Nailing the Protagonist’s Transformation in Your Novel (the Plot Beat According to Brain Science)

The worst possible disaster has struck, and now your protagonist is lying stunned, not believing she can possibly go on. Unless…

Nailing the Protagonist's Transformation in Your Novel

Nailing the Protagonist's Transformation in Your Novel (the Plot Beat)

What Brain Science Says about Writing with Story Structures #14

The insights from cognitive psychology can help us understand the effects and usefulness of story structures, and this is what I break down in this series. In these articles on story structure elements, I dive into the effects of story on readers and how these structures play a part in that. I also offer suggestions for what writers can do to have the best of both worlds — both the joy of just writing and creating a tale readers will want to read.

We’re still sitting in your protagonist’s internal space, getting cozy with her inner demon. Remember that this comes just after the final, third-act disaster beat on the external side. It brought your protagonist low to force the arc of change to make its big turn. 

The action went from outer plot to inner conflict, sinking your protagonist to rock bottom and making her feel that all has been lost. And, in a way, it has — unless your protagonist makes a change. And why not? What else has she got to lose? 

This internal victory takes place when your protagonist has no choice but to turn from the path of lies to the path of truth

To recap, the external plot makes things bad. The doom moment makes everything even worse. The worst possible disaster has struck, and now your protagonist is lying stunned, not believing she can possibly go on. Unless… 

Unless she finally understands that she’s been wrong this whole time. Up until this crucial point, your protagonist has clung hard to lies about herself and/or the world. Her direct confrontation with her inner demon — especially her fear — has rocked her faux foundation and shattered it completely. She can’t go on as she has. 

But through this painful psychological disaster, she finally sees the truth. And by grasping for that truth, she can begin to pull herself back out of that dark hole of doom.

A Transformation Beat Metaphor

I have a visual metaphor for the transformation beat that helps me think about what needs to happen structurally in a novel: I think of a fantasy-styled battlefield with an ancient well somewhere in the middle. As the forces we’re rooting for clash against the antagonists, the protagonist’s friends and allies fall or get captured even as she’s pushing forward toward the evil boss. [External Disaster Beat]

But she’s ambushed just when she thinks she has a shot at defeating her foe. They’ve got her surrounded and there’s no way out of the situation. As she’s careening off her original path forward, she falls into that ancient, magical well.

She temporarily exits the “reality” of the battle to hit rock bottom in the dank, dark, well of her mind. But at the bottom, she finds a monster. The very monster she fears most of all — and she’s holding tightly to it. It threatens to shatter the well of her mind and bring it crashing down on top of her. She has nothing left but to give up and be destroyed. She cowers on the cold, filthy stones of the bottom. [Doom Moment]

But as the rocks are falling around her, a shaft of light briefly flickers down on her. It hits her like a rope. She realizes she can grab hold of it if she just gets back up and changes direction — she’s already gone down into the depths as far as possible. She’s hit a brick wall… or rather, floor. She must turn around if she wants any chance to avoid succumbing to her doom.

So she grasps onto the rope of light, letting go of her monster. She clings and climbs until she’s fully made it back out of the crumbling well, re-entering the reality of the battle that will now test her resolve. [Transformation]

What Is the Transformation Beat in a Novel?

The transformation is an internal character arc beat for your protagonist. It encompasses the internal victory (or failure, such as in the case of a tragic arc) of the protagonist over her inner demon, which she directly faced in her internal doom moment.

The transformation follows the internal conflict of the third-act doom moment beat in a basic three-act story structure. It marks the point of your character’s transformation.

Your protagonist, in her absolute anguish during which her inner demon was trying to convince her to believe its lies and succumb to doom and failure, realizes that she could attempt to change — to cling instead to the truth. She has nothing left to lose. She has utterly failed and can sink no lower. So the only other direction is to turn herself around.

At the point of transformation, the protagonist chooses to believe in the truth and let go of her inner demon’s lies.

The Internal Victory

In the doom moment and following transformation, readers need to see your character very directly confronting her longheld, corrupted beliefs. Whatever very real disaster may be occurring externally in the plot, this moment of internal transformation is still a must if you want readers to feel like anything they’ve read matters.

If you’re more plot-driven and struggle with the inner stuff, remember that in sci-fi and fantasy, sometimes this internal battle is manifested in a more external, physical kind of way — such as a dreamlike scene or in an alternate reality kind of space. Even so, the thoughts and beliefs are still internal and emotionally driven. But perhaps this route may make this beat easier for you to pack a punch with. You’ll be back in the external plot soon with the next beat anyway!

On the other hand, if you naturally look more inward in your stories, this beat should be a high point in your drafting process! But to help you balance the internal with the external, think of the climactic events in the external plot as a metaphor for everything going on internally with your protagonist. Reframing this beat as being couched in a metaphor playing out in the outer plot may help to keep you from getting too caught up and bogged down in the inner work your protagonist is attempting.

From out of the depths, your protagonist needs to come to terms with the truth for a happy ending. Of course, if you don’t want a happy ending because the tragedy will be more telling, more impactful, more emotionally memorable than showing how your character overcomes obstacles, you’ll do the opposite. And by all means, do! I love a good, well-done tragedy. That kind of catharsis is important too.

The Internal Failure

In a tragic arc, your protagonist will follow the same path through the doom moment. The difference will occur at this beat of transformation. Instead of grasping the truth, your protagonist will succumb to the lies just as her inner demon desires.

Her doom moment will, in fact, destroy her on an internal level. (This is where villains are born — Mwahahahaha!) Your protagonist will sink to the depths of that metaphorical well of her mind, face her deepest fear, and feel that everything she believed is true. All the negative, corrupted ideas she has held are her truth. She clings harder to the lies, solidifying her stance that was born out of some traumatic experience and past hurts.

Whatever disaster and following doom moment occurs for the tragic protagonist will only prove even more to her that she was right all along. She has no hope, her greatest fear is impossible to overcome, and she cannot prove herself wrong about her unknowingly corrupted beliefs.

Does a tragic arc impact readers as much as a comedic one? Of course! Sometimes even more. It depends on the story. Tragedy can offer a type of catharsis that a positive arc may not. It can validate the reality of hardships and tragedies in our own world.

A tragic arc often contains a level of dramatic irony for readers. Readers can see clearly at the doom moment how the protagonist needs to change even when the protagonist refuses or can’t. The effect is often one in which the thematic lesson is driven home even more sharply than if the protagonist succeeded.

Examples of Protagonists Making Internal Transformations

Looking at examples of the transformation beat and the immediate, third-act path leading up to the transformation displays how these components work together for a meaningful story. While the example novels I’ve been analyzing so far follow positive arcs, I can note a side character in the first example following a tragic arc — at least for a while before he experiences a redemption through sacrifice.

Also recall that I’m using the first books in three series in these explorations of story structure. So the full character transformations do not occur in any books that aren’t the series finales. These novels still show full structures contained within themselves, and I still believe examining such novels is a good practice for speculative authors since so many science fiction and fantasy novels are part of a series.

Each beat of the full structure is still fulfilled in each book of the series, but in cases of non-finale books, the internal change that occurs is either a step toward the overall series transformation or a transformation related to a sub-theme of the series. You’ll see this play out in the following structural examples in which I trace the external disaster to the internal transformation:

The Lord of the Rings:

  • Disaster: Frodo is alone, trying to decide where to take the Ring. Boromir, corrupted by the power of the Ring, attacks, trying to take the Ring from Frodo by force. Corruption of himself and others is Frodo’s deep fear, and Boromir plays that out in a very direct way. 

    I want to make a side note here that Boromir goes down a path of tragedy by succumbing to the lies he believes, which include being able to use the Ring for good without being corrupted by it. While we don’t see into Boromir’s head during his inner conflict surrounding this, we can infer that he is ruled by his fear for Gondor and its fate. He therefore doubles down on his resolve that the Ring must go to Gondor by any means — including by force — instead of overcoming those fears and lies and putting that misguided goal behind him. Of course, we do see a redemption for Boromir when he realizes too late his folly and sacrifices everything to help Frodo and the Fellowship succeed. As readers, we can also feel the truth more poignantly here for it and the contrast that Boromir’s tragic path provides. But back to Frodo’s arc…

  • Doom moment: In Frodo’s fear of Boromir’s attack, Frodo puts on the Ring and flees to the top of Amon Hen. There he has a vision (note the more visual manifestation in a fantasy setting) and attracts Sauron’s attention. Frodo sees all the dangers he faces, the risks to his friends, war, and, ultimately, Sauron and his Eye searching for Frodo. Frodo is bound by a strong will to keep the Ring on… and Sauron has nearly found him. It’s easy to understand how hopeless his outlook is—quite literally—and how hard it seems to escape from the evil and corruption.

  • Transformation: In the middle of the battle of wills between Sauron’s eye and the voice telling him to take of the Ring (on top of just having been attacked by a corrupted Boromir), Frodo realizes it’s up to him to choose what to do. He knows he must be solely responsible for the Ring to avoid its corruption of anyone else.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:

  • Disaster: Harry loses his companions through the trials protecting the Stone and must continue to the last chamber alone, where he expects he’ll hold off Snape long enough for Hermione to somehow get Dumbledore’s help. It’s such a longshot there’s hardly any hope, and Harry literally walks through the black flames. Furthermore, when he encounters Quirrell instead of Snape or Voldemort, the truth crashes down on everything Harry’s believed about the situation. Worse, Quirrell ties him up while attempting to find out how to get the Sorcerer’s Stone from the Mirror of Erised.

  • Doom moment: Quirrell tries to use Harry to help him get the Stone from the mirror. Now Harry is becoming the instrument for Quirrell-Voldemort getting the very object Harry has been trying to protect—and threatening his ability to come to terms with his identity and continue life in the wizarding world. (I promised I’d explain more about how this instigates the internal transformation since it’s a little less obvious in this middle-grade story. So now it’s time to explain!)

  • Transformation: Harry is able to come to terms with his identity and fate to the point that he no longer sees his parents in the mirror; he sees himself finding the Stone—he desires to save his present life even as it is and face the demon of his past. The unwritten transformation has to be inferred. It’s not as spelled out in the lowest point during which Harry is being used to bring about the very thing he’s been trying to stop all along—getting the Sorcerer’s Stone for Voldemort. However, it’s set up expertly enough through his clear internal conflict about his identity and the introduction of the Mirror of Erised earlier in the plot. He hasn’t been able to let go of the desire for the life he could have had were it not taken from him by Voldemort. And it’s later confirmed by Harry realizing himself that he needed the chance to go after Voldemort in the denouement. He doesn’t think it was an accident that Dumbledore let him find out how the mirror worked. The legendary wizard always seems to know what people need most, and so we can infer that the seed planted when Dumbledore first encountered Harry with the mirror was the deeper truth that Harry needed to learn in order to move on from his haunted, mysterious past.

The Hunger Games:

  • Disaster: Instead of fighting Cato as expected, they’re all pursued by muttations—the vicious, wolf-like beasts created to look like the other tributes. Katniss faces the trauma of killing other tributes and the very real possibility of losing Peeta to Cato. But when Cato falls and is mauled by the mutts, Katniss tries to keep Peeta awake through a long night until she’s forced to shoot Cato out of mercy.

  • Doom moment: Instead of winning the Hunger Games, the Gamemakers change the rules again, saying only one of them can win. As Peeta is throwing away his knife, Katniss draws an arrow, thinking he means to betray her. She realizes her mistake, her shame, and that death would be easier than living with the trauma of having killed the other. But Peeta makes the choice for her as he takes off his bandage to let himself bleed out. Katniss not only faces her fears but also realizes the lies she’s maintained.

  • Transformation: Katniss realizes she doesn’t want to be left alone—winning is no longer enough. She’ll never forgive herself if Peeta dies. Moreover, Peeta’s reminder that the Capitol needs a victor finally changes Katniss’s intent to win the games to defying the Gamemakers by intentionally not giving them a victor—they can pretend to threaten double suicide with the poisonous berries Katniss still has with her.

The Role of the Transformation Beat

The transformation in your novel is a turning point. It can either swing the character arc up in a positive direction or it can cause it to take a sudden dive for the worse.

Your protagonist’s eyes will open to the truth. However, in a negative arc, the protagonist’s resolve can win out, whether or not she comes to a realization of her mistakes and how wrong she was.

For example, she might think she’s failing because she didn’t take drastic enough measures toward her misguided goals. Maybe she’s only failing because she needs to cling harder to her lies — certainly not because she needs to change her direction entirely.

The transformation beat nails in place the direction of the climax. But furthermore, the transformation helps to show why your readers should care about all the rest of your story it all. It gives the story meaning, purpose, and impact, and this is what will make your story more memorable than a mere entertainment piece.

So what does your character need to experience, understand, or develop in order to change? Let this guide your decisions for your whole novel manuscript. Of course, if you’d like some help, request a call with me for a consultation.

Categories: story structure

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