Change

My father came home yesterday, and today we met with a visiting nurse who will be helping us through the next couple of months. I’m glad to have the help, both of the nurse and my sister. My father has been flat on his back for almost three weeks, more because of his disinclination to sit in a chair or walk rather than any medical issue. (“I have patients’ rights,” he told me smugly. “I have the right to refuse any treatment.” My explanation that sitting did not constitute a “treatment” did not sway him at all.)

nurseHe has the idea that he will immediately resume his normal life, and gets furious at me for suggesting it will be otherwise. (I have a hunch his fury stems from the fear that I am right.) I’m to the point where I simply smile at him and keep my reservations to myself. Maybe this time won’t be like all the other times he’s gotten out of the hospital and found himself helpless to do what he wanted. But the truth is, even for the relatively healthy, it takes a while to recuperate from a lengthy hospital stay.

Luckily for me, I won’t be the only one around to cater to his demands.

His homecoming and the nurse aren’t the only changes. My siblings are trying to get my insane and insanely drunk brother evicted from the garage, but supposedly they aren’t going to go against my wishes. I don’t want him forced out on the dusty streets of this hellishly hot and devilishly windy desert town. He needs to be in northern Colorado where perhaps he can get signed up for various social services.

I must be as crazy as he is — I have agreed to drive him back. 1000 miles with someone constantly bellowing in my ears is not my idea of a fun trip, but it’s the only alternative I can think of to legal hassles.

My sister came up with a brilliant idea. Rent some sort of SUV with plenty of cargo area for his hoardings, but take possession of it a few days in advance. Give him the alternative of loading up his stuff and being driven to Colorado in comfort, or staying and dealing with the repercussions of my siblings’ efforts to remove him.

Either way, with him or without him, I take off. If he’s in the vehicle, I only have to deal with him for two days, then blessed silence. If he doesn’t want to go, I take off for a weekend by myself. Sounds wonderful! The days off will also break my father’s psychological dependence on me, so that when I return, I won’t feel so burdened by his neediness.

Lots of changes in the air. I’ll let you know what happens.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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?