Before and after snapshots illustrating change in a character
October 19, 2012
I made great progress on my book yesterday. I realized what was not working in the story. Well, one of the things that is not working.
My main character does not change.
Iâ€™ve been reading Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder to learn more about the craft of writing. Itâ€™s a screenwriting book, but 90% of it so far is about how to tell stories, which is applicable to any storytelling medium. About halfway through, he talks about the beats of the storyâ€”the major events that need to happen to make a story work.
Before and After Snapshots
The very first beat he suggests is to show a â€œbeforeâ€ image of your main character, so we all know what the characterâ€™s like as the story begins. Then at the end, he says you show an â€œafterâ€ image, which is opposite of the opening image, of course, because stories are about change.
After reading about these before and after snapshots yesterday morning, I began to see them everywhere in stories. Pride and Prejudice (with Kiera Knightley) starts with a sunrise and Elizabeth walking, alone. It ends with a sunrise and Elizabeth with Mr. Darcy. Then I read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie to my kids and realized this story had the snapshots, too. Opening image: the boy reading a comic book and offering a cookie to the mouse. End: same boy, same mouse, but the boy is utterly exhausted and surrounded by the mess the mouse caused.
So I sat down and wrote a sentence or two describing my main character at the beginning, and then at the end.
Alcibiades wants power but cannot get it. True friends w Socrates. Rich, handsome. Confident in his own goodness and that he deserves power. Confident he can use power to increase Athens. Unquestioningly loyal to Athens. Regards democracy as the obviously right thing.
No longer friends w Socratesâ€”havenâ€™t spoken in years. Still rich? Kind of, not really. Handsome, yes, but thatâ€™s something that can be dropped in a moment of disheveledness. Not so confident in his own goodness, perhaps. Still thinks he deserves power. Still thinks he can use that power to increase Athens. Firmly loyal to Athens now, though not unquestioningly. Democracy is perhaps a necessary evilâ€”worst form of government except for all the others sorta thing, perhaps.
Alcibiades, my main character, is pretty much exactly the same at the beginning or the end. And since I agree with Snyder that the point of a story is to show change, this is a problem.
There are plenty of solutions available, especially because Alcibiades changes in the middle of the story and is nearly the opposite of the beginning and the end snapshots. I could:
- Restructure the story and end in what is now the middle, where Alcibiades is the opposite of who he was in the beginning.
- Or restructure the story and start in the middle and end with the current end. Iâ€™d have to put in a flashback or something to explain his origins, since they are important to where he goes at the end.
- Make him change more.
- Try and make it work. Are there any stories where the main character changes, then changes back into who they were in the beginning?
- Find one thingâ€”a small thing, perhapsâ€”that will change about him. Alcibiades could begin as loyal and idealistic but (relatively) naiveâ€”and rich, handsome, searching for power, etcâ€”and end with him rich, handsome, searching for powerâ€”but no longer idealistic, no longer naive, no longer unquestionably loyal.
- Turn someone else into the main character. While all the interesting things happen to Alcibiades, itâ€™s possible to have him be the person that events happen to, but someone elseâ€”Socratesâ€”be the true main character, the person who actually changes. Because Socrates does changeâ€”he starts out an ordinary Athenian and transforms into the famous philosopher you learned about in school.
- Search through books and movies to see if there are any about a character who, like Alcibiades, changes in the middle but, in the end, reverts to his original state. See if it works for that story.
Some solutions are better than others. The very first, restructure the story, is probably the weakest, because it would be a lie to end the story with Alcibiades changed. And stories, at their deepest core, are about truth. The only way I could pull this off would be to write it as a seriesâ€”a trilogy, perhaps. While that is a possibility, Iâ€™d rather try writing a successful novel before I try writing a series of novels.
The â€œmake him change moreâ€ solution makes me hesitate, as well. Iâ€™ve been working with the story long enough that the characters have started to take on lives of their own, and Alcibiades particularly resists me changing him. Yes, I am the author. Yes, I have more power than a character I invented, butâ€¦ Itâ€™s kind of weird to describe, I guess. Plus, I have the historical background to consider. I donâ€™t want to be a slave to thatâ€”if I were, I shouldnâ€™t write this story at all and should just send people to read Thucydides instead.
Right now, Iâ€™m leaning more towards the last two options: 1) Have the story be about Socratesâ€™ change, even though most of the events happen to Alcibiades. Butâ€¦ Iâ€™m not entirely convinced that can work. Or 2) See if anyoneâ€™s made it work to have a character who changes, then reverts. A tragedy of some sort, perhaps?
What to do?
What do you think? Have you seen a movie or read a book that utilizes any of these solutions, particularly the last two?