under a spell and behind the mask: how to create a compelling story arc




One of my favorite books on writing is Amnon Buchbinder’s THE WAY OF THE SCREENWRITER:

Stories are answers to human needs.

…story’s purpose is to nudge us towards greater consciousness. Story wants us to perceive beyond the surface of things. Story wants us to understand that life’s mystery is a call to develop our ability to perceive and respond to it.

…The characters may speak, but the power lies in what is not said. A character’s actions may be described, but the real subject is the motive behind it. A chain of events transpires, but the most important link may be kept in reserve until a crucial moment.


I like how Buchbinder uses the idea of “the spell” and “the mask” when describing character growth.

Stories generally involve a level of psychological transformation.

It is when her old self has “died” in some way – when she has broken the paradigm holding her back, where there has been a major shift in her thinking and thus in her character – that the protagonist can finally overcome the obstacles and claim victory.

Or, how Amnon puts it (and I shall paraphrase):

Something happened in the past that put the character under a spell. She needs to break that spell. What can she do in order for that to happen?

The spell “is a manifestation of the force of the past, the force of fate.” It’s a system of beliefs and perceptions, a paradigm, that might have served the protagonist at one point in her life. But life moves on, times change, and the paradigm must change too: instead of helping the protagonist, it is wrecking her life.

Surrender Dorothy


The person or event that casts the spell is often a key event early in the story.

For example: say your protagonist was sexually abused as a youngster. As a result she trained herself to dissociate, to detach from the world and turn inward. This was crucial to her emotional survival, but as she moves into adulthood her inability to be fully present in the moment, in the world, prevents her from forming the very thing that can save her: a healthy, intimate relationship.

The sexual abuse was the event; the abuser was the spellcaster.

The spell is her tendency to mentally and emotionally remove herself from the world around her, which makes it impossible to connect with other people.

She needs to “wake up” from this spell, to come to awareness, to learn how to be grounded in the present moment and trust someone enough to risk a full-blooded connection.

Buchbinder also talks about “the mask”.

Since the spell that characters are under almost always involves a lack of awareness, it gives rise to a sort of false identity, which I call the mask. In most stories, we don’t fully appreciate the mask as such, at least initially; rather, it seems to us to be the character’s whole identity.

This was a great help to me in understanding my own character Gabe Maddox, protagonist of my novel-in-progress THE DECADENTS. Gabe is a successful and wealthy visual artist living in Los Angeles: a jaded, cynical, womanizing bad boy.

At least, that’s how he comes off in the beginning of the novel (and a problem I’m dealing with right now is how to make him sympathetic enough in the opening chapters so that the reader won’t hurl the book in disgust and possibly risk hitting the cat.)

Scratch the surface of that identity, though – or go at it with a sledgehammer – and you find a lonely and damaged romantic who wants authentic connection. Which you can’t do if you are not living authentically. Gabe has to wake up to the truth of who he is, instead of who he believes and claims himself to be.

(Gabe was put under a spell in his last year of high school, when the love of his life and the sister of his best friend disappeared one night after a beach party. Years later, a serial killer confessed to murdering her on the eve of his execution.)

Buchbinder’s idea of the mask helped me understand this seeming paradox of Gabe’s character, and how the course of the story has to resolve it.

Because this is the thing about the mask: it is a false attempt to compensate for something that you lack, which means it swings you in the opposite direction of what you actually are.

If you’re a coward, you act like Rambo.

If you’re sexually inexperienced, you dress and act like Britney Spears.

If you lack confidence and a solid sense of self, you annoy the people around you by acting like Donald Trump. (And his hair.)



One thing I’ve noticed in my lifelong quest to become a badass storyteller, is that you can’t grow as a writer without growing as a person, and vice-versa.

You can’t interrogate your characters’ psychology if you’re not willing to gaze into your own, without flinching or backing away, to the best of your ability.

All of us have fallen under spells. We break free of some only to fall under others. It’s part of being human. Our lack of a certain awareness protects us in some way, until it doesn’t, and then we can either push through the pain and blood and mess of true growth – or stagnate and break. The choice is up to us.

I used to wear the mask of a ‘good girl’ and a ‘trophy wife’ until I was disappearing in on myself; there wasn’t much of a ‘there’ there, if you know what I mean, which left me starved for emotional connection (you can’t connect with someone if there’s no ‘self’ to connect with in the first place). I’m still waking up to the full truth of myself: too bold, outspoken, selfish, hungry and risk-taking to be a very good ‘good girl’ (which I consider a bullshit definition in the first place), too rebellious and ambitious (with what my therapist once described as “a fuck you spirit” and my ex-husband more poetically referred to as a fire in my soul) to be the trophy wife. The happy part is that I discovered this now, instead of twenty years from now or never.

What about you?

We all hold inside of us that ongoing war between who we need to be and who our world wants and demands us to be. The true self and the false. The truth and the lie. Who we are at core…and the spell that alienates us from that.

This is one reason why stories are important, why your need to write them is important (no matter what anybody tells you).

The goal of storytelling is to get at the truth, break the spell, heal the wound.

When we do this for ourselves, we can do for others. Storytelling shows us the way.

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Aug 11, 2011

8 comments · Add Yours

1) you can’t grow as a writer without growing as a person, and vice-versa.
2) The goal of storytelling is to get at the truth, break the spell, heal the wound.

These are useful bits of information. This business of “growing as a person” might be the reason why it takes so long to learn to write well.

The truth telling function of stories –or its wisdom–is often missing and hence–no spell broken, no wound resolved.

The best stories walk you towards evolution. The best stories point you in the direction— you didn’t know you were walking towards and make you conscious– as you said–of what sits—“beyond the surface of things”

The hard part —-is actually doing this thing-beyond-the words—-in any form of writing. I don’t know that you can do it—-in a conscious manner—-or whether it wells up from somewhere inside you and forces itself into vision– somewhat the way — a natural calamity does. Sometimes it feels that writing is simply writing down what the voices in your head are telling you to put down. Writing –for me –seems ghostly and reading–often feels this way as well,–as if I am—tentatively groping –in words–towards meaning.

An interesting post.


Ah, yet another book that I’ll have to pick up on your recommendation!


Another provocative post, Justine. Yes, yes, yes! Exploring your characters means exploring yourself. You get it.

Regarding making Gabe sympathetic, I don’t know if you have solved that problem yet, but if you haven’t,I’d like to suggest an approach.

Have you considered having Gabe express an act of kindness, or generosity, or sacrifice in the first act? It needs to be something for which we can respect him. It could be an act which WE consider respectful, but HE doesn’t. Or, it maybe something about bravery or loyalty, even though it is tied to what we may believe is inappropriate behavior. Like in the Godfather movies, the bad guys were killers but in many ways we admired them. Within their own code, they were chivalrous.

Maybe this tool will work for you. Don’t know.

Again, great post!



Sounds like a really good book and therefore put it on my wishlist. Thanks!


This is an interesting insight into some core concepts for character building:

– the need for them to change/develop
– the need for them to be ‘three-dimensional’

Really well put. The psychology behind these concepts makes them easier to understand.


I’m not big on stories. By that I mean plots. I never plan out how any of my novels are going to take shape. I start off with a character (essentially the aspect of me that I want to explore), stick him in a situation and let what happens naturally happen. I have a real problem with the notion of truth – as evidence by its constant appearance in poems going all the way back to childhood – and so it’s not surprising that my first two novels actually have the personification of truth as the antagonist (although to be fair he’s more of a funny man to the protagonist’s straight man); if Bergman can play chess with Death I saw no reason why I couldn’t watch an old Carry On film with Truth. I’ve said this about my poems, although it’s just as true when it comes to the prose, that what ends up on the page is what I’ve discarded on the way to solving my problem; that other people can make use of it and get something from it is a bonus. What I am looking for is a truth, not a big meaning-of-life kind of truth but one of the smaller, more manageable ones. In Living with the Truth that particular one was: By the time life makes sense to you you have next to no life left to do anything with that knowledge. It’s not a new thought and it’s been expressed far more succinctly than that – Wisdom is wasted on the elderly – but it’s easy to trip off truisms like that and not appreciate the truths contained within.


I can see why you love that book. The analogy of spell and mask made it all so clear. As I read your post I made notes on my protagonist..what was the event that caused the spell and what was the mask she wore? So simple and so perfect! I had a few times like that myself…16, parents divorcing, rife with insecurity, turned into a ‘bad’ girl, riding with motorcycle club, smoking, staying out til 6 am, etc. I just woke up a couple of yrs ago! Thanks for another insightful post.


I subscribed to your site but I’m not getting alerts, I’ve missed this post and the next one, blah. Must check back more often, then.


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