the characters, forcing them to change, and alter the world around them.
This film has three strong characters, Katherine, the protagonist, a math whiz, Mary, who wants to be an engineer, and Dorothy, a computer genius. Together they all work at NASA in the early days of space travel.
For the purposes of this blog post, I’m just going to focus on Katherine’s journey.
Her emotional need is to belong.The specific goal she pursues in the story to satisfy this need is to become a valued member of the highest ranking NASA team, despite the fact she’s the only woman and “colored” person in the room.
Let’s use The “Heroine’s Journey” Structural Model to break down the beats of this film…
We see Katherine as a little girl. She’s a genius and her parents sacrifice to send her to a great school. She’s smarter than most of the adults, and ends up working at NASA as a “computer” (in a pool of “colored” women who do calculations.)
CALL TO ADVENTURE
Al Harrison needs someone in his unit who can do analytic geometry. Katherine is assigned. She’s nervous. They’ve never had a “colored” person or woman in there (except for the secretaries) and some of the men think she’s the janitor. She’s introduced to her direct supervisor, Paul Stafford, who doesn’t like her. He doesn’t think anyone needs to check his math.
MEETING THE MENTOR
She meets Harrison, played by Kevin Costner. He runs the whole unit. He gives her a task, says the Mercury 7 astronauts will be here in 7 days. Their lives are at stake. She needs to do a perfect job of checking everyone’s calculations. Stafford redacts a lot of info she needs, in order to stymie her. The “colored” bathroom is a million miles away.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
She finishes her calculations and Harrison tells her to throw it all away. It’s obsolete. He tells her they have to look beyond the numbers. To math that doesn’t yet exist. He says he’s already on the moon. Is she? She looks at him with wonder, says “Yes.”
TESTS ALLIES & ENEMIES
She’s dropped off at home. We find out her husband is dead and she’s supporting her mom and daughters. She tells her babies she’s going to help brave men go into space.
She meets a handsome man, Johnson, at a church picnic. He insinuates women can’t do the job she does. She stands up for herself.
The Mercury 7 crew arrives. John Glenn greets Katherine. For the first time, she really feels like she’s part of the team.
Stafford gives her another task, but the pages he hands her are almost completely illegible, much of it redacted. Still, she figures it out, walks to a giant chalkboard and starts doing the math. She has to pee and runs to the far away bathroom.
While she’s gone, they look at the board. She’s solved the problem. Harrison questions her. How did she figure this out? It contains classified information. She held the paper up to the light to read the redacted sections. Harrison recognizes that she’s smart and looked beyond the math.
She gets the job of working on the astronaut’s trajectory. Stafford says it’s a bad idea.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE
The soviets announce they’ve put the first man in space. Harrison is pissed off. This is a crushing blow to NASA. He challenges all of them to work 24 hours a day.
Rocket tests go badly. They explode. Katherine does her work, is exhausted. She brings her work even to the far away bathroom. Harrison notices she’s missing. Is angry. Where is she? She gets back. He confronts her. She confronts him, ” There’s no bathroom here for me!” She says he doesn’t pay her enough, and she has to drink from a coffee pot no one wants to touch (it’s marked “colored.”) She leaves. Harrison goes to the far away bathroom and knocks down the sign. He says, “No more colored or white restrooms.”
She falls in love with Johnson, and tries to get her name on a report that she wrote. Stafford tells her no. She wants to get a jump on John Glenn’s trajectory and bypasses him, goes directly to Harrison. He says go for it. The Liberty Bell capsule fails. They don’t have the math to slow it down at precisely the right moment to bring him back.
Katherine does new calculations. They are wrong because she isn’t privy to the latest information in the daily meetings. She puts her name on the report, and again Stafford takes it off. Katherine stands up to Harrison. She has to be in on the meetings to do the right numbers. He says, “Fine.” Brings her in. She’s the only woman. They all stare at her. When a question comes up, she’s the only one who knows the answer. Harrison hands her the chalk.
Katherine works hard. She leads a discussion about Glenn’s trajectory. Harrison says maybe it’s old math, not new math that they should be using. Katherine starts to use an ancient method that works numerically, not theoretically.
She redoes the problem and finds the answer!
Johnson proposes marriage to her. She says yes.
They’ve gotten a new IBM computer to do calculations faster. Harrison calls Katherine in. He says they don’t need her anymore in his department. Progress is a double edged sword. He tells her to report back to the “computer” pool. He says he’s sorry.
The secretary gives her a pearl necklace. “You did good work here.” She picks up her box and leaves.
She gets married.
It looks like her time in the sun is over.
REWARD/SEIZING THE SWORD
Katherine and her colleagues in the computer pool watch John Glenn’s launch. Harrison freaks out, says the landing coordinates are off. Stafford confirms that their new IBM computer has messed up. Harrison shouts that he needs “the girl” to check the numbers!
THE ROAD BACK
Someone races to get to the computer pool. They need Katherine to verify the coordinates. Now! She works on the calculation. As she does the numbers, John Glenn boards the capsule.
Katherine computes. Everyone watches her. She finishes.
She races back to Master Control with the numbers, gives the numbers to them. She did it!
After she delivers the numbers, the door shuts on her face. She turns to leave, but Harrison comes out. Brings her inside, gives her a pass.
Harrison confirms the go/no go calculation. Glenn listens to see if the coordinates match. Katherine managed to calculate further digits than the computer.
The rocket launches. Glenn says, ‘The view is tremendous.”
During the mission, the heat shield warning goes off, it may have come loose. Everyone is panicked. They need to get him down now. He could burn up on re-entry. Katherine says it will work if Glenn doesn’t jettison a specific pack. Glenn says ok. They talk him through. Lose communication. Fireball on the outside. Heat shield barely hanging on. It seems he’s lost.
Katherine is praying.
He’s ok, splashes down precisely on the coordinates. Harrison congratulates her, “Do you think we can get to the moon?” She says, “We’re already there.”
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
Katherine gets her name on a report, finally. We find out that she also did the calculations for Apollo 11, that NASA dedicated a building to her and she won the Presidential medal of freedom.
Of course, the B and C stories, around the other two women, are woven in. But see how Katherine’s journey from being stuck in the computer pool, to revolutionary scientist, is unspooled and fits into this story structure model?
TAKE ACTION! How can you use The “Heroine’s Journey” to create a strong story structure for your female character? How do you set up what she wants and doesn’t have? How does she pursue this goal, and find friends who help, and enemies who try to stop her? How does she triumph, lose it all, and get one more chance to achieve her objective? How does she finally change and grow?
If you want more information on using this structural model, I highly recommend Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
Hope this helps as you plot your female driven book or screenplay!
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