All Is Lost, Bad Guys Close In, Beat Sheet, Blake Snyder, BS2, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Character Arc, Dark Night of the Soul, Elizabeth Fais, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock, Save the Cat!, Tim Stout
Stories help us cope with the chaos of life. They show us how to navigate social situations and overcome adversity. A New York Times article, “Your Brain on Fiction”, by Annie Murphy Paul, discusses studies that prove this.
For a story to fulfill its function and satisfy the human spirit, there has to be change. The covenant of the (character) arc, as Blake Snyder so wisely described it, is the necessity for characters to change. The measure of change is a character’s arc. In the best stories, all characters arc except the bad guy. J.K. Rowling did an excellent job of this throughout the Harry Potter series.
The Transformation Machine
Shake. Stir. Whip. Frappe. Do whatever it takes to force your characters to confront their frailties and become wiser, stronger, better. Blake Snyder, Mr. Save the Cat! referred to this process as the Transformation Machine.
All stories are about transformation. And seeing this as a good thing is the starting point of writing a successful story of any kind. ― Blake Snyder
In essence, the hero’s transformation mirrors the process of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. A type of death and rebirth are required to complete a satisfying character arc. Take Gracie Hart, the unrefined FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) in Miss Congeniality, who must become a polished beauty pageant contender in order to solve the crime and save the lives of her new friends.
Dishing out conflicts for characters isn’t always easy, but it’s a must. To achieve a great ending—as described in Secret Ingredients of a Satisfying Ending—the characters have to change. A lot.
There are plenty of character arc graphs and charts. I understood the theory, but applying it evaded me until I read Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BS2) story points, or beats, that push the character arc include: Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, and Dark Night of the Soul. Tim Stout provides excellent descriptions for each of these beats here.
Make ‘Em Suffer Till They Shine
It’s simple. To survive, our hero has to change. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) puts characters through hell—literally and figuratively. This pressure has an effect similar to that which transforms a lump of coal into a diamond. It files down the hero’s rough edges and makes him shine.
You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.
― Joss Whedon
Take it up a notch!
In chemistry, heat accelerates change. The same is true for stories. Here’s a few suggestions for turning up the heat and increasing the transformation process:
- Make the Bad Guy badder—For the protagonist to be perceived as the hero he is, the Bad Guy has to be as bad as possible. The villain must be an equal match for the hero, but willing to do whatever it takes to win. Beating the villain has to seem impossible, so when the hero wins he shines brighter.
- Increase internal conflicts—Fear, doubt, jealousy, shame, any and all emotional trauma. Bring it. The pressure makes the hero to face his inner demons, and forces him to realize that what he thinks he wants isn’t what he really needs. Dig Deep for a Story That Resonates shows how this can strengthen the story’s theme.
- Increase external conflicts with friends and relatives—Betrayal, abandonment, rifts in trust, arguments, even death. Pile it on. These conflicts push the hero to his lowest, forcing him to find strength he didn’t know he had.
- Throw in a force of nature—Wind, rain, earthquake, snakes, anything to make your character’s goal harder to accomplish. These obstacles can force the hero to overcome his flaws.
- Blow something up—A couple of authors shared this advice at a conference. The event has to be organic to the story and plausible for the characters. The action must also come from a deep emotional need to force transformation. Extreme times call for extreme measures.
Enhance the Heat
Stories have flavor. And just like a great meal, flavor is enhanced when complimented by an opposite. To strengthen the impact of a transformative moment, pair it with its opposite.
Joss Whedon said it best…
Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.
― Joss Whedon