Last week I talked about my difficulty in coming to grips with character arcs, so this time around decided to share my thoughts on the book Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks, one of the top script consultants in the film industry.
This book places the character arc at front and centre of the plot development process.It shows how to build the story from the inside out and how the inner emotional journey interrelates with both the external plot and theme.
The reason character arcs are so important is because “external actions are always driven by internal need.” The more successful a writer is able to demonstrate the connection, the greater the ability of the audience to connect with a character. To illustrate this point, Ms Marks turns to the movie, Apollo 13.
Jim Lovell is portrayed and brave, competent and heroic from start to finish. When saving the day (as portrayed by the film), he did not need to dig deep inside himself or push himself to new heights. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, by comparison, had to “trust the force within”. He abandoned the traditional way of fighting to trust his own instincts which in turn provides the audience with greater emotional involvement.
She says of Apollo 13 – “it was well produced, well directed, well acted, well attended, and well developed around a very big and exciting event— as do too many modern movies, it left little lasting impact.”
With regards to how to create an arc, the book is divided into two parts. First up is Laying The Foundations.This section shows how the writer must establish plot (what the problem is and where the action takes place), Character (who) and theme (why). The outer, physical movement of the story is what pushes the plot forward from conflict to resolution.
Whatever the conflict, the stakes must be high enough to force the character to seek a resolution which in turn establishes a goal. It is the action the character takes in pursuit of the goal that drives the story from one point to the next. It also provides the character with an opportunity to grow.
Whilst many different movie examples are cited, the three main case studies used throughout are Romancing the Stone, Lethal Weapon and Ordinary People. In Romancing The Stone, we are shown how the outer action driving the story forward, is Joan’s attempt to save her sister.
Following this pattern of explanation followed by movie examples, the first section goes on to identify the protagonist, define theme and establish the character’s fatal flaw. Theme is something I find particularly difficult to embrace, but this book provided me with something of a breakthrough after reading the following explanation:
“1. The fatal flaw represents the opposite value of the theme.
2. The fatal flaw is determined by inverting (finding the opposite value of) the internal goal of the theme.”
The theme of Romancing the Stone is “love is an adventure.” Joan’s fatal flaw is “she hides from her heart” In order to open her heart, she will have to embrace adventure. So the chances are if you know your character’s flaw (the lie they believe about themselves), you have your theme and vice versa.
The second half of the book is called Building The Arc Of Character. It demonstrates how all theses elements of outer plot, conflict, fatal flaw and theme weave together around the three act structure.
The outer action/external goal pushes the protagonist outside of their comfort zone, challenging their old belief system until they reach the point of exhaustion and are forced to re-evaluate their view on life – AKA the Mid-Point of a story.
In Romancing the Stone, Joan is forced to trudge through the jungle with a man she doesn’t like. “The more Joan physically weakens, the more she is forced to survive by drawing on inner strengths she didn’t know she had.”
With the continuing use of case studies, we are shown how to bring the character through the Period of Grace and on to the Second Turning Point where all appears lost and he’s forced to truly look inside himself and change in order to get what he wants both physically and emotionally.
Romancing the Stone is a film I’ve always enjoyed, but the ending always lacked a certain something for me and I never knew what. Ms Marks explains what was missing, how the transformational arc was at fault, and Joan’s ability to trust in love was never sufficiently tested.
I must admit, I struggled a little with the first half of this book. Different writing pundits tend to use different terms to explain similar ideas, and sometimes these terms feel contradictory to each other. So initially I had trouble understanding some of the concepts. But by the time I reached the second half, little light bulbs were starting to go off inside my head, and the constant use of so many different movies to illustrate each point really helped drum home the basic requirements of a character arc and how to apply them.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Inside Story to a beginner, as some basic knowledge of story structure is helpful to fully understand the book’s premise. And of course, other people may have a different takeaway to me, but overall I thought this was a little gem of a book and thoroughly recommend it. I can now approach my own editing process with renewed understanding.
Lizzie Hermanson is a wife, mother and talented procrastinator. She writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard and loves Happy Ever Afters. Find her @lizziehermanson