Last post I talked about life as a journey, and specifically when it moves in an upward or downward direction, and sometimes both. Life, however, does not always move in a sure and certain path. Sometimes it moves in strange and unexpected directions, but it never stands still. That is the key to the transformation plot, recognizing that life does not ever stay the same. It always changes.
The classic transformation story can be heard every Sunday morning in any American church where testimonies are given. It is the conversion story. Sometimes the degradation starts from the beginning, but usually the story starts with a falling away from the faith. Then, if you listen closely, you will hear the journey, all the failures, the difficulties, the struggles until at last, they find God (or God finds them) and saves them, which is to say puts them on the upward path rather than the downward path.
Now, consider Dorian Gray. His transformation was deserved, but Scrooge’s was not. Go figure. But Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a classic story of the journey of a man through his life that transforms his whole being. To be sure, the transformation story is about what happens inside a person that changes them in some way irrevocably and forever.
The transformation story is most evident when a physical change accompanies the internal change, but it must be done well to avoid becoming campy or just plain stupid. Avoiding the obvious stories that come to mind with the word “metamorphosis,” consider Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros. Better yet, look at the classics in mythology and in folk tales.
Venus made the statue come to life. George Bernard Shaw thought that was a good idea for a play, Pygmalion. Everyone knows the musical version: My Fair lady, or they should. And folktales abound with metamorphoses. There is the Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, and one that illustrates the transformation plot very well: Pinocchio.
As with any journey, the plot must begin fast. We are delighted in the end when Scrooge is reformed, but we know from page one that this guy is headed for either Heaven or Hell. Most often, the transformation occurs at the end as in “the lesson learned.” Occasionally, though, the transformation can happen right up front and the story can follow the adjustments necessary to deal with this change in reality—as in the Grapes of Wrath.
In Pinocchio’s case, there is a partial transformation in the very beginning when in answer to a lonely old man’s prayer, a puppet comes to life. Then comes the middle of the story where the lesson or lessons must be learned to achieve a good outcome to it all.
As with the Rise and Fall stories, the transformation story usually hinges on some virtue or some vice. If you are a connoisseur of Medieval romances, you understand the phrase “love conquers all.” Love is certainly the most well-worn trigger to a transformation, but it is hardly the only one. There are many virtues, and vices (temptations) can also trigger a change—for better or worse. (Weddings make great transformational stories).
The middle, then, is the struggle either to cope with the new set of circumstances, with obstacles, temptations to turn back, or it is other events that slow progress or seek to sidetrack the outcome, or it is the struggle to attain the hoped for outcome. Pinocchio has to learn certain lessons such as loyalty, fidelity, about love and about family before he can become a real boy.
The ending, the arrival, also need not be drawn out. Success or failure. That is the key to journey plots. And Transformation plots are like any other: they are not always successful as the Little Mermaid (Anderson’s version) will tell you.