The Root of Every Arc

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Character Arcs, Trials, and Transformation, O My!

One of the most satisfying elements of good fiction is the character arc, the dynamic inner changes our favorite characters undergo from beginning to end.

Like Errol, who—in Patrick Carr’s The Staff and the Sword trilogy—transforms from an underdog drunk to a self-sacrificing hero.

Or Abramm, who—in Karen Hancock’s Legends Of The Guardian-King Series—shifts from spiritual darkness and weakness into a destiny forged in light, truth, and strength.

Or Haegan, a formerly paralyzed and bedridden prince, who—in Ronie Kendig’s Embers (Abiassa’s Fire Book 1)—is unexpectedly thrust out into a dangerous world he never expected to face, relentlessly pursued by his king-father’s lethal forces. Under such strain, he can’t help but change. In fiction and life alike, this is the formula for character transformation.

External Conflict (PLOT) + Internal Conflict (CHARACTER WOUNDS & WEAKNESS) = Internal Change (CHARACTER ARC)

In the books and series listed above, each hero faces grave trials that challenge his notion of himself and the world around him. Given enough time and pressure (and an author determined to make them better), each one emerges wiser, stronger, and kinder. Why?

Just as exercise builds muscle, suffering builds character—good or bad. Or—if it doesn’t build character in the traditional sense—it proves character. After all, how do we know what’s really in us until we’re tested? How do we know we’re patient until our patience is tried? How do we know we’re selfless until we have to sacrifice what we most want for the good of another?

Our Hero of heroes Jesus, being in very nature God, didn’t need refinement and yet—just like us—His suffering showed His true character. Unlike us, His suffering proved a purity of love no human being before or since has shown. What He suffered both proved His character and also served as a light for humankind (Luke 23:34, see also Luke 6:32-36). Furthermore, those trials enabled Him to empathize with humanity’s plight (Hebrews 4:15). “He never sinned,” Camp’s song Overcome, expresses, “but suffered as if He did.”

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As for us mere mortals, the first-fruits of our suffering are usually rotten, dredging up from the heart all manner of emotional garbage. In this way, suffering either builds character—or it plunges us deep into the valley of the shadow of death, paved with misery, fear, bitterness, self pity, and every other rotten fruit imaginable. I know because I used to LIVE there.

The Root Problem

For over ten years, I lived in a spiritual wilderness, unable to accept God’s love, find my purpose, or discern any real meaning in life. My career derailed. My spiritual lifeline frayed. Emotion gripped me in a chokehold.

Why was I so miserable? What was the root of my problem? Should I have shifted into a new career? Like the writing that also floundered? Should I have settled for a simpler career—one at odds with my God-given desires and natural talents?

When the anxiety and depression worsened, I took medication for a time, though it didn’t truly help. Should I also have sought a psychiatrist? Gotten more exercise? Eaten healthier balanced meals?

In terms of my spiritual life, should I have studied my Bible more often…even though the vast majority of scripture would trigger acute anxiety? Perhaps if I’d served more—prayed harder?

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My point in raising all these questions is to provoke thought: What kind of advice do we usually give to others currently immersed in emotional misery? What do we tend to perceive as their root problem? During the course of my struggle with anxiety and depression, I’d received platitudes, suggestions for vitamins to take as well as an exhortation to exercise. The message the world offers includes the following kinds of advice:

Do something for yourself. Try a new hobby, get a pet, go on vacation. Make yourself happy—whatever it takes. And while none of these actions are inherently bad (“whatever it takes” notwithstanding), they only ever serve as a distraction to the root cause.

The fact is, the world’s advice leaves us flailing…like blind men shooting crossbows in random directions, hoping against hope to hit a target we’re not sure is even there…

Because the external problem isn’t usually the root problem.

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Digging to the Roots

My own experience has convinced me that every emotional trial I’ve faced is rooted in one thing: perception. In other words, I’ve always found the root cause for every emotional trial to be—not something I do or fail to do, but rather—(1) what I believe and (2) how well those beliefs align with God’s truth.

If I were to generalize this observation, I might say it like this: The problem—and, therefore, the solution to every emotional trial we face—isn’t somewhere out there in the WORLD, something to be attained or achieved, some universal tangible fix-all. The problem is in the mind, in the inner man—within our WORLDVIEW.

In the midst of every outward trial, what we believe will determine whether we overcome the emotional pain—or else sink down to the depths. Believing God’s promises—that He’s working all things for our good and using every trial to build character—gives us hope in hard times. In contrast, depression and hopelessness characterize those who believe their struggles to be pointless and their efforts futile.

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Clearly, pondering whatever is noble and lovely and pure (Philippians 4:8-9) is good, but there’s a subtle distinction between faith in God and the world’s generic positivity.

Believing a pleasant lie (that is, positive thinking) may satisfy for a time, but only those beliefs that align with God’s truth will stand the test of time. Just as there are physical laws we dare not break (step off the cliff and you will fall), spiritual laws hold serious consequences for those who pay them no mind. Breaking those laws may seem harmless at first, but we always reap what we sow.

My false beliefs, for example, reaped years of anxiety and depression as well as a deficit of peace. No external change brought relief—only a revelation of God’s truth.

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A Word of Warning to the World

Based on my experience, the first step to inner healing and growth would seem to begin with the recognition that what we believe holds power—power to bring either inner peace or emotional pain. However, it’s not only what we believe that matters, but also, whether or not it’s actually true.

Relative truth is one philosophy society offers to bring comfort to the world. “It’s okay,” they say, “We can hold mutually exclusive beliefs. What I believe is true for me; what you believe is true for you.” But is it? I think we can all agree science only works because truth is fixed and not fluid. Natural laws and constants—like gravity—are surprisingly, um, constant. In the same way, the rules of the road aren’t “each to his own.” Most people accept the absolute truth signified in a red light, whether or not they absolutely refute the existence of absolute truth.

Put another way: Disregard a stoplight at your own risk.

Likewise, any who disregard spiritual truths will suffer the consequence.

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A Warning to Christians

If the previous section was a warning to the world, this next section is a warning to fellow Christians, and the warning is this: Knowing the truth isn’t enough.

I certainly don’t mean this as a judgment on those who struggle. This warning comes from a place of compassion as one who struggled so long with the results of deception. I’d attended church almost all my life. I knew the Bible inside and out. I “knew” the truth—so why wasn’t I free?

Because I didn’t really accept the words as being true. My mental assent wasn’t enough; I didn’t receive the truths I most needed on a heart level.

Here’s the crux of the matter: Truth is a powerful tool that does us absolutely no good if we don’t lay hold of it through faith. Even for Christians, who generally know the truth, it’s not how much Scripture they memorize, but how deeply they believe.

Even though the victory is ours through Jesus, we won’t experience that victory in our daily lives unless we know and stand upon the truth. God’s word is described as a sword, but a sword only has power insofar as it’s used.

Victory-Sword

This applies to everyday life as we encounter situations—experiences or memories, any attitudes, feelings, or thoughts—that run counter to God’s Word. Whenever this happens, we have a choice what to believe. Will we elevate our emotions and logic over and above God’s truth? Or will we catch the revelation that the perceptions that sprout from life experience are often perversions of the truth?

The Inner Journey

One of the revelations that inspired this post was the clear parallel between my own transformation and the inner journeys our characters face. Why I should be surprised at the similarity?—I’m not sure—but it drove home a critical truth about the nature of human change: Whether in fiction or life, every upward character arc hinges on some fundamental lie being exposed, which empowers the hero to finally embrace some transformative truth.

Perceptions

Within this discovery, there’s a critical “aha!” worth pondering: No matter how in control we feel, we aren’t ultimately in control of our outward lives. Yes, we make decisions; we take actions. Then along comes a plot twist to derail our careful plans. In this way, our control over the external plot of our lives is limited.

However, even when plans go awry and our goal is thwarted, we still have some choice in how we’ll react. Will we be like Jesus, forgiving the soldiers who nailed him to the cross? Or like the Israelites in the desert, grumbling against God?

The answer depends—as stated above—on what we believe to be true. For example, do we believe suffering is random and pointless—or that God is sovereign and in control? If the latter, do we really believe He sees the beginning from the end and works all trials for our good? To the extent our understanding of God’s truth is skewed, our perception of His character is also skewed. If we think He enjoys our misery, we’ll never see Him as the good Daddy He truly is; we won’t believe His plans for our lives are infinitely better than anything we could ever plan for ourselves.

 

Frustration

 

So, just as Weiland discusses on her blog and in her book Creating Character Arcs, “The Change Arc is all about the Lie Your Character Believes.”

In a future post, I’m hoping to expound on my own journey of transformation and the lies I unwittingly embraced. Until then, I hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts and insights about how truth has shaped your particular journey. If you’re still enmeshed in emotional struggles, can you pinpoint the root as a lie—or is your struggle an exception to the rule? There’s no judgment here—only encouragement to press on. Sow a comment and you’ll reap a prayer. Until next time…

New Year’s resolutions and Character Goals

The Importance of Goals

One of the most basic lessons in writing fiction is that characters need goals. Without goals, characters are aimless, plot flounders, and the overall narrative lacks drive. So, too, in life—as the heroes and heroines of our own stories—we give our lives purpose and direction in the goals we pursue.

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In essence, New Year’s resolutions are nothing more than goals to bring change. Of course, there’s no reason to wait for the new year to pursue a new goal, but for some reason that ticking clock—that inevitable flip of the calendar—always gets us thinking, “what if?”

What if I were healthier? Thinner? Richer? Happier?

What if I could overcome that bad habit? Get that degree?

What if?

How about you? Have you set any goals yet for 2019? Whether or not you have, take a moment to consider your life’s greatest dream.

How could that be translated into a successful resolution?

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Of Dreams and Goals

Before we tackle that question, we have to admit there’s such a thing as a flawed resolution (or goal). Most resolutions are born of dissatisfaction—followed by a burst of motivation centered around a desire for change.

A desire—a dream, a wish, a hope—not necessarily a goal.

The trouble with desire is that it tends to be passive. Furthermore, desires need not be within our power to achieve. Not only that, but desires and wishes—hopes and longings not fully formed in our minds—are often nebulous and vague (while a successful plot goal never is). In the section below, we’ll explore each of these issues in turn—and more.

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What New Year’s resolutions and character goals have in common, or should

(1) Character Goals aren’t Passive

Passive vs. Active.

Those two words might conjure nightmares about grammar, about that critiquer who won’t stop picking at a sluggish character, or about one’s own personal lack of motivation. By the structure of a sentence, we can tell if our characters are taking action, or if—instead—they’re being acted upon. Proactive characters take charge of a situation, whereas those who are passive allow circumstances to dictate the course of their days.

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I doubt many people think of goals as being passive—but rather, the characters themselves. However, inferior goals make it harder—even impossible—for characters to be proactive. In that sense, there really is such a thing as a passive goal.

For example, what if one’s greatest wish is that their spouse would stop drinking? Or that their boss would lighten up? Goals to get pregnant or overcome cancer seem futile for a reason. Like the examples above, they represent hopes not entirely within the dreamer’s control.

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The point is this: Just like characters in a book—we, too, need agency. In other words, whatever goal we choose must be within our power to attain. Secondly, our attitude toward our goal should be active rather than passive. When we don’t have agency, we can’t help but become passive players in the stories of our lives.

However, even if we do have the power to act, we might still be passive if our goal is inferior in other ways. Such as…

(2) Character Goals should never be Vague

Since goals are so important in shaping the momentum, direction, and personal stakes of a story, it’s important to get them right. One major lesson I had to learn before I could even approximate good fiction is that a character’s goal should never be vague.

Janice Hardy explains it this way:

“What makes plotting tough is that vague thematic statements like, “find love again” or “learn to trust others,” are great story goals (and good for internal character arcs), but unhelpful plot goals. Think of it like this: Go out right now and find love again. Um, you can’t, not really. It’s not like “love again” is something you can go get at the store. But you can act in a way that will help you find love again, such as go to a museum and talk to cute guys.”

Whenever we confuse the inner and outer journeys, our progress flounders. The inner goal—linked to a character’s arc—can be vague, but not the outer plot goal, which drives the action. So how are these two kinds of goals related? The inner goal—akin to character motivation—drives the outer goal. The plot. The action. Vague inner wishes are okay so long as they translate to specific actions.

So, even if we begin with hazy goals, we can’t end there. Instead…
→ The vague…must be made specific.
→ The abstract… be made concrete.
→ The broad… broken down into bite-sized steps.

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In other words, we need a specific plan of action. Something we can picture ourselves (or our characters) doing, step by step.

For example, instead of vaguely resolving to be healthier and lose weight (in what would’ve amounted to nothing more than a blind and/or random approach), I found an app to keep track of my caloric intake. My specific goal is to get back down to my high school weight by May 11th of this year. Without the app—which prompted my goal and calculated my daily target intake—I probably would’ve restricted myself too much, felt like I was starving, and promptly given up.

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With the app as a guide, I can tell when I’m pressing closer to my goal—and when I’m falling farther behind… which leads to my next point.

(3) Character Goals are realized and refined in the context of SCENE and SEQUEL

One way to bring change to our lives is simply by being more action-conscious. How can we make good decisions if we aren’t truly aware of our choices? Like when we eat without looking at labels—or without any sense of what a healthy portion should be. Weighing in—if our goal is to lose weight—is all well and good, but it doesn’t address the real problem: our net intake. Certainly, we can measure progress on a scale, but a successful goal mandates changes in diet and/or exercise, as well.

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Here, the link to character goals is a bit thin, but consider the micro-structure of a novel: Goal, Conflict, and Disaster (in a SCENE). Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision (in a SEQUEL). Characters move through novels by way of action and reaction. Similarly, our example resolution (to lose weight), can be divided into two parts: Action and Assessment (which leads to Reaction and Reassessment).

Continuing our example:
Action = Eating and Exercising according to our plan. (SCENE)
Assessment = Weighing in to measure our progress. (SEQUEL)

Just as SCENE and SEQUEL drive progress in a novel, we need both action and assessment—both effort and progress-measurement—in order to be proactive for the long haul. Otherwise, we’ll end up spinning our wheels in one of two ways—either blindly acting, or else passively reacting to our poor choices.

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The ultimate end is to take actions that move us closer to our goal (the equivalent of plot motion).

(4) Character Goals are more or less Singular

Finally, as equally problematic as leaving our stepwise actions vague—or leaving SCENE or SEQUEL out of the equation—is trying to fulfill, all at once, our every desire.

For a novel to be cohesive—and a character’s motivation, single-mindedly sufficient to prove the stakes—one goal (and one goal only) must rise to the top. Otherwise, a reader’s focus—and likely their interests, too—will be divided.

When that happens, the novel’s trajectory grows hazy as the “story question”—equivalent to the overarching plot goal—frays into thinner and thinner threads. At which point, readers begin to wonder what’s truly important to the story; the overall stakes dilute; the pacing slows.

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Likewise, we need to pace ourselves. Prioritize our ambitions. Avoid getting distracted with multiple goals, which could end up suffocating our success in what matters most.

Character (or self) to-do list for a successful goal (or resolution):
Agency: Pick a goal within your power to achieve.
Action: Be intentional. Not passive, but proactive.
Avoid Abstractions: Make your goal specific—not abstract or vague.
Assessment: Be active, yes, but also measure your progress.
Avoid Distractions: Start with one goal and go from there.

What do you think? Are you reassessing your goals right now? Feel free to share your 2019 ambitions in the comments below.

 

Part 3: Action-reaction in fiction as Newton’s Literary Third Law

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…” Newton’s Third Law, thus stated, uses the words action and reaction to refer to the physical forces operating on two interacting objects. These forces exist simultaneously (equal magnitude, opposite direction), as in the image below.

OJ_action-reactionSS

*** Be forewarned: The writing analogy strays from the simultaneity implicit in Newton’s Third Law. ***

In WriterSpeak (with a little simplification), Newton’s Third Law could be translated as follows: “Every (protagonist) action sparks an opposing (antagonist) reaction.” Conversely, each enemy attack creates some situation to which the hero must respond.

Why? Not necessarily because the antagonist is a bad person (he may not be a person at all), but because he and the hero have clashing goals (e.g., The Fugitive‘s Dr. Richard Kimble vs. Deputy Samuel Gerard).

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Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) professes his innocence and Deputy Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) says, “I don’t care.” (But guess what. He cares.)

On a basic level, the central conflict of every novel is founded on this tug-of-war interaction between a hero and his opposition. The antagonist acts (cause). The hero reacts (effect). For every action taken, some change occurs that invites further response. Plot is, by definition, a sequence of events linked by action and reaction—by cause and effect. (More on that here.)

On a large scale, we can see this basic tug-of-war structure across Star Wars episodes 4 to 6. In A New Hope, the rebels destroy the Death Star. (Hero victory!) But then The Empire Strikes Back. (The hero withdraws to lick his wounds.) Finally, in Return of the Jedi, hero Luke not only overcomes the antagonist (Darth Vader), but also rescues him from the dark side. (Permanent victory! The central conflict is resolved.)

Back and forth like lumberjacks moving a two-person saw, the hero and villain push and pull, perpetually digging in deeper. It’s not always as straightforward as hero vs. villain, but the point is, your hero isn’t working in a vacuum (er—unless you’re writing sci-fi). But even if he is in a literal vacuum, it’s not clear sailing to the finish. He’s dodging space debris where there should be a planet, getting caught in a tractor beam, and being diverted into smelly garbage mashers by a pushy princess (all because he’s coming up against that antagonistic force).

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Motivated by some personal need, the hero presses forward in pursuit of his goal. That goal is what’s driving him forward. But he must meet with opposition or else the story sags. After all, opposition stems from that all-important ingredient of good fiction, which finds its origin in that action-reaction push and pull: Conflict!

What do you think? What are the forces of antagonism in your own story? Do you enjoy a story more when the antagonist is blatant (as in Star Wars and Silence of the Lambs) or when it’s more subtle (as in The Help or Forrest Gump)? Leave a comment below (and drop your email here) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of Janice Hardy’s book Understanding Conflict. To enter the “special giveaway” with the option of winning a $25 gift certificate from Better World Books, visit the permalink here and follow the instructions.

Missed the first two? Check them out here: Part 1: How Newton’s First Law mimics character motivation. AND Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s Second Law.

Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s Second Law

A brief recap

Last time, we talked about the external events surrounding our hero’s humble beginnings. Rather than starting out heroic, he or she tries to avoid the journey set before them.

  • During the reaping for The Hunger Games, the last thing Katniss wants is to volunteer to be a tribute.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s first reaction to Gandalf’s news about the ring is to give it away (to reject the journey).
  • Luke, too, in Star Wars: A New Hope, makes excuses for why he can’t go with Obi-wan.

They’re not looking for adventure, but their outward circumstances change in a way they can’t ignore. Outside force. Outward circumstances. Protagonist decisions leading to action. All these things fall within the realm of the plot—the physical journey: External changes. But the “outside force” triggers internal changes as well…

just like the debris expelled from Earth’s surface into orbit during the creation of the moon… (*WARNING: TANGENT ALERT!*)

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Okay, so maybe an Earth particle blasted into space by a meteor doesn’t make for a great character…

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But, I digress…

Internal Change (the realm of character arc)

In the first chapter, our protagonists are likely to be stuck in a rut—internally at least. They believe some lie, or they’re haunted by their past, or they’re hampered by besetting flaws that prevent them from fulfilling their dreams. Or maybe they’re hampered by a flaw because they believe a lie that was first stamped into their brains during some past traumatic event (i.e., their ghost or wound). The point is, most characters need to change (internally), but they can’t do it on their own.

Then along comes the “outside force” (e.g., meteor), and soon thereafter the protagonist’s decision launches him on a journey that takes the rest of the book to complete. Like the initial “outside force” that first sets your protagonist in motion, new external circumstances and events (all related to the central conflict) present new challenges for your hero to overcome. During the course of the journey, he struggles against various obstacles that force him to address his inner issues until he emerges, a changed man.

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But how does all this relate to Newton’s second law?

F = ma, a = F/m

Newton’s Second Law is most familiar to people when it’s expressed as a formula. Force equals mass times acceleration

With a little rearrangement, this becomes: acceleration equals force divided by mass. In other words, there are two variables responsible for changes in the acceleration of a body: The Force (may it be with you) and the mass:

(1) Variations in the Force (↑F, ↑a … ↓F, ↓a)

In physical terms, the rate of change in velocity—i.e., acceleration—of a particular body is proportional to the total force acting on that body. Imagine shoving a shopping cart with a big vs. little oomph. (These are technical terms here, so you might want to jot some notes.) Obviously, the bigger oomph produces the greater acceleration.

In WriterSpeak, a character’s overall internal change will be proportional to the magnitude of difficulties he or she must overcome. In other words, the greater the forces acting on a character, the more he or she changes.

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(2) Variations in the Mass (↑m, ↓a … ↓m, ↑a)

In physical terms, the greater the mass on which a given total force acts, the more sluggish the acceleration. That is to say, your shopping cart is harder to push once filled.

In WriterSpeak, the more sluggish or stubborn the character, the greater the forces needed to bring about a given change. In other words, more challenging trials will be required to reform Jack the Ripper than to convince Elizabeth Bennet to marry Mr. Darcy.

So, Newton’s second literary law speaks to the magnitude of a character’s internal change (or arc)…

The bottom line here is that every heroine needs impetus to overcome her issues. The more we want her to change, the more pressure we need to apply in the way of plot hurdles and difficult choices (i.e., internal and external conflict).

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After all, characters are the most stubborn of people. They don’t learn from their mistakes the first time around. They aren’t self-enlightened individuals who spontaneously decide to become better people overnight. They scoff at their mentors, presuming they themselves know better—until struggle and hardship teach them otherwise. Only after they’ve experienced the full constriction of their flaws can they embrace the idea of change.

How about you? When you recognize flaws in yourself, do you find them easy to overcome? What about your characters? How is the magnitude of their arc proportional to the difficulties they have to face? Leave a comment below (and drop your email here) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs.

Come back next week to peruse the next article in this series: Story Physics, Part 3: Action-Reaction in fiction as Newton’s Literary Third Law. Missed the first one? Check it out here: Part 1: How Newton’s First Law mimics character motivation.

Part 1: How Newton’s First Law mimics character motivation

Let’s start with the basics. What is Newton’s First Law? It could be stated like this: A body at rest stays at rest, and a body in motion carries on in the same speed and direction—unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

In WriterSpeak, we might say that a character “at rest” (or in motion) will remain “at rest” (or in motion) until acted upon by an outside force.

Let’s explore this analogy further…

At the beginning of each story, the main characters are living out their lives. They may not be physically resting (i.e., inactive / external rest). They may not even be at peace with their life (i.e., contented / internal rest). But they’re not yet motivated to stray from their everyday course…

UNTIL an outside force (likely caused—directly or indirectly—by the antagonist) sets off the central conflict that forces the protagonist to change plans. The initial force permanently alters the hero’s course and initiates his mission against the enemy.

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But what does that mean?

Outside Force

The phrase “outside force” speaks of the external nature of the dilemma. This isn’t mere angst over some long-standing issue, but rather an unexpected plot event that presents a new challenge. The outside force is also important in terms of cause & effect. That is to say, realistic characters won’t drastically change course without good reason. The hero only acts in response to the proper motivation.

For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke discovers a secret SOS in a droid his uncle recently purchased. After Old Ben thwarts the sand people’s attack, Luke mentions the message—then declines when Ben invites him on his quest. Why?

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Because Luke is not yet motivated enough to go to Alderaan. He has plans in the works he’s not ready to scrap, even if they happen to spring from a sense of obligation toward his uncle. Sure, the plot would’ve been easier to write if Luke had just said,“Sure, why not?” But his motivation throughout the rest of the story would’ve suffered as a result.

The point is this: Luke doesn’t/shouldn’t decide to change his plans on a whim. And so, at this particular point in time, he realistically rejects the journey.

The Journey

Whatever story you’re writing, it’s just about guaranteed to involve some kind of literal or figurative journey—one your hero would rather avoid. We’ve already seen Luke reject his mission. But what finally gets him involved? In generalized terms, why don’t our heroes perpetually turn and run when the going gets tough? Because the outside force imposes a situation he can’t ignore, thereby forcing the choice that propels him on his journey.

The first set of key words here is “he can’t ignore.” Why doesn’t the character just walk away? Because too much is at stake—and not in a purely altruistic way. Whatever it is that’s gotten your hero’s attention, it’s personal. Sure, in the beginning he might’ve said, “It’s not that I like the Empire. I hate it. But there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” But then the antagonist hits him where it hurts and he makes a choice: “There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”

That choice always leads to action and thereby alter’s the hero’s course.

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Examples from Film

Consider the change of course for the characters in each of the movies listed below, and ponder this question: Would the character have made his or her decision if not for the pressure exerted by the “outside force”? Also, see if you can identify the personal stakes for each character (easier for some than others).

EXAMPLE 1: The Hunger Games

Character Status Quo: Go hunting. Feed family. Don’t starve. Outside Force (External Events): Little sister’s name is drawn as tribute for the Hunger Games. Character Decision: Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.

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EXAMPLE 2: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

This particular example is complicated by multiple characters, each with their own interacting decisions. It also involves a complex series of forces that thrust the Pevensies on their journey. As such, this particular film is a good example of how the motivational transition that turns apathy into action isn’t always a straightforward singular event.

Character Status Quo: Boredom in the Professor’s mansion. No one expects good from Edmund. Intermediate happenings: During a game of hide and seek, Lucy discovers the wardrobe portal. No one believes her. Edmund follows her in one night and meets the White Witch, who deceives him with flattery. (He thinks that she, unlike his siblings, sees his value.)

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Series of forces and Decisions leading up to the journey: Edmund sends a ball through the upstairs window. Mrs. Macready’s offstage shrieks send the Pevensies running for the wardrobe. The two elder Pevensies are wowed by the snowy world within, and Peter—after calling Edmund out for lying—apologizes to Lucy by indulging her desires to visit Mr. Tumnus. There they learn the White Witch has captured Mr. Tumnus. Though Lucy is personally invested in what happened to Mr. Tumnus, Peter is not. He’s preparing to get his family safely back through the wardrobe when Mr. Beaver shows up. Warned about the trees, they reluctantly follow Mr. Beaver back to his house where he and the missus explain the perpetual winter and the prophecy.

Note: If the external forces had stopped here, the Pevensies would’ve had no reason to stay in Narina. They’ve learned about the prophecy, but they have no personal motivation to help fulfill it… Until…

Character Decision: Edmund—motivated by Turkish Delight and his underlying need for approval—sneaks away to see the White Witch. His decision serves as the Outside Force that shoves his siblings on their journey to find Aslan and thereby save Edmund’s life (Decision).

EXAMPLE 3: The Lord of the Rings

Character Status Quo: Enjoying a simple life in the Shire. Avoiding adventure. Outside Force (External Events): Frodo inherits the ring of power and Ring Wraiths are headed their way. Character Decision: Deliver the ring to Rivendale in the hopes of dumping the dreaded relic on the elves.

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EXAMPLE 4: Star Wars: A New Hope

Character Status Quo: Working for his Uncle. Apathy regarding the Empire. Outside Force (External Events): By chance, Luke’s uncle purchases the very droids the Empire is seeking, Luke discovers Leia’s hidden message, and his Aunt and Uncle are murdered. Character Decision: Go with Obi-wan, learn the ways of the force, “and become a Jedi like my father” (but not too much like his father, we hope).

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Final Thoughts

So, a heroine at rest tends to stay at rest—indulging the same old habits and plodding along in the same direction as before—until derailed by an outside force. That force is external, personal to the protagonist, and eventually leads to the key decision that cements her new course.

What do you think? In your own WIP, what external force of change begins your hero’s journey? What about the protagonist in your favorite novel? Can you think of any stories that don’t meet these qualifications? For a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel, simply join the discussion below (and drop your email here for the draw.)

Come back next week to peruse the next article in this series: Story Physics, Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s second law.

Cause & Effect in Fiction

Almost everything in a story is the effect to some earlier cause. Indeed, in all of life, this same principle holds true.

You exist. Why? Because your parents…got a visit from the stork. Your eyes are brown. Why? Genetics. Normally you arrive early to work, but today you’re late? Why? Because the alarm didn’t go off because a storm hit last night while you were sleeping and killed the power. mikado-1013877_1280-cause-and-effect4

Your personality may be completely different from that of your parents, but your ingrained traits are, in themselves, the cause for a whole host of other effects. Like the career you choose. The friends you keep. Why you react a certain way in response to some external stimulus. All these things, too, are affected by your life experience. (Human beings are complex.)

Even a glimpse into the universe points to a chain reaction of cause and effect. Light from distant galaxies is red shifted. Why? Because light is composed of waves. Because the wavelength determines the color observed. And because—if the source of light (e.g., star) is moving with respect to the observer—the waves will (seem to) be squished or stretched out depending on whether the star is getting closer or moving farther away. But why is there a red shift? The universe is expanding. Why? The Big Bang set it all in motion.

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From these examples, we can recognize a few different elements of fiction that are guided by cause and effect.

(1) Governments, technologies, physical laws, and rules of magic

Just as the physical universe is governed by certain laws, so too whatever world your particular characters happen to inhabit must be governed by consistent laws. If your novel involves magical creatures, don’t change their abilities as the story progresses. If you’ve imagined a futuristic technology, make sure you’ve clearly defined its capabilities, then stick to them. If your story hinges on the mystery of what your magical creatures (or technologies) can do, don’t fret. Just be aware that readers need something logical they can grab onto until the newest revelation occurs.

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(2) Personality constraints

Plot is a complex interplay between external events and character decisions (i.e., actions). Perhaps your plot is begging you to take the story in a particular direction… But if that change requires your protagonist (or antagonist) to behave in uncharacteristic ways, you’re better off considering other options.

The bottom line here is that characters must be consistent. If they do change (as we expect), their behavior should shift gradually… and only because the plot has taught them a lesson. In other words, don’t let your protagonist act uncharacteristically confrontational (or whatever) just because it heightens the drama.

(3) External action and consequence

From the smallest fragment of a scene to the broad expanse of character arc and plot, cause and effect permeates good fiction.

The central conflict of every novel, for example, is founded on the tug-of-war interaction between a hero and his opposition. The antagonist acts (cause). The hero reacts (effect). For every action taken, some consequence (i.e., conflict) ensues. Plot is, by its very definition, a sequence of events linked by cause and effect.

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Cause and Effect Mind Map. You can think of “Character 1” (teal) as the hero and “Character 2” (red) as the antagonist. Or you can think of them as hero and heroine. Interaction takes place where teal and red meet. Note that the color of the box designates the character to which that particular “property” applies. For example, Character 1’s wound may lead him or her to keep secrets, which in turn may result in Character 2’s misguided action (since they’re acting on wrong beliefs). The purple boxes represent external events that could affect either character. And, yes, this is terribly nerdy, but it was fun to contemplate. (Get a closer look here.)

On a smaller scale, characters are always interacting with the world around them. Although character personalities will differ, their response to any given external stimulus always follows a predictable sequence, as outlined by Swain:

  • Automatic Physiological/Visceral Feeling (e.g., a rush of adrenaline)
  • Reflex/Jerk Reactions (e.g., screaming, jumping in fear, lashing out on instinct)
  • Rational thoughts, speech, and actions

For example, you’re leading a friend through a peaceful forest when all of a sudden the tickling stickiness of a web envelops your face and the creeping crawl of eight tiny legs works its way up your neck. You may not demonstrate each of the reactions in the sequence above. But if you do, they ought to occur in the following order:

First, your heart launches into your throat (physiological reaction). Then, you emit a high-pitched screech as you frantically claw at your neck and face (jerk reaction). Finally, as soon as you’re safely spider-free, you turn to your gawking companion, blush, and sheepishly explain what just happened (rational speech).

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Any change in the order will likely come across to readers as being unrealistic. (For example: You turn to your friend. “I just ran into a spider web. Man, I hate spiders. They totally freak me out. In fact, I can feel one crawling up my neck this very instant. Hang on a sec.” Then you shriek and frantically flick the offending arachnid as your heart slams against your ribcage.)

Cause and effect is important enough I’m sure we’ll discuss it again eventually. But for now… What do you think? Is everything in a story the effect to some earlier cause? Are there blatant exceptions to that rule? Join the discussion below for a chance to win a 2500-word critique.

Critiquing to Learn

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Everyone says, “If you want to write, you need to read.” This is particularly true if you hope to commercialize your story via traditional publishing. However, even if you devour novels like a starved paper shredder on steroids, your writing success isn’t a given.

Why? Because getting caught up in a good story isn’t the same thing as understanding how it came to be written. When you open a brand new book from Amazon and swipe your eager eyes over those crisp white pages, you can’t see the horrid first draft, the scathing editorial comments, or the poor writer yanking out fistfuls of hair as he or she attempts to weave their tattered story into a beautiful yarn. Oftentimes, if a writer has done their job well, you don’t even see the purposeful arrangement of key story elements. Instead, you find yourself 100 pages in, clueless as to why the story works so well… because it sucked you right in. Forget about GMC and character arcs. All you know at this point is that you must read on to see what happens next.

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Lisa Cron describes this phenomenon in her book Wired for Story. “The first job of any good story,” she says, “is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality. After all, a good story doesn’t feel like an illusion. What it feels like is life.” And—I would add—when we force ourselves to stop and analyze a story, we risk ruining the escapist experience it was meant to inspire. How can we analyze a tale’s beauty if it disappears when we stop to look?

And how do we as writers circumvent “the Cron problem”? One option is to reread and study our favorite novels with the goal of learning from the masters. On second read, a novel’s anesthetic capabilities are lessened, though some of the original novelty and beauty is lessened as well. Another option is to spend regular time critiquing works-in-progress (WIPs) and learn from the learners. Each approach has strengths (+) and weaknesses (-) as you can see in the chart below, but only critiquing mandates a written analysis.

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Click here for an expanded view.

In either case, whether you’re critiquing a novel or a WIP, something magical happens when you force your thoughts into words. At first, you might not know what to say. Or what you say might sound obscure… “Good characters” or “This scene drags.” But as you start to amass words on the page, you can begin to add new thoughts and also critique your critique.

“Good characters?” Too vague! What makes them good?

“This scene drags?” But why? What might make it better?

You ask yourself questions. Then you put the answers into words and critique those too. Maybe you Google-search “characterization” or “how to bring a scene to life” to help flesh out your thoughts. Maybe you think back to that awesome novel you just read that kept you turning pages for hours on end. (What kept you reading? Would that fix this current scene?)

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In the process of formulating a critique, your brain starts making connections like, “Wait. This character has no goal. And didn’t I read something in that craft book about characters needing goals?” Through time, you learn to identify common problems—then turn them in on yourself: “Do I do that in my own writing, too? How can I fix that?”

Cultivating a taste for critique might not come naturally to all writers, but it’s still a way to reinforce what you’re learning. I would say, “Practice makes perfect,” but that’s only half the story. To really excel at critiquing (writing, too) you need to do more than just practice. You need to spend time learning about the craft of writing fiction and seek feedback on your own writing.

In my experience, learning to write is a back-and-forth process much like pumping on a swing or riding a see-saw. You write some. You read some. Novels, WIPs, How-tos. You learn about story theory and elements of style. Then you attempt to implement what you’ve learned. The learning process is, in short, a see-saw action between theory and practice, and critiquing is one tool that can help you learn to hone your own creative work.

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“Learn to write a novel” mind map by Lara Storm Hitchcock via XMind

How about you? Do you find the act of critiquing to be a valuable learning tool? Are you a left-brainer like me who enjoys the challenge of diagnosing potential problems…or do you struggle with what to say? Leave a comment (and enter the giveaway HERE) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or a copy of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. Paperback books are for U.S. residents only, e-copy / critique for all.

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Full Table of Contents here.