Reader Change Arcs

Character change arcs are a mainstay of stories. All characters have a change arc be it positive, flat, or negative. Plotting those arcs is a significant part of my process. However, I never thought about reader change arcs.

Stories can teach readers and change their opinions about local and global issues, but I’m not talking about that type of change. What I’ve become aware of is leading a reader through a change regarding their opinion about a character in a story. Proficient writers may be aware of this. My recent reading experience brought it to my attention.

My enlightenment began with The Dangerous Gift (Wings of Fire Book 14) by Tui T. Sutherland. The point-of-view character is Snowfall, Queen of the IceWings. Snowfall is rude, cold, distrustful, and simply mean. I never liked her. When I heard she was the POV character for book 14, my reaction was why? Snowfall has a character change arc in the story that redeemed her in my eyes. She is now one of my favorite dragons. Sutherland had led me through my own change arc that had changed my opinion about Snowfall.

With Snowfall, the character’s change arc is what led me through my change arc. However, even for a character with a flat change arc, the reader can be led from disliking the character to loving the character. This was the event that led me to realize I was being changed by the writer’s words.

In the Menagerie series — The Menagerie, Dragon on Trial, and Krakens and Lies — by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland, there is a secondary character, a griffin named Nira, who has six griffin cubs who have escaped from the menagerie. Nira is indifferent while her mate Riff worries manically and is losing feathers due to his distress. Her attitude triggered me and I immediately disliked her.

By the end of the series, I had learned the truth about Nira. She wasn’t indifferent. She had faith in her cubs and that they would be fine. She was simply enjoying the time off from parenting. Apparently, Riff didn’t contribute anywhere near enough to the work of parenting the cubs. Nira was exhausted. She was happy when all of her cubs were returned to her. And, the menagerie staff had a word with Riff. He began doing his part in parenting the cubs, which he quickly learned was hard work. Also, during the course of the series, Nira helped the menagerie staff in dealing with problems with a local, which also exposed more of Nira’s likeable personality. By the end of the trilogy, I loved Nira. Sutherland and Sutherland had led me through my own change arc that had changed my opinion about Nira.

Now, when I write a story, I’m thinking about the reader change arc I’m creating.

(It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that Tui T. Sutherland was involved with both of these epiphany-generating stories.)

Book covers for The Dangerous Gift, The Menagerie, Dragon on Trial, and Krakens and Lies
Book covers for The Dangerous Gift, The Menagerie, Dragon on Trial, and Krakens and Lies

Suddenly a Short Story

I finished a draft of my dystopian world story’s first act. As I wrote the last line, the story felt complete. It’s not — there’s a lot more to the story — but the first act made itself its own story with an ending that brought me catharsis.

The first act explores the main character’s normal world. From the beginning, she has the item that will change her world at plot point one at the end of the first act and thus toss her into the actual story in the second and third acts. The midpoint revealed the inciting event as a flashback. It made a complete story arc.

As I wrote the last line, I had a flush of excitement. I had created a short story. I immediately decided it needed to go out on submission. If it doesn’t find a home, I still have the rest of the story to tell. If it does, I’ll still finish the story and publish it later, probably as a novella.

To that end, I edited the story to the best of my ability and then sent it to beta readers for their input. I look forward to submitting it. I currently have a short story making submission rounds. Maybe they’ll both be picked up.

Dystopian World Short Story Word Cloud and Pages (pages not intended to be readable)
Dystopian World Short Story Word Cloud and Pages (pages not intended to be readable)

Write a Dystopian World is Depressing

I’m making progress on my dystopian world story, but that progress is slow and difficult. The world is based on what some people want our world to be like. The extreme despair of that world makes it depressing to write. I cried writing the last line of the first chapter.

Figuring out this story has been more difficult than any story I’ve written. The outline is less complete than any of my previous outlines. There’s much yet to be understood about the characters and their world. However, things are coming together and the holes in the outline are slowly filling in.

Now is not the time for emotions. Stay focused. Stay vigilant. Danger lurks. Save the crying for when it’s done. Then, rejoice.

Story in the Works

I’m waiting on a review of my anthology. I finished a short story that is out on submission. Now I’m designing a new story that takes place on a dystopian world.

The society of that world is the antagonist confronting our hero. As I create the story, I’ll look for specific characters to personify that society, which is based on policy objectives of certain extremists active in our real world.

The story is challenging, but it’s an excellent opportunity to practice the writing craft skill of worldbuilding.

Starting a New Story

The anthology The Dragon Universe: Utopia Origins I edited during the 2021 Clarion West Write-a-thon is off to beta readers. Now I’m working on a new story that is not part of The Dragon Universe — it won’t have dragons.

I mind mapped my ideas for the story and built a story structure to channel those ideas. I need to refine the MICE quotient and chiastic structure a little more, but I’ve already written a few pages to see how it flows. It’s looking good.

This will be a fun story. The plan is for it to be a short story under 6,000 words. I’ll see if I can keep it that short.

Using the Pieces I Have to Assemble a Book

I tend toward long stories that require time to produce. Because of the long turn around when writing such stories, progress on enhancing my writing craft skills was slow.

As I finished a draft of a 600,000-word story (which I broke into five 120,000-word books), I reached a point of understanding the writing craft that made me rethink everything I had been trying to accomplish. I needed to write shorter stories that would allow me to practice the finer details of craft that had finally clicked for me.

I began writing short stories — well, stories as short as I could make them. This allowed me to repeatedly practice in less time than long form stories allowed all the skills needed to write stories.

The stories came in at 8,100 words, 7,200 words, 18,700 words, and 50,600 words. Then I felt the need for a story that would lead into the stories I had already written. It came in at 18,800 words. I submitted the stories to various markets as I wrote them, but I have not yet made a sale.

After reviewing this collection of stories, which are related and explore the origins of a world and characters I plan for a future long-form story, I decided I can use them to create an anthology. This would give me a book I could publish that would be 103,400 words (plus or minus what editing does to the word count).

I’m now editing that collection and having a fine time doing it. I’ll see where this path leads me.

Don’t Self-Reject

Don’t self-reject. Let the professionals do that for you.

I keep repeating to myself: If I don’t submit, I’ll never sell a story. I share this advice with others as well. I’m not saying submit crap — it needs to be your best work — but don’t let the fear of rejection stop you. Even the most successful writers receive rejections. It’s a part of the job.

I finished final edits on my newest novella, so now it’s time to submit it. I don’t expect it to be accepted, though (keeping my expectations under control is one of my coping mechanisms). I’m not convinced I write anything anyone wants; however, I have received rejections with personalized comments that indicated some of my stories have been close.

My stories may be too normal. They’re not odd, experimental, or mind blowing. Many of the stories published by the various markets don’t appeal to me and I don’t write those kinds of stories; all though, occasionally I am pleasantly pleased with what is published. I write what I like to read, stories that make me feel good, stories that give me catharsis.

I’m hoping for a good outcome with this submission, but I’m also preparing to submit the story to the next available market on my submission plan. That is my job.

I’ll do my job and let the professionals to theirs.

High level view of the pages of my newest novella.
Pages of My Newest Novella

The Road Not Taken

As I worked on my current writing project, I wrote the line “Patrick realized he had chosen the wrong path for his life.” I then described the path he took and the path that in hindsight he wishes he had taken.

This reminded me of the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. I often think about the poem and ponder how I came to be where I am today, what roads I took, what roads were the wrong roads, and where would I be if I had followed those other roads. Now, as I work on a second draft of the story, that theme pulls at me and cries out for more attention.

The story already had a theme about doing the right thing but not necessarily knowing what the right thing was until too late in the process. This new theme blends with the original theme in the sense that a choice was made and then later events called the choice into question.

The road most people’s lives take is the result of random opportunity and desperate grasping for any job so they can simply survive another day. In my life, though, there were a few moments when two roads diverged and I had to choose. Did I choose wisely? I often doubt I did. Regardless, I have to accept where I ended up.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

TED-Ed animation of the poem.
TED-Ed analysis of the poem and its interpretations.

Narrative Conflict Type

I tend to write stories that use a narrative conflict type of Person versus Self where the main character is struggling with their own prejudices, doubts, or flaws. This creates an opportunity for the type of character change arc that most appeals to me.

My current project still has that conflict as the main character struggles with his purpose. He had thought himself to be doing the right thing with his life, but came to believe he’s living a lie. Just as he is ready to quit and move beyond the lie, disaster strikes, a disaster that causes him to rethink whether or not he really was living a lie.

As I worked on the story, I came to realize that another character was responsible for triggering his doubts, a character who was actively working to undercut him. This brought into the story the Person versus Person conflict type, a conflict type I have little experience with because of being so drawn to Person versus Self.

I’m a couple of chapters away from finishing the first draft of this story. I look forward in the second draft of expanding the Person versus Person conflict. It makes the story stronger.

Interviewing Characters

I always know an assortment of details about my characters, but I have not in the habit of actually interviewing them. As I worked through my current project, I discovered when I answered K.M. Weiland’s Question of the Day on Twitter I learned facts about my characters I had not considered. Those facts helped me improve my presentation of those characters. That has prompted me to enhance my writing process by doing more character interviews.

Following are examples of questions that improved my story.

What are some of your protagonist’s idiosyncrasies?

Patrick’s friend had given him a chess piece, a knight, on his ninth birthday because all he ever talked about was becoming a dragon-slayer knight. Carved from fine marble, the piece had always been shiny and silky, but it was even more so now after years of him fidgeting with it, spinning it in his fingers, and rubbing his thumb on it when he sank into deep thought as he strategized.

What makes your protagonist laugh?

Patrick tends to be impassive, stoic, disciplined, and affects an austere manner. However, he’s not above enjoying satire, parody, hyperbole, and irony even at inappropriate moments. When his friend says she has nightmares, he tells her his warhorse’s name is Knight-Mare. He has to apologize because she thought he was mocking her.

What is the worst thing your protagonist has ever done?

In all the years Patrick had been a dragon-slayer knight, he had fought many dragons, wounded several, and drove them away from the human lands, but he had never killed a dragon. But when he fights his most recent dragon, and severely wounds her, almost mortally, he realizes what he does is wrong. The worst thing he had ever done was become who he is.