Inside Story by Dara Marks is a book that can help you to write stories with real emotional depth and impact. It’s aimed at screenwriters but the advice can be applied to any story of any length. The transformational arc refers to how your characters change over the course of a story. But it’s not just change for the sake of change – it has to be meaningful change.
The key to creating meaningful stories is to understand how character shapes action, and how that process influences story structure. In other words, the external action of the story must be driven by the internal needs of the protagonist. If there’s no connection between the inner world of the main character and the plot, then your audience or readers won’t care what happens and the story will fall flat.
“The goal of the [book] is to rebuild our notion of story structure from the inside out. This will help you develop a stronger connection to the internal movement of the characters in your stories and perhaps provide a better understanding of your own character as well. Inevitably, all anyone ever really writes about is himself or herself – because that’s all a person can truly know. As long as our stories are disconnected from this reality, they will remain superficial, underdeveloped, and never meet their full potential.”
Dara Marks identifies three building blocks that make up the transformational arc: plot, character, and theme. You might think that plot and character are pretty central to your story, but it’s actually the theme that’s most important.
Plot reveals what the problem or conflict is and where the action takes place, while character focuses on who is trying to solve the problem. But theme provides the understanding of why this problem and the actions of the characters are relevant. It’s theme that makes your writing and the story meaningful and gives purpose to the actions of the characters.
“Theme is based on what a writer believes and believes in. This is the writer’s unique voice, distinctive point of view, and, above all, what is personally valued. Therefore, personal beliefs form the cornerstone of a theme, and it is from the theme then that a writer can come to understand the true intention of his or her story.”
To reveal theme in your story it must be attached to the actions of the protagonist, not just talked about in dialogue. The theme sets up the obstacles that the protagonist must overcome in order to achieve the inner goal of transformation. In most great stories, this transformation deals with recovering or healing lost parts of the self and returning to a state of wholeness or balance.
This means your protagonist must begin in a state of conflict within themselves or with their circumstances. This is revealed through the fatal flaw – a way of acting that goes against their best interests. In other words, the character needs to change but either doesn’t want to or isn’t aware they need to. It’s their resistance to change that drives the story. So the fatal flaw usually embodies a value that’s opposite to the value of the theme.
For example, in Dead Poets Society, the thematic point of view is the idea of seizing the day and taking control of your life. The internal goal for the characters is the need to be true to themselves, so their fatal flaws need to reflect the opposite value – to be false to themselves.
“From the first frame of this movie forward there is an inauthentic, pretentious, and controlled atmosphere that surrounds the students, who themselves seem constrained and guarded. This behaviour is highlighted even further when the boys find a moment to themselves and they instantly become more relaxed and self-confident, out of the sight of authority figures.”
You can use this method of inverting the value of the theme to create characters and situations that provide endless creative possibilities for stories. The book gives plenty of examples from movies to show how it works in practice, and uses three films in particular to dig deep into how story structure works: Romancing the Stone, Lethal Weapon, and Ordinary People. It also goes into great detail about how the transformational arc works with the classic three-act structure.
But Inside Story isn’t just about writing stories; it’s about discovering more about yourself and why you write the way you do:
“The process of finding your story’s theme takes time and a lot of thought and emotional processing. But this is the most essential work a writer will do and it demands complete immersion into the process. … The theme of a story is something that reveals itself in layers, which means that every discovery and self-revelation is but an opening into the stream of greater consciousness. Therefore, you may process your theme to a certain point and move forward with the development of your story, only to later realise that there’s more to it than you initially understood. This is not only okay; if you allow yourself to move with the flow, your writing will remain fresh and you will remain inspired. … because internal development is an ongoing process, it’s far more likely that the conscious impulse that is calling your attention to start the writing process is only the doorway to something deeper inside you that is trying to find expression.”
Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc is an essential book for all writers, whether for screen, stage, or novels. Working with this method will help you to express your unique point of view through your stories and infuse your characters with depth and subtlety. If you want to write great stories, this is a great place to start. Highly recommended.
You can discover more about the book and read an extract here.
Next I’ll share some of my notes from Inside Story on the 3-Act Structure…