Aristotle said in The Poetics that the length of a drama should be such that the hero passes "by a series of probable or necessary stages from misfortune to happiness, or from happiness to misfortune." Twenty-three centuries later, Egri says the same thing when he insists that a character should "grow from pole to pole." A coward becomes brave, a lover becomes an enemy, a saint becomes a sinner—this is growth from pole to pole.
When you plan your novel you will need to plan not only the incidents, but the stages of the characters' development (or as Egri and others call it, "growth") as well. In order to have a rising conflict, the character must be developing, changing through stages, growing incrementally from pole to pole. This can be done at the planning stage of the novel through the use of a stepsheet.
A stepsheet is a detailed plan of the incidents of a story. Using a stepsheet is the way an author keeps control of his story. Think of it as a blueprint. You are strongly urged to make one. Here is what a stepsheet describing the "steps" (incidents) of a story might look like:
A. Scrooge, a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint" (in the words of Dickens), is a businessman in London. It's the nineteenth century. Life is bleak. Scrooge is friendless and alone, and likes it that way. His business partner, Marley, has been dead for seven years. It's Christmas Eve and Scrooge is visited by his nephew, who has come to wish him a merry Christmas. Scrooge, angered by the interruption of his work, dismisses him with a "Bah, humbug!"
B. Two gentlemen come to collect money for the poor. Scrooge asks them if the workhouses are still in use. When they answer that they are, Scrooge says good and throws them out. Now Scrooge has "an improved opinion of himself," says Dickens, and is in a more "facetious temper than was usual with him."
C. Scrooge then tells his clerk, Bob Cratchit, that he can have Christmas off if he will be in "all the earlier the next morning." Scrooge walks off with a growl and takes a "melancholy" dinner in his usual "melancholy" tavern, then goes home to his "gloomy suite of rooms."
These first three events have occurred within the status quo situation. They merely set the stage; the core conflict between Scrooge and the ghosts has not yet begun. This is a portrait of Scrooge as he was in his daily life perhaps for years. In other words, the reader is given an understanding of the status quo situation, and then the core conflict begins:
D. The first weird event happens: As he gets home, Scrooge sees Marley's face projected on the front door knocker. He dismisses it as a hallucination and goes up to his rooms. "Humbug!" he says. The story has begun.
E. Now the ghost of Marley appears with a great clanking of chains. "It's humbug still," says Scrooge. "I won't believe it!" But the ghost speaks, and finally Scrooge does believe it. The ghost tells him he will be visited by three spirits. "I— I think I'd rather not," says Scrooge.
The events of the story so far have changed him. He has "grown" from being able to dismiss the apparition as "humbug" to being afraid. "Couldn't I just take'em all at once and have it over with, Jacob?" he asks the ghost. Scrooge has been humbled.
F. Marley's ghost leaves. After it has gone, Scrooge tries to say "humbug" but can't (growth). He goes to bed and falls into a deep sleep. End of chapter 1. (Chapter 2 begins with the arrival of the first of the three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past.)
As you can see, the stepsheet reflects the events of the story in a shorthand way, and gives an indication of how the characters grow, allowing the author to keep his story in control. Earlier we discussed a new novel involving Boyer Bennington Mitchell, private eye. Here is how a stepsheet of that novel might look:
A. Boyer Bennington Mitchell is in his office. Things haven't been going well since he took over the private eye business from his father, Big Jake. Most of Big Jake's clients, accustomed to his tough methods, have left. The few who have remained are sleazy lawyers who don't pay their bills and out-of-town detectives who can't pay theirs. Boyer's secretary comes in to quit because Boyer has paid her with an IOU. After she leaves, he paces and worries. He has no cases to work on. A man shows up, pretending to be a client, but he's a process server. Boyer is being sued for his back rent on his office.
B. Despondent, Boyer goes home. He's single and lives with his mother. His mother tries to get him to give up this "stupid business." She has a friend who owns a stock brokerage and will give him a job. But he doesn't want to be a stockbroker, he wants to be a detective, and he tells his mother so very firmly. Standing up to her has given Boyer new vigor. (Everything to this point is within the status quo situation). Seeing his determination, his mother acquiesces and tells him that an acquaintance was asking if the family was still in the business. Hoping he would quit, she hadn't wanted to give him a referral, but since she sees now there's no way he'll ever quit, she gives him the woman's name. This marks the beginning of the core conflict of the story.
C. The woman, Lydia Wickham, is soon to be a murderer. Part of her plan is to hire Boyer ostensibly to find out who "the other woman" is in her husband's life (neither Boyer nor the reader knows of her plan, of course). She gives Boyer two thousand dollars as a retainer, and he leaves in a state of buoyant optimism (more growth).
D. Boyer spends the next five days "shadowing" her husband and finds no evidence that he is seeing any other woman. Boyer gets weary and thinks he may be taking Lydia Wickham's money for nothing.
E. Boyer reports back to Lydia; she tells him to keep following her husband. He reluctantly agrees because he needs the money.
F. That night he witnesses, for the first time, the husband skulking around . . .
In a well-constructed story, the events (A, B, C, D, E, etc.) are causal. Event B cannot happen unless event A happens. Event C cannot happen unless events A and B happen. Readers have a powerful desire to read what will happen next because they expect the events they have witnessed to have repercussions. The cause-and-effect nature of the events makes for a finely woven tapestry. When readers say a story is "tight" or critics say a story is "not tight enough" they are referring to this cause-and-effect relationship.
The events of a story, the conflicts, have an effect on the characters, so that the way in which they respond to conflict changes as the story moves along. Let's examine another stepsheet and take a close look at the changes in the main character as he progresses through the story:
A. Andy Simms, nineteen, is a Caspar Milquetoast. It's 1968 and the Vietnam War is going full fury. He worries about being drafted. He studies like mad to maintain a C average in college so he can keep his student deferment. His major is sociology because it's easy for him to get good grades in it. This is the status quo situation at the beginning of the novel. The stage is set.
B. Andy's girlfriend, Hilda, wants him to be an engineer. How can he make anything of himself in sociology? Engineering is where the bucks are, she says. At first Andy resists, but, fearing he will lose her, he gives in. He changes his major to engineering. This is the beginning of the story.
C. Engineering is extremely difficult for Andy. He gives it all he's got, but the best he can do is to get D grades. He starts drinking. Drinking makes it harder for him to study. He becomes more and more anxious. At the end of the semester he gets poor grades and loses his student deferment. Once classified 1-A, he falls into despondency. He mopes constantly. He becomes irritable and short-tempered and his friends desert him.
D. Hilda drops Andy because she considers him a loser. Andy's despondency becomes a full-blown psychotic depression; now he can't even get out of bed in the morning.
E. He is drafted into the army. When he reports for duty he is having a schizophrenic episode. He goes through the induction process hardly knowing where he is. The idea of running away to Canada occurs to him, but he doesn't seriously consider it. It would make him feel like a traitor. He loves his country; it's the military he hates. At this point in the story, Andy is at the nadir of his character development. He is anxiety-ridden, lonely, and afraid; he feels incompetent and dejected.
F. In boot camp, Andy soon finds that if he doesn't complain and just does as he's told, the sergeants won't be too hard on him. He also finds that he has a good shooting eye and is a marksman with an M-16 rifle. For the first time in his life, he has found something he is naturally good at. His platoon wins the camp shooting contest with Andy as the lead shooter. Andy has the best score in the whole camp. In addition, though he isn't physically strong, he has much more endurance than he ever imagined; he is always first to finish the twenty-mile forced marches. Andy is finding self-respect through his struggles and triumphs in the army. He's developing, finding his strength.
G. Disaster strikes. Andy is picked to go to Vietnam. He had hoped to get into clerk's school, but his success in boot camp has sealed his fate. They need sharpshooters. Off he goes to Vietnam, full of fear and trepidation. Only his newfound pride in what he accomplished at boot camp sustains him—Andy's character development is tested and proved.
H. Andy is assigned to a jungle reconnaissance patrol. He's terrified and sullen, hardly able to eat, a regression to his former state of high anxiety, but he's not giving in to it as he once might have. He finds the strength to endure. It is on the reconnaissance patrol that his sharpshooting prowess serves him well. His unit is pinned down for four hours by murderous machine-gun fire. They figure they have one chance, and that is to rush the enemy. It's suicidal, but if they can knock out the machine gun, at least some of them may survive.
I. Andy thinks this is crazy. He disobeys orders and sneaks off into the jungle, climbs a cliff, and when dawn comes, he's in position to fire down on the machine gunners and drive them off. His buddies are able to escape when the enemy gives their full attention to knocking out Andy. It proves too much for them, though. Andy can pick them off as they start up the cliff. They figure it isn't worth it to get one man, and withdraw. Andy is a hero. Subsequently, he is awarded the Silver Star. In terms of his development, Andy is now at an extremely high point. He's proud, optimistic, full of confidence in himself and his future.
J. When he comes home, Hilda wants to make up with him. But Andy is no longer a milquetoast, and he won't be bullied by her. Instead, he moves to California, where he intends to go back to college and become a sociologist. He's his own man now, having conquered his terror. He has grown from one pole (terrified, intensely pessimistic) to the opposite pole (self-confident, optimistic).
Was this article helpful?