If there’s one thing that’s constant in all stories, it’s change. No matter what genre, a character experiences a series of events and things are different by the end of the tale. The more character-focused the novel, the greater and more personal this change is likely to be, but it appears in even the most plot-centric books as well.
- A mystery starts off with a victim and ends up with a killer caught and justice served.
- A thriller starts off with someone in jeopardy and ends up with people saved.
- A fantasy starts off with a hero facing a quest and ends up with that quest fulfilled.
The “big change” is what the book is ultimately about, but changes exist at every structural level of the novel. Plot events change how characters act, character realizations change how the plot unfolds, information revealed changes how readers and characters see and understand the story itself and the people in it.
A scene is nothing more than a small example of change happening. A character starts with a goal, has something to do or experience, and then things change. It could be a small change or a momentous discovery that changes everything the character ever knew about herself and the world.
In character-driven stories, the changes are typically more profound, as the character arc and the growth of that character are paramount to the novel. The character will have a flaw that’s preventing happiness, and it’s only by experiencing the events of the novel can that character find happiness and feel whole as a person. The novel is about watching that person go from unhappy to happy, unsatisfied to satisfied.
- Lonely people find love
- A unfulfilled life finds purpose
- The downtrodden stand up
In plot-driven stories, the changes are typically external, with the change occurring in the world the characters inhabit. There’s a problem that’s affecting others (it can be anywhere between one person or all people), and that problem must change or else. The novel is about watching how a situation is resolved and the consequences of resolving it.
- The bomb is disarmed and the city is safe
- The evil overlord is thwarted and the land is free
- The killer is caught and the victim is found
What if things don’t change?
Then all we’re really doing is describing a situation. “Here’s a story about these people living their lives and doing what they do.” And this is why an exciting idea can fall flat.
Let’s say we’re writing about firemen (that’s a very exciting group of people). The entire book revolves around a crew sitting in the fire station waiting for the alarm to go off so they can go put out a fire or save some people who need saving.
But the bell never rings.
No fires, no crisis, they just hang around and do whatever they normally do while they’re waiting for action.
That’s going to be a pretty dull book and I’d bet no one would want to read it. But before you can say, “Yeah, but if the story is about the firemen themselves, and their relationships and what happens in the firehouse, then it could be a great book.”
Sure, if those relationships change. If not, it’s still reading about a bunch of guys hanging around a firehouse, waiting. If the situation at the start of the novel is six guys talking about their lives, and ends with the same six guys talking about the same lives and nothing is different, and nothing about the 400 pages we just read affected those six guys in any way at all–dull book.
Reader’s Friend: “What happens in the book?”
Reader: “A bunch of guys in a firehouse talk about their lives.”
Reader’s Friend: “Why?”
Reader: “No reason.”
Reader’s Friend: “Was there a point to it?”
Change makes things interesting. Change provide the conflict to drive the story. If the characters or the situation is exactly the same at the end as the beginning (be it a scene or a series), that’s a big red flag that there’s a problem and the story isn’t being served.
If a guy leaves his house and has five consecutive car chases, and ends up back at home by the end of it with nothing but an empty gas tank, nothing has “happened” even if those were five of the most exciting individual car chases ever written. Odds are by the second one, readers were skimming.
Action doesn’t equal things happening (thus driving the story), change does. This is why it works no matter what type of novel it is. Things change and the characters have to deal with those changes.
If you’ve ever gotten feedback from your beta readers or critique partners that said “it doesn’t feel like anything’s happening” or “this section felt slow” or something similar, there’s a decent change it’s because nothing has changed. Figure out what changes and how that affects the story moving forward, and you’ll fix your problem.
When you’re writing your stories, think about the things that change and what that change means.
What changes in your novel?