by Dina Sleiman
Story, at its heart, is about change. The main character begins in his or her “normal world.” They have outward goals, but also a hidden inner need. At some point they are thrust into the “story world” and must face a challenge that will cause them to change, to grow, and discover at least one important truth about life. As they face conflict in their outer journey, they are forced to take an inner journey, in which they will learn something that will allow them to find the answer to their hidden inner need and come out of the story a stronger and more authentic person.
Whether you are writing a romance, a thriller, a sci-fi, or fantasy novel, these basic principles are the same. In quieter, more literary type novels about typical people with typical lives, the stories tend to take place at some pivotal point in the characters life: a teen who must take on adult responsibilities, a young adult seeking to find their true purpose, a middle-aged character longing to redefine their life, a person facing an illness or life-threatening accident. These sorts of “coming of age” stories carry a powerful emotional depth, although if not well done, they can become slow and challenging to read.
But, if you take a faster moving genre, and infuse into the character’s inner journey all the depth of a “coming of age” type theme, you can create a book that is truly magical. For my first two novels, I went the more literary route, and then infused the stories with action, romance, humor, and adventure. For my newest book, Love in Three-Quarter Time with Zondervan Publishing, I took the opposite approach.
For this novel, I began (at my agent’s request) with a basic historical romance plot structure. The primary plot was about the romance. The heroine’s goals included avoiding the hero, as is so typical in this genre. But they also included supporting her family as a dance instructor. You see, my heroine had once been the rich daughter of a plantation owner and the belle of the ball, until tragedy struck her family. She blames herself for this tragedy, and because of it, has repressed her true vibrant and fiery nature. Enter inner journey. Constance must learn to be her true self again. Due to her outer goal of desiring to support her family, she is forced to face her past, including her ex-fiancé, Robert Montgomery, the man who jilted her when she needed him most.
In this way, the novel has a deep inner journey as well. Constance must learn that God is not out to punish her, that He made her and loves her, that He doesn’t want her to repress her true self, but that He wants her to learn to submit it to Him and allow Him to use her nature for His glory. Only when she makes these inner changes is she able to “waltz” her way into a new life and achieve her goals.
The hero has an inner journey as well, of discovering that he needs God’s help and can’t do things in his own strength. In fact, I have five point of view characters, and each has their own journey, their own character “arc,” as we call it. Each main character undergoes some sort of change.
Which brings us back to my initial point. Story is all about change. If no one changes, you can have a series of events, even a lot of action, but you won’t have a true story. What about the postmodern story structure, a few of you might be asking? The main difference here is that the change is more subtle. The postmodern story lacks that moment of “truth” or “enlightenment” because according to the postmodern paradigm, there is no universal truth. We all make our own truth. Still, I would argue, that even in the postmodern structure, there must be some shift, some discovery, some new sense of awareness, or else the story will not be fulfilling.
So one last time. Story is about change. It is about something going wrong and how the character will face that challenge and learn and grow from it. No matter what genre you write, be sure to include a powerful inner journey to make for a fully rounded story and characters that come to life.
In the book you're writing, what's the big change taking place for your main character? What about your other primary characters?
In the style of Deeanne Gist, Dina Sleiman explores the world of 1817 Virginia in her novel Love in Three-Quarter Time. When the belle of the ball falls into genteel poverty, the fiery Constance Cavendish must teach the dances she once loved in order to help her family survive. The opportunity of a lifetime might await her in the frontier town of Charlottesville, but the position will require her to instruct the sisters of the plantation owner who jilted her when she needed him most. As Robert Montgomery and Constance make discoveries about one another, will their renewed faith in God help them to face their past and the guilt that threatens to destroy them in time to waltz to a fresh start?