Dear Writing Teacher,
Could you explain in as much detail as possible what a story arc is?
I’m gonna be straight with you: I have put off answering this question not only because I’ve been busy editing my novel and potty training my kid, but also because it fills me with a swampy kind of dread. The thought of a student asking me this question in a classroom, where I would have to improvise a coherent answer, is enough to make me retire. Story arc?! It feels like I’m stuck in that dream I have fairly often, the one where I’m pushed on stage to perform a hip hop dance routine I’ve only just learned and haven’t sufficiently rehearsed. The horror!
Okay, okay, deep breath, 5-6-7-8, here I go…
At some point, you probably learned the traditional notion of story arc: there’s an inciting incident, then rising action, then a climax, and then a resolution–or, as I like to say in a husky voice, a denouement. Your sixth grade teacher probably showed you that familiar story arc graph, the one that looks like a steep mountain, or maybe a mountain range. Years later, someone might have said to you, “A story needs a beginning, a middle and an end!” Someone else might have cried out, “You need to introduce conflict!”
Honestly, all that stuff leaves me cold and confused. Once again, I find myself considering retirement.
The truth is, I’m not sure I know anything about story arc as it’s traditionally discussed, so I can’t really describe it in detail. That’s not to say, however, I haven’t investigated the topic, for myself and my students. I have. Story arc continues to perplex and thrill me.
Two years ago I wrote an essay about the plot lessons of Irish crime writer Tana French, which touches somewhat on this topic. In that piece, I explored the ways French subverted my preconceived notions of plot. This essay might be useful to you as you think about this sticky topic. And now, I will quote myself, attributing it as such, so as not to pull a Jonah Lehrer:
If a scene is the completion of an action in a specific time and place, then plot is…what, exactly? I’d venture to say that it’s the relationship between these scenes. It’s the irresistible pull–and meaningful accumulation of–cause and effect. (“The king died and then the queen died of grief,” as E.M. Forster famously put it.)
Beyond the world of storytelling, plot is defined as a secret scheme to reach a specific end. Or it’s a parcel of land. Or it means to mark a graph, chart, or map: the plotting shows us what has changed; our ship is headed this way. To a writer (me) interested in (obsessed with?) plot-making, all of these are significant definitions. The lessons abound. I once read somewhere that Margaret Atwood compared novel writing to performing burlesque: don’t take off your clothes too slowly, she advised, or the reader will get bored; get naked too fast, and the entertainment ends before it can really begin. I put that in my plot-pocket, too.
Arc is tied into notions of plot because both concern action, event, and change as they relate to character. I want to say that arc is the structure on which plot hangs. And now, a second later, I want to say that arc is the unfolding of plot, the specific path that events take to enable a character to move through a story. And now, two seconds later, I want to say that if plot is the what and the why, then arc is the how. As you can see, I’m still working all this out in my mind.
While plot always emerges from character (at least, for me it does), I don’t think arc necessarily has to be related to character. There are multiple ways to think about arc when you’re writing. The first is, indeed, with character. There’s the oft-trotted-out rule that the story’s protagonist has to change for the story to be successful, and though I agree with that much of the time, I don’t think that’s always the case. Change should occur, but not necessarily within a character.
If it is character, you’d be wise to (binge) watch the television series Orange is the New Black to chart heroine Piper Chapman’s transformation from prissy, naive, and entitled young white woman to young white woman who is learning (trying? failing?) to shed her prissiness, naivete, and entitlement. Prison has changed her — hasn’t it? One could argue that the former version of herself would not — spoiler alert! — have beaten the shit out of a fellow human being. The arc is terrific because you can chart its progress: you can see how every conflict that arises pushes Piper and molds her. The question is whether you can see that same cause and effect in your own work.
I watched Orange is the New Black as I read Donna Tartt’s forthcoming novel, The Goldfinch (that’s right, people, I snagged that galley!), which is a massive and magnificent story about an orphaned boy and his relationship to art, the world, and himself in the wake of terrible grief. In both the TV series and the novel, I kept my eye on character arc. In each, the hero’s view of him- or herself shifts, as does his or her behavior. In The Goldfinch, however, that change is slow and complicated, and for much of the book, it’s the unchanging, repetition of destructive behavior that’s tragic yet dramatic. In Tartt’s novel, the hero’s desire for meaning, coupled with a need for solace and connection, pushes the character to act, be it in a new way or an unchanging one. His arc is thus thornier than anything on television, but it’s no less compelling. It reminds me of what my friend and colleague Adam Cushman, who recently taught a seminar on story structure for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, told me: “The greatest story arcs are layered, and conflict us emotionally. I call this falling forward, or using creative destruction as a way to create emotion.”
Another arc I’m interested is in the reader’s. As one scene follows the next, the reader amasses more and more information about the characters and their turmoil, about the situation they’re in. A reader thus experiences her own series of revelations and emotional responses, which may or may not mirror the protagonist’s. (Side note: I recently re-read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and it got me thinking about how, with speculative fiction in particular, much of the narrative drive is puzzling together what’s happened to the world, and how, and why. Exposition-gathering is its own satisfying arc! Discuss among yourselves.)
Aside from — or instead of? — thinking about your character’s arc, you might consider your reader’s. What do you want your reader to feel at the beginning of your story? How about at the end? What needs to occur, what information needs to be supplied, in order to make your reader feel such-and-such?
What I really want to know is: What if a character doesn’t change, but the reader’s perception of that character does? (I think, in fact, this is what Oryx and Crake does, and does well.)
The last kind of arc that interests me is the arc of language. (The Arc of Language should be the title of my next novel. I promise it’ll be beautiful but super boring.) This can refer to how language evolves within a text as a whole, or within a chapter or even a paragraph. This is actually the arc I pay the most attention to during a first draft, for I don’t yet know enough about my characters or the story to make huge decisions. In many cases, language sheds light on the choices I need to make for the manuscript as a whole.
In my classes, I love to teach John Gardner’s “foreplay paragraph,” which is what he calls a paragraph that precedes a big reveal–like that of a dead body. In this kind of paragraph, the writer has to signal to the reader that something big is up ahead, while still making the prose good enough that the reader won’t want to skip over it. In this exercise, Gardener is tipping his hat to the way language itself evolves in a narrative: to signal, reflect or incite change. Next time you’re writing, consider if your piece records any kind of aesthetic change. Does the language start lyrical and move toward something more minimal? Does the voice go from barbed to vulnerable and back again? If you want, you can isolate a paragraph, and consider how it moves, how it affects the reader, how it reveals character, setting or conflict, as it progresses. Sometimes arc is best understood when considered on the smallest level.
And now that I have thoroughly confused you, here are some homework assignments that might help turn my abstract ramblings into something more applicable to your writing life:
1. Read a short story with a friend. Afterward, draw the arc of the narrative without discussing it with your friend, and have your friend do the same. Interpret the word “arc” any way you see fit; the point is to make the narrative visual. Then, compare drawings and discuss their similarities and differences. I highly recommend doing this exercise with “In a Bear’s Eye” (from the collection of the same name) by Yannick Murphy, which is lovely and strange. I once had my students break into groups to draw this story’s arc. Each arc was so different from the next, but they all made sense.
2. After you’ve written a short story or a chapter, take a look at your scenes and/or sections (if it’s summary). On an index card, write down what happens in each scene or section — keep it brief. Next, write down what the reader has learned plot- or character-wise, and then, what the character feels at the beginning of the scene versus what he or she feels at the end of the scene. Lastly, write down the questions raised and answered by the scene. These questions can be specific and literal, or not (anything from “Where is the dress?” to “Why does she believe herself inadequate?”) Some questions might carry from scene to scene, never to be answered, and others might be quickly resolved. Any scene that doesn’t ask or answer interesting questions, and doesn’t push the reader and/or the character into new territory, probably should be revised or cut. Please, remember: don’t do this until you’re finished with a draft! You don’t want to over-think matters!
3. Find a paragraph from fiction that you really love, and retype it as if it were your own. Then, taking the structure of this paragraph — its syntax, its sentence-lengths, its logical twist, etc. — write an emulation paragraph that copies only form, not content. Here’s one from Inferno by Eileen Myles that I am currently reading and rereading, which you might like to use:
The next book we will read she said, pulling the shade on existentialism for the moment, is a much older text. It’s part of the tradition, but is a very modern book, quite political. She had this cute glint when she was being smart which was always. She wasn’t big smart, she didn’t clobber you with words. She just kind of befriended us like wolves but she believed that wolves were good and could be taught too. But she was from New York, was Jewish and had been born intelligent. She was blonde. Are Jews blonde. I didn’t know. I would learn so much more. Sometimes her jersey was nearly green but that was as dark as it got.
Unexpected and great, right?
Maybe this last exercise has nothing to do with arc, but it’s fun and difficult, which is how I would describe writing to my grandma, or my gynecologist. Also, it’s an important reminder that a story arc is made up of words and more words, that’s it, and thank goodness.
Godspeed, Narratively Challenged, this is all I’ve got.
The Writing Teacher
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