A fundamental understanding of transformation is crucial to having anything more than an intellectual relationship to structure. We have all read the books on three-act-structure. By the way, what lasting stories have any of these people written? I mean no offense in saying this, but it is important to recognize that no one has yet been able to isolate the transcendent beauty that draws us in and lies at the heart of every great story. It is one thing to analyze the anatomy of a story, but is it possible that story also contains magic, some ineffable quality that rises from a source that we can’t explain?
The writer’s job (as I see it), is to track the beats in a believable way that lead to a transformation.
Story is the most powerful way we have to express ideas. We can actually see the journey that a human being takes in getting from one place to another, and this journey inevitably involves some kind of transformation. When we think of the word transformation, it sometimes conjures some miraculously grand occurrence, some vision of enlightenment. However, transformation is quite simply a shift in perception. Nothing more. And yet, when we have seen something one way our entire life, and then, sometimes in an instant, we see it in an entirely other way, it can be quite miraculous, and it can also be quite ordinary, as in, ‘duh, yeah, of course, now I see.’ When a transformation occurs, the tension vanishes, the fight disappears, and we are left with a knowing that was not there before. Through the journey of the story, the hero (and ourselves), come to understand something that we were previously asleep to.
Einstein said that ‘you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.’ Every story begins with a problem. A problem that wants to be solved. Our challenge as writers is to understand and accept that our hero wants something, wants it desperately, and the stakes are life and death. If our hero does not get what they want, their life will be unimaginable. If the stakes are any less, we will not care. It is that way in life, isn’t it? If we don’t get what we want, we cannot imagine going on. And at some point in the story, the hero comes to realize that in fact, it is impossible for them to get what they want. They are faced with a dilemma. Do I give up, or do I surrender? There is a difference. It is an important distinction. Surrendering does not mean giving up the want, it means letting go of the idea that it is what we must have to be free. Transformation occurs when we recognize that we are the only ones that can give us what we want. The want begins outside of oneself, and by the end of the story, the hero is able to reframe it as something that they can give to themselves. It is in this shedding or surrendering of the old victim identity that the hero accepts the reality of their situation and adapts. In doing this, it becomes possible for the hero to get what they want, if what they want belongs in their life.
Now, you may say, what about a story where the hero dies, or where the hero doesn’t get what they want. There are cautionary tales, where the hero is destroyed by their own willfulness, but this does not mean that they have not come to understand the error of their ways. Story necessarily involves a transformation.
What is your favorite character transformation in a book or film?
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