The last two posts I’ve written have been centered around my rediscovery of writing. A search that actually began months ago, even before my encounter with creative silence. I won’t bore you with all of the history again, since I’ve written about all of it (including the creative silence) elsewhere on this blog. Read When You Find Yourself Becalmed and How to Get in Writing Shape After a Long Absence.
Part of my search happened to be reading two books on writing by James Scott Bell. Both have intrigued me since I first heard about them. Only lately, however, have I had the opportunity to read them.
The first is called The Art of War for Writers. Who wouldn’t wonder what a book like that is about? As it turns out, it’s not about writing war scenes. It’s a book of short tips, suggestions, and encouragements based on The Art of War, written by ancient Chinese General Sun Tsu. Most of the entries are less than two pages long. Some aren’t even a page long. But it’s a helpful and encouraging book and I urge you to get a copy if you don’t already have one.
The second book is Write Your Novel From the Middle. Yes, it’s another book on designing story, but it’s not just another book on designing story. It delves into basic story structure, but only to lay the foundation for the real meat of the book, which is uncovering your lead character’s arc. Or, as Bell puts it, discovering what your story is really all about.
…Virtually all books on the [writing] craft approach it as another “plot” point. Something external happens that changes the course of the story. But what I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.
Ordinarily, I don’t read books about how to write while I’m writing. It’s counterproductive.
But I did this time because I’d hit a wall with the story I was working on. I knew how I wanted the plot to unfold, but could not for the life of me figure out how to write the first act. Nothing was working. It was as simple as that.
In the process of thinking through the problem, I came across Write Your Novel From the Middle and thought, I need to read that book. I set aside one afternoon and read it cover to cover in about four hours—including taking notes. As I read, a door gradually creaked open. Through that widening crack, I could see not only the problem with the current work-in-progress but with a story I’ve finished a dozen times over the last twenty years but have never been happy with.
It’s All About What Happens to the Lead Character
In a character-driven story, [the character] looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act 2, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome himself? Or how will he have to change in order to battle successfully?
The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be professional, physical, or psychological.
These two basic thoughts are not mutually exclusive. For example, an action story may be given added heft by incorporating the first kind of reflection into the narrative. This happens in Lethal Weapon when Riggs bares his soul to Murtaugh, admitting that killing people is “the only thing I was ever good at.”
Rather than thinking of the turning point in the middle of the story as the second major turning point (which is what I usually do), Bell was telling me to look at it as a moment of truth, what he calls a Look in the Mirror Moment, for the lead character. It’s the moment at which the character is forced to look at himself in a mirror. What he sees has the potential to change the direction of the story.
More importantly, what he sees and his response to it is what the story is about.
Once you know what your character sees when he looks into the mirror, you can work backward to set up the circumstances and backstory that create the original condition. You can also work forward to the end of the story, when your character either changes or refuses to change. Those three points—the pre-story condition, the Mirror Moment, and the post story condition of the lead character—make up the Golden Triangle.
The real beauty of understanding how this character arc works is that you can use it at any stage in the writing process. That story in progress of mine? It’s at the perfect point to figure out the lead character’s Golden Triangle.
The same is also true for that twenty-year-old story or for the next story I work on.
It also works for every type of writer. Planner, pantser, or tweener. It doesn’t matter how you write or how little or much of your story you’ve written.
After reading the book, I sent an email to Mr. Bell thanking him for the book and asking for a guest post or permission to excerpt the book. He instead granted permission to glean a few gems from his original post on Write Your Novel From the Middle, which appeared at The Kill Zone in July 2013. You now know the gems I gleaned. Read the full post here. You won’t regret it.
Nor will your work in progress!