Mysteries of Pacing
How Fast Can A Character Arc?
Previous parts in this series:
Part 3 - where we discussed the TV Series Outlander
Part 4 Story Pacing
In Part 4 we talked about Story Pacing, using the term Story to represent what is going on inside the Characters, and Plot to represent the events going on outside the Character.
The Story is the progression of the Character's attitudes toward life, their own identity, the limits of what they can or can't do, the motives of others, etc. The Story is driven by the Character's internal conflict, and the story ends when the Conflict joined on page one finally ends in a resolution.
Likewise Plot is the progression of events outside the Character, what we have previously termed "the because line." It is a sequence of Events caused by the Main Character's first action on page one.
The Main Character is determined by which Character acts in such a way that causes (because) external Events to happen.
The Main Character may not be "in charge" or deliberately determining what will happen, but what happens can be seen by the reader to be the result of what this Character did.
Very often, new writers produce whole manuscripts focused on the wrong character.
Editors presented with an elevator pitch will often ask, "Whose story is it?" and the facility with which the pitch presenter answers can determine whether the editor wants to see a Chapter.
So once you have an Idea for a story, a world, a situation, and something to say about that, you must explore the material to find the Character whose story is happening right in that frame.
To learn to explore a fictional world, to frame an angle on that world as a videographer frames a wedding picture, just explore your everyday world.
Art is a selective representation of reality.
Select the right bits and pieces, arrange them just so, and you can convince the audience that this impossible place is real, and that there is something to be learned about reality by studying this fantasy.
That's how we judge a potential lover, and that's how we tend to fall in love, then awaken to the Big Shock when the Honeymoon is over. We have misjudged what is relevant about this person, or possibly about ourselves.
So how fast can a Character Arc, or change their point of view, or reformulate their filter and still seem "realistic" to the audience?
The final step in that change of view of Reality is, in everyday life, just the snap of the fingers. The aha! The oho!
It seems FAST because we don't ordinarily notice or record the many tiny steps leading up to that big reveal.
In a work of fiction, though, readers do look for and notice those tiny steps. If the Character just suddenly Arcs, or changes their filters to discover information that they've been ignoring, (he's cheating on me!) without those incremental steps, the audience may regard the Character as "cardboard" or the plot as "contrived."
That's right, readers (even experienced beta readers) may point to the plot as the problem when in fact it is the story that needs work.
The plot will seem contrived if the Main Character acts in such a way as the reader expects Event A to occur, but the writer wants Event B to occur, so the writer just writes Event B.
The reader expects Event A because in their everyday life, that's what would happen.
How could Event B happen instead? If the previous Events have impacted the Main Character's view of reality such that the Main Character comes to a new understanding (however fallacious) of what is really going on. Think about optical illusions.
In other words, if the writer has shown the Main Character changing their mind as a result of the Events happening because of the Main Character's actions, it becomes plausible that the Main Character could change their entire take on the nature of Reality.
For example: being kidnapped by a UFO and becoming part of an Alien work of Art.
One of the writer's most powerful artistic tools is Cognitive Dissonance - a mismatch between what the Character assumes and the Reality of the Character's Situation.
Cognitive Dissonance is one of the Artist's tools.
Carefully airbrushed into a story, that dissonance can rivet the reader's attention, and even spur the reader to reassess their own mental filters on their everyday reality.
Think back to the books you have read that changed how you think about leading your own life. Maybe reread some of them and look for how the writer used cognitive dissonance.
As you build your Main Character's strength of personality, creating a Character your target readership can identify with, consider how much drama (Pluto driven events of change, loss, war) will be necessary to crack that Character's defenses.
A person's "defenses" surround the opinion-structure to keep out information that could change that opinion (my husband would never cheat on me because I would never cheat on him). What would it take to change that opinion? Walking in on him having sex with the chamber maid?
What would it take to make a human finally notice they had married a non-human in disguise, on Earth to spy us out for a takeover?
How strong is the defense of denial built into the mental filters? That is the resistance that must be overcome by Plot Events and force the Character to Arc.
How the Character changes, how fast is plausible to the reader, depends on the detailed and careful construct the writer has presented.
In Comics, Characters just learn their lesson after one lesson. In Reality, it usually takes years and years of repetition to drive a point home. In a Selective Recreation of Reality - it will take 400 pages, and 4 "Acts" of the drama to morph a Character to the end of their Arc.
Even in a Series, a Character must Arc definitively at the end of each novel, with something left over to wonder about.
In Part 4 of this Series, we noted how the Story starts on page one where the Main Character is presented with a Conflict and the Reader just knows this Character "has a lot to learn."
The Genre to choose for your story (Genre determines Plot), depends on which readership will "just know this Character has a lot to learn."
That's the suspense element that glues the reader to the page. The Character must learn what the Reader already knows, but clearly this Character will resist. How hard will the Character resist, and how long will the fight last?
Who else might come along to disrupt and redirect the Plot?
Keep them guessing, and that will keep them glued to the page.
But you must deliver the satisfaction of the Character learning the expected lesson, even while learning an unexpected lesson, a lesson the reader doesn't know.
Think about what has made you change your mind as you have lived life.
Think about what has made you determined not to change your mind, no matter what.
Consider how to convince your target readership (using what you know about the group's characteristics, age, gender, etc) to think about that unexpected lesson as a question they don't know the answer to.
One thing that will make the unexpected lesson stick in the reader's memory is the emotional satisfaction of the expected lesson. To relive that satisfaction, a reader may reread a novel years later, and notice that they first learned the unexpected lesson via that novel.
Fiction is most entertaining when it asks questions, but leaves the reader to formulate their own answers. Usually, no two readers will come to the same answers, but all will be engrossed, and talking about that novel for years to come.
Write an Alien Romance; Start an Argument.
Think about Pon Farr and Sarek's answer to the question of why he married Amanda. "It was the logical thing to do."
The setup for that famous one-liner, and all the arguments about it that have raged for decades, began with the first episode (not the pilot) of ST:ToS.
Set up your raging question just as carefully, and remember it is all about the theme.
Star Trek was Roddenberry's way of depicting humanity's future as having learned (species arc!) to be wise. He chose "the genetic wars" as the turning point, and from then on humanity became wise.
Wisdom had something (unspecified) to do with emotion ruling our actions, so the First Officer (Number One, a woman) was to be a character who acted without being driven by emotion.
Paramount would not buy the series if there was a woman giving orders to men, so Number One and Spock (who had emotions) were composited into one character, a First Officer Alien Without Emotions.
But that didn't violate the theme --- humanity can become wise.
It did, in fact, show-don't-tell huge numbers of questions about human nature, while at the same time creating one of the sexiest Characters in Television History.
Note that, series to movie to series, Spock and Vulcan "Arc" or change on impact of Events caused by their existence, presence, and actions.
Character Arc is one of the drivers of Pacing in fiction. How fast does the target audience want to see the Character change his/her mind, emotions, opinions, politics, religion?
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