The Shape of Change

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The Underlying Sameness)

The 2003 film Shattered Glass portrays the rise and fall of real-life journalist Stephen Glass and it employs a very interesting character arc for him. What is interesting is that he doesn’t change one bit from the start of the movie to the end…and yet it very much feels like he does.

At the outset of the film Stephen Glass is a junior member of the staff for The New Republic. His writing quickly gains traction, though, as he somehow manages to land one earth-shattering story after another. Before long he is writing front-page material and is one of the most successful writers ever for the magazine.

But as I said, Stephen Glass is a real life person, and he became infamous to the news world when it was discovered he made up all of those amazing articles. There wasn’t a shred of truth to what he wrote, and even if you weren’t aware of this before renting the movie, the fact was plastered all throughout its marketing and taglines.

So right from the get-go the audience knows that this innocent-seeming character is actually a compulsive liar. And the film begins with him this way and it ends with him this way. He doesn’t really evolve from start to finish.

What does change, though, is the entire environment around him. He goes from being a nobody, to being lauded, to being reviled. And so while we don’t see an evolution in the character, we see an arc in the sort of lies he has to tell. At first they’re simple fabrications about his daily life meant to make his coworkers like him. Then they become grand fish-stories meant to captivate a national audience. Then they become desperate cover-ups to dissuade others from finding out the truth.

We see him shift from unassuming, to drunk with success, to frantic and fearful. Frankly the character doesn’t need to change, because we spend so much time getting to know all the different sides of him just as he already is.

This is somewhat similar to the arc of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Throughout the movie we see him progress from an innocent boy to a hungry, young man, to a grasping tycoon, to a broken elder. As with Stephen Glass the man changes quite a great deal on the surface.

But then, in the very final scene, we are made to realize that for all his changing methods, his intention has always been the same: to recapture his childlike joy. All the change we perceived was simply the steady increase of desperation as he repeatedly failed in that one, simple goal.

Pendulum’s Center)

There is an entirely different sort of character arc in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil. This is another true-life story about two parents whose son is diagnosed with an incredibly rare and totally lethal disease. The two hopefully inquire whether a cure for the disease might be found, but are saddened to learn that the medical community is giving the matter very little attention. The disease simply affects too small of a population to be a priority.

Though the parents have no medical training of their own they take it upon themselves to research the matter. They tirelessly search for a cure, and in this they swing back and forth from discovery to setback, hope to despair, elation to defeat. In one scene we might see them laughing together and chatting animatedly, in the next they are shouting and collapsing in tears. Medical research is, of course, a very hard process of trial and error, and it is impossible for them to separate their emotions from all its inherent hills and valleys.

But their character’s are not only swinging back and forth between two states. With every turn of the pendulum they grow more solidified overall. Emotional blisters become callouses, wounds toughen into scars, passing ideas become a life’s work. Every setback that does not unseat them only serves to deepen their resolve in the cause. Though they know that much of the damage to their son will be forever irreversible, they are going to see this journey through to the bitter end. And so while the arc appears to swing back and forth, it is actually steadily rising from start to finish.

Compare this to the relentless chase that Captain Ahab commits his vessel to in Moby Dick. He, too, seems to teeter back and forth, half giving in to his conscience, but then always hardening himself back to the chase. While at the beginning of the story he almost seems within reason, by the end he has entrenched himself time and time again, until finally his heart is a stone and his face a flint.

The Sharp Turn)

There are also characters that suddenly redefine themselves in a single moment. They have an experience of immense significance, one that they cannot endure and remain the same person any longer.

There is a twofold example of this in Les Miserable. The first is Jean Valjean, who is a former convict that breaks his parole and is now wanted by the law. By the time we meet him at the start of the tale he has resigned himself to the life of a criminal and has no other intention than to steal his way through life.

To that end he ransacks the home of a priest who had showed him kindness, and when he is discovered by the priest knocks him over the head and runs away. The next day the priest has an opportunity to take vengeance on Valjean, but instead frees him from all consequence and implores him to be a better man. Jean Valjean is shocked by the graciousness and from that moment dedicates himself to the work of good. And like the characters in our previous section he entrenches himself in that cause against all opposition.

The second example from Les Miserables is laid out in perfect symmetry to the first. Whereas Jean Valjean is changed at the start and consistent through the rest, Javert is consistent through the whole until he is changed at the end. In Javert’s case his consistency is in the cause of cold justice. He stubbornly refuses to accept Valjean’s repentance as genuine, entrenches himself against forgiveness, and ever tries to have the man incarcerated.

At the end he falls into the hands of revolutionaries, and is given over to Valjean to be killed. Instead, though, Valjean spares him, even as he was once spared. Like Valjean, Javert is so moved by the mercy that he cannot carry on the life he had been leading. He has to turn it a complete 180 degrees.

And to keep the symmetry consistent, where Valjean awoke to a new life, Javert consigns himself to the grave.

On Thursday I posted the most recent chapter of my story and I paused to wonder whether I had given my protagonist the correct shape in his character arc. He gradually rises with a noble cause, until all at once the rug is pulled out from under him and he sharply falls out of grace with his peers. Of all the patterns I have related today the third one matches him best.

And I think it fits him well. I meant for Tharol to be deeply changed by his downfall, which meant that his decline needed to be quite impactful. This, of course, suggested a very sudden turn of events, and I wrote a scene that accomplished exactly that.

Sometimes it is better for a character to change only gradually, or to remain steadfast as the world changes around them instead, but in my case I need a sharp turn. Come back on Thursday to see how that change carries through towards the end of the tale.

I Swear, the Fish Was This Big!

white and black koi fish
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Well That’s Overdramatic)

Moby Dick is a lot of fun to read. The prose is grandiose, and the wordplay is incredibly imaginative. If I’m being honest, sometimes the text is so rich that it washes over me thicker than I can understand it…but I still feel encompassed by the intended atmosphere even so. One of my favorite examples of its passages reads as follows:

He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

What wonderful imagery: a chest for a cannon and a heart for a shell! But is there a reason to such thick poetry? Could this have been expressed in a more straightforward manner?

Honestly, it seems a hard thing to do. What sort of succinct, easily comprehensible sentence would have captured the same meaning as the original?

Ahab was extremely angry, so much so that he felt as if his heart might burst right out from his chest.

For one, I still ended up using a hyperbole, that of a heart bursting from a chest, though I wrote it in a far more common form. But even so, it just does not have the same punch as what came before, and no matter of adding verys (Ahab was very, very, very…angry) would ever make the second form as impactful as the first. It isn’t really quantifiable, there is just something about poetry that hits a depth of emotion that can’t be captured otherwise.


Truth Through Untruths)

This is a key misunderstanding between father and son in the novel and film Big Fish. Edward Bloom has only ever told his son stories from his past in the form of tall tales. He refuses to ever give a straight answer, always spinning impossibly fantastic yarns instead. It get so that when the son grows up, he feels that he doesn’t know his father at all.

As frustrated as the son is with his father’s style, Edward feels just as frustrated with his son’s more practical approach to sharing events.

He would have told it wrong anyway. All the facts and none of the flavor.

Because when Edward Bloom tells you a story, he isn’t trying to explain the events in the way that a surveillance camera would have captured them, he wants to explain them in the way his heart felt at the time. As the title suggests, it is the same impetus behind all “big fish” stories. No, the trout I caught wasn’t really 200 pounds, but it felt that way when I was tugging on the line.

When two lovers break up, they probably don’t really think that they will never be happy again…but in this moment that is how it feels. We resort to hyperbole to communicate the truths that actually true statements cannot.


Quality Prose)

Of course, not just any hyperbole will do. It is one thing to know that the stirrings of the heart can only be communicated by the alchemy of a poet, and it is another to actually mix that concoction together! I desperately wish I could have seen the past drafts of Herman Melville’s novel. Did the idea of chest as a cannon and a heart as a shell come to him immediately, or did he try to evoke that sensation many times before finding one that actually captured it well?

In the novel I’m working on now, I mulled over a particular sequence for a long while, trying to find the right way to express it properly. I wanted to capture the sensation of being condemned, made an outcast, and deemed no longer fit for society. The sensation of watching the world continue, but without you. I wanted to capture that, but not with so many words. After many rewrites I am have the following:

Here you are, one of the base and the damned, the buried and the forgotten. The debris of all mankind.

Now when I consider the prose that I quoted from Moby Dick at the start of this post, I have to admit that my own turn-of-phrase is far inferior. I don’t think my sentences are painfully awkward, but they surely are not exceptional.

How am I to fix that? Well, that’s the frustrating thing about poetic hyperbole, there isn’t a formula for guaranteed success. The fact is that coming up with a new and evocative way to describe something is hard. It just is. This is the reason we constantly cycle back to classic idioms, no matter how cliche they have become. “My heart is breaking” is undoubtedly overused, but just try to replace it with something better!

My hope, and suspicion, is that one gets better at prose simply through exercising it. By trying many times to say things more cleverly, eventually I will.


Story As Hyperbole)

Of course sometimes the exaggeration is not merely a single phrase in a story. Often an entire story is itself a dramatic expression of some underlying theme. James Bond films emulate the popular image of masculinity in a very exaggerated way. Dr. Strangelove lampoons the insanity of mutually assured destruction in an excessively ridiculous narrative. The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents an extreme case of neglect to convey the worthiness of being a good neighbor.

Though none of these stories is categorized as a fantasy, they still utilize extreme circumstances to emphasize their point. We don’t ever expect to find ourselves in the same literal situation as any of these main characters, but we will have moments where we must depend on the same principles that they do. In our own way we may need to stand up to the bully like James Bond, speak out against self-destructing hate like that in Dr. Strangelove, or help someone we considered an enemy like the Good Samaritan. And though the reality of those moments might be simple, to us they will feel just as epic as those fictional stories.

I’d like to explore that idea with my next short story. In it I wish to take a concept we have all experienced at some point: that of being utterly exhausted: body, mind, and soul. The account that I give will eclipse any level of sleep-deprivation that I have personally experienced, yet I hope it will still ring true to anyone who has felt thoroughly fatigued. With my first entry, I will be setting the stage for that exhaustion. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.