Friday, September 16, 2022

Your Narrator's False Belief--and How It Drives Your Story

Character in fiction and memoir is built on certain convoluted pathways. Because tension and conflict drive story, these pathways are often full of false beliefs or mistaken views of self and life that get examined as the story moves forward and the character grows.

As readers, we witness the journey: the narrator's relative ignorance or unconsciousness at the start of the book, maybe creating a life fueled by fear or anger; the changes as they grow more aware, shedding their limited views; the downslide of the tragic character who embraces their mistaken beliefs even more.

False belief makes a great structural model for story, both in memoir and fiction, and it's even applicable to nonfiction (the reader comes to your book with a limited view and uses your material to expand that view).

I'm teaching a class on September 24 on characters and their false beliefs are a key part of what we'll be exploring. This week I've been reviewing my notes, so I want to share how a false belief pathway is built in a book.

I'll refer to the W storyboard. If you haven't come across that before, check out the video at the bottom of this post.

I began working with the concept of false belief, or false agreement, quite a few years ago. I wanted to understand how my characters could show this growth. If they started out unconscious, maybe victim to their limits, you could almost say they have a certain agreement with the status quo. They follow certain ideas, beliefs, creeds, to get along. A story starts when that status quo begins to break up. That's the triggering event or inciting incident.

False beliefs, I also noticed, were often built on a serious event that happened earlier in the character's life. A wounding event, as writer Michelle Hoover and others name it.

But how does a writer plant this through their story? You can't just reveal everything about the character's interior right at the beginning--that delivers zero tension. How might the reveal be broken into smaller steps, planted through the W storyboard?

Authors of my favorite memoirs and novels did this. We readers would get hints of the character's interior disability early on, but not know the whole reason for it until later.

Fast forward a couple more years. Experiments with my own books--and short stories--gave me these five steps, which can be your writing exercise this week.

Triggering event (start of book): The event that opens your story must hint at the character's false belief about life. Example: Character believes she has to do it all herself so she doesn't ask for help when she runs from the crime scene. False belief is alive and well.

Point 2 on W (first turning point, about 100 pages in): This is called the "I can't take it anymore point" and it reflects the character's firm decision to change things. Things have gotten worse for the character since she fled; she's trapped now and has to get help, even if it goes against everything she believes. False belief is being challenged but not yet released.

Point 3 on W (second triggering event, about 150 pages in): After help lifts the character free from the trapped place of point 2, after she gains some skills or strength to determine her next steps, the midbook offers another major upheaval that causes more problems. Character has an accident and must figure out a new way to keep going ("If only I could XX, then I'd be able to XX"). False belief is renegotiated, similar to the bargaining stage of grief. Not released or even looked at fully yet, just reworked into a new form.

Point 4 on W (second turning point, about 250 pages in): Often called the "All is lost" moment, the tone of point 4 is the ultimate betrayal. Character finds out the helper from point 2 is actually her enemy. None of her methods and beliefs have worked. She has to let them go now and reinvent herself, not the belief. False belief is faced and released.

Point 5 on W (ending, about 300-350 pages in): We see a new person in our character now. She has reinvented herself as she shed the false belief at point 4. New belief, not false, is operating now.

To test this theory, I began reading for it. Many, many books that fit this structure also show the evolution of the false belief. It's invisible to the reader, generally, but the writer with keen eyes can see--and learn from it.

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