When you think about fast-paced stories, what comes to mind? Cliffhangers that keep you awake late at night, turning pages so quickly that you get paper cuts? Or anemic character arcs and half-hearted themes?
Sometimes films and books sacrifice character development for the sake of fight scenes and car chases. But if a character’s experiences don’t change him at all, what’s the point? Bookstores are already packed with thrilling yet meaningless stories (and meaningful yet boring ones). They don’t need more.
Thankfully, fast-paced plots don’t have to be shallow. When you create a hero intentionally, his choices will drive the plot, his arc, and the theme so that readers can’t resist hanging on for the ride. To ensure all his actions carry significance, you can take a series of four steps I’ll outline below.
Step #1: Give the Protagonist Thematic Convictions
In a fast-paced story, you don’t have time to shape the protagonist’s arc apart from the plot. The two must be inseparably intertwined, and the protagonist’s every move should either fuel or mitigate the overarching conflict.
How do you form this connection, though? With a positive character arc, the protagonist will hold two opposing beliefs during the story: a lie at the beginning, and a truth he transitions to at the end. Since the lie handicaps him, he’ll repeatedly fail to overcome the story’s main problem until he embraces the truth. This presents opportunities to align the outer turmoil with his inner journey.
The climax forces the protagonist to abandon his lie, so you can discover how he’s been deluding himself by working backward. Pretend you’re writing about a protagonist named Robin who has sworn to protect the fairy folk of Sherwood forest. His nemesis, the advisor to the king of England, intends to destroy the forest’s inhabitants and purge magic from the land.
You want Robin to overthrow the villain in an epic showdown. To identify his (or any protagonist’s) lie, ask what trait he needs to succeed. Perseverance? Perception? Selflessness? Trust in others? Once you pick an attribute, reverse it to generate his lie.
If Robin can’t defeat the villain alone, his lie must impair his friendships. Perhaps he’s always stolen or conned people to achieve his goals. He would then need to learn that honesty, not theft and deception, is the foundation for lasting relationships. And just like that, you’ve pinpointed a conviction that will intrinsically link his arc to the plot.
Some writers delve into the protagonist’s backstory to find his lie, because hardships tend to breed distorted ideas. Other writers extract an arc from the theme they wish to explore. But no matter where you start, the protagonist’s lie must coincide with his transformation in the climax, which will enable you to weave situations into the story’s middle that flesh out his arc.
Once you’ve settled on an overall arc, you need to unfold it scene-by-scene without detracting from your fast-paced plot. The protagonist can’t suddenly decide to start living rightly at the climax. His shift in mindset needs to be gradual.
Step #2: Make the Protagonist Live Out His Convictions
Your protagonist’s every thought, word, and deed must be motivated by his convictions—either the lie he clings to initially, or the truth he begins to accept over time. If you base his pattern of living on his worldview, which circles back to your theme, you’re on track to deepen your fast-paced story.
Since Robin is convinced that his lie is true, he abides by it for most of the story. To protect his people and build his army, he ransacks the caravans entering the forest. Though the travelers are innocent, Robin believes he has no other recourse and absolves himself from any guilt he might feel.
Following his ideals only brings him halfway to the truth. Consequences must result.
Step #3: Punish the Protagonist for His Mistakes
When your protagonist pursues his lie, negative outcomes hint at its parasitic nature. As the story progresses, he’ll recognize the source of his misfortune and alter his path. But until that moment, the chaos and failures he suffers advance the plot.
However, the result of his poor judgment shouldn’t be random. It must relate to and compound the problem he’s trying to solve. Otherwise the scene will lack impact. If a disaster he causes doesn’t push him toward the truth, pull him toward the lie, or reveal a new angle of the theme, it will seem disconnected.
One day Robin and his fairy folk ambush a caravan that’s transporting precious cargo: the eldest princess. Robin attempts to grab her jewels, but she resists. Rashly, he turns her into a tree. The king, enraged, listens to his evil advisor and attacks Sherwood forest. Robin’s forces are utterly unprepared, and his second-in-command perishes in the battle.
Robin seized the caravan and cursed the princess because he assumed it would help his people. Instead, he started a war that killed fairies he had vowed to defend. His ideology is challenged, and he must now determine what to do next.
Guess what will guide his new plan? His lie. Though he’s witnessed the consequences, he doesn’t yet realize they’re his fault. So, without consulting his friends, he makes a bargain with an evil swamp witch for power to destroy the king’s army. That, too, has repercussions.
Interlacing the story’s events and the protagonist’s arc helps readers absorb the theme. Because Robin demonstrates his beliefs through the conflict, the theme is nestled inside it. You won’t need to halt the plot to explain the lesson you’re getting at because readers already understand.
Step #4: Weld Foil Characters’ Choices to the Theme
Side characters live out their values and reap the consequences as well, and the protagonist can grow through observing them.
In Robin’s story, the evil advisor doesn’t actually hate the fairy folk. He wants to use the magic inside Sherwood forest to revive the crumbling kingdom. But since he believes the same lie as Robin, interacting with him is like looking into a mirror. Robin is disgusted at the reflection, which serves to distance him from the lie.
This technique works with minor foil characters too. For example, the princess’s sister, Miriam, detests Robin as much as her father. However, she believes life is about giving, not taking. So she tends to the fairies her father captures and pleads that they be spared from execution. Her compassion confuses Robin, compelling him to re-evaluate his behavior.
When side characters have their own convictions, actions, and consequences, they become the protagonist’s surrogate. They experience arcs he can learn from externally. The plot won’t become repetitive by resting solely on his shoulders, and the multiple perspectives expand the theme.
Active Protagonists Move Readers
As a protagonist plunges farther into a story, his outward circumstances and inward struggles evolve. Because he’s constantly reaching for his desires, the plot rushes forward. And because achieving his goal hinges on his convictions, his arc develops right alongside.
When readers pick up a novel, they’re expecting an adventure, not pages of characters moaning over their flaws. But if those flaws are intermixed with the excitement, the emotions won’t dissuade readers. They’ll not only wonder how the story ends but also care. Readers who are involved with their hearts as well as their heads are more receptive to being changed by the theme.
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A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.
Ok, now I’m curious: is that an actual book? Or one of the many unfinished ideas that flow abundantly from an author’s brain?
Seconding this. That honestly sounds like a very intriguing plot (or should I say character?) – and one that hints at being far more developed than what we can plainly see.
I want to believe that this story (that may or may not exist) can have a happy ending for both fairies and men. My inner cynic expects a bittersweet victory, but if you thought it out this much for a technique article, I’m sure you can manage a convincing happy ending.
Actually, that’s a good question (maybe for the next article) – how does one write a happy ending that doesn’t feel false or contrived? How do we satisfy poetic justice while trying to give our audience a genuinely happy ending (i.e., not killing their [our] favorite characters who really probably should die… unfortunately…)?
This is something I’m struggling with in my current WIP – moreso in the long term, as opposed to the stories I’m trying to finish right now.
It’s just an elaborate example, though it sounds like a cool concept. Maybe I’ll take a crack at it someday. 😅
That’s a great question (and a great concept for a future article)! For me, it all comes down to consequences. Happy endings have a cost. When our character follows his lie, he’ll hurt other characters along the way. Even when he turns to the truth, the consequences of his past way of life will follow him.
But that topic is big enough for an entire article. Maybe I’ll tackle it sometime. Thanks for asking!
This was just what I needed! Thank you!!
Awesome! Thanks for reading. 🙂
Wow! This is incredible! What a masterful explanation of experiments in living and poetic justice! I have been having such a hard time with theme, and this is so helpful! Thank you, Gabrielle!
I’m so glad it helped!