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The presence of epiphany in the character arc

The presence of epiphany in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
The presence of epiphany in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The presence of epiphany in the character arc tells us that the protagonist has achieved a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness. This allows him to prevail against the antagonist.

I want to say a little more about the moment that finally proves that the hero has arrived at his zenith.

Let’s start by restating that the protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, he receives a challenge which he is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that he first make a decision of how to proceed.

So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.

“The realisation of a buried wound or hidden flaw allows the protagonist to face the outer challenge with increased honesty and clarity. Newfound power is initiated through the presence of epiphany.”

But because the protagonist lacks the emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, he fails to make the right decisions, until his suffering, resulting from his string of defeats, causes him to learn from his mistakes.

The quality of the protagonist’s decisions, therefore, directly impacts the quality of his actions. He can only achieve victory when he has fully achieved maturity—usually by the end of the story. This maturity is indicated through the moment of epiphany—the recognition of some deeply buried truth that has kept him down all this while.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, breaks his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to move forward with what remains of his life.

Exercise: Study the climax in something you’ve written. Is your protagonist’s victory or defeat predicated on his recognition (or lack of it) of a buried wound that has hamstrung him all along? If not, try weaving it into your story from the get-go.

Summary

The presence of epiphany marks the last stage of the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery.

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How turning the story engages the audience

The Matrix is a master class on turning the narrative to achieve intrigue, surprise and engagement.
The Matrix is a masterclass on turning the narrative to achieve intrigue, surprise and engagement.

Turning points in stories are events that twist the narrative in unexpected ways.

There are two types—major turning points that occur towards the end of the first and second acts, and a medley of minor ones that twist dramatic beats to create a zig-zagging effect within an act.

Here is a list of the sort of twists and turns that can occur in the narrative. Determining what sort they are depends on how strongly they turn the plot:

1. An unexpected problem arises which causes the hero to approach his goal from a different direction.
2. An important resource is lost.
3. A sidekick or friend swaps sides.
4. A lie is revealed.
5. A past mistake resurfaces to complicate matters.
6. The trust in a friend is lost.
7. An alternative plan emerges to rival the existing one.
8. The hero loses faith in his ability to achieve the goal.

“Turning the story through the use of surprise keeps the tale unpredictable and the audience engaged.”

Again, the beat type is determined by where it occurs in the narrative and how strong it is—how severely it causes a change in the original plan (such as an unexpected problem derailing the hero’s path to the goal). Story-altering beats are known as turning points.

In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s realisation that his life has been nothing more than a simulation, is a major turning point that spins the story into the second act. 

A twist such as the hero losing faith in his ability to achieve his goal, however, represents a temporary pause in his journey. It does not reach the level of a turning point, but is a good candidate for a mid-point, where, typically, the hero questions his strength and ability to pursue the goal.

Other twists, such as a lie being revealed, or a sidekick changing sides, represent an ajustement to the path, but do not necessarily constitute a derailment. 

Exercise: In a story you have written—is the event at the end of the first or second act strong enough to cause the next act? Do the smaller dramatic beats within your acts contain elements of surprise?

Summary

Turning the flow of your narrative helps to keep your readers and audiences engaged in your story.

The power of evocative language

Stranger things achieves much of its power through plot and character conveyed by evocative writing.
Stranger Things achieves much of its power of plot and character through evocative language.

Evocative language. What is it?
Simply put, evocative language builds expectation, tension, and establishes mood. It sucks the reader into the story through the very vividness of its prose and dialogue.



The pilot episode of Stranger Things opens with:

EXT. MONTAUK SKY – NIGHT

We FADE UP on the night sky. Dark clouds swallow the stars.
We hear a LOW-END RUMBLE. It sounds almost like thunder, only it is somehow more alive. Like the growl of an unseen beast. We TILT DOWN to find…

In the scene above the descriptive language adds to the mood and setting. Words such ‘rumble’, thunder’ and growl’ lend a sense of menace, as does the simile of the ‘unseen beast.’ This is a powerful start to the episode—one that hooks us into the story from the get-go, primarily through the power of the language.

“Evocative language helps to hook the reader into the story from the get-go.”

In The Nostalgia of time Travel, a strange, almost occult mood is established through choice words:

“Incandescent symbols spiral along the moist eye of the cyclone. I jot them down as quickly as I can, but it is difficult to keep up. Look directly at them and they vanish. I catch them out of the corner of my eye. Like the half-glimpsed phantoms haunting my childhood, they are shapes that the mind has more to do in the making than the eye in perceiving…

… And suddenly I see them, grey, cloud-sized ghosts shimmering behind the symbols. They slide along the inside of the funnel like images on the curved screen of some experimental movie theater whose aspect ratio is not quite right.”

Here, the language is both concrete and ethereal. The eye of the cyclone is ‘moist’. The ‘symbols’ are like ‘half-glimpsed phantoms’—‘cloud-sized ghosts shimmering’ as they slide along the inside funnel of the storm. The simile of ‘ghosts’ appearing on the screen like ‘some experimental movie theater whose aspect ratio is not quite right’ is unexpected and creates a sense of the old and new worlds colliding. Lastly, the cyclone is as much a symbol of the inner turmoil of the protagonist as it is a dangerous, physical event. As readers we sense this through the subtext and it raises our involvement and expectation.

Evocative language, then, is versatile. It creates deeper levels of meaning and emotion. It helps the writer set the mood, build expectation and sustain the plot and action.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own writing that describes a place, character or time. Find the verbs and nouns that describe it. Is the language as tactile and sense-driven as it can be? If not, amp up the vividness of the language.

Summary

Use evocative language to create the appropriate mood for your scenes.

Character actions and the character arc

Perfectly Calibrated character actions in Edge of Tomorrow.
Perfectly calibrated character actions in Edge of Tomorrow.

I have often talked about the need to align your hero’s actions against the character arc if a story is to be believable. I emphasised that the quality of a character’s actions depends on that character’s state of moral, spiritual, and psychological development. The hero can not defeat the antagonist until he has achieved maturity, often through pain and suffering.

But where and how does the writer incorporate this alignment?

The short answer is that the alignment should be checked at the pivotal points in the story – the introduction to the ordinary world, the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the climax, and the resolution. 

Indeed, the introduction to the ordinary world and the resolution present the sharpest points of contrast in the hero’s growth, being at the polar ends of his character arc. They help to set the scale for calibrating his growth.

It is now easier to align actions and events on a scale of lesser or greater effectiveness. The second turning point, for example, contains some growth in wisdom, certainly more than at the first turning point, but less so than at the climax, which delivers the maximum growth – if the hero is to defeat the antagonist.

“Character actions feel authentic when they arise as a result of the state of moral and technical knowledge at specific points along the character’s arc.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage, struggles to defeat an alien enemy that can see into the future. Cage is killed, but his reality is reset, affording him an opportunity to try again. But to no avail. He keeps getting things wrong. He keeps dying. It is only when he lets go of his fear of losing the woman he loves and decides to sacrifice himself, that he is able to blindside the enemy. That moment is the climax of the story and represents Cage’s full maturation. His actions have been perfectly aligned to his character arc.

In my own novel, The Level, the protagonist perceives the truth about his inability to escape his environment only when he embraces his identity and uses it to defeat the antagonist. His previous actions have been ineffective largely because of his lack of self-awareness.

In both cases actions that lead to progress only occur when the deeper truth about a character’s inner life is exposed and understood.

Summary

Calibrate character actions along the pivotal points in your story to keep them in sync.

Two Lives – the hero’s twin struggles

To]wo lives in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a novel by Stavros Halvatzis
in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has to unearth the secrets in his past, settle the suppressed conflict in his two lives, in order to survive the raging storm which has engulfed his small town of Mission Beach, Queensland.

One of the most common errors in writing is the failure to motivate the hero’s actions, the failure to sync up his two lives.

All too often the hero acts too wisely or performs too competently during the story, especially at the start. His actions do not reflect his current state of knowledge, skill, and moral awareness. Typically, this is because his inner and outer lives are out of step with each other. This is a most common ailment that presents as a glaring lack of motivation in a character.

Let me explain: If, as is the case in a typical tale, the purpose of the story is to showcase the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge through a series of hard knocks, it stands to reason that the quality of his actions must be lower at the beginning of the story than at the end. A hero can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the antagonist, taking the high moral ground, too early. He has simply not earned that right yet.

“The quality of a character’s actions is related to the quality of his moral awareness—these two lives are causally linked.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t break free of the guilt that has paralysed him for decades until he recognises the truth about his past through a series of suppressed recollections about his childhood. His freedom must be earned, not dropped into his lap by the writer. Facing up to the reasons for his actions is what the story is about.

And so it is with most stories.

One way to add to realism to your hero’s actions, then, is to link his outer growth to his inner growth—to sync up his moral knowledge to his acquisition of physical skills and resources. This will go a long way in making your story feel more authentic.

Exercise: Examine one of your stories. Record your hero’s moral strength as well as his physical skills, as measured against the story goal. Go to each pivotal moment in the story—turning point, mid point, etc. How do these twin journeys relate to each narrative twist? How does a defeat in the world affect your hero’s moral growth? Does it lead to a change in perspective that better prepares him to cope with the next challenge? If not, be sure to show the consequences of his failure. Do this for every major action your hero undertakes. Your story will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Coordinate your hero’s two lives in order to help authenticate his actions.

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Anti-heroes – essential characteristics

Walter White as one of the quintessential anti-heroes in Breaking Bad
Walter White’s Breaking Bad is one of the most quintessential anti-heroes in recent times.

WITH the erosion of morality as an absolute set of values centred around faith in a deity, there has arisen an ethical relativism which has contributed to a crop of protagonists who are best described as anti-heroes. But just what is an anti-hero? 

In a chapter titled, CREATING AN ANTI-HERO, taken from the Reader’s Digest book, Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction, Jessica Page Morrell defines this character type as someone with specific reasons that explain his behaviour.

Hence, anti-heroes are not simply rebels or ‘bad asses’ for the heck of it. Their actions and beliefs spring from a personal, clearly reticulated philosophy.

“Anti-heroes are protagonists whose values do not align with traditional morality but rather spring from their own individual philosophy.”

Morrell offers the following role-defining characteristics of anti-heroes:


  • Anti-heroes are not role models, although we secretly would like to kick ass like they do.
  • They can be selfish and essentially bad people who occasionally are good. 
  • They are sometimes unglamorous and unattractive in character as well as in appearance.
  • They can be motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, but there is usually a line anti-heroes won’t cross, which sets them apart from villains. 
  • They often have motives that are complicated and range from revenge to honor. 
  • If they are forced to choose between right and wrong, will sometimes choose wrong because it’s easier. 
  • They can play both sides with good guys and bad guys, profiting from both. 
  • They can sometimes be coerced to help underdogs, children, or weaker characters, and they sometimes do so voluntarily. 
  • They can embody unattractive traits and behaviors, such as sexist and racist attitudes, and violent reactions when wronged. 
  • They can show little or no remorse for bad behaviors. 
  • They are a mess of contradictions.




These characteristics, then, distinguish anti-heroes from classical heroes since the latter tend to act out of a sense of honour, nobility, altruism, or a belief in God. 

What is lost by having characters act outside conventional morality is the behavioural clarity based on centuries of human development within the context of a religious and cultural vision. 

What is gained is a more original, if ambivalent, nexus of character action that perhaps more vividly represents modern society, for good or ill.

Summary

Anti-heroes are not necessarily evil. They are characters who act according to a philosophy that is often at odds with received morality.

Plot and character – how to integrate them

Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character
Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character

How are plot and character related?


In the previous three articles I laid out the following steps for writing a new story:

  1. Define the premise.
  2. Boost the premise.
  3. Grow the premise into a summary.

In today’s article I complete the process by showing how to integrate the hero and his nemesis with the plot. This is the last stage of story preparation.

Plot and character

To engage us, a hero needs to be in jeopardy; he needs to be active but vulnerable. He must also be sympathetic, yet flawed or wounded, and he needs to harbour a secret. In my story I have a protagonist who feels guilt for having led his followers to the dangerous world of the surface.

Additionally, my hero is hiding a secret of an imminent danger to himself and his followers at the hands of cannibals. This knowledge generates great conflict in him, inviting us to participate in his mental and emotional state. 

But a hero should not be a wilting daisy either—weak, indecisive, or incompetent. That is the domain of the anti-hero. To this end I intend for my hero to stay one step ahead of the enemy in order to increase our admiration of his strategic abilities—he is dynamic.

Lastly, his decision to offer up his infected body to the cannibals for them to feast on, when he is finally cornered, is a clever but devastating move. Importantly, the story’s plot emerges from the hero’s psychology—his flaws and values, his character arc. 

“Writers need fully to understand the essential aspects that motivate the hero and his nemesis. In the light of this understanding, the actions of their characters will yield a plot that is fully integrated.”

His nemesis, too, is driven by his wounds and weaknesses, but also by his pride. As the physically and emotionally scarred leader of a tribe of cannibals ranging over an apocalyptic land, he has long yearned to be more like the blue-eyed heroes of myth—more like the young man he is hunting. He believes that if he were to defeat this interloper, humiliate him in front of the tribe and his own followers, he would usurp his power and elevate himself to the status of legend. This ambition makes him susceptible to the trap our hero lays for him. 

Both our hero and his nemesis, then, act in a way that is in keeping with their psychology—through actions that reflect their scars, ambitions, hopes and fears.

This sort of dual-character-sketch approach, brief as it is, cuts to the core of what makes each character tick. It grants us an understanding of who these people are and why they act the way they do. It offers a method for integrating character with plot— the last stage of story preparation rendered in this series of articles.

Summary

Integrate plot and character by having the action spring from the scars, ambitions, hopes and fears of the hero and his nemesis.

Story beats – how to write them

A typewriter as an illustration of story beats.
Great stories are made up of powerful story beats that perform act-specific functions.

What are story beats, and how does one write them?

Last week I showed how to turn a story premise into a summary by adding a life-altering event to the hero’s path, and factoring in the ending of the story.

This filled out the story somewhat, but it was still missing important narrative beats. In order to make the acquisition of these beats a little easier let us now pose an overarching story question as well as three act-specific ones. Note that the overall story question overlaps with that of the last act’s.

The overall story question is: Does the hero succeed in defeating a tribe of cannibals to lead his followers to a place of safety?

This question helps to keep our sights trained on the through-line of the story—what has to be answered at the end of the tale.

Following on from that, we can use our summary to generate appropriate incidents within each act. Remembering that each act is governed by a question aimed at providing a narrative outcome, we have: 

Act One: Is the land above as idyllic as it first appears to be? 

How about: 

After a short euphoric encounter with the land above in which our hero notices a large eagle watching them from the sky, the landscape turns gloomy: The sun dims under thick plumes of smoke wafting over from the distance, the bones of dead creatures proliferate on the ground, the hero’s grandfather becomes ill and has to be carried on a make-shift stretcher, and acid rain begins to waft down. 

A day or so later a tribe of disfigured wretches approaches the group. A terrible storm is brewing and the tribe offers to lead the youngsters to safety. The leader seems in awe of our hero, rambling on about the legend of a blue-eyed king who will emerge from below the ground to lead the world to salvation. Speaking in a broken dialect, he promises to return the next day for our hero’s decision. 

That night our hero falls into a stupor where he dreams that the tribe is really a band of cannibals responsible of much of the hellish state of the terrain. Convinced that his vision is prophetic he awakens the others and persuades them to leave their campsite before the tribe returns. 

“Story beats are best generated by asking questions related to the state of the hero’s plight within the context of each act.”

Act Two: How does the hero manage to stay ahead of the cannibals against the odds?

Perhaps our hero forms an occult bond with the giant eagle that has taken an interest in the band of youngsters? Perhaps he can see through the eagle’s eyes, giving him an edge as he and his followers flee across the dangerous terrain?

But then the cannibal leader shoots down the eagle with a poison arrow at the story’s mid-point and everything changes.

Our hero now realises he can no longer keep the group safe from the murderous tribe. He has to change strategy: He willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if they agree to let his followers live. The leader, who is obsessed with the idea of stealing the hero’s power by having him accept a humiliating defeat, agrees. 

Act Three:  What goes wrong with the bargain and how does the hero finally outsmart and defeat the cannibal leader and his tribe?

Perhaps our hero has foreseen his own death in another dream and knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others. However, he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stock, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe is wiped out after the feast, allowing his followers to escape. 

This final act answers the overall story question too—the hero does indeed defeat the enemy, but at the cost of his own life.

Although these beats are far from complete—I still need to tie in the hero’s weakness/flaw/secret (his character arc) into the antagonist’s motivation and plot twists in a more detailed way—they do grant me confidence about the potential of the story.

Summary
Story questions resolve into narrative events within the context of each act.

Story Summary from Story Premise

Gladiator provides a fitting example of story summary discussed in this article.
Gladiator draws on a classical story structure that involves a sacrifice.

How do you extract your story summary from your story premise?

In last week’s article I discussed ways to improve your story premise by sifting it through several story-boosting filters.

In order to hold an entire tale in the palm of your hand, however, you need to add a couple more elements to it—the ending, and a big story event that turns the fortunes of the hero, for good or ill.

Know your ending

The ending is the bullseye of the story. It gives direction to the narrative events that comprise the tale and defines the theme.

Back to our concrete example. The premise for the story is: 

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh.

This says quite a lot already about the tale, but it doesn’t give me the ending. What kind of ending do I want? Well, in an up ending, the hero would triumph over his nemesis, ensuring survival for himself and his followers. 

This is uplifting, but predictable. 

down ending, on the other hand, sees the hero winning the day, but having to sacrifice his life to do it. Much like in Gladiator. I like that ending more.

Know the hero’s life-altering insight

So, how would the hero defeat his nemesis? Remembering that the antagonist is a cannibal, it might be fitting that he offer up his body in exchange for the lives of his followers. 

Gruesome, but powerful. 

Let’s say the nemesis, who wants to humiliate the hero by having him willingly kneel before him in front of his own followers, accepts his offer.

“To expand a story premise into a story summary add an appropriate ending preceded by an event which unveils a big secret that turns the hero’s fortunes.”

Of course, our hero is altruistic, not stupid. Stupid heroes don’t make for good reading. He knows the villain will not keep his word, but in a variation of the Trojan Horse ploy, he secretly swallows poison before offering himself up for the feast, ensuring that the enemy won’t survive the night.

With this ending in mind I can turn the premise into a mini-summary, providing a blueprint for the entire story:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh. A series of escalating close-shaves forces our hero to negotiate a deal, whereby he willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if the cannibal leader agrees to let his followers live. The cannibal, who is obsessed with the idea of his enemy accepting a humiliating defeat, agrees. The hero, who has foreseen his own death in a prophetic dream, knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others—but he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stores, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe will be wiped out after the feast, allowing his own followers to escape.

Sure, it’s a dark, painful move to kill off the protagonist, reminiscent of ancient Greek theatre, but I like it. It has gravitas. It appropriates the enemies’ practice of cannibalism and uses it to defeat them. Additionally, it points to a synergy between narrative elements, such as the use of the secret, that draws on Aristotle’s idea of unity in dramatic structure. Finally, it provides the theme of the story: Sacrifice of the one ensures the survival of the many.

Summary

Expand your story premise into a story summary by adding an ending preceded by a fitting and powerful event that turns the hero’s fortunes.

Effective characters – how to write them

Effective characters in House of Sand and Fog
Effective characters in House of Sand and Fog

In his book, The Art of Character, David Corbett offers several suggestions for constructing effective characters: Characters must demonstrate a powerful desire, hide a secret, suffer a wound, and display a contradiction. What is equally important, however, is how these elements interact to produce authentic and individual behaviour. 

In this article we’ll examine the relationship between a character’s desire, secret and wound—three crucially important elements for authentic behaviour. I would argue that David Corbett’s fourth element—a character’s clashing traits, such as a murderer with a soft spot for stray animals, although useful, can be subsumed within the character’s secret or wound. It is, therefore, not discussed at length. 

In House of Sand and Fog, Kathy Nicolo is defined by a desperate desire to keep the house she has inherited from her father, not only because it provides security, but because its loss will expose the secrets she has been hiding all along—that her husband has left her and that she is suffering from depression which renders her incapable of living a normal life.

”Effective characters fight for external goals while simultaneously struggling against their inner demons. Characters must confront these demons before they can exorcise them.”

Kathy’s desire, her secret and her wound, then, are causally connected—a row of dominoes about to fall. Kathy’s desire to keep the house stems from her wound, while her secretive behaviour stems from her need to keep the truth hidden.

Here is an extract from David Corbett’ s book that highlights the power of wounds and secrets, and how they motivate character behaviour: 

Midnight Cowboy exemplifies a psychoanalytic view of man’s condition: We are wounded psychically, often early in childhood, and live with continuous anxiety over abandonment, rejection, or abuse. To protect ourselves from further wounding, we develop a shell, a false persona, a defence or adaptation—we drink, do drugs, become perfectionists, work ourselves to death, pursue only meaningless affairs, get stuck in unfulfilling marriages, shy away from the risks necessary for true success, adhere to Pollyannaish optimism, hide away in cynical isolation.”

“An effective character is created by a writer who understands the relationship that exists between a character’s desire, secret and wound, and uses it to drive authentic behaviour.”

In the Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist, seems more than a little eccentric. He goes to the same beach cafe every day, eats the same waffles, drinks the same coffee, and works on the same equations representing an intractable mathematical problem. His behaviour seems totally unreasonable, given that he has done this for thirty years. It is only when we dig deeper into his secrets that we begin to understand his motivation.

We could sum up a character’s behaviour, then, as desire + secret + wound = authentic action.

EXERCISE: Before writing a new story identify the central desire of your protagonist. Next, motivate his need by tracing it back to a wound that occurred in his past. Foreshadow, but do not reveal, the secret motivation for his behaviour by dropping hints along the way. Find the right moment to reveal all.

Summary 

Create authentic behaviour for effective characters in your stories by causally linking their desires, secrets and wounds.