Script consultant, story analyst and “Inside Story” author Dara Marks notes that we are currently living what may be the greatest story of our generation.
We are on the cusp of change; what that change is we do not yet know, but as writers it is our job to chronicle that transformation. To “go inside” ourselves and our stories and embrace what we find to form an honest voice of expression. It is not our job to solve the turmoil, but we must open it up and relate to it on a personal and human level.
Dara cites story as a “human instruction manual for life” and that only through change can we, as readers or viewers, relate, connect and learn anything at all.
The world today is very unsettling, we are being told to “go inside”, and we hear the uncomfortable words “I can’t breathe”. Dara encourages us to respond to this metaphorical call to action in two ways.
- Go inside. Open up our stories. Discover what lies beneath the surface. Do this through a journal or automatic writing. Set a timer, choose a concept, write and DO NOT lift the pen from the paper. What surprises you about what you wrote?
- Open up our own inner narratives. Your own life. Find what makes us uncomfortable and start there.
In her role as a story analyst Dara is looking for thematic content, the consciousness that is struggling to be heard, or quite simply, what the story is really about.
Dara said something that rang very true to me, something I do not often hear, but genuinely believed was certainly possible. She said that as writers, we don’t write what we know but what we are coming to know.
The psyche has no need to focus on what it already knows and instead pushes us in the direction of what is unclear and even uncomfortable. Dara takes that discomfort as a signal, this is where we should start, this is where our story begins.
Why is transformation important?
We don’t change just because it is a good idea. We, as humans, change because of the conflicts that we face. A story that is well told reflects that.
Stories of good guys getting gooder are not true human stories. Characters who are already brave that do brave things have nothing to tell us about how to be brave. Characters who are already loveable have nothing to tell us about how to be loved. These kinds of characters diminish our view of ourselves because we don’t recognise them as true. We do not and cannot relate.
What is the transformational arc?
We all live in two worlds simultaneously. An outer physical and material world where things happen beyond our control, and an inner world, where we give meaning to the things that happen to us.
The relationship between the inner and the outer physical world is where the change is happening i.e. the character does not change just because it is a good idea to do so. They change because the outer world forces them to. Two outcomes are possible with transformation, we either go through it and are better for it, or it diminishes us.
The transformational arc is about adding value and purpose to your stories. If all you have is an external plot, a driving energy, then all you have is a moving train that carries nothing for nobody. However, if you load that train with cargo, then suddenly it has something to unload and leave with the people at each stop.
Therefore, to create true human stories we must build a relationship between the inner and outer world and that relationship is the need to transform internally in order to resolve the external conflict faced.
If, as Dara puts it, stories are a human instruction manual for life, what are we learning or feeling if our characters start and end the stories equally capable of victory or failure?
The transformational arc itself comprises of several steps that tease out a relationship between external conflict and internal change. Some of those steps are detailed below:
Dara defined the fatal flaw as a survival instinct that has outlived its usefulness and the “defining moment” is about identifying that flaw in a way that the audience will understand.
Often writers are too subtle or vague in presenting the fatal flaw. If the audience does not fully understand what needs to change, they’re not fully with you, confusion does not support a strong story. Only clarity does.
A situation, scene or event that makes it clear to the protagonist they cannot go on like this and pushes them towards transformation.
Moment of enlightenment (MIDPOINT)
Whatever the inner struggle is, it should come into clarity for the protagonist themselves. They need to recognise the necessity to change or adopt a new perspective e.g. “I don’t have to be alone” or “money can’t buy me happiness”.
Recognising the change is only half the journey though. Nobody changes overnight.
The grace period
Enlightenment is new consciousness, a rush of new energy, where they have been struggling now it is briefly easy.
This period shows us who the protagonist can become if they really do change.
The death experience
What’s the worst thing that can happen? Something challenges the characters’ new perception/enlightenment and forces them to really embody the change.
Not a bad time for a literal death in the story if there is to be one.
Sink further into whatever it is that is dragging the character down and bring them to a position where they must stand up to/fight the antagonist or antagonism.
Transformation is not achieved until you make the decision for yourself. Here the protagonist decides to do something, and this shows that they have changed. Or indeed, if it’s a tragedy, they’ve failed to change.
We must ask ourselves, at the end of our story, what did our protagonist achieve that they weren’t capable of (or likely to, if you subscribe to the theory that the protagonist was always destined but weren’t yet living their authentic life) at the beginning? If nothing or nothing clear, then nothing or nothing clear has even happened at all. That’s not a good thing.
Rebecca Jean-Carroll is a screenwriter, playwright and historian based in London. A writer of love at its most destructive and yet addictive. Be that the love of man, woman, son, daughter, England or Ireland. On a good day it’s all of them. @R_Jean_Carroll