How To Show Your Protagonist moving through the stages of your novel?


One of the most powerful techniques you can use in plotting your novel: showing the character's reactions to the story shift as they move through the stages of the plot.

Character-first writing says that the reader learns how to understand and experience your story via a fictional ambassador, a representative in the fictional world -- your main character.

Without that connection, that relationship, your reader will likely feel at arm's length, at a distance, viewing the tale through a bank of fog.

This principle is of course true at the start of a novel -- that's why I recommend starting with a "project."

But it remains true through the whole story. If the protagonist is not reacting in an appropriate way to the events of the story, the reader will slowly detach themselves from the pages. 

Let's say you create a staggering, epic mid-point scene, a grand battle that brings in a whole new foe for the protagonists. If your main character (s) don't really react on the page, then the reader won't truly feel the importance of this moment. They will be able to tell you think the scene should be important: they just won't be there with you.

Each Stage Has a Dominant Reaction

Remember the lesson "Scene and Satellite"? That was the idea that you are constantly weaving in reactions from your main character as the story progresses. Little and large scene reactions pop up within, before, and after your main scenes.

The character's girlfriend is behaving coldly at breakfast. "Did I do something wrong," she wondered.

The suspect tries to run from the protagonist and her partner. I'm not cut out for this. Not as fast as I used to be.

The local police chief tells her to stop investigating and just charge the damn suspect. She wanders the town, trying to weigh her options, hoping to figure out a way forwards.

That was the lesson from scene and satellite. Now comes the really useful part:

Some, or most, or all of those reactions should reflect the dominant mood of their part of the novel. You don't need to do this for every single reaction, but many of the reactions in Stage One, for instance, should have a "stage one vibe" to them. 

The local police chief tells her to stop investigating and just charge the damn suspect. She knew he was right. There was a clear case against Bobby Knox and she had a duty to the town's taxpayers to get him in front of a jury. All that satan junk at the crime scene was probably just Bobby's attempt to confuse people, to throw out a red herring. Just before she called in, she wondered, however, that it was odd that...

Why does she react this way? Because it's stage one, and she is unaware / resistant to the real plot.

Were this same exact moment to come in stage two, the character would be reluctantly, hesitantly inclined to approach the real plot.

The local police chief tells her to stop investigating and just charge the damn suspect. She hated that she agreed with him. If she were in charge -- if he would just hurry up and retire -- she would tell her detective the exact same thing. They had some evidence and a pretty good motive for Bobby, and that would likely be enough for a jury. Beyond reasonable doubt. And yet she needed to figure out what all the occult stuff at the crime scene meant. She knew Bobby. He was a piece of shit but he was not that clever. He did not have an artistic bone in his body. So someone else must have placed those tarot cards. 

She did not want to fuck up her career over Bobby Knox. But if there was a second killer, she had to know. She looked up occult shops in Nashville: there were a bunch. She phoned the one that had ivy growing on its white front display.

The point is: this is how we understand what is really going on. 

As those dominant reactions shift, the reader understands -- "uh oh -- this story has shifted. Something big is coming."

How you organise your stages and their dominant emotions is up to you. But you might try something like...

Stage One: the project. The dominant reaction is one of ignorance, disbelief, distraction.

Stage Two: the approach. The dominant reaction is hesitance, curiosity, irritation.

Stage Three, part one: the frolic. The dominant reaction is eagerness, excitement, discovery.

Stage Three, part two: the struggle. The dominant reaction is confidence, challenge, uncertainty.

Stage Four: the finale. The dominant reaction is worry, fatigue, resolution. 

  • allison54891 says:

    This is very, very helpful! I have been thinking about how the original goal is hardly random; it reflects some real concerns of my protagonist, and just shedding it like a snake skin and sliding away leaves something valuable on the table. In my novel, I have come to realize that some aspects of her project are going to come roaring back after after the frolic, and may even surface there a little; a sort of reverse dragons’ toe, before it all resolves. Thank you!

  • To have this grimoire of Dominant Reactions is super useful. It elevates the lesson from interesting theory to something practicable.

    • second this – no idea how I can pull that off but I will do my best to get this into my novel

  • This lesson is one of the highlights of the course for me.

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