At last, we come to the end of my 14-column-series on James Scott Bell’s Signpost Scenes, as depicted in his wonderful book on craft, Super Structure. Signpost Scene #14–Transformation–might be short and subtle, but it’s wildly important for a story’s success. Essentially, the purpose of Transformation is exactly what it sounds like: a scene that shows the reader how a character(s) has changed, or transformed, from the beginning to the end.
If stories are about change, and characters are the very symbols of this change, then writers must include a scene, if not the last scene, that proves such change has fruitioned. For better or worse.
What is Transformation?
Whether or not you’re writing a prescriptive or cautionary tale, far and few (if any) readers like a story where nothing happens. Structure (or plot) and the complications that escalate throughout the beginning, middle, and end illustrate the exact forces demanding a character(s) transforms. Stasis is death. Stasis dooms any story to result in a flop.
As writers, our job is to deliver the opposite.
But it’s not enough to kind of change a character. Characters need to change in a significant way, and that’s what Signpost Scene #14 is all about: showing readers exactly how significant this change is.
Don’t mistake change as synonymous with becoming a new person—although in some character cases, this happens. Characters can become stronger. Or, in a cautionary tale, fall far from their original status. In some cases still, a principled Protagonist who rises without compromise won’t change at all, but the surrounding characters supporting them most definitely will.
Regardless of the direction you take, your opening scene and your final scene—most likely the Transformation Signpost—will show the extreme character differences in a crafty way. Bell suggests that readers turn back to their Mirror Moment (Signpost Scene #7) to identify the exact kind of change your story needs, since the Mirror Moment shows us the Protagonist immersed in an extreme whiff of psychological, professional, or physical death. And based on this type of death, readers (and writers) can anticipate how that Protagonist (or their surrounding characters) need to change in order to get out of their story “alive.” (Or not, if you’re writing a story that ends with a tragedy.)
In the Mirror Moment, if the character “looks at himself, thinking Who am I?,” that character needs to become a different person by the end of the story. If he/she thinks they are going to physically die at the Mirror Moment (i.e. Midpoint), that character needs to “get stronger in order to live” (Super Structure, 109).
If the character is a principled character who rises without compromise, it’s likely the Mirror Moment will identify a conflict that truly threatens to break that character’s principles. And yet, by the end of the story, that character will become stronger than ever, without compromising, regardless of whether or not their actions lead to social betterment. (They will, however, have changed some characters around them.) The Protagonist Maximus in the movie Gladiator is a good example of this.
For a deeper look at how Transformation pays off in a big way, let’s turn to the classic novel and musical, Les Miserables.
Mirror Moment and Transformation Scenes in Les Miserables
At the Mirror Moment of Les Miserables, we have the beloved song, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” I wanted to pull this scene as the example for this post because it does a marvelous job at identifying both how 1) the characters need to change by becoming different people, and 2) the characters need to get stronger in order to survive.
Now, the Leading Protagonist and Central Character of Les Miserables is none other than Jean Valjean—who doesn’t appear in “Do You Hear the People Sing?” However, the funeral procession of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque and the forming of the barricade by the students (which occurs in this number) undoubtedly impacts Jean Valjean and the entirety of the story’s structure. In this moment, the rebelling students, led by another leading character, Marius, are posed with a major best bad choice: they can build a barricade while risking their lives (physical death), or they can remain “slaves” to the government (psychological death). They choose to risk their lives, therefore setting the stage that in order to get out alive, these characters need to get stronger to survive.
Off Stage, Jean Valjean is desperate to protect his adopted daughter, Cosette, while also keeping his true identity secret. On the other hand, Cosette has fallen desperately in love with Marius, who is off for the revolution. For much of the musical itself, Jean Valjean’s character arc focuses on his war with the kind of man he was, is, and wants to be. The very lyrics in his solo “Who Am I?” pinpoint the transformation we long to see from Jean Valjean: he needs to become a different person in order to leave the audience/readers satisfied, if not deeply moved by the conflicts he overcomes in order to change.
Now, let’s turn to the “Finale.” This is Signpost Scene #14: Transformation according to James Scott Bell in that this is the scene where we 1) see that Jean Valjean has become a different person, and 2) see how Cosette and Marius have become stronger in order to get married and survive (thanks to Jean Valjean). In these final moments, Jean Valjean is on his deathbed while Cosette and Marius comfort him shortly after their wedding. The action is equally simple and remarkably beautiful in that we see Jean Valjean, who started the story a prisoner, criminal, and broken man, taking his last breath with pride and peace in what he was able to nurture and save. He becomes a different person, for a big reason because of Cosette. And knowing that Cosette, now married to her love and a good man, is safe and happy allows him to die in peace.
Even better, Jean Valjean’s death, while sad for Cosette and Marius, illustrates exactly how he is rewarded for the good life he led post his criminal days. He reflects on how “to love another person is to see the face of God” and leaves his physical world for heaven, accompanied with the spiritual beings of Fantine and Eponine.
Likewise, thanks to Jean Valjean, Marius is the only character of his friends to survive the barricade. He’s been rescued and gains his strength—and a new wisdom—which allows him to take his place as Cosette’s husband, new provider, and family as Jean Valjean passes.
The Transformation of Jean Valjean ends his character arch with spectacular change. He knows who he is, and he parts this world transformed, whole and at peace.
Structure is essential to a story’s success, and without change, readers/viewers will fail to find the story’s purpose or admire it long after the last line. Ultimately, what structure boils down to for the writer can be discovered with one essential question: what do you want your readers/audience to feel at the end of the story? Or, what lesson do you want them to learn?
How your character begins and ends is inevitably tethered to this beginning and final emotion. Imagine your Protagonist at the start of your story. Now, envision them at the end. Listen to your emotions. How were your feelings different? What did the Protagonist learn?
Write this down.
Use the other 13 Signpost Scenes in James Scott Bell’s Super Structure to challenge and establish this change.
Enjoy the structure process!
Abigail K. Perry is a Teacher-Turned-Certified Story Grid Editor with literary agency, publishing, and production experience. With a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University (Newhouse) and a Master’s in Secondary Education from Endicott College, Abigail created and taught three creative writing and film courses at the high school level for several years, and she continues to teach writers at her local bookstore and with her email list.Although trained in multiple genres, Abigail specializes in Scripts, YA Fantasy, Contemporary Fiction, Upmarket Fiction, and Women’s Fiction, many of which she reviewed (and loved!) as an editorial intern for P.S. Literary Agency’s VP and Senior Literary Agent, Carly Watters. She currently works at P.S. Literary as the Agency Relations Assistant.