Friday, April 27, 2018

False Agreements, Misbeliefs, Core Misunderstandings--How They Drive the People and the Plot in Your Book

For my birthday this month, I got an anniversary copy of A Wrinkle in Time. It has been a LONG time since I read that book, but I loved it. Basic reason: the characters are unforgettable. Especially the narrator, Meg. I enjoyed revisiting her story and considering the false agreement that makes her so memorable.

False agreements are where characters start out in a story. It's the belief they have about the world, which is usually limited or not entirely true. The false agreement drives the character's journey to a larger consciousness. That's why many of us read--to find out what they'll do, as they face the limits of their false agreement. 

At the start of the story, Meg believes she's (1) ugly, (2) awkward, (3) unlovable, and (4) always in trouble so something must be truly wrong with her. She even imagines she's dumb, although her mother disavows her of that in an early chapter. Most of Meg's trouble is caused by how badly she thinks of herself. So that's a kind of false agreement: she believes something and it's not true.  The reader can see that. But the character can't.

Story circumstances, the plot, will present Meg with ways to face and overcome this belief. First, Calvin comes on the scene, an older guy from her school, a basketball star of sorts, popular and well-liked.  He likes Meg, he wants to be her friend (and more). That's the first time Meg's false agreement comes under doubt. She must not be so ugly after all. Radical thought. Then the story takes her further, where she gets to cause trouble and save the day because of it.  One of her most annoying (to others) traits is her stubbornness and her temper. Both allow Meg to assist in the story's journey in a unique way.  She won't give up on her father. She won't give up on her brother. Another false agreement shattered.

Then there's the end of the story, when Meg realizes that she just needs to love her brother with everything inside her.  Love is the thing that IT, the monster brain that has stolen half her family, doesn't have. So Meg, because of who she is, saves the day.  She alone can get everyone free.

Characters who don't have the inner fuel of a false agreement when the story starts might not be able to change or grow.  I learned this midway through my second novel in an online class with writer Josip Novakovitch, who pushed me to look deeper into the motivation of one of my characters, an artist obsessed with beauty.  Intrigued by my teacher's questions about how this character got his false beliefs about himself--the particular hopes, fears, longings that propelled him through the story--I began studying this idea in books I read and loved. All of them, no exceptions, presented a kind of "false agreement" the character had made with their lives that was shattered by the end of the story.

It grew into a game.  Charting the disintegration of the false agreement on the storyboard was fun.  (For more about storyboards and the five points listed below, check out my YouTube video here.)  Here's what I came up with:

Point 1, first triggering event, character totally buys the false agreement
Point 2, first turning point, about a quarter into the book, the false agreement comes under question
Point 3, second triggering event, character tries to renegotiate the false agreement or embraces a new one (maybe more true, maybe not)
Point 4, second turning point, false agreement completely shatters and character must build a new identity without it
Point 5, end of story, character (if hero) has embraced a truer identity or (if tragic) has collapsed without the false agreement

Last year, when I came across Lisa Cron's new book, Story Genius (well worth checking out), I saw she worked with a similar concept.  She called it "misbeliefs." Then I ran into it again when working privately with New York Times bestselling novelist, Caroline Leavitt.  She used the term "misunderstandings."  It's all the same stuff--essentially, the internal baggage a character carries when they arrive on the scene in chapter 1 and how they fight to keep it, then eventually discard it (or not).

Your writing exercise this week is to take one of your characters, someone who might need a little more clear motivation to drive his or her story, and freewrite about their false agreement at the start of your book.  What does this person believe that limits them in some way?  How will that belief get tested during the story? If you can capture an idea of that on paper, then chart it through the five points of the storyboard, listed above. See if you clearly present the sequence of change for this character.

It'll make your writing surprisingly richer.