A story is all about change. Who the hero is at the end is completely different than who the hero was in the beginning. Look at any good movie and you can clearly see this opposite difference. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero is initially unsure of himself but by the end, he’s much more sure of himself.
Knowing that your hero changes 180 degrees from start to finish is the first step, but the second step is to make this gradual change happen. Here are the three steps that heroes must take to change:
- Act I – Hero is stuck in a dead end life but doesn’t know how to get out
- Act IIa – Hero learns of a way to get out, but clings to the old way of life out of fear
- Act IIb – Hero learns that he or she must choose the old way of life or the new way of life, but can’t have both
- Act III – Hero finally risks everything by embracing the new way of life
A great example of a hero clinging to the old way of life occurs in the quirky comedy “James vs. His Future Self.” The basic four-part story structure looks like this:
- Act I – Hero’s dead end life is that he’s so obsessed with trying to invent time travel that he neglects all his relationships with the people around him. His goal at this point is to spend as much time as possible to invent time travel.
- Act IIa – The hero learns that if he continues obsessing over trying to invent time travel, he’s going to lose all the people he loves. So his solution is to try to continue focusing on inventing time travel while also trying to develop relationships with the people around him.
- Act IIb – The hero starts losing the people around him, making him realize he can’t have it both ways. He can’t continue inventing time travel and keep his relationships intact with his loved ones.
- Act III – The hero finally realizes that keeping his relationships with his loved ones is far more important than devoting his life inventing time travel, only to wind up isolated, alone, and full of regret at letting his loved ones slip out of his life.
Think of your hero trying to cling to the old way of life because that’s all he or she knows. When a new way of life comes along, the hero tries to keep both the old with the new. When the hero realizes that he or she can’t keep the old with the new, that’s when the hero must make a decision. Stay with the old or embrace the new?
The end of the story occurs when the hero decides which way to go. In happy endings, the hero dumps the old and embraces the new way of life such as in “James vs. His Future Self,” when he decides his relationships are worth more than inventing time travel and spending a life full of loneliness and regret. In tragedies like “Leaving Las Vegas,” the hero has a choice of sticking with the old way of life (alcoholism) or embracing a new way of life (sobriety and a relationship). The hero chooses the old way of life and that’s what tragedies are all about.
So start with your hero in the opposite state as in the beginning. Then in between, show the hero trying to hold on to both the old and the new. In Act IIa, this seems successful, but by Act IIb, the hero realizes holding on to two ways of life will no longer work. That’s when the hero has to decide what to do in Act III.
Make your hero change gradually, always torn between holding on to the past or embracing the future. This is the essential conflict of every story.