Welcome to week three! In my last two articles I’ve discussed two major beats in every story: the disturbance and the care package. Both of these beats focus on how events or vulnerabilities impact or develop the Lead (i.e. – the protagonist). So you shouldn’t be surprised as we venture into James Scott Bell’s third signpost scene in his book Super Structure: The Key To Unleashing The Power of Story.
What is this signpost scene? The Argument Against Transformation, of course!
Novels cannot exist without a Lead’s transformation, and the stakes of a Lead’s transformation will not be high unless the Lead (at least at first) hesitates to face them. So let’s get into the argument against character transformation and why it is so important for a Lead to argue against change.
What is the Theme of a Novel and How Does It Show Transformation?
Now, you might be wondering why I want to discuss theme in a novel when I’ve proposed an article on a Lead’s argument against transformation. I’ll tell you.
Theme, or the main subject being discussed in a book (i.e. the book’s message) should directly relate to how your character transforms by the end of the novel. It should illustrate what your Lead learns (and what your readers will walk away feeling), because how the Lead changes directly relates to how he/she views something–the story’s message. The story’s theme. But first, the Lead needs to argue against that need to change.
What is the theme of a novel? How is it stated?
James Scott Bell defines theme in his book Superstructure as, “a life lesson learned. What is it that the character learns by the end of the story? What truth is it that she will live by from then on?”
Writers should take note of their theme, if not in the rough draft of a novel, then during the editing process. Without a Lead’s transformation, a reader has no reason to root for (or enjoy) the adventure. They won’t feel that the end of the story carries resonance.
We must have a reason to love the Lead. Transformation in a Lead means movement, it means a reason to care whether a Lead survives or not. Transform or die: professionally, psychologically, or physically depending on the type of story you’re writing.
So what is your story’s theme? Stop for a moment and really ponder this question. If you don’t have an answer, no need to freak out. You can try a few exercises like:
- Write an essay on your book. What is it you want readers to walk away feeling or thinking?
- Read some of your favorite works of fiction. Try to identify the theme and see if your story can reflect the same message.
- Write a letter to a friend about “the best book you just read” (pretending like that book was your book but writing in third person)—only substitute the word “theme” for “book.” Come up with a theme you didn’t realize you were writing? Or multiple?
Whether you’ve realized it or not, there is a theme to your story. And I’d bet a mountain made of ice cream that your theme directly relates to your character’s transformation.
Let’s Look at an Example
The theme in The Wizard of Oz is “There’s no place like home.” At the beginning of the story, Dorothy wants to escape from home, dreaming of a better place that lies somewhere over the rainbow. But by the end of the film, Dorothy wishes for nothing other than home. Home sweet home!
Sidebar: Do you know the theme in A Tale of Two Cities or To Kill a Mockingbird? Look them up if you don’t, and ask yourself: how does the Lead in each classic start in the beginning and how have they changed by the end? Did that change have something to do with the story’s theme?
So Why Argue Against Transformation?
Hold the cell phone! I bet you’re thinking that you can see how theme and transformation are assimilated, but isn’t Bell’s signpost scene called argument against transformation?
Absolutely. And here’s why: having a scene in Act One that establishes the character’s argument against transformation (i.e. something they do not want to do but find the courage to do) glorifies that moment of transformation, and exemplifies the grit in the Lead—all readers love a character with some grit!
What are some of these act one arguments?
- In The Hunger Games, when eating bread before the Reaping with Gale, Katniss Everdeen argues against having children. She sees a life with children as a life without hope because of President Snow’s tyranny. But what has happened to Katniss by the end of book three? Think about that one.
- In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout needs to learn empathy for people who are different than her, even those she “regards with scorn.” When Scout mocks Walter Cunningham after having him home for supper, Calpurnia chews her out for behaving with such disrespect. Scout argues against feeling empathy for people different than her. But what’s happened to Scout by the end? How has she transformed?
And now for my final example, a recent bestseller about Islamophobia and a young Indian American, Muslim girl learning to fight for her passions despite her conservative family and their cultural expectations, Love Hate & Other Filters. If you haven’t read this debut, add it to your reading list! Here’s a preview:
Argument Against Transformation in Love, Hate, & Others Filters
In a #PitMad pitch, literary agent Eric Smith gobbled up Samira Ahmed’s pitch: “She (Maya) wants to make films & kiss boys–her Muslim parents forbid both. Will a terrorist & Islamophobia shatter her dreams? #pitmatch #YA #CON.”
So what do we have here? Maya Aziz, a high school senior who is crushing hard on Phil, her long-term crush, while trying to balance her passion for documentary films with the dream of attending NYU, despite her parents who want Maya to a) not date b) not pursue film at a college far away from them and c) marry a nice Muslim boy accustomed to their family’s culture. All conflicts that grow even more difficult for Maya after her family becomes the victim of various hate crimes following a terrorist attack.
Understanding how Maya feels conflicted between wanting to live the life she wants and being a good daughter, can you guess what Maya’s transformation might be?
To find true happiness, Maya needs to learn how to assert herself and forge her own path, even if her parents disagree with her choice.
But Ahmed doesn’t stop at the obvious; she follows Bell’s third signpost scene by challenging Maya with an argument against this need for transformation. The scene appears in act one, when Maya tutors Phil and—learning that Maya doesn’t know how to swim—Phil proposes he teach her.
Maya’s mother has a terrible fear of drowning after a bad experience in her home country. In this case, Maya is prevented from a skill (if not unknown want) because her mother (out of love for Maya, but grounded in her own fear) is scared her daughter might drown…like she almost did.
Phil’s proposal pushes Maya into an argument against transformation:
“I’m going to teach you.”
“No. No. I can’t. You can’t—”
“I can. Literally.” He’s not letting me off the hook. “You know, I lifeguard at the Y in summer, and swimming is a necessary life skill. I can teach you. I want to.”
I nod along, but regret every word that has slipped out of my mouth. I don’t even own a swimsuit, something Violet teases me about relentlessly.
From these lines alone, it’s easy to fall in love with Maya–a Lead trying to find her voice in the world while dealing with her emotions for a long-time crush. Why? Because Maya is relatable, and her stakes for transformation are high—and they’re set even higher when she soon agrees to swim lessons. Not only will Maya need to attend them behind her parents’ backs, but also they’re with a non-Muslim boy.
Maya’s rebellious act is only the beginning of a story about finding love and self amidst the terrors of racism she can’t avoid after a terrible terrorist attack. How will she survive both psychologically and physically? Transform, or die.
Do you know some other examples of transformation in other novels? What is the Lead’s transformation in your novel? Do you know your theme? Does it relate to your Lead’s transformation? Feel free to share your insights using the #letstalkbooks!
Abigail K. Perry is a speculative fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College. She worked as a creative production intern in for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Publishing, and currently works as an editorial intern for P.S. Literary.
Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest, where she has attended various conferences, retreats, workshops, and webinars. You can read more about her work on her website www.akperry.com or follow her on Twitter @A_K_Perry