The following terms are often used in Plotting and Novel Structure:
A catalyst in the form of a challenge will force the hero to rise up and embrace his strengths in order to emerge victorious. Challenges are never easy, and even if the character believes himself to be capable, it is the author’s job to show that he isn’t—not, at least, until he puts in far more work and effort. Failures and mistakes will make the hero question who he is. To win, he must recommit to the task by acknowledging his weaknesses and overcoming them by shedding flaws and fears, achieving self-growth, gaining more skills, seeking out critical knowledge, or whatever else applies.
This character arc is the most common in storytelling. During the course of the story, the hero undergoes a much-needed internal transformation, which allows him to free himself from the fears, biases, and emotional wounds of his past. Without this baggage clouding his perspective and steering his actions, the hero is able to view his situation with clarity and act from a position of strength—not fear—which leads to achievement and fulfillment.
NOTE: If your story contains a Static Arc or a Failed Arc, the overall structure will follow Change Arc basics, but with some important adaptations. For a Static Arc, the focus is more on goal achievement and outer friction than inner reflection and growth, and with a Failed Arc, the seeds for failure must be sown throughout by showing how fear tinges your hero's actions and responses. And, while they may experience change and growth throughout the story, in the end, it won't be enough because their fear is too powerful.
Story catalysts come in many forms, but when things take a turn for the worst, we refer to this catalyst as a crisis. This type of event forces the character to act, since not acting will result in fallout for him or others. A crisis demands an immediate response and often presents the hero with choices or options that are equally difficult, requiring a sacrifice.
Emotions will steer a character’s behavior in any scene, so knowing how they are feeling—apprehensive, wary, excited, fearful, ashamed, etc.—will help you write their actions in a realistic way. Even if your hero is trying to hide what he feels, emotion is hard to suppress and will still manifest through his behavior, dialogue, and decision-making processes.
Another reason to determine his emotional state in a scene is so you can turn the setting into a tuning fork, amplifying these feelings through mood building, symbolism, and specific sensory description. Each setting should be chosen with intent so you as the author can steer the character’s reactions—choosing what he feels, and subsequently, what the reader feels.
Not all stories end with a happily ever after. Sometimes the protagonist fails, resulting in a tragedy ending for the story. The source of this outcome is a failed arc, where the character was working towards internal growth but was unable to complete the necessary inner transformation to achieve it. His fear was too great, and the hero was either unable to change or he couldn’t change enough to attain the desired outcome.
Each character has fears that are as unique to him as a fingerprint. His fears will be rooted in the negative experiences and emotional wounds suffered in his life before the story begins. Understanding who and what hurt your character will help you see what experiences and emotions he will avoid at all costs, enabling you to target these fears in different scenes and force him to face his demons.
Fear is a powerful motivator and will cause your hero to make many mistakes in order to avoid facing what shakes him at his core. Yet fear must be faced and dealt with throughout the course of the story for the hero to naturally grow and become a stronger version of himself: a person who is free of fear and has the emotional clarity to tackle the challenges ahead.
Every character has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Flaws are the aspects of the hero’s personality that act as an emotional shield, keeping him from being hurt by others. However, flaws are negative qualities, rooted in fear or bias. They naturally keep others at a distance and allow the character to avoid feeling emotions that scare him, meaning these traits will eventually damage his relationships and prevent self-growth. Often the hero does not see his flaws as weaknesses—until they trip him up, over and over. His frustration at failing or losing because of his flaws will eventually lead to internal reflection and (hopefully) the realization that his negative traits are holding him back.
Each character, along with your hero, should have a goal in every scene. They want something and are determined to get it. Each character may not have the same goal, which leads to tension and conflict as opposing goals tangle with one another.
Always know what your hero wants. His aim in each scene should lead to achieving his main objective, which is the tangible goal he is pursuing for the length of the story. Within a scene, he might be trying to find out information, gain someone’s help, hone a skill, escape danger, or otherwise achieve something that will help him to win.
Inner conflict is the war within the character, the battle that takes place in the hero’s mind and heart as he is challenged to evolve in order to achieve his goals. Fears face off against courage, emotional pain faces off against emotional freedom, and change faces off against the desperation to stay the same, to stay safe. When the hero can successfully look within, see that he must change for the better, and then do so, he achieves self-growth. This arms him with the insight and strength to act with courage, facing whatever stands against him.
At The Scene Level: How is your protagonist tripping himself up? What flaws, biases, fears, attitudes or misguided beliefs are getting in the way, affecting his abilities, performance, emotions, choices, or actions? Or, are inner (or hidden) strengths and fortified self-belief emerging?
Inner motivation is the “why” behind the hero’s goal. Why is this goal so important for him to achieve? Inner motivation is usually tied in some way to self-worth; it should be about filling a need and achieving greater satisfaction and happiness.
At The Scene Level: What is driving your protagonist at this moment, pushing him to do what he has set out to do? Why is achieving his objective for this scene important to him? What Human Need is being triggered? How will it lead to self-growth and a happier, more complete character?
This type of story catalyst provides the hero with a choice, revealing a pathway to something he desires if he can find the courage to move toward it. Often the hero must work through self-doubt to take this leap; other times he eagerly jumps at the chance, seeing it as an easy win or a shortcut to what he wants. However, what a character wants may be different from what he really needs. The opportunity should also have unforeseen complications, pitfalls, or obstacles that are difficult to overcome. Dedication is a must, and a sacrifice will be demanded, whether the hero realizes it or not.
Outer conflict consists of the people or forces that are preventing the hero from reaching his goal. It may come in different forms from scene to scene, but its function is always to block the character’s achievement. The bigger the obstacle or more powerful the antagonist, the harder a hero must work to win the day.
At The Scene Level: Nothing should ever come easy. What is making it harder for your protagonist to obtain his objective in this scene? Who is creating friction? What roadblocks are in his path?
Outer Motivation is another term for “goal.” The character wants something tangible, and he goes after it. Ask yourself, what visible thing is your hero trying to achieve by the story’s end?
Now, apply this to the scene level: name the protagonist’s objective in this scene, and how will it help him work toward achieving his overall goal. (See Goal for ideas on what this might look like, or visit this article at Story Mastery.)
Every character has something that he’s naturally good at or something that requires hard work to master. These skills and talents can make him unique and interesting to readers and help the character throughout the course of the story. Sometimes a skill must be learned along the way; alternatively, a talent might need to be refined to tip the scales in the hero’s favor. Try to imagine a one-of-a-kind skill that fits both your character’s personality and life experience while aiding him as he chases his goals.
Life is all about cause and effect, even in the fictional world. Stakes are what is at risk—the consequences if the hero fails to achieve his goal. Stakes should always be high at the story level, casting doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether the hero can succeed.
Even within each scene, the hero should want something: he has a goal. And if there’s a goal, there should also be something at stake, since it makes the goal important enough for him to push for, to fight to get. So decide what is at stake by asking: If the hero doesn’t achieve his goal in this scene, what setback will result? What type of fallout will occur? How does failure affect things moving forward?
One great way to make the outcome of a goal more important is by personalizing the stakes. This makes the hero more determined to succeed because he cares about the people involved. The more he cares, the more he is willing to risk to succeed regardless of the odds, which makes for compelling reading.
Some stories contain high action or are intensely plot driven, meaning there is less emphasis on the character’s internal growth and more on him achieving a specific goal. Think Indiana Jones or James Bond. The protagonist in one of these stories may not need to evolve internally in order to win. However, he is challenged heavily during the course of the story and so must hone his skills, gain knowledge, or apply learned techniques to overcome the forces that stand against him.
Strengths are the positive qualities positive qualities that make a character worthy and admirable in the reader’s eyes while providing the key elements the hero needs to succeed. These personality traits also help him build and maintain healthy relationships, act as facets of his deeply rooted beliefs, provide a moral compass for his actions, and shine a light on who he really is.