I think that one of the reasons humans have always been driven to tell stories, and to tell them in the particular way that we do, is because they illustrate how something came to be—how something changed irreversibly, and the new state of being came to be the only one that worked. A story is a series of actions and decisions, but what a story’s about is change. There are some exceptions to this rule, but as a human race I think we’re mostly interested in internal, character-based changes. That means that characters change and are changed by their circumstances.
But how do you create that transformation, and how do you make it believable? And how do you fit that transformation into a framework of external circumstances which are, most likely, also changing?
Most stories begin with the status quo, but few hold the reader there for very long. The impetus for the actual story is usually some small change—a new cropping up, or a new rule being established. This new circumstance presents an obstacle which will grow throughout the story, and which will force the character to change.
Again, there are some exceptions to this rule, but typically plots are most interesting if a flaw of the character’s—the exact trait you will transform through the story, ideally—contributes to or even creates the obstacle. Though the reader may be aware of this flaw and how it contributes to the problem, the character will be blind to that fault at first. Nonetheless, the flaw will keep the character tied down, while the obstacle creates something against which the character is pushing.
I think of character transformations—and thus plotlines—as working like a slingshot. Even after the need for change is established, the character will try to move forward by acting in the same way she always has. However, whatever it is that she needs to change is keeping her from making headway, and any attempt to go forward will only result in her struggling against that force. This struggle will build tension as the character goes as far as she possibly can—and as with a slingshot, the struggle to keep moving in that same direction becomes more difficult the further she gets. Finally, the character will have reached as far as she can possibly reach by struggling in that one direction, and the slingshot’s elastic will either snap or release itself in a powerful reversal of the story’s direction. In either case, the character will have no choice but to change, and that change propels her right into the climax. The more powerful the tension and then the snap back, the faster and more intense the climax.
As is true in real life, your character’s transformation will come gradually, and your plot arc will be comprised of a series of forward-backward strides. Similarly, in the very best stories at least some of the secondary characters also undergo transformations. You can apply the slingshot metaphor to the story’s subplots just as well as you can to the overarching plot. Vary the amount of tension and the amount of time spent building it based on how important a particular change is to the overall plot. Through each subplot, however, you want to always be pulling the slingshot that is the overarching plot tighter. Never allow the resolution of one subplot or struggle to release more tension than it builds.
The scope of different stories can vary widely, from an epic struggle or quest (think The Hunger Games or The Lord of the Rings), in which the entire world has the potential to be transformed, to more contained stories in which the world likely to change is that of one individual or family, as in Marcelo in the Real World. But in each case, the most essential change in the story is a character transformation. The Hunger Games is less about what happens in a violent arena than about a teenage girl learning to fight for the freedom of those she loved. The Lord of the Rings is, at heart, a story about several characters' transformations into heroes. And Marcelo is, perhaps more evidently than the other two, a tale about a boy finding the strength to stand up for what’s right and face adult decisions. Whatever the situation, these stories feel compelling to us because we can relate to and learn from the characters. And what we’re specifically relating to in these characters is the way in which they change in order to deal with their circumstances.
So properly building the tension around your character’s transformation will help you beef up your story’s emotional core. I strongly suggest taking the time to map out these changes so that you can devote the right amount of your story to each change.
And that’s where your input comes in! I’m curious: do you have any tried and true methods for mapping your characters’ transformations? How do you approach tension-building as you write?