Sunday, June 28, 2009


catalyst--a character, social unit, or organization in a story that causes a change to take place; an event that transfers energy to the point of shifting dramatic inertia from stasis or status quo; a story point that tilts the landscape toward a point of no return.

Characters frequently self-catalyze to get themselves out of a perceived rut; they change jobs,move to different cities, join the Peace Corps, abort or switch romantic relationships, adopt dogs or cats. Characters also accept opportunities which seem to them to be steps advancing toward some long-cherished goal. Catalysts are often neutral but, depending on the nature of the character responding to them, can be seen as Cosmic, Fate-driven, and certainly Golden Opportunities and Lucky Breaks. As such, the character responding to the catalyst will see some guiding hand or throughline in an essentially chaos-filled universe.

A catalyst represents a dramatic unit of energy, which may come from a chance meeting, an unanticipated discovery on Craig's List, or a connection between elements not usually associated. Remember Ishmael, as early as the first paragraph of Moby-Dick, wanting--needing--some catalytic agent: "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." Luck of the draw for Ishmael was choosing The Pequod, nevertheless, his wanting a catalyst to change his humors drew him into an adventure of a lifetime.

Many characters have resident within them the first cousin to hidden agenda, the secret desire. When a character becomes aware of a catalyst that could bring about advancement to achieving the secret desire, you'll have created a conflict of wrenching intensity.

Hint: Make a list of ten favored characters in ten favored books. Identify the catalyst that propelled them into action. Now you have a profile of your own favorite types of catalyst which you can enhance by putting one of them to work in your next story. Adventurous sort that you are, you can also reach within yourself as so many fine actors do, where you will identify a catalyst that is contrary to your standard preference. From such adventures come interesting characters, doing interesting--and perhaps scary--things.

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