Without Changes, You Have No Story

Change is the reason for a story. Without change, you have an anecdote, perhaps a description of a life or a time, but no story.

Whenever there is change during the course of the story, and — more immediately — during a chapter, a scene, a page, even a paragraph, it advances the story. These changes should be interesting and compelling in themselves, but they should also worsen or improve the status of a character, raise new questions in readers’ minds as to the story’s outcome, and prepare for scenes to come.

Changes can be major alterations in a character’s life, such as the death of a loved one, or they can be as subtle as the touch of a hand. Changes can jolt the reader or give them a false sense of security so you can hit them with a major change later to better effect.

We often put characters through changes we want to explore. Lately, the only fiction I can write (to the extent that I write fiction, which isn’t much) is if my main character experiences a grievous loss. Apparently, I need to explore this change in my life any way I can, hoping to find a more appealing outcome. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been sticking to blogging and an occasional (very occasional) piece of short fiction — I can’t find a more appealing outcome to the changes in my life, can’t even imagine any appealing outcome, so I can’t write it.

In quest stories, the hero has to transform herself into the person who can bring about the necessary outcome, so maybe I’m still undergoing my transformation, and eventually, this transformation will change the outcome of both my story and the stories I write.

Writing doesn’t just happen, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Our stories change us every bit as much as we change our stories, in an every tightening spiral. We create episodes of change so that the characters will change which in turn change the plot, which in turn change the whole focus of the story, which in turn changes our relationship to the story.

While writing A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I was researching Pingfan and the human experiments that were being done there (some on American POWs) and I thought I’d found something that few others knew. Afterward, in every novel I picked up, there was a mention of Pingfan, so I had to change the focus of the book, which in turn changed the characters and how they got to the end. (The end was a given — I’d written that chapter about halfway through — I just needed to find a way to get there.) Many of the conversations I had about this Pingfan oddity ended up in the book, which gave the story an added depth.

Some psychologists say we never change in any basic way. That our characters and essential personalities are our foundation. We can only change in small ways, such as changing our habits or changing our focus. This is at odds with writing coaches who say that a character must do a complete about face. That about face is possible if it is motivated, if there is a reason for your character’s basic change. Normally, a smart person doesn’t become stupid overnight and a stupid person doesn’t become smart, though abnormal situations can create such changes. Flowers for Algernon, for example, or Regarding Henry.

Although change is important, many characters don’t change — take detective novels, for example. Most of the classic detectives were the same from the first page to the last. But other characters in the stories changed, and the situations changed, which kept the detectives changing direction and focus. So while they themselves didn’t go through any sort of metamorphosis, the stories still seemed to be about change.

Sometimes a character’s inability to change is the story. For example, if a character was tortured and despite the horrors, never changed, it would tell you a lot about the character, and how his non-change changed the world around him. (This was the theme of several movies, though I can’t remember a single title. Can’t remember the movies, either. Perhaps this isn’t as compelling a scenario as I thought.)

Almost anything can bring about a change. Lies can bring about change, the truth can bring about change, a knock on the door, a trip. Even something so simple as losing weight. I once had a friend, a lively teenage who was quite obese. Everyone kept telling her she would be so pretty if she lost weight. She did lose a lot of weight. Started before school let out and spent the whole summer being active and eating right. She wasn’t more attractive. And she wasn’t more popular. About broke her heart. Became sullen and morose. And depressed. And regained all the weight. Which is an example of another type of change — where the character changes but ends up the same as at the beginning.

Some questions to ask yourself if you need to delve deeper into the changes that occur during the course of your book:

What changes do your characters undergo?
Do you keep the changes coming at an ever dizzying rate or do you throw small changes at your characters, changes that add up over time?
Are your characters the same at the end of all these changes? Is their situation the same?
Is the final outcome a major upheaval for the character or merely a change in focus?
Do all your characters change, or just the main character?
How do you bring about the changes?
Are the changes an intrinsic part of the story or just thrown in for the sake of change?

A Writer’s Mythical Journey

The best books always have characters that go through a transformation during the course of the story, but most books today seem to have static characters. The authors tell us a lot about the characters and their myriad relationships but the characters do not really transform. Perhaps because the writer isn’t asking the right questions.

In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold wrote, “Ask your character these two questions: Who are you? Who do you want to be?

“Ask them of yourself as well.”

Perhaps the key to writing well is knowing who we are and what we want to be in relation to the book we are writing. Maybe the way to get inside it and to create a vivid and compelling world is to make the character’s transformation our own. And we do this by having a clear idea of what we want to say and choosing the right words to say it.

The realization that the words we write can change us as writers as well as affect our readers is making me rethink my own mythic journey as a writer. If words are so powerful that they can change readers and writers both, then they deserve my best. I don’t think I’ve achieved my best. At least, I hope I haven’t.

Writing is changing me in ways I could not even fathom several years ago, and I have a hunch I am at still at the beginning of my journey, so I have no idea how I will be transformed. I’m hoping I am a hero in my own journey, and that I will become a powerful writer. I now can see that writing will never get easier for me, because with each book I will pick something to challenge me, to help me get closer to that being that author I need to become. Published or unpublished.

It’s the journey that counts. The process of transformation.

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