I’ve been reading about writing for years, and am often puzzled by the differences in what different people tell you are essential, approaches to various aspects of writing. I am usually skeptical of “essentiallism” and “only one way” approaches; one of my teachers, Mary Robinette Kowal, once said in one of her Patreon classes that “all writing advice, even mine, is what worked for that writer.” So I focus on what seems useful to me in my current state as an aspiring writer.
At the moment, what I’m working on is character development for my protagonist and secondary characters. I’ve been mostly plot-driven in the past, and my characters have to a large extent been “cardboard” plot tokens. So I’ve been studying sources on creating character arcs; this is a summary of what I’ve learned.
In NaNoWriMo terms I am a plantser: I use a mix of discovery writing and outlining. I have usually started with inspiration from a few mental images or brief scenes, and have to figure out how to connect them into a coherent story. When the story is growing from those initial ideas, I’m in a period of discovery writing, keeping a some notes on whatever ideas come to mind and keeping track of them in a growing “bible” of things I’ve (at least temporarily) decided. But for a while now I’ve been stuck trying to put the pieces together, and have decided to follow advice from my teachers: use some structuring method to diagnose the problems I’m having and suggest some fixes.
I recently read 5 Secrets of Story Structure and Creating Character Arcs, by K.M. Weiland, and noticed that most of her 10 points in stories correspond to the 7-point structure as outlined by Dan Wells, albeit sometimes with different terminology, and with one omission. Over the same period, I was learning the DREAM structure from Mary Robinette Kowal (Writing Excuses 13.22, or its transcript). About a month ago I had a minor insight about how to combine the three in a coherent whole that seemed like it could be a good tool for figuring out my current novel.
I explain all three methods briefly in the following, but there is a lot of value in consulting my sources, which provide deeper explanations, with good examples.
Weiland’s approach is more detailed than the others, and is based on the classic Three-Act Structure: the protagonsist starts in a “normal world” in the first act, is forced to deal with the major conflict in the second act, and resolves the problem in a climax in the third act. She prescribes a series of plot elements that are to take place at rigid places in the story (25% first act, 50% second, 25% third, and similarly with specific places within those acts), and requires a setup where, in the classic Positive Change Arc, the protagonist starts off believing a Lie that results from a Wound in their past (usually a traumatic event), and must discover the Truth in order to resolve the conflict. I’ve found several other teachers that adopt a similar approach, though they might refer to “negative core belief” instead of Lie, or Ghost in place of Wound.
The DREAM structure originated with a writer of romances, and starts with something the character is lacking in themselves (which, as far as I can tell, is a more general idea than a Lie). At first the character Denies there is a problem. When faced with some evidence to the contrary, for a while they Resist change. Eventually they begin to Explore the idea of change, in small steps, without fully Accepting a new status quo. Finally their Acceptance leads to a Manifestation that demonstrates their full acceptance (in the original formulation, for romances, Manifestation was Matrimony).
In this draft I indicate steps or explanations from 7-point in small italics. I use bold red for things from the DREAM structure.
Weiland recommends that, very early on, you think through several story elements, which she always capitalizes.
The Lie the Character Believes, usually subconsciously. I don’t completely buy in to this as the only way to characterize the character’s subconscious motivations; I’m fond of an idea from Writing Excuses called the super-objective: an unlikely-to-change fundamental drive such as one of the Seven Deadly Sins or Cardinal Virtues.
The Thing She Wants: this is a conscious goal, perhaps the same thing some writers refer to as the character’s greatest desire. This seems to correspond to the idea of an objective, a current goal motivated by the super-objective. Objectives can change, but will always reflect the super-objective.
The Thing She Needs, which is usually the Truth opposing the Lie. This might be a very powerful sort of drive; in objective/super-objective terminology, this is unlikely to be a complete change in personality or super-objective, but might be a healthier set of objectives than the ones the protagonist started with.
The Ghost / Wound, an often traumatic event or condition that precipitated a belief in the Lie.
This is the initial conditions established (perhaps hinted at) during the First Act, which the character carries with them (physically, mentally, or metaphorically) into the Second Act.
When the story starts, the character is in Denial about something they need (such as the Truth Weiland talks about). This part of the story breaks down into:
Establishing the Normal World. Wells calls this the hook, the initial states of the character and world, opposite in some way to those of the Resolution. Many sources describe elements that must be included in the first chapters, pages, and even lines. Weiland says it must include her version of a Hook: a question piquing reader's curiosity.
Inciting event (7-point: Plot Turn 1): This is the first brush with main conflict; it “starts the ball rolling). Weiland uses this term to make a distinction between several different things that people call the inciting incident; what many use that term for, she calls the First Plot Point.
Key event: This is something that irrevocably engages protagonist with main conflict; it is often inextricably linked to First Plot Point, but sometimes they are separate; the character may take a brief time to react to the key event first.
First Plot Point (7-point: Pinch 1): This is the end of the first act, where the protagonist must start reacting to the changed status quo.
During the Second Act’s First Half (approximately), the character is in reaction mode, fighting to keep their head above water; they will need to discover the Truth to make effective progress. They have agency, but their actions are ineffective in overcoming the conflict. In DREAM terms they are Resisting the Truth.
First Pinch Point. This is something that demonstrates the antagonist’s power, applying pressure to the protagonist.
Midpoint (which Weiland also calls the second plot point). There is a Moment of Truth, where the protagonist realizes something (a glimpse of the Truth) that moves them from reaction to action.
During the Second Act’s Second Half, the protagonist starts implementing her own plans, which are now more effective because she has begun to try to apply the Truth (albeit without completely abandoning the Lie). This amounts to Exploration of the Truth.
Second Pinch Point applies more pressure to the protagonist, reminding her of the stakes in the conflict.
Third Plot Point (which 7-point calls Pinch 2): the character may or may not have achieved a seeming victory, but in any case at this point suffers a major reversal: the all-is-lost moment, the jaws of defeat.
At the beginning of the third act, the character has been forced to a low point, where she has to analyze her own actions and motives, and get to core of her personal arc. She must fully Accept the Truth, winning the internal conflict, in order to win the external conflict.
At what the 7-point structure calls Plot Turn 2, the character has an Aha! moment realizing that she has all the tools to succeed; she begins the final push to victory
The Climax: This resolves the external conflict; since acceptance of the truth led to being able to succed, this seems to count as a Manifestation of acceptance of the Truth.
The Resolution: This briefly shows the new status quo, how character reacts to the climax, and how world has changed.
I’m a scholar, so finding similarities and differences among different sources is part of what I’ve been trained to do; it’s part of the classic “literature search” for any new piece of academic work. I feel reasonably good about this first attempt at unifying three sets of plot advice. Whether it’s useful is going to depend on two things: other peoples’ reactions to the work, and how successful my attempt to apply it to my own story might be. Both are things I’m hoping to have happen over the next few weeks.