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

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.

Creating Believable Characters

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“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

Character description is crucial to a good story that is both readable and convincing. For a reader to get inside your story, the characters have to seem real. They need to have characteristics which are compelling and hook a reader at an early point in the story. As writers, there are so many elements to plotting a novel which need to be considered, that it can at times be head spinning.

You have to focus on scene setting, dialogue, narrative, pace, story arc, point of view, voice and many other aspects. Without good characters, involving skillful characterisation from the author, the story will fail to bring the reader to the last page. So how do you pen characters who are enticing, captivating, abrupt, frustrating, lovable or frightening?

Study real people – Watch people’s behaviour, body language and conversations. Fictional characters need to take elements from real life. Even sci-fi has elements that can be observed from  every day life. Study human behaviour and you will be much closer to creating characters who resonate with the reader.

“By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.” ― William Trevor

Watch films – They can be a good way of observing character traits and provide ideas for your characters. Look for what is not being said, look at the body language and each character when put into different situations and learn from great scriptwriters. Remember that you have to put together in words what a director will create with images and action. The two forms are similar but the difference is that you have a blank canvas with the reader’s imagination. Create atmosphere through your characters.

“As a writer, I demand the right to writer any character in the world that I want to writer. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” – Quentin Tarantino

Read books (classics, if you enjoy them) – The classics are still being read because they are timeless and because they contain characters who readers can relate to, characters they love and hate. This is the essence of good story telling.

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Write character profiles – Imagine that your character needs a curriculum vitae for a job interview. What would you write for each one? Think about their individual skills and experiences. Push it further and consider locations or events which might have affected them and shaped their character.

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” ― Milan Kundera

Put together a pin board of images – this helps if you are very visual. I use Pinterest for this and I find it also engages readers who are interested in your work. Having a selection of portraits can help to remind you of features and posture, if you wish to use this method. Some people would rather writer freely with no prompts and therein lies the truth that no two writers work the same way.

“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov

Related articles:

Andrew Miller, Booker and Whitbread shortlisted author, wrote a Guardian article on Creating Characters.

Melissa Donovan has written a good blog post on tips for character writing.

Writer’s Digest wrote an article on How to Craft Compelling Characters.