Thursday, September 6, 2012

Back to Writing Basics: Change

I was reading a lot of book blurbs yesterday, and I got irritated with a pattern I kept seeing in the book descriptions:

I'm not blaming writers for the back-of-the-book blurbs. The author rarely gets a say in cover art, blurbs, or promotion. My irritation stems from the fact that the essence of a story is so little-known that this blurb works. (If it didn't work, after all, they wouldn't use it.)

The essence of a story is change. The protagonist does have plot happen to him or her, but the whole point of that plot is that it gives that character a new perspective, a new outlook, a new approach. The change isn't always positive, and how obvious or subtle it is can vary significantly. But, it's there. What makes a story a story is that the character changes (or that several of them do).

In Star Wars, Luke goes from a whiny farm kid who wants to see what else is out there to the guy tapping into his newfound abilities to blow up the Death Star. In Harry Potter, just in book one, Harry goes from an orphan neglected by his aunt and uncle to a hero with two close friends and magic within his grasp. I picked those two because they're the ones you're most likely to already be familiar with, but I could've picked any story at random.

The alteration in your character isn't just of that character's situation or resources or physical location, either. The story should, more importantly, reflect a psychological change. I watched Nim's Island last night, which is a cute kids' movie about a girl living on her own personal paradise in the middle of the South Pacific, and the writer she imagines to be far braver (and less female) than she is. The writer, Alexandra Rover, has to battle her agoraphobia to help Nim, which means facing her fear of the big, scary world outside her apartment. She starts out too frightened to get her mail or go to the store for her precious hand sanitizer but winds up halfway across the world. We watch her taking braver and bolder risks as each frightening thing fails to kill her, until she finally has to live up to the high opinion Nim has of her.

Kids' stories, by the way, tend to discard subtlety for a more straightforward approach, which is why they're excellent for illustrating points about storytelling.

There is another important factor to change within a story. It needs to be introduced organically. In other words, the change needs to be logical, gradual, and within your characters' personalities. If you want a character who's a cultish Christian to embrace atheism, you can't convince him by having him talk to one person about how his religion doesn't have all the answers. If you want your character who was viciously attacked by a dog when she was a child to adopt a mistreated pit bull, you'll need more to happen than just making her walk into a shelter for no good reason. In Nim's Island, the greatest part of Alex's struggle was getting out her front door, but just that step didn't give her the bravery she needed. The rest came gradually. In all stories, you need to lay the groundwork for that change before it can happen.

A story with a consistent and believable plot is all well and good, but, if nothing changes for your protagonist, it's not a story. Be aware of that change, accentuate and highlight it throughout your story, and you'll find you have a much stronger narrative.

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