Character Arc

nutshellAs a writer, if you want to study story telling there is no better source than world of screenwriting where Hollywood has turned the art of story telling into a science. Of course, writing a novel and writing a screenplay are very different mediums: movies are visual and novels are written. But they both share the same important elements of storytelling. So studying movies is a great way to study how stories work.

Over the past eight years I have read many of the books on story structure, plotting, and character development. So much so, that I thought it was impossible to find a new insight into story development. But once again I’ve been proved wrong. Jill Chamberlain’s The Nutshell Technique provides a fresh new perspective to the subject of character arc.

Generally when writers talk about story structure it is usually about the three-act plot structure and in particular the big turning points in the story at the end of act one (a.k.a turning point one/act one break/point of no return)  and act two (a.k.a turning point two/act two culmination/crisis). Some writers, such Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler, also draw attention to the inner emotional journey our protagonist makes as the plot effects him/her. For example, Luke Skywalker changes from a frightened farm boy into a Jedi knight. This is what we generally refer to as character arc. Not all stories necessarily have a character arc. For example, James Bond and Indiana Jones rarely change in character over the course of a movie. But most do.

Most writers agree that a protagonist should have at least one flaw in order to be three dimensional. No one is perfect. But what makes Chamberlain’s perspective different is that the protagonist’s character arc from Flaw to Strength should be uniquely linked to the main turning points. Or put another way, the protagonist changes because the plot challenges his particular flaw and his view of himself and the world.

A story should be unique to its protagonist. The events of the story should uniquely test traits specific to the protagonist. If I can take your protagonist out and replace them with a completely different character, and with a few tweaks make your script work just as well with a new protagonist, your script is presenting a situation and is not a true story.

Thus a protagonist should not just have a flaw; he/she should have the right flaw to be tested by the plot.

Identifying a central flaw in your protagonist is an essential component of screenplay story structure.

The Nutshell approach is to identify eight important elements that are linked to the protagonists character arc.

  1. Flaw (The protagonist’s initial flaw)
  2. Strength (The final protagonist’s position )
  3. Set-up want (In initial scene )
  4. Point of No return (Plot Point 1/Act One Break)
  5. Catch (at Point of No Return)
  6. Crisis/Triumph (Plot Point 2/Act 2 Culmination)
  7. Climatic Choice (Beginning of Act 3)
  8. Final Step (Final scene)

To do justice to the Nutshell approach requires a detailed reading of the Chamberlain’s book, which explains each of these elements and how they relate to examples in blockbuster movies. What is new and novel in this approach is the Set-up Want and the Catch, which require some further explanation

The Set-up Want is something the protagonists wants from the first scene. It is also the opposite of what the protagonist wants to happen in the Crisis. As the maxim goes sometimes you should be mindful of what you wish for, because the protagonist gets his want at the Point of No Return (Plot Point 1) together with the Catch. For example, Luke Skywalker longed for adventure and to get away from the farm. At Plot Point 1 he finds his aunt and uncle murdered and the farm burned. So In one sense he got what he wanted (an adventure) but the Catch was he had no family left and had no choice but to go with Obi Wan to take the droids to Alderaan.

The Climatic Choice is what gets the protagonist out of the Crisis and into Act 3. And the Final Step is the final scene that shows the protagonists has completed his character arc.

The Nutshell Technique places character arc as an integral element of the story rather than as an optional add on or choice for the writer. The point being that the character arc must fit the story to work. That I believe is a valuable insight that is worth thinking about.

Theme – the magic ingredient within a story

In my last blog, I tried to define story as:

“ …a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

In my view, a story should all ways have a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story in order to provide the reader with the necessary emotional pay-off that they expect. So what is theme? Basically, theme is what the story is all about. Not the plot itself, but the underlying message that the story is illustrating through the actions of the characters. It is usually a moral message the reader can relate to. For example: good will overcome evil; love conquers everything; family are more important than personal gain; absolute power corrupts; freedom is worth fighting for, etc.

In children’s fairy tales, fables and parables the theme is usually very obvious. In a complex novel the theme or themes might be less obvious. Some writers have said not all stories have a theme. I disagree. All stories have at least one theme. Without a theme a story is just narrative without a sense of purpose.

That doesn’t mean that the main character should be a paragon of virtue. Most main characters have some flaws, and part of the story is how they change as a result of the actions that effect them: the character arc. Some main characters may well go from bad to even worse. They may succeed with their goal; but may lose something more important to them in the process. Even with these types of stories there is a message. The issue is whether the message resonates with the reader. Where the message doesn’t resonate with the reader the impact on the reader may be one of shock. The question is whether the reader wants to shocked like this or not.

What should a writer do to incorporate theme into a story? The answer is that the writer doesn’t incorporate theme directly — it is part of the story already. The writer shouldn’t have to think about it too deeply. And the last thing they should do is to get preachy with the reader. It is what the story is about.

Story essence

Recently, I purchased “Story trumps structure”, by Steven James. I was attracted to the book by its provocative title and the foreward by Donald Maass, who I much admire. Although the book is mostly a manifesto for organic writing (‘pantsing’),
as opposed to plotting and outlining, it is still an excellent read for all types of writers. To me, the idea that story trumps structure is somewhat nonsensical, because structure is such an important component of any story. A story is limp without it. And the story pattern that James sets out — orientation, crisis/calling, escalation, discovery and change — is a pattern that is easily mappable into a three-act structure as others have done. Put simply, he has simply re-labelled the main elements of story structure. He also sets out eight things that are needed in the beginning of the story. These are the story beats that normally fall into the first act. To me, the idea that James is abandoning structure is a bit ridiculous; although he may have a point about not placing too much attention on formulaic plots.

There is a lot of good practical advice in Jame’s book. His emphasis on maintaining tension is spot on. He states:

“At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So at its core a story is about a character who wants something but can’t get it. As soon as she gets it (or fails in her quest to do so), the story is over. If the reader doesn’t know what the character wants, they won’t know what the story is about.”

Good advice. Later in the book he says:

”When you focus on what lies at the heart of the story— tension, desire, crisis, escalation, struggle, discovery, transformation — you’ll intuitively understand what needs to happen in each scene to drive your story forward.”

Although he makes this statement to advance the cause of organic writing, the advice is just as relevant to those of us who are plotters and outliners. There is a lot of good advice in Jame’s book, although it won’t cause me to abandon using my scene cards just yet.

Reading Jame’s book got me thinking more about what the essence of a story is  really about. The Oxford English Dictionary defines story as:

“an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

It’s not very helpful. After some thought, I came up with an alternative definition for fiction writers, which I think  captures most of  the essence of a good story:

“ A story is a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

It may appear a little long-winded for a definition, but it seems to capture most of the important attributes of a story, which are:

  • It’s about a character or characters, not necessarily human, that the reader can empathise with or at least find curious.
  • It has a setting which will affect the characters’ behaviour. (For example, 16th Century aristocrats may behave quite differently from that of the crew of a 22nd Century starship. Setting will also influence the genre and the story’s appeal to readers.
  • It’s about a big problem/opportunity (the catalyst) that comes into their lives that they have to deal with, where the consequences of failing to deal with it are dire (the stakes). This provides the requisite character motivation (desire/goal).
  • It’s about an escalating struggle (conflict/tension) to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity (the outer journey), and in the process overcome their own shortcomings (the inner journey/character arc).
  • The characters desire to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity results in a logical causal chain of events (the plot line).
  • It has a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story (the emotional pay-off). The reader might not be able to predict the ending, but the ending should be consistent with what the reader expects from the genre and story line.

Of course, much of the skill of a good writer is in how they get the reader to empathise with the main character, how they maintain and build tension, and how they deliver the emotional  pay-off that the reader wants in the ending. So no definition can fully capture the emotional experience of a good story. But it’s probably a reasonable starting point for the definition of a story.  Let me know if you agree.