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.
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 ever 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 researched 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, changing our focus, changing our perspective. This is at odds with those 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 change, and the situations change, which keep 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. And perhaps the truth, as uncovered in a detective story, is a change in itself.
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. Forrest Gump comes to mind.
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 had a friend, a lively teenager who was quite obese. Everyone kept telling her she would be pretty if she lost weight. She did lose a lot of weight—started a diet 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. This broke her heart. She 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.
Here are 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 these changes logical and believable?
- Are the changes an intrinsic part of the story or just thrown in for the sake of change?
This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.
“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.