Author: Dara Marks
Genre: Writing Guide
Length: 327 pages
Read: Oct 22 – Nov 3, 2011
Summary: Best book I’ve read on character arcs.
I’ve been finishing up my fourth (and hopefully final) draft on my new book Untimed. In discussing the previous draft with one of my writer friends he recommended this book on writing. It’s aimed at screenwriters, but while the mediums are different, there are a lot of commonalities — stories are still stories.
The Inside Story deals with character and structure, and the relationship between these and theme. I’ve read a lot of books on writing in general and story structure in particular, and this is certainly the best on the subject of the transformational arc. It has certain overlapping information with Save the Cat (reviewed here) — but the style is radically different and more serious.
Inside Story focuses very clearly and with no bullshit on the basics of film structure. The A Story forms the external plot, the B story the internal challenge of the protagonist (usually hindered by a fatal flaw in opposition of the story theme) and the C story is contains the relationship challenges required to solve the internal conflicts, and then change enough to overcome the external ones. This book walks through each stage of the arc both in the abstract and specific, using three consistent film examples (Romancing the Stone, Lethal Weapon, and Ordinary People).
It’s clear after reading this that the deficit in many films is a lack of proper arc and thematic development. Sometimes even good (but not great) films forget this key component. Speed is a good example. It’s a well executed and watchable film, but it fails to really have any arc or theme. Unless you consider “Jack must stop the bomber” to be a theme. There’s no development. Jack stops the bomber by way of guts, determination, and cleverness — all of which he possesses at the start of the film. He really doesn’t have to learn any lesson. The film gets by by way of excellent execution and casting. Lethal Weapon, however, is a character driven (even if intense) action film. No one remembers the specifics of the drug dealer plot. They remember Mel Gibson and Danny Glover‘s characters. And they remember them because they actually have problems they learn to overcome (which incidentally also helps them stop the bad guys).
So how does all of this apply to my novel? Or so I asked myself as I read. Untimed does have a fairly clean three act structure. It does have a character who needs to change in order to overcome his antagonist. C story solves B story solves A story. But on the other hand, I didn’t conceive of the book originally with a clear “theme” in mind, the protagonists issues are not structurally in opposition to this theme (what theme I have, organically grown), and the intensity of suffering is muted by a sometimes light tone. Does this matter? Perhaps less in a novel. Even less in an action novel. Even less in a series book. It’s perhaps this neat and packaged arc that makes so many great films difficult to sequel. If the character has already changed, it’s hard to make him change again. All too often the studio/writers attempt to regress the protagonist in a sequel, to undo and then redo the conflicts that made the first film great (Die Hard 2!). The best sequels, films like Terminator 2 or Aliens, change up the formula and give the character something new to overcome. Still, it’s really really hard to do this three times. Can anyone even think of a stand alone movie where the third installment is great? And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t count, even if it is the best of the eight films.
In fact, this leads me to the interesting observation that not only do individual Harry Potter books have very weak arcs, but even the entire series doesn’t cover much emotional transformation. How is Harry (or Ron or Hermione) terribly different at the end of book 1? Even at book 7? I mean as people, not in terms of circumstance, which is only the A story. The answer is “not very different.” Yeah, they grow up a bit, but there is no fundamental quality that they gain which isn’t present in book 1. Still, these are good books. Some of them are even great books (like the first and third). So go figure.