Thursday, March 10

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, March 10, 2011 16 comments
Why do stories that turn on a simple epiphany bother us so much when we encounter them in fiction? Probably because they feel so fictional. In real life, insights are a lot easier to come by than true change. Look at the vast self-help section in your local bookstore and you'll see what I mean. Gurus everywhere offer tests and tools to help identify our every weakness. But changing those things? Ah, now there's the rub.

In Think Like a Shrink, Emanuel Rosen's primer on 100 basic principles driving human personality, he discusses the limits of insight. Therapeutic relationships, whether with a professional counselor or an insightful friend, will only get you so far, he says. Why? Those insights are just a theory--a theory one is prone to resist--until some experience makes it real.

In other words, your story will fall flat if you stop at the point of realization for your character. She needs the further step of a new experience to test and perfect what she's learned. This new experience might happen during the climax or the denouement. But it must happen.

When you show your character acting on an insight, behaving in a new way, relating differently, you do more than just prove change. You act on your readers' imaginations in a way that helps them to make a similar leap. This is where fiction has a role to play in being a healing force in society.

So what will that new experience look like? That depends entirely on the character's flaw and how he or she is wired. A bold character should have a bolder healing experience than a quiet character does. Think Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol versus Pip in Great Expectations. A particularly stubborn character won't likely do a 180, but will take an incremental step toward the new pattern of behavior. Yet that small gesture--a sympathetic nod, a few coins in a tip jar, a mumbled "thanks"--can have big impact when it shows a new direction for your character.

How might moving from insight to action improve your story? What favorite books do this in a way that resonated with you long after you closed the covers?


  1. The difference between the theoretical and the experiential.There are many profound insights which have come from the former because some people are just insightful.Some people are so energy sensitive they can feel an experience even if they do not have it themselves.

  2. Great post that has me thinking about change and how to show it. It was actually a bit of an epiphany because I write character driven novels which rely on this 'change' and it has me thinking maybe my manuscript doesn't prove that change enough. Hmm. The wheels are turning. Thanks Laurel!
    Also, was trying to think of a book, but came up with a film. I think there are a lot of people who noticably change in Good Will Hunting in really profound ways.

  3. So true! Any story that I absolutely love has the concept into play. Books I've loved recently? The Marbury Lens, Chains by laurie Halse Anderson - actually any of her books, Ally Carter, Barrie Summy, Kate messner - they all use this concept to perfection for an emotional story.

  4. I think that goes to the whole showing not telling aspect of writing also. Showing the change slowly through behavior is important. The internal dialogue still exists, but you have evidence to back it up! Great post.

  5. Thank you for this post! I'll keep this in mind as I work through my revisions.

    Hope you're having a fantastic week! :)

  6. Believable change can be tricky to pull off in fiction. Great post!

  7. Good Will Hunting is a great example. I'm with Elle - believable change is so difficult to write!

  8. I love your line . . . "fiction has a role to play in being a healing force in society"

    I'd never thought about it that way, but I fully agree!

  9. Yes, the change has to go about gradually too, I think. Or else it runs the risk of not being believable to the reader. Great post!

  10. I do think this is an important step for stories--the implementation of what's been learned. Whether it's a few chapters or just a few pages, it does make an impact. Thanks, girl! :o)

  11. I've seen some writers stretch this to realization, promise, failure, re-dedication and success. Course, that could then be the whole book. LOL Doesn't have to be, though.

  12. I had to give it some thought, but I do think I did this in my novel (thank heavens because it makes so much sense here!). Good things to think about here.

  13. Making characters walk their walk is an exciting challenge. Great post!

  14. Rosyln: I think if we can write experience well, our reader will identify so closely, she will begin to change as the narrator does.

    Melissa: It can be helpful to think of change as walking in another direction--that's what the word "repent" means at root. Think of Scrooge realizing he was hard hearted and tight fisted and taking steps to be generous instead.

    Laura: Once you see the Rosen's idea about experience changing more than just ideas, you'll find it everywhere. It's a golden truth of human nature.

    Lisa: One could easily show an epiphany too, but I agree that behavior change afterwards has more impact than, say, and author telling us the character "understood everything now."

  15. Jamie: Glad it's helpful. Remember that insights that don't sink in the first time (the character doesn't yet change) can build to the point that the character does eventually "get it."

    Elle: Indeed. While this post addresses turning points--moving from insight to action, I know a lot could (and should) be said about realistic ups and downs leading to a turning point. A good idea for a future post.

    Talli: So much can depend on the ups and downs that precede the turning point, right?

    Janet: My thinking is shaped here by some of the things Tolkein and Lewis have written about why fantasy stories are important.

  16. Abby: Your point is a good one--something I'll likely blog on in the future. Reaching a place of insight should happen slowly, over most of the course of a book.

    Leigh: When I haven't seen that final step, I generally doubt the character has really learned anything by going through the story trials.

    Victoria: Yes, sometimes the outer journey realizations come early and fuel action. Inner journey realizations almost always come late, as a result of the story actions. That's a helpful distinction.

    Tess: Rosen definitely made a lot of sense to me. Those new experiences after an insight really cement character change for your reader.

    Nicole: I agree. It's one of the most exciting things to mold in a story.