Without Changes, You Have No Story

Change is the reason for a story. Without change, you have an anecdote, perhaps a description of a life or a time, but no story.

Whenever there is change during the course of the story, and — more immediately — during a chapter, a scene, a page, even a paragraph, it advances the story. These changes should be interesting and compelling in themselves, but they should also worsen or improve the status of a character, raise new questions in readers’ minds as to the story’s outcome, and prepare for scenes to come.

Changes can be major alterations in a character’s life, such as the death of a loved one, or they can be as subtle as the touch of a hand. Changes can jolt the reader or give them a false sense of security so you can hit them with a major change later to better effect.

We often put characters through changes we want to explore. Lately, the only fiction I can write (to the extent that I write fiction, which isn’t much) is if my main character experiences a grievous loss. Apparently, I need to explore this change in my life any way I can, hoping to find a more appealing outcome. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been sticking to blogging and an occasional (very occasional) piece of short fiction — I can’t find a more appealing outcome to the changes in my life, can’t even imagine any appealing outcome, so I can’t write it.

In quest stories, the hero has to transform herself into the person who can bring about the necessary outcome, so maybe I’m still undergoing my transformation, and eventually, this transformation will change the outcome of both my story and the stories I write.

Writing doesn’t just happen, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Our stories change us every bit as much as we change our stories, in an every tightening spiral. We create episodes of change so that the characters will change which in turn change the plot, which in turn change the whole focus of the story, which in turn changes our relationship to the story.

While writing A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I was researching Pingfan and the human experiments that were being done there (some on American POWs) and I thought I’d found something that few others knew. Afterward, in every novel I picked up, there was a mention of Pingfan, so I had to change the focus of the book, which in turn changed the characters and how they got to the end. (The end was a given — I’d written that chapter about halfway through — I just needed to find a way to get there.) Many of the conversations I had about this Pingfan oddity ended up in the book, which gave the story an added depth.

Some psychologists say we never change in any basic way. That our characters and essential personalities are our foundation. We can only change in small ways, such as changing our habits or changing our focus. This is at odds with writing coaches who say that a character must do a complete about face. That about face is possible if it is motivated, if there is a reason for your character’s basic change. Normally, a smart person doesn’t become stupid overnight and a stupid person doesn’t become smart, though abnormal situations can create such changes. Flowers for Algernon, for example, or Regarding Henry.

Although change is important, many characters don’t change — take detective novels, for example. Most of the classic detectives were the same from the first page to the last. But other characters in the stories changed, and the situations changed, which kept the detectives changing direction and focus. So while they themselves didn’t go through any sort of metamorphosis, the stories still seemed to be about change.

Sometimes a character’s inability to change is the story. For example, if a character was tortured and despite the horrors, never changed, it would tell you a lot about the character, and how his non-change changed the world around him. (This was the theme of several movies, though I can’t remember a single title. Can’t remember the movies, either. Perhaps this isn’t as compelling a scenario as I thought.)

Almost anything can bring about a change. Lies can bring about change, the truth can bring about change, a knock on the door, a trip. Even something so simple as losing weight. I once had a friend, a lively teenage who was quite obese. Everyone kept telling her she would be so pretty if she lost weight. She did lose a lot of weight. Started before school let out and spent the whole summer being active and eating right. She wasn’t more attractive. And she wasn’t more popular. About broke her heart. Became sullen and morose. And depressed. And regained all the weight. Which is an example of another type of change — where the character changes but ends up the same as at the beginning.

Some questions to ask yourself if you need to delve deeper into the changes that occur during the course of your book:

What changes do your characters undergo?
Do you keep the changes coming at an ever dizzying rate or do you throw small changes at your characters, changes that add up over time?
Are your characters the same at the end of all these changes? Is their situation the same?
Is the final outcome a major upheaval for the character or merely a change in focus?
Do all your characters change, or just the main character?
How do you bring about the changes?
Are the changes an intrinsic part of the story or just thrown in for the sake of change?

10 Responses to “Without Changes, You Have No Story”

  1. Rod Marsden Says:

    I go along with the idea that we never change in any basic way after a certain age. The hard worker will always remain the hard worker only their perspective might alter when they ask why they are working so hard and what have been the fruits of their labor.

    I believe you have to be careful how a character changes in your story. There have been a few novels I have come across where one of the main characters has changed in what for this reader were unacceptable ways. To destroy the integrity of a character just to move a plot along isn’t always a good thing. If the character was an important factor in your reader actually liking your story you may lose your reader and they might decide not to come back ever.

    Some real life characters have had more than one side to their nature. The man who worked out the cheapest and most effective method of gassing hundreds of thousands of Jews, Gypsies, etc was a family man who was devoted to his wife and children. Was he still a monster? You bet. But he was a very human monster which in my book makes him all the more monstrous.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m glad you pointed that out, Rod, about not changing characters in unacceptable ways. The integrity of the character is important, especially since so often we read a story because of the character.

      You mention that some real-life characters have more than one side to their nature. If this is also true of fictional characters, can one side of their nature change while leaving the other side intact?

      That dual nature was common. Many hit men were family men, devoted to their wife and children.

      • Rod Marsden Says:

        I think that when dealing with a fictional character that has more than one side to their nature it is essential to make sure that both sides ring true and continue to ring true. A hit man devoted to his his wife and children I would say separates what he does as a business from what he does in his family life. If both his work life and family life were to clash you might see a melt down or their might be a way in which he can justify to himself and others both sides to his nature.

        The Nazi who arranged for cyclone B to be used to gas thousands of men, women and children justified this in saying that it was something he had to do to preserve his race and therefore his family. Even when caught by the Americans he remained both mass murderer and family man.

        In the film Road to Perdition we have a hit man who’s life goes wrong when he finds himself on the run with his son. He remains a hit man in that he needs those skills in order to survive those trying to hit himself and his son. His nature hasn’t changed but his circumstances certainly have from hit man to possible victim of a hit.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          The more I think about it, the more I see that the standard character arc of 180 degree change is not really workable for most stories. We just don’t change that much. I’ve gone through a lot of situational and emotional changes recently, and perhaps I’ve changed a bit — grown stronger, bolder, more patient with life’s vicissitudes, but I haven’t changed. In fact, a core aspect of my personality hasn’t changed since infancy. But even if core traits don’t change, there is always the change in focus, the change in habits, the change in how you treat people, which show character growth.

  2. Writing Jobs Says:

    Great post today. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Rod Marsden Says:

      Joylene loss is a powerful motive for change. I have experienced it myself and the thing I know is that one can change for a short period of time unless something deep happens then like an elastic band find one’s self hurled back to where you began the change. To change your fundamental nature past a certain age is extremely difficult. To change a character’s fundamental nature should be just as hard and requires a journey you take the reader on. It can be an exciting journey and why not? You don’t want to lose the reader. Of course if your character manages to keep certain elements of his or her past character all the better.

      I have a cousin who was in Vietnam. He was injured when a booby trap went off. He changed in that the shock of that moment gave him nightmares and still gives him nightmares. He did not change for many years in that he trained to be an engineer before he was sent overseas and he remained an engineer for many years. He had to give it up when the nightmares became too much for him to handle and work at the same time. He and his wife, the woman he married after Vietnam, had and have an interest in wildlife that helped and still helps with what mental recovery he could and can make. His interest in wildlife, however, was there before he met his wife and before Vietnam.

  3. joylene Says:

    Not only do you have no story, you have left the reader with no reason to read on. My novels are about loss also. It’s the adage: write what you know. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but I’ve experienced the rougher parts of life. I actually had a vet ask me what year I was in-country. I have to thank the vet who helped me with voice for that. He made sure I understood the change in a soldier from the time s/he stepped off the transport. Without change my characters wouldn’t be human.

    Hope you have a wonderful weekend, Pat.

    • Rod Marsden Says:

      Joylene, I wrote a reply to your writing only it ended up in the wrong spot, above your writing.

      One thing that did impress me about your argument was that you were speaking with some authority because you knew someone who had gone through change. I respect that. Striving for the right voice and using genuine information is important and can and should make your writing unique.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      This is an example of why fiction can be more true than truth. The loss is the truth, and that truth gives your story power. We need to get the details right, of course, which is why it’s so great you had a source to help you with those, but the truth was yours.

  4. Book Bits #79 – Rowling and Grant to Testify in Libel Inquiry, Sue Grafton, Ha Jin’s ‘Nanjing Requiem’ | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions Says:

    […] How To: Without Changes, You Have No Story by Pat Bertram – “Change is the reason for a story. Without change, you have an anecdote, […]

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