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?

Pat Bertram and Malcolm R. Campbell Discuss the Writer’s Journey

Malcolm: I’ve always liked the concept of life as a journey in which each of us walks as a seeker and/or a hero on a winding route to places we don’t yet know or understand. So, I appreciate the invitation to stop by your blog and talk about the writer’s journey.

Bertram: The mythic journey concept has infinite possibilities, both as a story structure and a metaphor for one’s life as an author. Do you make use of the mythic journey structure in your writing?

Malcolm: There are mythic qualities in THE SUN SINGER (2004) which is based on the hero’s path or the mythic journey as you call it. Ditto for the as-yet unpublished GARDEN OF HEAVEN. The upcoming JOCK STEWART AND THE MISSING SEA OF FIRE is unrelated to the others and is sort of a mystery/humor novel about a newspaper reporter.

Bertram: I like your image of writers as seekers walking a winding route to places we don’t yet know or understand. I often mention how hard writing is for me, but that’s because I don’t know how to write the books I want to write. I have to learn how to write each one separately as I’m writing them, and each takes me on a different journey.

Malcolm: My long-time mantra comes from author and teacher Richard M. Eastman’s book Style: Writing as the Discovery of Outlook (3rd edition, 1984):

“You don’t begin to write with a complete message or experience already imagined, which is then to be wrapped in language as a means of sending it to your readers. Writing isn’t so much communication as creation. In a real sense, you don’t have an outlook on anything without first having written on it. This outlook comes into being through the dozens of tests, choices, and unexpected chances which turn up as you write on some engaging topic; and most writers agree that the final creation isn’t anything you could have precisely anticipated when you first set pen to paper.”

Bertram: That makes sense. For me, blogging especially is a way of discovering my outlook on whatever it is that I’m writing about.

Malcolm: This has been true for me whether I was writing a national register application, applying for a grant, writing a feature article or working on my novels, The Sun Singer (2004) or Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire (coming soon). In each case, I began with a body of knowledge and an opinion that were very different by the time I finished writing.

In terms of subject matter, do you find this to be true with your novels? I’m guessing that regardless of what you knew about pandemics, your understanding of them and their potential impact was much different after you wrote A Spark of Heavenly Fire than it was when you were first thinking about writing the novel.

Bertram: My research into pandemics was actually quite extensive, and so was my research into the government’s response to such an emergency (I based my fictional response on actual executive orders that Clinton signed), so there wasn’t much difference in my understanding during the course of the book, but there was a big difference in my thoughts about what they want us to know and what they don’t. When I learned about Pingfan, the Japanese biological warfare installation where they did horrendous experiments on POW’s and nearby villagers, I thought I’d stumbled onto something really explosive. Yet, as happened to a character in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the very next novel I picked up used Pingfan as a setting. It got me to thinking about the nature of cover-ups, and many of the discussions in the last half of the book took place while I was writing the book.

Malcolm: We often hear that the writer’s journey has an inner and outer aspect. I see the outer aspect plot as it unfolds with a variety of characters, locations, and challenges. You chose Denver and pandemics for A Spark of Heavenly Fire and I chose the Montana Rockies of an alternate universe for The Sun Singer. Thinking of stories based on the hero’s path schema, from Star Wars to The Matrix to Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, the emotional, psychological changes and spiritual growth of the protagonist are viewed as more central and important than his thoughts, words and deeds. In mythic terms, the hero undergoes a transformation by undergoing the trials and tribulations of the outer journey. Robert Adams undergoes a transformation in The Sun Singer just as Jock Stewart is changed by the events in Sea of Fire. Do you feel this way about Kate Cummings and Greg Pullman?

Bertram: All the characters in A Spark of Heavenly Fire undergo transformation, especially the women. I always liked Washington Irving’s quote, and wrote the book using it as the theme: “There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”

Malcolm: In my life, the deepest part of the writer’s journey comes from how the writing changes me. The Sun Singer and the darker, as-yet unpublished Garden of Heaven were each written over a twenty-year period because, other than the plot and theme the reader sees, these novels dealt with integral issues within my own life. I had a lot to work out!

Bertram: I’m beginning to see that what I write is what I happen to be living. My first four books explored the theme of public lies and hidden truths because that’s what I was studying at the time. My current work supposedly explores the theme of safety vs. freedom, but it’s really about change, and there is a lot of change in my life right now.

You have a book that’s going to be published this summer. You once mentioned that you wrote it differently from the first two.

Malcolm: In Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire, I opened the floodgates and let the words flow. I wrote quickly and it felt like play because I had turned my wisecracking alter ego loose with no chains or boundaries. When I finished writing and editing the material in less than two months, I felt the good kind of tired one feels after an afternoon at a carnival or a day at the beach. This was energizing because, well, I was still capable of play and the benefits of play. Do you feel this “play value” from certain chapters of your novels or from your short stories?

Bertram: I start out playing with ideas and characters, and then when I start writing and trying to make all the pieces come together, I lose that feeling of play. One of the things I am looking for on my journey as a writer is more playfulness. I don’t know if you can you choose where you want to go on the journey, or if the journey takes you where it wishes, but I would like to experience what you did — opening the floodgates and letting the story flow.

Malcolm: I’m curious about your novel in progress.

Bertram: So am I! For a long time I had no real idea what I was writing — I thought I was writing a whimsically ironic apocalyptic fantasy — then all of a sudden one day it dawned on me I’m writing another story of a mythic journey. As my hero tries to find his place in a world that changes by the minute — cities becoming prairie, oceans appearing out of nowhere — he follows the hero’s path, and becomes transformed.

My third book, which is going to be published in a couple of months, was my first mythical journey story. It’s about a young woman who discovers that her grandparents were recently murdered which came as a shock to her because her father claimed they had died before she was born. She goes on a journey to discover who her grandparents were, why someone wanted them dead, and why her father lied to her. I purposely used the mythic template for the book (wanted an excuse to use it, actually), though her mentors and allies aren’t the typical alien or fantasy characters such as wizards, but are aged gangsters and conmen.

Malcolm: My father’s brother was murdered in Fort Collins before I was born. The case was never solved. From time to time, I wonder what happened. Time and distance are part of the challenge of finding details. It would be a journey to dig into it as your character will do in Daughter Am I. I love the concept of going back to figure out the real story.

Bertram: I do, too. All of my books follow the same underlying story: who are we, really? And how do our experiences change us? Which brings me to another question I want to discuss: does a person write a book or does the book write a person?

Malcolm: Your question reminds me of the difference between a layperson’s view of a complex and a Jungian analyst’s view of a complex. People sometimes admit that they have one complex or another. Jungians see it the other way around, saying that the complex has you.

Perhaps the relationship between author and book is the same for many authors, with the book holding a much greater sway over the author’s life than s/he–and especially his readers–may believe. At best, it’s like a marriage, author and book, and the better the book is, the better that marriage has been.

Bertram: That makes sense. I am at a crossroads in my writing life. I’ve used up the theme that haunted me for many years — public lies and hidden truths. Because of my stories, I seem to have come to an accommodation with the reality, and so I no longer have any desire to write about such things. So now I’m waiting for some other . . . passion, perhaps. Or a transformation. Because it does seem as if writing transforms us.

Malcolm: People often talk about defining moments, good and bad. Afterwards, they see themselves and the world differently. Plunging into the deep waters of a work of fiction in progress is also a defining moment. Writers experience what their characters experience whether it’s the horrors of Pingfan or the joy of my protagonist in The Sun Singer when he reaches the summit of a mountain of visions. We polish these scenes until the horror and the joy are shown to the reader in ways that cause the greatest impact. Doing this, I think, changes a writer just as much as a “real life” experience.

Bertram: In The Writers Journey, Christopher Vogler talks about writing as a perilous journey to probe the depths of our souls, and that the struggles we undergo to write, to sell our work, to deal with rejection seem to kill us, but we are resurrected to write again. And to go on another journey. Best of luck with your next journey, Malcolm.

Malcolm: This has been fun, Pat. Of course, I’m not the same person here at the end of the post that I was when we started. But that’s what it’s like being on the path.

See Also:
The Writer’s Journey
Celebrating Five Years of The Sun Singer

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