Today in our focus on writing, we’re continuing our discussion of the Character Arc, which was begun last week.
Part 1 Posted on Monday July 13, 2020
Part 2 Posted on Wednesday July 15, 2020
But first, maybe you’re a writer like me, one who needs a few notes and a loose outline help me get the manuscript started.
Many writers work at a day job, and using the note-taking app on the cellphone during work hours is frowned on. If you are in that category and you are not working from home, you can go old-school with a pocket-sized notebook, and write those ideas down.
That way, you can unobtrusively make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story, and you won’t appear distracted or off-task.
Once you have assembled your random ideas, and maybe even written a chapter or two, it’s time to think about who the characters are and how they react to their circumstances.
At the outset of the story, we meet our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings.
Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, an event occurs, which is the inciting incident. This is an occurrence that falls in the first chapters of the story, forcing the protagonist out of their usual circumstances. It hooks the reader and is the first point of no return.
The protagonist, in those opening paragraphs, has been shaped by the situation and lifestyle in which they are accustomed to living.
We’re going to plot a mystery with an eye toward how the protagonist is changed by their circumstances. If it seems familiar, it’s because this is a scenario I’ve used before:
The story opens when Dave, an unmarried accountant, has received an unexpected bonus and splurges on lunch in a restaurant. He sees a woman from across the café and develops a small, instant infatuation. He wishes he were brave enough to walk up and introduce himself.
What is the action he would do that falls within his comfort zone? What would he spontaneously do that is unusually bold for him?
Perhaps he chooses to secretly “pay-it-forward,” buying her lunch when he pays for his own on his way out. You must show him as a shy person not given to speaking to women he doesn’t know, much less buying their lunch.
So, this act is a bold one for Dave, and it must change his life.
Because he acted on the wild notion to pay for her lunch, he draws the attention of the people who were following her. These people operate on a level a mere accountant wouldn’t know exists.
To them, that act of buying her lunch was a secret code. They decide that Dave is a spy posing as an accountant. Unbeknownst to Dave, who goes about his life as he always does, regretting only that he didn’t dare to say hello to the woman, his every move is now on their radar.
Buying a stranger lunch was the inciting incident. Everything that happens from here on occurs because of that innocent act.
This is where Dave is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation that is the core idea of our plot. For the rest of the novel, his circumstances will transform his way of thinking.
Two days later, as he walks to work, a white limousine pulls up alongside him. Four men in dark suits hustle him into the backseat. He is forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Oslo, Norway, handcuffed to a suitcase. The only other key that can remove the handcuffs is at the American Embassy in the custody of a mysterious woman, Lisa Desmond.
This is the new circumstance in which our protagonist finds himself as a result of the inciting incident.
How does Dave react to his kidnapping and what is his physical condition at the moment he is kidnapped?
How does Dave change his situation for better or worse?
How do the antagonistic forces react when they discover he is not a spy but is just an accountant who is now in danger of losing his job?
This is where we discover who the woman in the café really is and what role she will play in Dave’s new life as an unwilling spy.
Everything you will write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail Dave’s quest and how the circumstances he finds himself in as each scene progresses shape his view of himself.
For a writer, winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating. Still, my years of experience with NaNoWriMo has taught me that writing by the seat of my pants for extended lengths of time only works until I run out of ideas for what to do next.
With a simple outline, I don’t become desperate and start writing random bunny trails to nowhere into the plot.
DISCLAIMER: This does NOT apply to anything written during November and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). By day ten, I will have written an incredible number of events-to-nowhere into the manuscript. These are things that have nothing at all in common with the original story. However, I volunteer as a Municipal Liaison, so during NaNoWriMo, I must get my word-count. I write some crazy things during NaNoWriMo.
But I won’t trash them.
In December, I cut them and paste them into a separate document. I save those outtakes in my ‘idea file.’
Some of the prose will be good, and with a few minor changes (names, places), these outtakes are the seeds from which other stories grow.
I will post the fourth and final installment in The Character Arc series on Wednesday. Through the events that form the arc of the plot, Dave’s character arc becomes more defined. He becomes more decisive and able to act in the open as opposed to remaining hidden.
At first, Dave just wants to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately and believes that somehow it will happen. On Wednesday, we will delve more deeply into Dave’s objectives.
We will explore how setting goals and working to achieve them gives Dave more control over his circumstances and forces him to become a bolder person.
Credits and Attributions
Eye on Flat Panel Monitor, Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis © 2013