November 28, 2017

Circle Around for Your Story's Success

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

It seems like just yesterday we'd be flipping the pages of the latest Archie or Batman comic book and we would come across this headline:

"Tired of being picked on? Nobody picks on an ATLAS MAN!"

The cartoon accompanying this full-page ad showed a beach bully kicking sand at a skinny fellow (named Mac) and his girl.  After confronting and being threatened by the muscle-bound brute, Mac vows to get even some day.  In the next panel, he signs up for Charles Atlas' bodybuilding course, and in the end he becomes the hero of the beach.

The word balloons changed over the years, I noticed, so sometimes Mac's girl was sympathetic when he vowed revenge.  Other times she said something demeaning like, "Oh, don't let it bother you, little boy." Originally, the cartoon showed the aftermath of a now-powerful Mac knocking the beach bully out.  Over time, the advertisement eliminated that panel, probably because it promoted violence.  Or maybe Mac punched out his verbally abusive girlfriend off-screen.

The point is, in the full version of this miniature morality tale, we are given a definitive "before" and "after".  Before, Mac is picked on by a bully.  After, the underdog becomes top dog.

This classic Atlas ad is a simple but effective example of the full circle readers want in their stories. There has to be a situation that needs resolving, and by the end of the story that situation must be resolved.  Without either, there is no sense of accomplishment.

A time-tested method is to establish, at the beginning of the story, our hero in his/her current state (their "Ordinary World", as the experts call it).  We'll see them going about their normal routine in their normal circumstances so that we understand the status quo.  After that, things go topsy-turvy and the hero's world as they know it comes under siege by whatever problems the story dictates.  A series of ups and downs follow, until finally there is victory and we are rewarded with a scenario that hearkens us back to the original roots of the hero.

This return to the "ordinary world" will clarify the results of what has taken place and show how thingsand hopefully the herohave changed.  The hero doesn't physically have to return to their hometown with a parade waiting for them.  Sometimes the hero in fact cannot go back to their world, but an early vulnerability that is now a strength is easy to convey.

If the character arc has been apparent enough, it may not even be necessary to change a thing. A mere reminder of how things used to be could be sufficient.  Perhaps the hero was swimming at the beginning of the story.  Toward the end of the story, the hero is swimming again.  Same activity, but this time we know they possess a contentment they didn't have the first time.

Life itself affords us very few clear-cut befores and afters, so we find fulfillment in those we experience with our fictional friends.  Letting readers go full circle with the bookends of an obvious before and after is an easy and effective way to bulk up a skinny story.

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