Things I Wish I'd Said on the Story Grid Podcast: Crazy Rich Asians
Often, after we've finished recording all 4 episodes of the Story Grid Podcast, or worse, after I listen back to them, I have a flood of ideas, additional thoughts, or parts of my notes that I forgot to mention. This blog series is just an opportunity for me to fill in any blanks I feel I've missed or share any insights I had after the fact.
Tips for Internal Arcs and Your Story's Status Quo
Something that I didn't give as much attention to as I might have liked when it came to analyzing Crazy Rich Asians is how you can externalize the process of internal transformation in a protagonist and how you can use the idea of your story's status quo to generate conflict that will challenge your protagonist.
Even if it's not an action story, there should still be action. We talk about this a lot in Story Grid, but the basic premise here is that even if your story doesn't formally fall into the Action Genre, the way that you express anything on the page is through external actions. Now, those external actions are dictated by your External Genre, but the point here is that someone needs to be doing something (relevant) at all times. What determines relevant action is whether or not it either moves the story forward in some way and/or whether it directly, specifically challenges the internal transformation of the protagonist. This is key for generating relevant conflict and tension throughout your story. Crazy Rich Asians absolutely excels at dramatizing the family dynamics and challenging Rachel's internal arc in very real, tangible ways. I'm not sure it gets more tangible than a gutted fish in your bed. If your story is a primary Internal Genre, then your protagonist will definitely be having internal conflict, but the things that incite and perpetuate that internal conflict should come from outside the protagonist. Don't let them off the hook. Keep antagonizing them.
Someone should be getting in your protagonist's way, whether on purpose or not. Clear forces of antagonism is the name of the game here. This connects back to the above point on action. One of the things that is going to help you generate that external action is by having one or more characters who are preventing your protagonist from achieving their goal. Maybe they're doing it on purpose, maybe they are unknowingly perpetuating the status quo, or maybe they think they're doing what's best for the protagonist. But if no one has anything to gain or lose by your protagonist succeeding or transforming, it may be a sign that you need to add more opposing characters to your cast.
Everyone should be impacted by, and navigating, the existing status quo. Okay, fine, I kind of already said this on the podcast, but I think it's really important and I think that Crazy Rich Asians did this super well. Everyone in your story will, or should, be occupying different places in the context you've designed for your story. Either they have a place in the world they're trying to maintain or protect, or they're trying to move. Thinking about this will help you distinguish your different characters in (here's that word again) relevant ways. Rather than having to come up with an endless supply of quirks and mannerisms, when you start asking how they are relating to the world of your story and the problems in it, you can come up with characters who are distinct in the right kinds of ways. This is also a great way to generate different forces of antagonism, who antagonize from different positions and in different ways (imagine if Rachel's mom was an enemy rather than an ally), as well as different allies, who, similarly, can aid the protagonist from different positions and in different ways.
Key Questions to Pose for Your Story
How do the specific events that take place in your story challenge your protagonist's internal arc?
Who has something to gain or lose if your protagonist fails?
Who benefits from the status quo?
And then, how do they go about preventing your protagonist from achieving their goal?
Do they use overt methods, like Elinor, who outright tells Rachel that she thinks she'll never be good enough?
Or do they use covert methods, like Amanda Ling, who pretends to be Rachel's friend and then (again with the fish) deploys her tactic so that Rachel finds the fish? (Note that Amanda also designed this plan so that she isn't present when Rachel finds the fish)
What is the central problem your protagonist is facing?
How are other characters facing similar problems?
How does each character's position in your world, and their way of navigating that position, impact how they antagonize or aid your protagonist?
Can you identify your story world's status quo? How are you using external events to challenge your protagonist's internal transformation?