Hi, everyone, and welcome to my new blog post series…
Plotting Your Story: How to Craft a Complex, Compelling Story Plot!
(Based on my Skillshare video series by the same name.)
Today’s post is the next in the series:
Plotting Your Story, Step #2: Internal Story (Characters)!
Every story has conflict, by necessity. Without conflict, a story wouldn’t be a story… it would be, like… a thing. A dull, limp thing just sitting there. And who wants to read that?
Conflict is the life-blood of story, what gives it intrigue and entertainment value. And when done well, this conflict — and the resulting story as the characters strive to face and overcome that conflict — is also the source of deep emotional impact on the reader.
Every story has conflict, but the great stories — the ones that really stick with readers — have not only conflict, but layers of it. While these layers can be several plots and subplots running at once (meaning multiple conflicts with multiple facets involving multiple characters), one of the most important aspects of crafting a story is to ensure that your protagonist has two layers of conflict happening in the story — an Internal Story layer and an External Story layer.
We’ll talk more about the External layer next week; this is the layer that most people think of when they think of “Conflict”… those external problems (bad guys, natural disasters, physical attacks, enemies opposing the protagonist’s goals, etc.).
But the Internal Story is every bit as important as the external, if not more so.
This week, we’re talking about this Internal layer, because it serves as the foundation for the External layer and all the other elements we’ll be building on in the next few weeks.
So what is this Internal Story layer?
In a nutshell, it’s a deep-dive into developing your character.
Let me explain.
While your protagonist (let’s call him Bob for now) is facing whatever external problems get thrown at him — a house fire, a rabid stray cat, a mean neighbor with a penchant for stealing his mail, etc. — Bob also has thoughts, feelings, and opinions on what is happening to him. These events don’t just bounce off of him (unless maybe mean neighbor is throwing something)… they impact him. Is Bob terrified of the fire (or the cat)? Is he angry at the neighbor?
Now take that a step further… how do these thoughts, feelings, and opinions create their own type of internal conflict as Bob tries to navigate through them? This all depends on what Bob believes about himself or his world and what Bob’s goals are. Now imagine that Bob is terrified of the fire, but doesn’t want to seem like a coward. How would that present in his actions, his dialogue, in his internal thoughts as he navigates getting his pet fish out safely or running out of his home to a street full of concerned neighbors? Or imagine that Bob is angry at the neighbor, but he’s always been taught that anger is bad, and that expressing it is a sign of weakness or possibly is just being mean. What if he thinks that the best tactic is to try to ignore it rather than to stand up for himself, yet the neighbor keeps making him angry? How would this show through in Bob’s thoughts and actions as he interacts with his neighbor? How would it impact Bob’s own feelings as he tries to suppress his anger and get through his daily life?
What’s going on inside Bob is a whole conflict all on its own. As Bob moves through the story, the external factors will challenge Bob to grow as a person, and he will either rise to the challenge or he won’t. He will either grow, stay the same, or worsen… as a result of the mingling of external factors with what was already inside of him. This arc of conflict, whether positive (Bob grows as a person), negative (Bob worsens as a result of the events of the story), or flat (Bob stays the same but things around him change) is the Internal Story, the character’s Internal Conflict Arc.
When I plan a story, I sometimes already know what I want my external conflicts to be… my basic plot. BUT I take the time to give careful attention to my characters, because how they are going to respond to the plot is what truly makes the story, and one character’s response could be vastly different from another’s depending on each character’s personality, background, and beliefs. I address this internal arc not just for my protagonist, but for each of main characters in my story, because these internal factors are also what will determine how the characters interact as the story goes on… and how they each help (or harm) the others’ individual growth and goals.
I know this seems like a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun exploring these characters… and even if it’s not fun, it’s still worth it. The characters are what make or break your story, what readers respond to (or fail to respond to). It is definitely worth the time and energy to develop them well.
Here are the major things I consider when developing a character:
1. The Lie
I initially got this term from K.M. Weiland, and she has an amazing book called Creating Character Arcs that gives her own spin on Internal Arcs (and discusses the Lie specifically) in tons of detail. But for now, let me just summarize it as this:
The lie is a false belief that the character’s life up to this point has led them to believe about themselves or the world at large, but that they don’t even realize is a lie. It shapes how they act and react (without their awareness) and will hold them back from achieving their goal until they overcome it. The Lie is the opposite of whatever Truth they need to embrace in order to achieve their goal in the story (more on that later).
The Lie is something the character may not even realize is shaping their actions, and that they definitely don’t realize is getting in their way of achieving their goals. They may not be aware of the Lie, or they may be aware of it but have convinced themselves that it is helping them toward their goals rather than impeding them. The Lie is something the character believes is 100% truth — whether overtly or subconsciously — and they will resist relinquishing the lie at all costs… until the story forces them to see the Lie for what it truly is. Once that happens, they will be faced with a choice: give up the lie and embrace truth so I can reach my goals, or give up on the goals and keep the lie. This defines their arc, and how they will grow (or not grow) in the course of the story.
Lies generally derive from a defining event (or series of events) in the character’s life. Sometimes this is a trauma (such as losing a loved one) or sometimes it is something that seems like a success (like being born into an extremely wealthy/famous family). But the Lie develops as the character internalizes some kind of lesson or principle (perhaps even subconsciously) as a result of these defining moments, and then comes to embrace that lesson or principle as one of their guiding beliefs in life.
Bob’s parents died in a car accident when he was five, and he was passed from family member to family member, with no one wanting to take on the full responsibility of raising him (the defining event). As a result, Bob grows up believing that he is unwanted, a bother, and not worth truly loving, and that people he cares about always abandon him (the lie). As a result, Bob learns to keep his distance from people, and doesn’t allow himself to get close to others or to trust (the way in which the lie could prevent Bob from later goals).
*It is very important to craft an Internal Story and External Story that compliment each other. Whatever Bob’s Lie is, the External conflict of the story must smash right into it… must force him to face circumstances that bring his Lie out into the open, so that he realizes he can only succeed by discarding the Lie and embracing a new Truth. Whether you craft the Internal Story first or the External Story first, keep in mind that your goal is for them to work together to push your protagonist into their intended character arc at the same time they move through facing the story’s plot events and external conflicts.*
2. Defining Traits
Defining traits are those physical or personality details that help readers distinguish the characters in your book from one another — and from any other person in any other book (or the world). Harry Potter’s lightning scar is a great example of a physical trait that defines him; just a glimpse of a lightning bolt on fan merch, and immediately Harry springs to mind. Personality traits can also be used this way — little quirks in how a character talks or acts can help them stand out in the reader’s mind.
While far less complex than the character’s Lie, these attributes are still very important. Decide on what your character looks like (hair, eye color, build, etc.) and how their personality (likes, dislikes, temperament, social nature, etc.) actually shows and expresses itself (in speech, body language, posture, fashion sense, etc.). Once you have this planned, make sure you show those things consistently (and often) in a variety of different ways — dialogue, other characters’ observations of them, description, internal thoughts in your character’s POV, etc. Not only are you crafting a character that the reader will easily visualize, if you’re being consistent and showing your character from multiple perspectives, you’ll also be creating a character that will seem far more life-like on the page, one whom readers won’t be quick to forget.
3. Abilities and Inabilities
These are essentially like strengths and weaknesses, but deeper. What can the character do better than others (empathy, intelligence, etc.), and what can they not bring themselves to do? What is their blind spot (avoids emotional intimacy, has a hard time trusting people, won’t take risks, etc.)? What comes so naturally to them that they don’t even think about it, and what is so foreign to them they stand in awe at watching someone else naturally do it? These elements will define the character and make them seem vividly real (real people aren’t perfect; we have flaws and struggles!). These elements will also help define your characters’ goals, as well as things that may stand in their way of achieving their goals. These things can be connected to the lie, or even subconsciously opposed it… there are infinite possibilities for using these Abilities and Inabilities to enhance the level of conflict — and therefore the level of interest and emotional impact — your story carries.
Consider this one a bonus point, because I’m sure you could craft a story without this. However, I find that giving my characters a “Secret” adds depth not only to the character’s development and to the conflict, but also to the interactions between characters in the story as a whole.
We all have something we are embarrassed by, afraid to share, or unable (or unwilling) to tell others for whatever reason. Why wouldn’t characters also have these?
The character’s secret is something they desperately try to keep others from knowing. It could be something as tangible as a hidden crime they committed, or something as intangible as an emotional soft-spot or perceived weakness of character. Secrets can be ominous (the murder), touching (hidden romantic feelings, sacrificing something out of love or protectiveness for another person, etc.), or even funny (a chocolate stash to feed their obsession, being absolutely terrible at dancing or cooking, etc.).
The secret works best if related to the lie in some way (this helps with thematic consistency), but the secret is something the character is aware of and actively trying to hide (as opposed to the lie, which will be – at least for the first part of the story – subconsciously working against the character without their knowledge).
If you’ve already worked on the first 3 points, then you’ll have a lot of this done. Here is the point where you develop it in more detail, or fill in any gaps you haven’t yet addressed. The Backstory is the story that goes behind the story you’ll actually be showing readers. 90% of it may not even appear in the book — ever — but it’s still important for you to know, because it will shape how your characters act and react, as well as helping you keep consistency with descriptions and details about the characters’ pasts and experiences.
I don’t believe it’s necessary to plan out every moment of your characters’ past just for the sake of backstory. That would take forever, and would make me want to quit before I even started. But it is important to have a good understanding of key events or experiences that contribute to who your character is and who they may become in the course of the story… as well as how different characters may relate (or clash) as they interact in your story.
Here are some things to consider when working on Backstory:
- What caused their lie to come into being?
- If relevant, what caused their defining traits? (Sometimes these are relevant to the story, like Harry Potter’s scar, or perhaps a genetic similarity to a loved one who died, etc. Other times, these are just unique physical features not necessarily tied to the internal arc.)
- What helped them hone their abilities or created/exacerbated their inabilities?
- What caused their secret (if different from what caused their lie)?
The character’s Truth-Goal is the opposite of their Lie. It is the thing they need to discover and change within themselves in order to reach the story’s external plot goal. This Truth-Goal will be presented to the character early on in the story (either by conflict, by a contrasting character who already demonstrates an understanding of it, or simply by the protagonist’s own unhappiness with their current state), but they will reject it as an option because they are too committed to their Lie. However, as the story progresses, they will learn that they must embrace this Truth (and reject their Lie) in order to achieve their goals. Often the Truth and the goal it unlocks go hand-in-hand, but the Truth is also an unspoken goal in and of itself. This is why I call it the Truth-Goal. It is the thing that will enable the character to break free of where they feel stuck in life and move forward toward a better future… but only if they give up their Lie and embrace the Truth-Goal instead.
These 5 things all come together to form your character’s internal arc.
The character’s Internal Story combines the Lie, Defining Traits, Abilities & Inabilities, Secrets, Backstory, and Truth-Goal into a progressive arc seen throughout the story, upon which the external story (plot) will hang. How your character grows (or fails to grow) throughout the story — and even how they act externally, determining the overall result of your plot — all hinges on these internal elements that are working beneath the surface to guide and shape your character as he/she faces the story’s challenges and pursues his/her goal.
This internal arc is what carries the emotional impact for the reader — your plot may be awesome, but it’s how the characters respond to and are shaped by the plot that will leave your readers touched by your story and thinking about your characters for days (or years) to come.
(because I’m not actually your teacher and I can’t make you, but seriously, do it because it will help!)
Make a list of your character’s internal arc elements, and then draw a visual arc to represent the progression of the character’s internal development throughout the story.
For the visual arc part of the Assignment, follow this basic structure, but actually write in the specifics of your character, rather than the general place-holders I’ve given in the photo. It doesn’t have to be completely nailed down (since we haven’t yet developed the full plot), but you should fill in anything you do know will happen. The places I have “Abilities” or “Secret/Inabilities” in the chart below could be traded out for specific scene ideas. For example, where it says “Secret,” you might write something like “Bob meets an old girlfriend at the grocery store, who brings up the fact that she always felt he never opened up to her, which stirs Bob’s secret (that he was completely in love with her but afraid to tell her, because he didn’t want to be reject, so he pulled away) and as a result he quickly makes an excuse to have to leave and runs out of the store.” Where it says “Ability,” you might write something like “On his way out of the store, Bob accidentally bumps into an old lady and knocks her down. Even though he hears his ex pursuing him, he stops to help the old lady because he is a naturally compassionate person with a soft spot for people close to the age his parents/grandparents would be, since he still feels the lack of their love in his life.” These are external events, but they are crafted specifically to elicit an internal reaction in Bob, and to push him along toward his rejection of the Lie and his embrace of the Truth-Goal. I just thought of those examples off the top of my head and they could probably be better, but hopefully that helps explain it. 😉
Your goal with this Assignment is to have a plot arc for the story that is focused on the character-driven incidents, those things that specifically strike chords with your character’s lie, secret, backstory, etc. (those 5 things we worked on above). Chart them visually in order of increasing tension, with the tension building toward a climax at the realization of the Truth-goal. This will be an important foundational step as we move forward with plotting the larger book… this Internal Arc will become an underlying layer of the overall story, intersecting with the larger plot and building tension alongside it as your character wrestles with both internal and external conflict in pursuit of their internal and external story goals.
I’ve actually created a section in my Forums where you can post your Internal Story Arc! If you want feedback, feel free to post your Internal Story Arc there and I’ll leave you some comments!
Coming next week… Plotting Your Story, Step #3: External Story (Plot)!
Was this post helpful? Let me know what you think! Leave me a comment below. 🙂