Monday, July 20, 2009

Stop or Evolve

This weekend I spent 14 hours in a beginning memoir writing class and about 5 hours doing the homework assignment for it. The memoir form was very new to me, and surprisingly different from fiction writing, at least in my opinion.

One of the ideas that came up again and again throughout the class was the idea of reflection. We, as writers of our own stories, were asked to reflect on things that happened, rather than simply reporting on them. We were asked to describe the insight we gained through the experience. That's the supposed difference between memoir and autobiography, though often those two words are used to mean the same thing.

A woman mentioned that she had been working on her memoir for about 8 years prior to joining this class. She had written a couple hundred pages before she came to a stumbling block. She didn't know what to write next. Then, she said something that resonated, not only with the memoirist teaching the class, but also very much with me, a self-declared fiction writer. She said that as she was approaching the later part of her story, she realized that she either needed to stop writing, or she needed to evolve to make any sense of why her story was meaningful for her.

Stop or evolve.

What exactly does this mean?

Well, for the memoirist, it comes back to reflection. You know that the story you are writing is significant to you because of something. But, you might not know what that something is. To bring your story to a close, you either have to figure out that thing, or you have to admit that your story isn't ready to be completed yet. (That admission, might be totally okay, depending on where you are in your life.)

The same principle applied to me and my novel. Scott, Literary Lab co-author, read it awhile back, and he liked it...for the most part. Regarding the end, he said "it doesn't feel finished so much as sort of abandoned. I get the impression, actually, that there is something you are trying to imply but you aren't just coming out and saying, something important you won't tell me."

First off, I truly appreciate that Scott would be so honest with me. He is so honest a man. I'd had a dozen people read my book before him, and though I had sensed that something wasn't quite working for them, no one else had actually voiced the problem of the ending despite my annoying prodding. (Well, one person tried to, but he was being a bit too nice about it to break through my thick skull.) Scott, I hope you don't mind me quoting you and showing you for the critical monster you truly are.

But, the problem he saw, and the problem that this memoir class helped me to understand was that I had hit that point of having to stop or evolve. I had explored the life of my protagonist, a fictional representation of my father, and at the end that character needed to evolve if his story was going to reach closure. He could have evolved. The clues were there for him to get or not get--that's what I think Scott was experiencing when he sensed that I was trying to imply something. But, I hadn't actually taken my protagonist to that point of change. He was right up against it, and then he miraculously transported to the other side by the helpful hand of this tired author.

I had been fixing that as I was revising my book. (Thank you, Scott.) And, the classmate's simple phrase was the best way I have heard of that articulates this problem. I feel closer to an end of my book now. I've made some changes that required a tougher examination of my story and the people in it...and of myself.

So, stop or evolve. This is, for me, the first formalization of how to end a story that I've found to be useful.

Questions: Given that so many of you are genre writers, does this idea of investigating insight and having your characters evolve come into play? Does this evolution come up in every story? Should it?


  1. Evolution definitely applies to middle grade fiction, perhaps more than in other genres, because everyone knows kids of that age are constantly learning and growing.

    It's easier to understand as a concept than it is to write, because that kind of evolution can be subtle. In my MS, it's more about the main character coming to accept changes in her family as opposed to being angry about them. She's still the same kid, but she's learned not to fight so much against the things she can't control.

  2. I agree with Michelle - when writing fiction for children or even young adults, the characters must evolve, for that's how they grow. I find that typically in Children's/YA, change & growth is an integral component within the story, and to leave it out is to leave the characters lacking in some way. Again, easier said than done, of course.

  3. Usually characters are supposed to experience some sort of change at the beginning, mid-point and, for sure, the end. But there can be an exception (or so I'm told) where the character doesn't change and that is the story, that they remain stuck or frustrated while everything else goes on despite them. I guess the author must be sure the end reflects the meaning of this.

  4. Great post. I think it's important for characters to evolve in genre fiction, although it may be in more superficial ways.

    I'd like to add a caveat though: to me, evolution implies forward progression. Your characters may do the opposite, though. Regression may be a step in the path, or the final destination.

  5. Good post, Davin. I'm glad to hear your class was a success. I remember getting to the end of your book and feeling like there needed to be more. I felt like there was a vague sense of progression, but it wasn't fleshed out. Sometimes we get to the point with our character where we do stop or evolve, but you're teetering on the edge, I think. And that rarely works for me.

    I think all characters have to digress, progress, or remain stagnant. The STORY, however, must evolve. Otherwise I don't see the point. With your story, I feel like you're almost too afraid to let your character change. He's been stuck for so long that change is a huge deal. And since your story is so quiet, a huge deal almost doesn't fit! But HE is the story, and he must do something. He needs to get to a situation that proves his change, that's all. That's why I wanted another scene.

    I have a hard time seeing a story working without the characters evolving. To me, that's what a story is about. But we all have different views. This is something I'll be pondering all day...

  6. I think, even if it's not a lot, there needs to be some evolution--especially in MG/YA, like the others have been saying. I'm primarily a fantasy writer, and I feel like it's very important there, as well. I always try to have some sort of evolution or growth in all of my characters--even the minor ones.

    Great post, and great points! :)

  7. Michelle, It makes sense that the change would happen in middle grade fiction. And, I agree, it is hard to write. I feel like it sometimes comes out as cheesy or completely obscure. It's hard to reveal change in a graceful way.

    Faith, yes, thanks for the confirmation.

    Tricia, I think if a character doesn't change, then the writer has to do a good job of providing closure in another way, perhaps by showing the acceptance of not changing, or possibly by showing the consequences or implications of not changing.

    Rick, Evolution can definitely go in many directions. It implies change, nothing more. In books, that change is much less scientific because it has to by meaningful to the story, but I agree that it can also be a good or a bad change.

    Michelle, Thanks for talking further about my book. I have been fleshing things out, as you suggested, and I'm liking it much better! I've also added a couple of scenes, but I'm finding that expanding is helping to show (and help me understand) the evolution of my character.

    Jenna, Thanks for chiming in. I was curious about science fiction. I haven't read much of it, so I didn't know how character driven SF stories could be. It's wonderful to hear that change is important for you as well.

  8. If our characters don't evolve, then what's the point of the story?

    For the most part, all my characters evolve, at least in some way, sometimes minor, and other times major.

    I have written one manuscript where a secondary character doesn't evolve. She remains stagnant, defiant even, up until the bitter end. Then, she dies. Now, had she lived she might have evolved, but I don't think so. Her non-evolving was critical to the events happening within the story.

    So, no matter the genre (at least in my opinon) evolution, perhaps even regression, must occur. The character(s) must learn something, or there isn't a point.

    Lastly, the whole abandon the ending thing happens more often than you might realize. I read one series where the ending of every book in the series seemed rushed, and somewhat unsatisfying. There was definitely something missing. Perhaps that writer should read your post! : )


  9. Scott, thanks for your thoughts and your encouragement. I'm working on the end, and hopefully it gets better. I've also got multiple characters, and I'm trying to make sure all of them change as well. It gets tough! The story lines get tangled up, and pulling on one can affect another in a bad way.

  10. First, I love coming to this blog. It's so deep and makes me think, which is something I love. So thanks for that.

    Second, I do think that most stories are made better through the use of characters that evolve through the story.

  11. Yes, I agree that the characters must grow, even a little. As a reader, I want to feel as if my time with that caracter is for a purpose. If I get through 300+ pages with a character and they are in the same place we began, that's frustrating.

    That being said, it's tough. I like my characters to start out strong so sometimes leave too little room for their growth. It's a balance game that I still work on in my writing.

    Good thoughts!

  12. My readers have told me a number of times that my stories, although sound, could be longer if I explored a few new avenues. I'm notorious for keeping my stories super short and tight, stopping. Maybe I should let them evolve, give them more room to grow.


  13. This goes back to my constant exhortation to writers that they know their ending and that they make sure the entire stories points toward that ending. The start of a book is a promise to the reader, and the ending fulfills that promise. It's hard work, and we all know it: "I have these characters and they all have needs, but...but...I don't know exactly what to do with them." How many times have I had that problem? Too many.

    I really believe that something has to change, or there is no story. I think stories are about something happening: the story of how X got to be the way it is (X being a person, place or thing). If there is no becoming, there is no story, if you ask me. Though, as Rick says, stories can be just as much about people refusing to act, or failing when they do, as they can be about triumph or growth. Either way, stories show how the status quo is changed. Effective narratives show that moment of change.

    I am not competent to speak about how this works in genre writing, so I won't try.

    Davin has politely left out my more annoying comments about his book, and paints a nicer picture of me-as-critic than is warranted. His book, by the way, is a thing of beauty. I wish I'd written it.

  14. Elana, You're more than welcome. I'm glad this place works for you!

    Tess, that's an excellent point about thinking of where your character's start, or where they are early on. We want our characters to be sympathetic, but they also need that room to grow. I never thought of it that way. Thanks!

    Rebecca, I'm also in the habit of writing short, tight little stories. And, I often get the same criticism. Let us both explore more!

    Scott, you made me think of another point that is perhaps more accurate. I think my problem is that I didn't show the POINT of change. I showed the before and after, without the actual moment. That, I think is the key. And, thanks for your kind words. They mean more to me than you know.

  15. I absolutely agree. Even in non-fiction (or based on truth) stories, characters must have a point and the story itself must evolve. I've read/heard a few stories that made me feel like I was listening to someone with Alzheimer's who just rambled on and on. The stories had no real beginning or ending and I never understood their purpose. I'm glad to hear your book is closer to an ending. I'm cheering you on!

  16. Thanks a lot for your support, Shorty! It means a whole lot to me, especially as I feel like I'm gasping for air near the end of this race.

  17. Davin: Just show us the moment(s) of crisis for Bao et fam, and the book's ending will gather itself around that point. You know I love these characters. I'm really glad you're working on "Rooster" again.

  18. All I know is one day I put down my first novel and essentially decided the same thing: "stop or evolve." I like to think I've evolved.


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