Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Craft Book of the Month: April 2011--The Character Arc in Plot

This is our last week with James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure. But fear not, Bell has another brilliant book in this series, called Revision and Self-Editing, which we're all going to need sooner or later, right? Since he's my new hero and all, you could probably clean out a large casino by betting that I'll be featuring him as a Craft Book writer again soon.

So what is a character arc? Bell does the best job I've ever read of explaining it.
The character arc is a description of what happens to the inside of a character over the course of the story. He begins as one sort of person... things happen to and around him, gradually moving him in an "arc" that ends when the story is over.
Your lead character should be a different person at the other end of the arc.
The character Bell uses as an example is Ebeneezer Scrooge from Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Bell explores "the build" of the character arc. A good arc has:
  1. A beginning point, where we meet the character and get a sense of his interior layers. (Scrooge is described as a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner," and shown as such when he refuses to give alms as well as denying Bob Cratchit's request for a day off after Christmas.)
  2. A doorway through which the character must pass, almost always reluctantly (the ghosts take him on a tour of his life)
  3. Incidents that impact the layers (the vacant seat at the Cratchit table, i.e. the death of Tiny Tim, is the most powerful)
  4. A deepening disturbance (The ultimate disturbance is when Scrooge is shown the dismal aftermath of his own despised death)
  5. A moment of change, sometimes via an "epiphany" (Bell cautions that modern novels need to be much less didactic and melodramatic than they were in Dickens' time)
  6. An aftermath (Scrooge is a changed man, and is shown to be so when sends the Cratchits a turkey, dines with his nephew, and raises Bob Cratchit's salary after Christmas)
Here's a great exercise to strengthen your character's arc:
Write a short profile about your Lead character's personality at the beginning of your plot. Describe his a) Beliefs, b)Values, c) Dominant attitudes, and d) Opinions.
Now ask what things will happen in the course of the plot to change or challenge these elements.
There is so much more good stuff in this book. It is a "must" for every writer's library.


  1. I've just uploaded this to my Kindle.
    Plotting is not one of my strengths . . .

  2. Brilliant! Simple and effective exercise.
    Or, ask yourself, what did the character learn?

  3. I have to wonder what my stories would be like if I did a lot of these exercises. I spend my time reading fiction rather than craft books. Of course, I study that fiction that a textbook, and I actually think it's helped my writing, but it's great to read these little summaries and snippets ... maybe one day I'll try them.

  4. Thanks for the insights. This is one I'll put on my Kindle list.


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