Often when we think of story, we have a tendency to focus on plot. When people ask us what our books are about, the plot will more than likely be what we spit out. But how many times do we writers think: “You want me to summarize my book in one sentence? Impossible. My book is about so much more than that!” And it probably is. But plot can usually be easily identified in one sentence.
In fact, we’re usually given the following template to figure out the plot in a sentence: [Protagonist] must do/overcome/face X (obstacle) in order to (goal) or else (what happens if they fail).
But does that really describe the story?
Of course not. Because stories—or good ones, at any rate—have a little something else going on. And the answer to that is…
It’s the Character Arc, Friends.
A story takes a character through a series of interconnected events in order for them to achieve a goal (otherwise known as a plot)…a good story has that character start in one place emotionally and end in another.
Put differently, the character grows or changes. This change doesn’t have to be a positive one. Depending on the story you’re telling, you could show the character sinking into villainy. In fact, one of the most compelling television series did just that:
Breaking Bad plot-wise, was about a man who turned to meth manufacturing in order to provide for his family when he learned he had terminal cancer and lost his job, savings, insurance, and benefits.
But the character arc on that show was an entirely different matter. Walter White starts the show as a bumbling, middle class American teacher and family man. He ends it a hardened killer and drug lord, willing to do just about anything to protect the nefarious world he’s created. Watching that journey is what made Breaking Bad such a hit show. Why?
The Name of the Game is Conflict.
Character arc is all about conflict. Conflict is the absolute most compelling thing that drives a story forward. The more conflict there is, the higher the stakes, the more the character struggles…these are the things that make a book “unputdownable.”
In general, the character is facing a series of rising obstacles, known as external conflict. These external conflict scenarios aren’t what I’m talking about here (though that’s crucial too). What I’m talking about is internal conflict.
Internal conflict is when a character is struggling with themselves. Given an impossible situation, where the character must choose between emotional/physical states within themselves—the conflict reveals a great deal. What the character chooses tells the reader who the character is in that moment.
If used effectively, internal conflict can inform the reader about how the character is changing or has changed. For example, if you present the character in chapter one as refusing to pick up a gun when threatened and then show that same character shooting the antagonist in the last chapter, the reader can clearly see the change that has occurred in the character. How that internal conflict is presented and developed throughout the book will be the backbone of your character arc.
So if you want a story well-told, remember: plot is only half of the equation. The journey that your character takes internally is equally important—and in sometimes, it may end up being the journey that is best-remembered.