Narrative Arc: Shaping Your Story

story-arc

What is a story arc and why is it important?

story arc is the episodes within a storyline, the narrative structure of a book or a story (or a film, or TV series). It is the rise and fall of tension, as well as the pace and timbre of a plot. Shifts in the actions and behaviours of the characters, as they evolve and are changed by what happens to them, should force changes in tension.

Although an arc suggests a curve, most stories look more jagged. The image above is only one of the many examples of a story arc, with a fairly classic rise and fall of tension, and ending with a denouement, a resolution. Films often use a simplistic three act structure: Setup – Confrontation – Resolution. Short stories also have a story arc, unless you are Lydia Davis! Her short story, Children, is a mere two sentences.

The introduction draws the reader into a setting, the characters, their goal, and any potential. This is where the reader discovers what drives the protagonist and what might stand in their way.

A series of complications will often develop in the core of the text, leading to  a crisis or a series of problems. Each of these crises may be temporarily resolved, but the narrative will eventually lead to a climax. There is a rise and fall of tension with each crisis, with an overall rise in tension as the reader approaches the climax.

The denouement ties up the loose ends and resolves the conflict. Tension, at this point, rapidly dissipates, leading towards the ending.

The three act structure was used by Aristotle and in Greek tragedy.

The importance of a story arc lies in the need for structure, however varied. Without it, the reader will meander through the book, invariably getting lost and will want to put the book down. As a writer, you need to hook the reader to keep them turning the pages. Structure is an area of writing that I try to focus on, as I naturally tend not to plan too much of the plot. It depends on your genre and crime thrillers will demand many more plot twists and much higher levels of tension than literary fiction, for example, but the story arc should be such that the reader’s emotions rise and fall throughout the narrative. Too much high tension, and the reader will run out of steam, too little tension and you will lose the reader all together.

I’ll leave you with a humorous video of Kurt Vonnegut on Cinderella and the shapes of stories. It’s highly exaggerated but worth watching.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

Writing Advice And Inspiration

download‘A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.’ Esther Freud

download (6)‘Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.’ Will Self

Nobel-Prize-Literature‘I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth–what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with.’ Alice Munro

download (7)‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult… Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.’ George Orwell
images (10)‘Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.’ Zadie Smith

download (8)‘Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.’ Elmore Leonard
images (11)‘Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers Please will you do the job for me.’  CS Lewis
images (12)‘Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.’ Joyce Carol Oates
images (13)‘My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.’ Anton Chekhov

download (11)‘Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.’ Margaret Atwood
download (7)‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.’ Franz Kafka
images (15)‘Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.’ PD James

What Do Authors Have in Common with Orchestra Conductors?

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara...
Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more I write, the more I am aware of  the variety of elements involved in creating a compelling story. These elements are all individual parts but they have to be pulled together to work effectively.  Alone, each part would sound  musical, lyrical, but together they create a depth of sound which cannot be created alone.

I used to play the clarinet in various orchestras and jazz bands and, while I also enjoyed playing music alone, nothing matches the sound of an entire section, woodwind in my case, or a whole orchestra. Some sections alone sound fragmented, have you ever listened to a double bass playing an orchestra piece without the rest of the string section? Unless it’s a jazz improvisation it might sound staccatoed and uncomfortable.

When you create a book you look at the story arc, the balance of dialogue and narrative, points of view, pace, action, language. When you conduct an orchestra, you need to see the different sections: string, wind, brass and percussion. Within each section are the individual groups of instruments. In the strings you would hear the violins, violas, chellos, double basses, and so the list would go on with each of the other sections. The conductor needs to be able to hear each section and filter out the other sounds as well as to be able to hear the collective sound. He or she needs to pull the instruments in at the right time, control the tempo and the volume, and to be able to create an even balance.

In the same way an author needs to be able to look at the different sections of the book, and to hear the sounds and feel the rhythm of the story; to be able to create balance in pace and point of view, a balance between high emotion and lower points of tension, a balance between dialogue and narrative prose.

The threads within a story weave together in a similar way to the instruments within an orchestra. If anything sounds off it can run the risk of throwing the rest of the story off kilter. There is a delicate balance between the threads, requiring the skill of a competent author or conductor, and at different points in the story and the music there will be certain elements that will be louder and clearer, more dominant, while others subside. The balance can make or break the overall sound and quality.