One of the main principles behind sound plot development is the change a major character must experience for the storyline to be effective. And make no mistake about it, this character must be different at the end of the story from what the writer presents at the outset. Yet the ability to show the changes in believable ways is just as important as the modifications themselves.
THE ELEMENTS OF SCREENWRITING, by Irwin R. Blacker, Provides a Solid Template to Follow
In my creative writing workshops I often allude to books on screenwriting to help writers structure their novels in a technically correct manner. Irwin R. Blacker’s THE ELEMENTS OF SCREENWRITING offers superb advice with respect to the principle characters’ requiring change, and he explains ways this can be accomplished.
Changes to a Character, While Essential, Cannot Be Sudden
One of the most important issues Blacker points out is that writers often show a character’s shift in persona occurring too abruptly. I will occasionally ask a writer to look at his or her draft and pinpoint the exact location in the story where a major change occurred with one of the primary characters. If the writer can go to a single paragraph in the narrative, this lets the person know that the change wasn’t subtle enough–and too much happened at one time.
Gradual Changes Also Move the Plot Along
The biggest downfall to a sudden change is that it doesn’t give the character and/or plot a chance to adequately develop. And the pacing will often flag, as one seems to have an inverse relationship to the other, especially if too much of a change occurs too rapidly. Small changes that take place as the plot moves along serve two main purposes from a technical perspective, as the reader’s understanding of the character can be advanced at the same time it’s being solidified.
There Is a Point When the Reader Must Know the Change Has Taken Place
Although I just wrote at length about subtlety, at some point in the story the change in a character must be obvious to the reader. The skill in presenting these subtleties so they ultimately develop in dramatic fashion can make or break a story.
When does Gregor Samsa, and therefore the reader, realize there is no possibility of his returning to his normal body? When does Pierre realize his life will never be the same, even if he can reclaim his position with the royal family in Russia? How about the Reverend Dimmesdale’s realization that he can no longer endure Chillingworth’s prodding? Or Raskolnikov’s acceptance of the reality of his crimes during his gut-wrenching confessions? And, in a more contemporary vein, Meggie’s acceptance of her life after the birth of a son she never reveals to the priest who fathered her child?
Find a Pace for Each Character
Studying the sort of outstanding material I just referenced can give writers a feel for the pace of each of their character’s development in their own work. By translating the concept of change to their personal narratives, authors can learn to sense when something should be foreshadowed and to what degree. Handled properly, the ultimate result will be both dramatic and obvious in the mind of the reader, which should be every writer’s goal.
Robert L. Bacon, Founder
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