Using the Argument Against Transformation to Strengthen Your Story

by James Scott Bell

Today’s post is for structure fans. If you’re a dedicated pantser for whom any thought of form and function causes you to break out in hives, you have my permission to go play Candy Crush, for we are about to take a deep dive into the skeletal framework of storytelling.

This post was prompted by an email from a reader of Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. The gist of the email is below, reproduced with the sender’s permission:

I’m planning a book that is plot-driven rather than character-driven, so as I look at developing my “Mirror Moment,” I know it’s going to be more about digging deep and finding the strength to face physical and/or psychological death (like in The Fugitive), rather than a specific need to change. I wondered how the twin plot points of “Argument Against Transformation” and “Transformation” worked in that case (since there isn’t an actual transformation)? Are those beats skipped in a plot-driven story?

This is a very intelligent question, and told me immediately that my correspondent has a real grasp of structure and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

He rightly points out there are two kinds of arcs for a main character: 1) he becomes a better version of himself; or 2) he remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger through the ordeal. (Note: both of these arcs can be reversed, resulting in tragedy).

In books or movies of the first kind, such as Casablanca, you’ll often find a compelling beat, which I call “the argument against transformation.” It’s a setup move which defines the MC’s journey and pays off nicely at the end, with actual transformation.

Thus Rick, at the end of Casablanca, has transformed from a loner who has withdrawn from the community into a self-sacrificing member of the war effort. Remember at the  airport, when he’s explaining to Ilsa why they can’t go off together? “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of.”

And two minutes later Rick proves his transformation by shooting Major Strasser right in front of Louis, the French police captain.

Early in Act 1, we have Rick’s argument against such a transformation. That is, he states something that is the opposite of what he will come to believe—and be—at the end. He says it two times, in fact: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Another example: At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has learned, “There’s no place like home.” But early in Act I, she argues against that notion. She tells Toto there’s got to be a place they can go where there’s no trouble, a place you can’t get to by a boat or a train. A place “behind the moon … beyond the rain …” (cue music).

That’s the first kind of transformation. But my correspondent was asking about the second kind, where the character does not change inside. Here’s what I wrote in response:

In the kind of story you describe, there is a transformation—from weaker to stronger. The hero is forced to survive in the dark world, and must become more resilient. So at the end he is not fundamentally a different person, but is a stronger, more resourceful version of himself.

In thinking about your question, it seems to me that the “argument against transformation” in a “getting stronger” story corresponds to what my friend Chris Vogler labels “Refusal of the Call” (in his book The Writer’s Journey). One example Chris uses is Rocky. When Rocky Balboa is first offered the chance to fight Apollo Creed, he says no. “Well, it’s just that, you see, uh…I fight in clubs, you know. I’m a ham-and-egger. This guy… he’s the best, and, uh, it wouldn’t be such a good fight. But thank you very much, you know.”

Implicit in that refusal is his belief that he’s not strong enough.

The transformation beat comes at the conclusion of the final battle, usually in the form of some visual that shows the stronger self. In Rocky, he’s got Adrian in his arms and adulation from the fans.

In The Fugitive, the argument against transformation is shown cinematically. After Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on the scene of the train derailment, we cut to Kimble running through the woods, his face etched with fear. In a book, you could put in Kimble’s inner thoughts about it. I know an operating chamber, not the streets! How am I going to survive?

The Mirror Moment is what holds these two ends of the spectrum together, which is why it is perfectly situated in the middle of a book. The protagonist has a moment when he’s forced to look at his situation, as if in a mirror (sometimes there’s an actual mirror in the scene!). He either thinks, Who am I? What have I become? Will I stay this way? (Casablanca); or, There is no possible way I can survive this…I’m probably going to die! (The Fugitive).

Now, if you pantsers have made it this far without your heads exploding, I congratulate you, and offer this word of comfort: you don’t have to think about structure before you start a project, or while you’re writing it. Go ahead, be as wild and free as you like!

But when the time comes (and it always does) when you need to revise and figure out why something isn’t working—and what you can do to make it work—structure will be there to help you figure it out.

Because story and structure are in love, and there’s no argument against that!


Gilstrap Watch: John reports that the surgery “went great.” He feels, naturally, like he “took a beating,” but expects to be “fine in a week or two.” Huzzah! (For those who don’t know what this is about, see John’s post from last Wednesday.)

How to Write Act II

american-act-ii-microwave-popcorn-tub-9866-pA couple of months ago I released Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. I’ve received many nice emails and comments about it, but recently two people asked me the same question. And it’s a good one, so I thought it worthy of a full post. Here’s a clip from an email (used by permission):

I’ve often noticed that writing books get a bit too abstract at times about theme, as if it’s something impossible to hold onto or grasp. But you are so clear by making it come across so smoothly in the super structure points. There is something very smooth about your approach. I felt very grounded as I read.

This is a small point that I’ve wanted to ask a teacher for some time because I’ve noticed this situation in other structure layouts: Why is it that Act II, which constitutes at least half of the entire story (actually > 55% if Act I is 20% and Act II is 25%), have relatively fewer super structure points (i.e., Kick in the Shins, The Mirror Moment, Pet the Dog, Doorway of No Return #2). There are 4 in Act II to guide the writer for 55% of the story but 10 to guide the writer for the other 45% (Act I and III combined). And yet we’re often told that the hardest part of writing a novel or screenplay IS Act II. Is it the hardest partly because it’s harder to teach in terms of structure, etc.?

That’s an excellent and insightful question. It does seem counter-intuitive to suggest in a book about structural signposts that the least number of them occur in longest section of the novel.

But, in point of fact, this is exactly how it must be.

First of all, what is Act II all about? It’s about the Lead’s confrontation with Death. Death can come in three guises: physical, professional, or psychological. That’s what makes the stakes high enough for the reader to care about what’s going on.

Act I prepares us for this death struggle. To get readers to care about what happens, we have to bond them with a Lead character, show something of the ordinary world, have hints of trouble to come … and then we have to find a way to force the Lead through that Doorway of No Return. Why force? Because no one wants to confront Death unless they have to! (Or unless their name is Evel Knievel.)

That’s why there are several important structural beats in Act I.

Okay, now the Lead is in the dark forest. To survive and get back to the castle, she’ll to defeat the forces arrayed against her. If you want a perfect illustration of this, think of The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is taken from her ordinary world and thrust into a contest to the death, in an arena filled with obstacles and opponents.

Now, keep these two points in mind:

1. There are innumerable actions the Lead can take to gain her objective, to survive, and to ultimately defeat the opponent.

Standing at the edge of that dark forest, the Lead might: go left, go right, go straight ahead, follow a sound, run from a sound, climb a tree, make a weapon, start a fire, form an alliance, fight off a monster—whatever it is, you, the author, get to choose.

2. Each subsequent action will, in some way, be a reaction to what’s just happened.

If the Lead breaks her leg, she won’t be running in the next scene. If her love interest decides to walk out on her, she won’t be singing a happy tune.

You may also find that a character refuses to do what you want. In one novel I tried to get a wife to go away to her sister’s house, but she would not do it. I’d planned for her to go, I tried to push her out the door, but no soap. So I had to readjust, and in this case the character was right!

In short, a more “open” Act II enables us to respond to the story as it takes shape.

This is true, by the way, whether you like to outline or whether you prefer to wing it.

Further, you don’t need as many signposts because your scenes should have an organic logic to them. Act II is largely made up of the Lead’s battle plans. We know what the objective is: defeat death! In The Hunger Games it’s physical death; in The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death; in The Verdict, it’s professional death.

So the Lead, in Act II, takes an action to gain a foothold in this battle. And suffers a setback.  Now what?

She forms a new plan, takes a new step, reacting to and learning from the last one.

In this way you have a natural, logical, clear and compelling “plot generator.” You don’t need as many signposts to do that.

If you ever feel “lost” in Act II, just go back and check a few things:

• Are the stakes death?

• Is the Opponent stronger than the Lead?

• Is your Lead using strength of will to push forward?

• Is there an easier way for your Lead to solve the problem? (If so, figure out how to eliminate that possibility)

Then brainstorm a few questions:

• How can things get worse for the Lead?

• What’s the worst thing that could happen to the Lead?

• Can a new character come in to complicate matters even more?

• What are the enemies of the Lead doing “off screen”? That is, what actions are they taking while the reader is reading the current scene? (This is a great way to come up with plot complications.)

Soon enough, you’ll be back on track with plenty of ideas for organic scenes, rising and falling action, throughout Act II.

Then, at some point, you have to get the Lead through another doorway, into Act III, where the final battle takes place. There are more signposts in Act III to guide you through this section. That’s because you can’t dilly dally. You’ve got the Lead going over a waterfall. You’ve got to get him to safety, fast.  The Act III signposts have a shorter space between them, which is exactly what you need.

Make sense?

I think it was Isaac Asimov who said that he knows the beginning and the ending of his novels, but then has the “fun” of finding out how to get from the one to the other.

So go go have some fun.

And tell us how you approach Act II in your own novel writing. What challenges do you find? How do you address them?

Top Ten Things You Need to Know About the Writing Life

Jean Arthur

10. You have to love it

If you don’t love to write, if it’s not something you are virtually compelled to do, you’re not truly living a writing life. You could be a business person who wants to use writing as a vehicle for making some extra cash. You could be someone who journals as a form of therapy. That’s all legit. It’s just not a love for telling stories.

But if you have some inner compulsion to write, embrace it, because that will show in the writing itself. And you’re also going to need some love when you get hit with disappointment. Thus:

9. You have to learn to handle discouragement

If you’re going to do this, write for your life, you have to become a bit of a Sherman tank (as opposed to buying a fifth and getting tanked). You need a tough hide and forward drive. Because there are plenty of things to get you down.

Like the sound of crickets when your book launches. Or the screech of a hater leaving an unfair review. Or you looking at your work and thinking, This stinks. Who am I kidding?

Just know that all writers have gone through similar discouragement, it’s part of the life, it’s even part of the training. Those scars on the soul make you human, and humanity is what you need in your fiction.

8. It’s hard work

If your writing is going to be any good, that is. The best writers sweat over their labors, always trying to get better. They produce the words on a scheduled basis. This is called a quota.

By the way, I don’t want to hear any whining about a quota. There were times I didn’t want to go to court to defend a man so guilty his dog left him. But that was my job. I went and did it.

Show up. Write. Do your best. Take a break now and then—I take Sundays off completely—and then get back to the keyboard.

7. It’s a craft

The writing life is also about skills. Painters have paint, musicians have notes, surgeons have scalpels and forceps and malpractice insurance. And they all have mentors and journals and long periods of study.

Super Structure blueprint coverWho would tell a young golfer just to grab a club and start hacking balls around? All that produces is a menace to gophers. Sure, every now and then one might succeed, like a Bubba Watson. But you can count those guys on one foot with a toe missing.

Write and learn. Learn and practice.

(This seems an apt place to tell you that my new book, Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story is now available in print as well as E.)

6. It’s about steady growth

Forget the million-dollar advance on your debut novel. Or the viral downloading of your first e-novella. Not going to happen.

If you want to lead a writer’s life and even make some money at it, be prepared for an apprenticeship of years. I’ve been at this business for over two decades. The first five years brought me nothing, but all that time I was studying the craft like a madman and writing and writing.

I eventually landed a five-book contract, but did not quit my day job. I still had to get better, and that was my goal. It was only after ten years of steady production that I felt I could call myself a professional writer.

Even if you self-publish fast, it’s going to take time to grow a readership, and that’s only if you’ve followed all the above steps consistently.

5. It’s a fellowship

No, we don’t have a ring. Or even a secret sign. But writers do have each other, and we are, in large part, supportive. Every now and then a sour apple slips in––some egomaniacal writing brat, a sock puppet who tears down his rivals under a false name, or (worst of all) an odious plagiarizer.

But at conferences and local gatherings, online or in person, wherever authors congregate you’ll find fellow travelers willing to give you a tip or some encouragement. It’s good to remember that while we write alone, we are also “social people who can greatly benefit from balancing solitude and community.”

4. Don’t get hooked on the ups

It’s fun to land on a bestseller list, or making it to #1 in an Amazon category, or getting an email from a true fan who loved your book, or finding your bank account unexpectedly and substantially expanded one month. All these are nice, and to be enjoyed for what they are.

Just remember one thing: Don’t let them go to your head. Don’t expect that they will be easily repeated. Don’t let them inflate your ego. And especially don’t let them keep you from continuing to work and grow. The literary landscape is littered with the dry husks of careers that flowered briefly but were not sustained because of hubris, ego, fear, booze, or simple neglect.

Enjoy a victory for a day or two, then concentrate on your current project.

3. Now is the best time to live the writing life

We’re in year number eight of the digital era in publishing. Since the introduction of the Kindle at the end of 2007 more writers are making more money than at any time in history. Some are killing it, many are making a living, scores more are realizing a nice side income, and almost anyone who is serious is making enough to support at least a Starbucks habit.

This was never possible before. Ever since old Gutenberg set movable type, the power to publish belonged to those who owned the presses and dealt with bookstores selling paper copies. Writers were at the mercy of commercial interests. If those interests ever felt your value had diminished, they could end your participation––and maybe your career––by not offering you another contract (or, worse, canceling the current one).

The landscape has changed forever. There are new challenges to face, of course (*cough* discoverability *cough*). But writers have always had challenges. What’s new and life-altering is that they now have options.

2.  It’s a business life, too

A writing life, as opposed to a writing hobby, must include plans based upon sound business principles. I’ve written a whole book about those principles, but suffice to say here that you only grow a business in two ways: First, by finding new customers. Second, by selling more products to your existing customers.

Learn how to do both and keep on doing it, and you’ll be living the writer’s dream.

1. It’s a great way to live, period

A life that nurtures your creative side is a great life, an expanded life. As long as you don’t forget the other things that matter—your loved ones, friendship, community—being a working writer is about the best thing there is to be.

Why? Because you see things deeply. You vibrate with emotion. You are not a mushroom stuck in the bog of existence. You have feeling, will, verve, and even joy if you’ll allow it to happen. As a writer who cares, works, trusts, produces, and keeps on trying you will be living proof of the credo of one of my favorite writers of all time, Jack London:

I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out

    in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom

    of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.

So what about you, writing friends? Anything you’d like to add to the list?