Life is Change, and So Are Stories
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August 4, 2016
Every day people do things that are funny or sad or frustrating, and later go home to tell the family about these things. And the "performance" of the telling can be fascinating or engaging, but these moments are fleeting and rarely linger. The stories that linger, whether they are family stories told or books read, are the ones that are all about change.
Fiction, especially, gives us (as humans) a way to explore possibilities and the complexities of the world around us (or the one someone imagined in their head). But more than anything else, it gives us a way to watch change.
When a story is important, when the stakes are high, and the pressure from the plot compelling, then change is virtually certain. Those things we struggle to achieve change us. I know the slow (and often daunting) journey of professional writing has produced change in me, and not just change in my skills. I've changed as a person as I've been forced to become more patient and more determined and more resilient. I had to change in those areas or give up on the career I wanted. Great pressure, great rewards, nearly always come from––and produce––great change.
So how is your character changing in the story you've written? How is the person we met at the beginning of the story different from the person we meet at the end? And did the change come about the way change happens in real life (through challenge, struggle, and work) or did your character get nagged into change? I know, personally, I've absorbed a lot of nagging in my life and it has almost never resulted in change. I may alter behavior for a while to avoid the nag, but real change comes from deeper experience and it should do so for your character as well. A close cousin to the nagged-until-you-change plot is the comes-to-realize plot where a character just comes to realize he or she should change, and therefore does. That one tends to feel shallow and weak as well.
Now, not all books have change because not all books have a plot. Nearly all novels involve change. The vast majority of chapter books and short stories involve change. But some picture books do not. The ones that don't are mostly about simply looking at some over-the-top character or being introduced to some life experience (like meeting a fireman or going to the dentist). And, even the life experience picture books often include a plot and change. Change tends to be as inherently a part of plot as thorns are a part of roses. It may not be the first thing you notice, but once you encounter it, it becomes hard to forget.
If you struggle with change in your plots, try thinking about the ways you are a different person now than you were when you were very young. You've changed. Now some change is physical, but what about the changes deep in you. What motivated them? What incidents helped shape those changes. For instance, I have always been an imaginative person and was terribly afraid of the dark as a small child because of the things I imagined in it. As I grew older, I accepted (intellectually) that the dark probably didn't include aliens, boogey monsters, or ghosts. But I could have easily exchanged one scare for another, and did as I went off to college. The night became full of potential evil-doers, and I could have carried a lot of those fears into adulthood as plenty of women do. But I didn't. And the change wasn't intellectual, but experiential and pure stubbornness. I didn't like being afraid. It didn't line up with how I saw myself. So I pushed myself out into that thing I feared most and gradually, I changed.
In other words, one character trait I had produced an action that changed a different trait. Change came from action and experience. The action came from pressure (a disgruntlement about being afraid and a refusal to miss out on stuff because of it) and character (stubbornness) and the action had results. That's the way change happens and it's the way a good plot works too.
Is that how your plot is working? If not, it might be time for a change.
Jan Fields is a full time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Take the free aptitude test here.