FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2 with Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.


 Today I continue our discussion about the basic rules of screenplays that would benefit fiction writers. In my last blog post (September 9), we looked at the four story questions writers must be able to answer. Today we discuss the second rule:

 ü  At least one key character has to undergo a transformation.

 Often referred to as the character arc, this concept has been underscored by notables such as Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, and Syd Field. If plot is the external story, then the character’s arc is the internal version of events.

 The arc can be as intimate as a widow coming to terms with her loss, or as monumental as an everyman summoning his courage to save the universe. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Eight Tips on Writing a Great Short Story’ is: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” The character we meet at Once upon a time is (or becomes) driven by this want. He’s shaped and formed, or reformed, by the conflict he endures, usually with the help of the supporting characters, but ultimately he must face the final challenge alone. Who he is by happily ever after depends on how he’s changed through the course of the story, and what has occurred to cause those changes. Whether she’s a factory worker who takes up a cause (Silkwood, Norma Rae), a dutiful son who reluctantly shoulders a crime family (The Godfather), or a hardened cynic who sacrifices love for a nobler cause (Casablanca), watching the characters transform before our eyes, on screen or throughout the pages of a book, transforms us as well.

 That change almost always occurs in the protagonist, but there are exceptions – if a 
narrator is telling your story about someone, or if the protagonist is steadfast, but inspires change in another character. We’ve come to learn (with regret) that Harper Lee’s novels are examples of the former, while High Noon is an example of the latter. Stories featuring animal protagonists, like Marley and Me, can be examples of both exceptions.

 If you outline or use another form of story organization, you should plan the character arcs before you begin writing. If not, a technique I’ve found very helpful is to complete my novel or story and then read through it several times, searching for individual components of the manuscript with each pass. One read-through is dedicated to character arc, first for my protagonist, and then for each key character. I look for a pattern, for inconsistencies, for triggers and reactions – for ways to smooth the transition into something natural and realistic. I also identify the characters who shouldn’t change and check to insure they stay the same throughout the pages.

 In the final part of this series, we’ll exit the movie theater and examine a screenwriting concept adapted from live theater – the three-act structure.


14 thoughts on “FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2 with Miko Johnston”

  1. The character arc is definitely something writers need to think about. In old detective novels and movies during the 40s, the hero didn't have to change all that much, but the villain sure did. That carried into more current times when the murderer was the guy or gal you didn't expect until the very end. It got to be such a cliche that everybody knew who it was so they did twists and double twists until everybody was a suspect until the last five minutes. I prefer the arc when the reader actually starts to see the mask come off. But as you said, you have to plot this out. Nice to be reminded.


  2. Great examples of character arcs, Miko. I've read books where the author clearly did not do that crucial read-through to be sure the character arcs are natural and believable, and those books are no fun to read. Sometimes it's hard to show the progression, but so worth it to have a satisfying story.


  3. Wow. See, this is why I have no books written. Planning an arc when I only want to get on with the plot is something I just don't do. I let the story run (or plan its path) and the characters are on their own to either arc or flat line. (Sigh)
    But I like your idea of multiple read-throughs after it's written to check for various points. I've heard that some authors do this by highlighting the various characters or the main mystery line with different colors. It must be a tip that really works.


  4. If the protagonist doesn't change–sounds harsh–but who cares about the story then? I've left a few novels and TV shows for that reason. Didn't care. Good post, Miriam. As Gayle says, “Nice to be reminded.”


  5. Authors tend to write what appeals to them (unless they're timing the hot trend market – another story), which gives readers a wide variety of styles to enjoy. Your point about heroes and villains during the 40s is another exception to the story arc rule – good catch. As you said, nice to be reminded.


  6. When I enter the world of a story, I want to jump in with both feet and walk alongside the characters through their journey. Others may feel differently, but for me the story arc makes that walk interesting; I'm a participant rather than a 'peeping tom'.


  7. Arcs can be small, like a young girl solving a crime and losing a little of her youthful innocence in the process – sound familiar? But multiple read-throughs do catch a lot of subtle mistakes. Some authors highlight, as you mentioned, while others use software, index cards, and Excel spreadsheets. It does work.


  8. It truly is all about the journey, isn't it. As the world's slowest reader, for whom a book can take weeks to read, I'm not going to invest that much time into something I have any doubts I'll enjoy. With reading time so valuable to most of us and so many books to choose from, I suspect others must feel the same way.


  9. Movies and TV depend more on audio – music, sound effects, nuances in spoken dialog – and visual cues – lighting, characters' body language and expressions, and special effects – to carry the story. Authors have only one tool: words. It's why we must insure that it's all there on the page.


  10. Thank you, Miko – you are right – the protagonist must change or there is no real story. The only reason we read stories is to see what happens – if there is no change, all the action in the world won't help. Lovely piece!


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