False Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Your Fiction or Memoir, by Mary Carroll MooreWhat I call the “inner story” in fiction or memoir just refers to the transformation of a character or narrator through a series of outer events. It’s pretty simple, but its success depends on something called “false agreements.”
Without this transformation, and the false agreements that propel it, a story is just a list of crises. Readers want to witness growth.
Transformation doesn’t just occur, right? It usually happens from a series of events that create change. To make each change real for the reader, we have to consider where the character’s journey starts. Usually, there is something they don’t fully understand. Something they are challenged by.
I like to look at this as a kind of agreement. The character decides something is true–even if it isn’t–and agrees to operate as if it is. As the story goes along, the writer challenges this belief, conviction, desire or hope or fear, this agreement with self, another, or situation, and slowly proves it false.
At the beginning, the false agreement might be quite intact. As the story goes along, each event breaks down this agreement. By the end, even the character must see that it’s not real. By the end, there is a new realization.
What are some false agreements in story?
In Janet Fitch’s novel White Oleander, the false agreement is that the narrator, a teenage girl, believes she can help her mother stay out of danger. This proves false when the mother decides to kill her boyfriend and ends up in prison, abandoning her daughter.
In Jeanette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle, the false agreement is that the narrator, a young girl, believes that her crazy family is eccentric but normal. This falls apart as the parents take more risks and put the girl in danger.
In Lief Enger’s novel Peace Like a River, the false agreement is that justice can prevail–when a young girl is attacked by boys in town and her brother defends her, his family can bring him back into the family. Proven false when the brother runs away and aligns with a serial killer.
A false agreement will always be revealed as false by the end of the book. It may be accepted, then denied, then accepted again during the story–humans rarely travel a straight line in growth–but it is exposed by the end for what it is. Even if the character ends up in permanent denial, the reader has seen the agreement as fully false.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise: How to Set Up a False Agreement in Your Story
Understanding a false agreement means really knowing your character. If you didn’t get a sense of the false agreement last week, here are some next steps.
Most writers start by describing the status quo that the story starts with. What does everybody put up with, to get along? What are the accepted beliefs?
Some examples of false agreements from different books I’ve read lately:
1. If I’m good enough, nothing bad will happen.
2. If I protect my sister, she won’t be abused.
3. If I go there in person, I can find the truth.
4. If I keep silent, nobody will get hurt.
There are hundreds of possibilities, and yours will be unique. The “hook” of your story starts from this false agreement. Because something will happen to immediately cast doubt over this false agreement, right? That’s what launches your story.
Once you have your false agreement sketched out (spend 15-20 minutes freewriting on what it could be), your next step is to chart how that agreement will get busted up.
In all stories, there are small and large epiphanies where the character gradually realizes the agreement may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe a hint of that is early in the story, within the first third. It can be a small epiphany, or turning point.
But the character often perseveres and tries to keep the false agreement going. Then there’s a bigger event that cracks it even more: often, at this point, the character decides not to take this #%$$ anymore and reinvents themselves or gets new help or new clues. This might happen midway through the story.
There’s is often a revision of the false agreement, a new false agreement, if you will, that is closer to the truth but not quite it. (Why? Because you still have half the story to get through, and false agreements create the conflict that drives the character. So you don’t want to get rid of the false agreement entirely, not yet.)
Usually, near the end of the story, the smaller epiphanies result in a major one. At this point, the character sees truth.
They become different, fundamentally. And they make changes that really show how far they have come since the start of the story.