Using the Argument Against Transformation to Strengthen Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Thus Rick, at the end of Casablanca, has transformed from a loner who has withdrawn from the community into a self-sacrificing member of the war effort.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!

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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.)

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Bonding Character and Reader

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Lee Patrick as Effie Perine in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

What is the most important thing your novel must accomplish with the opening pages?

A gripping first line? An action-driven plot? World building? A compelling lead character? Style? Voice?

All of the above?

Well, sure! If you can do all that, do it. But let me suggest that there’s something else, without which these elements won’t be as effective.

What the author must do, as soon as possible, is bond the character to the reader. It’s an emotional alchemy that render fictive gold. When the reader is not just interested in, but emotionally connected to the main character, the urge to turn pages ramps up to its fullest potential.

This is why the concept of the opening disturbance is so crucial. When a character is confronted with threat or challenge, we have a naturally sympathetic reaction. We can identify. We’ve all been there. That’s why this a good first step to the bonding I’m talking about.

An even more powerful effect can be achieved by adding a second technique, one I call the Care Package. It’s one of my fourteen signpost scenes as laid out in Super Structure.

In the most basic sense, it refers to a caring relationship is in place before the story begins between the main character and someone else. This is to distinguish it from Pet the Dog, which is when the Lead, somewhere in the middle of the story, takes time to help another character who is weaker and in need.

A perfect example of both is in The Hunger Games. When we first meet Katniss, she is out hunting to feed her family—her mother and her little sister, Prim. Katniss’ actions are illegal, but she does this out of love. Those relationships are in place before the novel begins. Author Suzanne Collins also includes in this Care Package a scruffy cat that Katniss does not like. This is a skillful addition, for the Care Package works even if a character is resentful about the relationship and the caring is done out of obligation. That works because we admire those who do their duty, regardless of feelings.

In the middle of the book, Katniss becomes the protector of the weakest of the tributes in the Games—Rue. That’s an example of Pet the Dog. It is a relationship formed after the story is well under way.

I got an email recently from a writer who asked if the Care Package could be something the character is passionate about, like basketball or playing the piano.

The short answer is No. It has to be a human or an animal (as in Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz, or Terry Malloy and his pigeons in On the Waterfront). Being in love with an activity falls under the umbrella of self-interest. Caring about another person is the essence of selflessness.

Note, too, that the Care Package applies to any genre. Even the hardest of hardboiled fiction, as demonstrated in this passage from Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon:

When Spade reached his office at ten o’clock the following morning Effie Perine was at her desk opening the morning’s mail. Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn. She put down the handful of envelopes and the brass paper-knife she held and said: “She’s in there.” Her voice was low and warning.

“I asked you to keep her away,” Spade complained. He too kept his voice low.

Effie Perine’s brown eyes opened wide and her voice was irritable as his: “Yes, but you didn’t tell me how.” Her eyelids went together a little and her shoulders drooped. “Don’t be cranky, Sam,” she said wearily. “I had her all night.”

Spade stood beside the girl, put a hand on her head, and smoothed her hair away from its parting. “Sorry, angel, I haven’t—” He broke off as the inner door opened. “Hello, Iva,” he said to the woman who had opened it.

One action: smoothing her hair. One line, and not even one Spade gets to finish! This moment is the only bit of tenderness Sam Spade shows to anybody in the book. But Hammett knew it would stand out for that very reason. We get one peek that Spade is not made of pure ice…because he has someone in his life he cares about.

Simple exercise: Before writing your novel, take ten minutes to brainstorm a list of possible Care Packages for your main character. Make some based in love and others out of duty. Eventually you will find the one that feels just right.

It will feel just right to the readers, too.

The floor is open. What Care Packages can you think of from favorite novels or films? NOTE: I’m in travel mode today so my comments will be scarce. Talk amongst yourselves!

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