Welcome to the Character Evolution Files! This column focuses on character arcs, from the elements that create or enhance a character’s inner journey, to techniques that writers can employ to strengthen character arcs in their own work. Today we continue our studies with File No. 14, which serves as Part 1 of our examination of the parallels between story structure and character arcs.
If you’ve been following the Character Evolution Files, you may have noticed that the story’s plot and the protagonist’s character arc are tightly connected. But how do we ensure this connection exists? How can writers “time” the arc’s stages precisely so that they occur in tandem with the plot’s events? The answer lies once again with the protagonist and her response to those events – because they’re going to change her life, and who she is, forever.
Today, in Character Evolution File No. 14, we’ll start a two-part study on plot-arc alignment. We’ll learn a dual strategy for creating and maintaining this connection between a story’s external and internal elements, and why that connection exists in the first place. Then, we’ll begin a Journey Through the Character Arc “recap” that examines each stage with our new strategy and poses questions we should consider each time. If this sounds a bit weighty – well, now you know why I split it in two. 😉
(Pssst! Don’t forget to download the Journey Through the Character Arc Master Questionnaire and the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart from the Worksheets for Writers page if you haven’t yet.)
How Does an External (Plot) Perspective on Story Development Differ from an Internal (Character Arc) Perspective?
Since we’re going to look at plot-arc alignment from both sides of the story (so to speak, and no pun intended), let’s establish the two terms we’ll use throughout this post.
With the external perspective of plot-arc alignment, we’re concentrating on the plot, or the story’s external aspects. We look solely at the events that comprise the story and are witnessed through each scene / plot point, as well as the overall sequence of events that shows how the story’s main problem (or main conflict) is resolved. This perspective allows us to determine what happens during the story, from the events that affect the protagonist’s story-goal pursuit, to how those events change her world.
The internal perspective differs from the external perspective in that it focuses on the protagonist’s character arc, or the story’s internal aspects. It deals with the protagonist’s reactions and choices, internalized information that only she and the reader are privy to in “real time.” It also follows her personal growth as she works to the resolve the main conflict. Thus, the internal perspective addresses what happens to the protagonist, mainly how the external events affect her and how she changes as a result.
Another way of viewing the internal perspective is it’s the protagonist’s emotional and psychological response to the external perspective. In other words:
External Perspective (Plot’s Events) -> Internal Perspective (Character Arc, Reactions, and Actions)
Each arc stage shows her reacting to or acting in anticipation of the story’s external events. This means that each event must have a personal impact on the protagonist by touching on her fears, desires, and/or false beliefs. And the more personal a story’s events are to the protagonist, the more she’ll be compelled to change for the better so she can reach her story goal.
With this in mind, here are some basic questions to help with plot-arc alignment:
- External Perspective: What event occurs at this plot point? How does it impact the protagonist’s progress toward achieving her goal?
- Internal Perspective: How does the protagonist react to the external event? What choice(s) does she make as a result? How does this move her forward on her path of positive growth / change?
As we revisit each plot point / arc stage, we’ll cover revised versions of these questions that are tailored to each event. That way, you’ll have a firm grasp on what to look for as you develop each stage of your story.
Which Plot Point / Arc Stage is the Best Place to Start with Plot-Arc Alignment?
The truth is, there’s no such thing as a best place to start. Some writers may want to begin with the Trigger / Inciting Incident (Stage 1) for logistical reasons. Others might prefer to start with the plot point they see first or most clearly when planning the story, then go back to earlier plot points and work their way forward. This can also change from one story to the next.
That said, single-scene arc stages such as the Trigger, the Point of No Return / End of Act I (Stage 3), and the Revelation / Midpoint (Stage 5) are the most logical places to start plot-arc alignment. These stages are shorter and more compact than longer stages such as the Struggle / Act II, First Half (Stage 4) or the Charge / Act II, Second Half (Stage 6). They’re also easier to focus on, since they require fewer elements than multi-scene stages and less page-time to complete. Plus, when we first visualize a story, the most important scenes often come to us first. Why not start our plot-arc alignment with those such scenes?
For the purposes of this File, let’s start with the Trigger, then move forward chronologically through the other single-scene arc stages. Plus, as you may have noticed from the banner image, we’ll use Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as our case study for this topic. (Yay, Harry!)
Stage 1 Parallels: Aligning the Arc Trigger with the Plot’s Inciting Incident
In File No. 3, we determined that the Trigger / Inciting Incident is the event that draws the protagonist into the main conflict. It usually happens during the first 10% of the story, sometimes as early as the opening scene, and acts as the first major shake-up for the protagonist.
External Perspective: The Trigger / Inciting Incident introduces the main conflict that will be resolved during the story. This event is typically set in motion by another character, a group of characters (e.g., an organization, corporation, government), or other outside influence, but the protagonist can set it off as well. Regardless, the event presents the protagonist with a problem that requires her immediate attention. This problem doesn’t necessarily represent her story goal. Rather, it hints at or leads into her eventual story goal, which will be firmly established during the Point of No Return / End of Act I.
- Example: In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the inciting incident occurs when 10-year-old Harry visits the local zoo (27 – 29*). At the reptile house, he unknowingly performs magic by freeing a python from its tank. While readers understand that the problem this event presents to Harry is that he’s different from “normal” people, Harry doesn’t grasp its significance yet. Nevertheless, we can accurately assume that his eventual story goal will be a magical one.
Internal Perspective: First, the Trigger / Inciting Incident gives the protagonist a reason(s) to be emotionally invested in the conflict’s outcome. An effective arc trigger will tug at the protagonist’s fears by threatening something she holds dear (e.g., home, family / loved ones, plans for the future), or at a desire by promising more of something she wants or dreams of (e.g., revenge, wealth, security). The event can also remind the protagonist of one of her false beliefs, thus alluding at how she might change as the story goes on. (See File No. 3 for more about false beliefs.)
Second, the Trigger / Inciting Incident will provoke a strong reaction from the protagonist. This reaction will depend on the event itself, the protagonist’s personality, and the fears, desires, and/or false belief(s) that the event elicits. At the very least, the protagonist will be overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions she’s experiencing. But now that the Trigger / Inciting Incident has occurred, it will be nearly impossible for her to forget what has just happened, or to ignore the threat it poses to her status quo.
- Example: Initially, Harry has no clue that he’s performed magic. He’s confused by his uncle’s anger toward him and is sent to his cupboard under the stairs before he can ask questions. Once he’s alone, Harry looks back on his life (29 – 30*), from run-ins with strange-looking people to his loneliness at school, even to his lack of memories of his deceased parents. It becomes clear now that Harry doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere and has never felt loved (false belief).
Questions for Aligning the Arc Trigger with the Inciting Incident
- External Perspective: What event marks the Trigger / Inciting Incident? What immediate problem does it present to the protagonist? How does it hint at her eventual story goal?
- Internal Perspective: How does the protagonist react to the Trigger / Inciting Incident? What does she think, feel, or do immediately after it happens? Does the event trigger her fears or desires? Does it introduce any of her false beliefs, or give other indications of how she might change during the story?
Stage 3 Parallels: Aligning the Arc’s Point of No Return with the End of Act I
Act I closes with the Point of No Return, which we covered in File No. 5. This pivotal event occurs around the story’s 25% mark and represents the moment when the protagonist leaves her normal life for good.
External Perspective: The Point of No Return / End of Act I firmly establishes the story goal that was hinted at during the Trigger / Inciting Incident. It presents another problem that’s related to or a result of the initial problem that the protagonist confronted. (Stories are chock-full of problems, aren’t they? *wink*) Now she must make a choice – and she must choose to act. By doing so, the option she chooses (her story goal) will fully engage her in the main conflict and raise the stakes higher.
- Example: Act I of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ends on Harry’s 11th birthday, when the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid finds Harry and the Dursleys hiding in a dilapidated house on a remote island (46 – 60*). Hagrid informs Harry that he’s a wizard and reveals the truth about the deaths of Harry’s parents. (They didn’t die in a car crash, but were murdered by the evil sorcerer Voldemort.) He also gives Harry a formal invitation to enroll at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Thus, Harry is given the choice of staying with the Dursleys or attending Hogwarts. And by choosing the latter, he establishes his story goal of learning more about magic and his origins.
Internal Perspective: The key with the Point of No Return / End of Act I is the choice it offers to the protagonist. Usually she has two options: the safe option, which would allow her to maintain her status quo; and the story option, a path to her story goal that will push her into emotionally unfamiliar territory. In some cases, the protagonist might not have a choice and be forced down the uncomfortable path.
Being the writer, you’ll already know that the protagonist will have to choose her story option. The question is, why does she choose it? Why does she want it more than her safe option? Take some time to understand the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings here, especially her reasons for choosing the story option. Consider any false beliefs that will be challenged during the story as well. How might she have to let go of this lie in order to reach her story goal? And, how might this act of letting go eventually compel her to change for the better?
- Example: Harry’s choice is between attending Hogwarts (story option) or continuing to live with his abusive relatives (safe option). In truth, Hagrid makes Harry’s decision for him by sending an letter owl with a “yes” to Hogwarts before Harry can answer. But as Harry learns the truth about his parents and how the Dursleys have lied to him for years, he realizes that going to Hogwarts is what’s best for him. After all, he’ll get to meet more young wizards like himself – and maybe learn more about his parents. This choice also has the potential to help Harry shed his false belief of feeling unloved and rejected.
Questions for Aligning the Arc’s Point of No Return with the End of Act I
- External Perspective: What event marks the Point of No Return / End of Act I? How does it firmly establish the protagonist’s story goal? How does the problem and/or choice it presents to the protagonist related to that of the Trigger / Inciting Incident?
- Internal Perspective: What choice (including its options) is presented to the protagonist at this time? What does she decide, and why? Or, is she forced to choose one option over the other? How does the Point of No Return / End of Act I connect or conflict with the protagonist’s false belief? What other thoughts or feelings does she experience?
Stage 5 Parallels: Aligning the Arc’s Revelation with the Plot’s Midpoint
Roughly halfway through the story, we reach the arc stage known as the Revelation / Midpoint (see File No. 7). This scene might not be as noticeable as the Trigger or the Point of No Return, but it signals the protagonist’s momentous shift from a state of reaction to a state of action.
External Perspective: Like with the previous plot points, the Revelation / Midpoint consists of an event that shakes up the protagonist’s world again, this time by revealing that her original plan for achieving her story goal isn’t working. Now she must make another choice: Should she stick with her old, “comfortable” plan, or try something new? (Hint: She typically chooses the new route.) This decision raises the stakes again and reinforces the protagonist’s commitment to her story goal.
- Example: The midpoint of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone occurs during Harry’s first flying lesson at Hogwarts (145 – 152*). After their instructor takes Neville Longbottom to the infirmary, Harry defends his classmate by chasing rival Draco Malfoy on his broomstick to retrieve a Remembrall that Draco stole from Neville. He’s then caught by Professor McGonagall, who removes him from class. But instead of disciplining him, McGonagle takes Harry to Oliver Wood, Captain of Gryffindor’s Quidditch team. She praises Harry’s flying skills and recommends him for the Quidditch team’s open spot.
Internal Perspective: As implied above, the protagonist has been struggling to make significant progress toward her story goal since the Point of No Return. (This is also discussed in File No. 6, which covers the Struggle / Act II, First Half.) The Revelation / Midpoint is when she figures out why she’s been struggling and what change(s) she needs to make in order to succeed. It forces her to reflect briefly on her mistakes and behavior and finally see the truth that undermines her false belief.
Be careful about how the protagonist acts after the Revelation / Midpoint, though. At this moment, she acknowledges that her way of thinking may have been wrong, and she’ll take the first step in the right direction. But just because the protagonist acknowledges her eventual change doesn’t mean she accepts the change yet. Her thoughts or feelings should still show an unwillingness or refusal to let go of her false belief. This “clinging” will be clear evidence that the protagonist might very well be on the path to positive growth, but she still has a long way to go.
- Example: Harry’s had a rough start to his time at Hogwarts (original plan). He feels inadequate due to his lack of wizardry knowledge, and many of his peers treat him differently because of his fame. But by standing up to Draco, Harry wins his classmates’ admiration and discovers he’s good at flying. His skills and bravery are also rewarded when Professor McGonagle recommends him for the Quidditch team, and his sense of belonging is bolstered when she tells him, “Your father would have been proud… He was an excellent Quidditch player himself.” (152*) Thus, Harry realizes that maybe he does belong at Hogwarts (false belief / acknowledgment of change), and he needs to give his studies a second chance (new plan).
Questions for Aligning the Arc’s Revelation with the Plot’s Midpoint
- External Perspective: What event represents the Revelation / Midpoint? How does it reinforce the protagonist’s story goal? How does the choice it presents show that her original plan for achieving her story goal isn’t working? What proactive step(s) does she take to change things?
- Internal Perspective: How does the Revelation / Midpoint prove to the protagonist that her original plan to achieve her story goal isn’t working? What behavioral or attitude changes does she realize she needs to make in order to succeed? If she has a false belief, what is its opposite truth? How does she catch a glimpse of it at this time? Finally, how do the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions reveal her acknowledgment of the truth but a reluctance to accept it?
The Remaining Arc Stages, Plus Other Great Blog Posts on Story Structure and Character Arcs
Plot-arc alignment is a hefty subject to cover. And while it’s crucial that our study on this topic be clear and comprehensive, it’s also important that it doesn’t overwhelm you. So, we’ll come back to Part 2 of this topic in File No. 15. There, we’ll visit plot-arc alignment for the Dark Night of the Soul, Moment of Truth, and Emergence, as well as any “in-between” stages.
In the meantime, check out these recommended posts that touch on different aspects of story structure, characters arc, and how they often parallel one another:
- “Character Arc Development: Is There a Best Approach?” by Jami Gold (Jami Gold’s Official Blog & Website)
- “How to Plot with the Three-Act Structure” by Janice Hardy (Fiction University)
- “*Pinch* Are You Awake?” by Anne Greenwood Brown (Writer Unboxed)
- “Your Two Plots” by Dave King (Writer Unboxed)
How do you work on plots or character arcs in your own stories? Do you focus on the external or internal aspects first? Also, what was the first scene you pictured for your current WIP? In your opinion, where does that scene fall along the Journey Through the Character Arc?
Please come back in January / February for File No. 15, where we’ll finish our discussion of plot-arc alignment in Part 2 of this topic.
*Reference: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 1998 paperback printing by Scholastic Books