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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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The inner life of characters in stories

The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.
The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.

We’ve all heard that dialogue should not be direct – that it should hint at the inner life, the emotions, attitudes, grudges, and wounds beneath the surface layer of speech, rather than merely convey information. But how do we achieve this in our writing?


In a previous article I talked about ‘dactions’ – that’s my word for combining language with gestures and actions to enhance meaning. Here is an example taken from Deborah Harverson’s chapter in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue (Writer’s Digest Books):

“Aren’t you thoughtful?” She took the rose he’d handed her and walked to the sink where she kept her vase. Two other roses rested in it, one from the week before, wilting slightly. Both were peach, matching the tight bud in her hand. He loved to give her flowers but dismissed red roses as cliché. “I stopped by Sue’s apartment today,” she said, turning on the water, her back to him. “She had a rose on her kitchen table.” She reached forward, past the running water, past the vase, to the switch on the wall. Resting her finger on it, she turned and smiled sweetly at him. He’d stopped in the doorway, one glove off, the other dangling from his fingers. He wasn’t tugging on it anymore. “A peach rose in a tall vase,” she said, “right there next to her violin.” She poked the bud’s stem into the garbage disposal then flicked the button. The grinder roared as it sucked the flower down, flecks of peach petal flicking free, but he heard her clearly: “You told me you hate musicians.” 

The inner life is key

Halverson notes that this is a deeply wounded woman whose pain manifests through quiet statements, the last one ‘making you cringe from the intensity of its delivery.’

The rose becomes the nexus for all sorts of emotions—love, betrayal, hurt. It is transformed into a symbol of infidelity. Rather than her directly accusing the man of infidelity through yelling and dish-throwing, she shreds the rose to convey her pain and anger.

One would do well to remember this advice. Subtext, combined with small, telling actions reveals the inner life of a character, delivers more punch, without melodrama or direct violence. Anger passes; a calculated response suggests an unsettling resolve that may be far more damaging and permanent.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own work where two or more people are at loggerheads. Have one character respond in a way that suggests resolve rather than rage.

Summary

Combining gestures with a calm response to a situation can paradoxically generate stronger emotions that reveal the inner life of the characters.

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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.

The status of well rounded characters

A rich resource for writing well rounded characters.
A rich resource for writing well rounded characters.

I have written at some length about the importance of well rounded characters since they are foundational to storytelling. Today I want to focus on a word that points to an essential aspect of character dynamics—status

Thinking about well rounded characters and their interaction in terms of a social, cultural, economic and physical dynamic is helpful because it often resolves into a conflict predicated upon differences in status.

In this sense the status of a character, relative to others, directs his response to a threat or bounty.  It is a powerful generator of subtext—a boon to any story.

Status is in itself neither good nor bad, but it does mean that the character exhibiting it is the prime mover in a scene. The status-laden character’s desire for a specific goal drives the beats in a scene. It also means that this character has the most to lose if his status is diminished and will therefore fight to keep it.

“Well rounded characters exhibit behaviour that reflects their status.”

In his chapter, What No One Is Teaching You About Characterization (The Complete Book of Novel Writing: Readers Digest), Steven James provides a list of polarities that define the status of characters.

The list could be extended almost indefinitely, but you get the idea. The point is that power is communicated through a variety of physical and psychological signals expressed in carefully chosen words and actions. These signals can be exhibited by villains and heroes alike. Be sure to fully utilise them in your scenes as your characters vie for dominance or survival.

Exercise: Select several scenes you have written. Can you identify the status of each character? How does the power dynamic between them shape their interaction? How is this communicated to the reader?

Summary

Well rounded characters lie at the foundation of impactful writing. The status of each helps to determine the power dynamic between them.

Infuse texture, colour and music in your writing

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of texture, colour and music in writing.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of texture, colour and music in writing.

Thoughts on the texture, colour and music in writing.

The internet is replete with advice on story structure—on turning points, character arcs, symbolism, and the like. Certainly, those structures are essential to the craft of accomplished writing. But there is another aspect that is not as often discussed. This is at the layer of language—the choice of words, their texture, their sound and colour. 

The quality of language is what we encounter first; in a novel, it may first manifest in a single sentence or paragraph. The point is that if we are attracted to the language we are more likely to keep on reading.

Consider the textures, colours and music rendered in the examples below:

I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky. ~ Rachel Kushner

“Memorable language has its own particular texture, colour and music. Once experienced, it tends to stay with you forever.”

Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. ~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez

But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now. ~Marlon James

Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odor of yesterday’s unrecollected sin. ~Hilary Mantel

And if I might be so bold as to include a passage from one of my own novels

It’s an hour’s walk back home from O’Hara’s along the beach. I carry my notebook in my pocket and my slip slops in my hand. My bare feet squelch into the warm, wet cocktail of sand and shell fragments. Bubbles swell up between my toes, pop off then reappear like baby universes born out of the void by the pulse of quantum fluctuation.
~Stavros Halvatzis, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

There are countless examples of textured writing; you will know them when you see them. Some will become permanent fixtures in your memory to be recited out aloud just to hear them. Do so whenever you feel your enthusiasm in your writing sag.

Exercise: What are some of your most beloved fragments of writing? List them in a journal. Read them out aloud to yourself, noting their colour, texture and music whenever you need a jab of inspiration. 

Summary

Learn to use the texture, colour and music of language. Together with a deep knowledge of character and story structure it is the path to accomplished writing.

How to work with backstory

Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,
Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,

Do you know how to work with backstory?

There is no shortage of how-to articles on writing on the internet, not least of all material on this website; there are articles on the inciting incident, turning points, on character arcs, dialogue and a multitude of other narrative elements. 

And this is all to the good. 

But there are some subtle aspects of the subject that are not as often discussed, such as how much exposition or backstory to reveal, and when to reveal it. 

The Whodunit, for one, can’t succeed without mastery over this element, but truthfully, most stories deploy the technique, since most stories withhold information from the backstory to intrigue and surprise. 

The question hence arises, when, where, and how much information to reveal or withhold?

“The more knowledgeable you are about story structure the more easily you’ll work with backstory – the art of when, where and how to best reveal background information.”

Enter the three act structure. Knowing that the first act’s task is to introduce the world and its characters, to create a ripple in the status quo and to state the goal—the first few pages that include inciting incident and the first turning point are good places to slip in nuggets of backstory. Ditto for the second act’s midpoint and second turning point, and the third act’s climax and resolution.

Information, at these junctures, may be leaked through action, direct dialogue, or subtext. 

When, in Unforgiven, one of the deputies doubts Little Bill Daggett’s courage, another deputy quips (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Little Bill scared? Little Bill grew up in (the mean streets of) Kansas. Little Bill ain’t scared. He’s just no carpenter.” 

The dialogue is laconic, befitting men of action. Nevertheless,  it does leak enough backstory to reveal just how tough an opponent Little Bill is going to be for William Munny.

Earlier in the story, at the inciting incident, the Schofield Kid rides into Munny’s pig farm to ask him join him on a job to kill two cowboys who cut up the face of a prostitute. He asks if Munny is the same William Munny who killed so many people, including women and children, in the past. Munny simply replies, “I guess so.” The scene is understated and rather humorous, playing on the Kid’s naive awe for Munny’s ‘achievements’. It nonetheless gives us important background information about Manny’s past as a ruthless killer.

Additionally, Munny’s constant chatter about how his wife helped him abandon his wicked ways is an adroit way of sneaking in backstory. For example, he tells his children how, at one time, he might have whipped and cursed a horse for throwing him off, then later tells his old friend Ned that he ‘ain’t like that no more’.

The point is that the writer has to place nuggets of backstory at appropriate moments, preferably around the structural pivots, and even then, only as many as necessary to serve the drama.

Exercise: Consider a story you have written. Are there sections that leave you confused, rather than intrigued? Could this be solved by introducing more backstory elements? If so, tuck in only as much new information as is necessary through subtext, skilful dialogue or telling action. Try to locate it inside or close to one or more structural beats (discussed on this site). Use character emotion in the scene to distract the reader away from this slight-of-hand.

Summary

Sneak in just enough exposition to keep the reader or audience hungry to know more. Tucking in information around the structural beats and filtering it through the psychology of a character helps to keep the information unobtrusive.

The power of setting – how to tap into it

The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.
The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.

ONE way to tap into the power of setting in your stories is to place your characters in locations that add to the mood, and more specifically, locations that raise the tension.

In 2001 A Space Odyssey, the HAL computer turns against its human crew. HAL, who controls all systems on the space station, has even more power over them, given the hostile environment of space.

In Wuthering Heights, the brooding Yorkshire moors form the perfect backdrop for the tempestuous love affair between Cathy and the wild and dangerous Heathcliff. In many ways, the moors are as powerful a character in the story as any of the players.

“Tap into the power of setting by treating it as if it were another character—dangerous and even more ubiquitous.”

In Edge of Tomorrow Lt. Col. Bill Cage’s initial narcissism and cowardliness is accentuated by placing him in a war environment against alien beings. A time loop causes him to relive the conflict innumerable times, a conflict in which he is repeatedly brought back from the dead to learn from his mistakes.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the peaceful village of Mission Beach forms a perfect contrast to the violence of cyclone Yasi and the protagonist’s self-realisation, which occurs at the height of the drama. Setting the story in a busier town or city would lessen the impact.

When choosing settings for your stories, then, situate your characters in spaces that feed the plot and increase the dramatic tension between them.

Exercise: Pick a story that you’ve written. Where does the drama unfold? Does the location add to the danger and tension? If not, consider relocating the story to a more hostile environment

Summary: Utilise the power of setting by having it add to the danger, tension and conflict between your characters.

Character arc structure at a glance

James Scott Bell’s character arc structure.
James Scott Bell’s character arc structure

Typically, a protagonist in a story grows—at the very least he changes. The hero at the beginning of a tale is no longer the same person in terms of his skills and self-awareness he is at the end.


Making this change believable involves aligning the character’s actions to his inner growth. This is a point I have made several times on this site, though it bares repeating:

A change in self-awareness must lead to a change in the quality of a character’s actions.

In his chapter, The Arc Within The Plot (Creating Characters, the Complete Guide: Reader’s Digest), James Scott Bell explores the process in some depth. He provides the following example, which, I paraphrase here:

If your story is going to feature four major incidents in the life of a criminal—the crime, time in jail, a trial and sentence, and an aftermath in prison, create a table with four columns. In the first column, “The Crime,” briefly describe who your character is on the inside.

Next, go to the last column, “Prison.” Describe how the character has changed at the end. What has been his life lesson? Now go back and fill in the other columns to show a progression toward that final outcome. Create incidents powerful enough to justify the shifts in the character.

The character arc structure table will give you ideas for scenes that illustrate your character’s growth, which, in turn, will deepen your story. Start with the first and last events, then go back and fill in the middle parts.

“Use the character arc structure to help make your protagonist’s actions believable by mapping the growth in self-awareness to the lessons provided by outer events.”

In Scott Bell’s example, the columns show growth that culminates in a shift in character values.

The Crime.Jail. Trial and Sentence.Prison.
Initially without pity, cynical.Mistreated, but helped by another con.Has to face the victims of his crime.Compassion and empathy are what is needed in the world.
Changes his opinion of other prisoners.Witness testimony shows him how he’s wasted his life so far. This sets the course for a future transformation. Proven by how he treats a prison guard.
The character arc structure table.

In this example, then, the protagonist has gone from being cynical and callous to someone who regrets his criminal acts and comes to feel compassion for other people—even his jailers. The progression occurs through a series of impactful events. Tabling the events and tying them to inner growth helps to structure a believable transformation of the character.

Exercise: Review a story you’ve written. Can you tabulate four (or more) major events and correlate them to your protagonist’s shifting values and perceptions? If not try to do so.


Summary

One way to lay out the character arc structure is to map major events impacting your protagonist against his inner transformation.