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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; it is the narrative structure of a book or a story (or even a film, or a series of TV episodes). It is the rising and falling of tension, and the pacing and timbre of a plot. The tension should, in turn, force a shift in the behaviour of the characters and changes in their behaviour as they evolve and are changed by what happens to them.

Although an arc suggests a curve, most stories look more like a roller coaster. The image above is only one of many examples of a story arc, with a zig-zag of tension which falls at the point of obstacles in the story and ends with a denouement, a resolution. Films often use a three act structure: Setup – Confrontation – Resolution. Short stories also have a story arc, unless you are Lydia Davis! Her short story, Children, is just two sentences.

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

A series of complications will often develop in the core of the text, leading to perhaps a crisis or a series of problems. Each of these crises may be temporarily resolved but the story will lead to a climax. There is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax.

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, get lost and but the book down. As a writer, you need to keep them turning the pages. Structure is an area of writing which I am working on, as I tend to err on the side of descriptive narrative. It depends on your genre, and crime thrillers might need more plot twists and higher 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, and too little tension will lose the reader.

Some useful links to posts on story arc:

Connecting Subplots. Victoria Grefer

What Character Arc Really Means. Jim Hull

The Importance of Story Arc. Alexis Grant

And finally, here is a humorous video of Kurt Vonnegut on Cinderella and the shapes of stories. It’s really exaggerated but comical.

 

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories


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Breaking The Rules

Poet and short story author, Alison Lock, talks to us today about the process of writing short stories and breaking the rules.

alison

‘In contemporary fiction, technique is, on the whole, more self-conscious than ever before.’ – John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

I would argue that this self-consciousness is more evident in the short story, in part, because there is simply less space in which to explore and develop. With the proliferation of ‘how to’ books the scaffolding of a short story is given to us and we are encouraged to hang our ideas from that framework. This set of structures take us all the way through the story: from the beginning – the exposition, through to the middle – the rising action or crisis, and to the ending, the denouement, albeit a minimal resolution in the case of the short story. This is a familiar process to many writers.

Along with the addition of other skills, such as point of view; we might choose an omniscient narrator or limit the viewpoint in order to tell it through the eyes of one character. We learn about tone, voice, the development of character (always within the remit of the story), the use of dialogue and description, and, at the same time, we are advised to employ an economy of words as the reader should be able to digest the whole within one sitting. It makes it sound like baking a cake – although, to be fair, that has never been one of my strong points mainly because I tend to improvise with the ingredients.

Faced with all the advice, it is easy to feel that there is little scope for the actual process of creating.

So, where do I begin? Do I take a plot and people it, or do I take a character and put him or her in a situation (a tricky one), or do I take a place, a landscape or an atmosphere as my starting point – and where do I place my story in time – past, present or future?

I wonder what it is I want to say in a short story? Do I want to challenge my reader? How far do I want them to be able to relate to my characters? Should I play it safe, by tethering them to the characteristics with which I am most familiar, those displayed by the people around me?

These are all questions I have asked myself at one time or another but when it comes to it, what I want from a story is a) to find a character interesting; that is, one with weaknesses that I can, and flaws that I can’t, relate to; and who finds themselves in an interesting or compromising situation, and b) a story that has an emotional impact on me. The latter is of great importance for me to feel that it works.

I have no desire to be informed about politics, religion, sociology or any other subject, at least, not overtly, and not because I am uninterested, I just want to be able to go away from the story feeling something, anything, something that I will then think about and it might well be about the aforementioned subjects, but it will be on my terms. Neither do I want to see the structure that holds every paragraph in its place: I feel cheated if I do, as though I have been bought off with an empty Easter Egg when I was mainly interested in the filling in the first place.

To go back to the quote from John Gardner at the beginning of this post; contemporary fiction in the form of the short story is sometimes self-conscious but I believe there are many writers who are breaking the rules. I hold up my hand. But by breaking the rules are we too not guilty of the very same thing – is rule-breaking not a contrivance in itself? Or has that time already passed? Is this new self reflecting writer living in a meta-modernist world? I leave you, reader, with this thought, just as I like to leave the readers of my short stories feeling a little uneasy.

Here is an excerpt from the story The Drowning, in Above the Parapet.

‘…and the shock of cold water crashes over your feet, your legs, your body, washing over your shoulders, your back, the gasp as you come up as if you have hit a sprung coil on the seabed. Wave after wave after wave follows you, chasing you back to the shore, dragging you into the maw. It is a struggle to get back up the shingle to the shoreline and there you let the warm shallows lap over you. That was before the fatal day when Father was lured away, enticed by a shoal of mackerel. They were out in the bay, flaunting their petrol hides, gilt with sunbeams. Before the drowning, he spent his days perched on the corner stone of the wall, smoking his pipe, brooding, willing the ocean to keep its distance, watching for every hint of when the tide would turn; daring at its boldness. It had never yet breached the wall. It would only take a couple of plucky waves on a stormy day to fill the well of the cobbled courtyard for the whole place to be swallowed, washed clean with brine. But in the old days they knew a thing or two about walls and tides and oceans. And so the cottage had remained dry for three centuries and the sea had always kept its bargain, staying to its own side of the tide line. But there was a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made. …’Your breathing is slow as you lift your hand but your arm is constrained by a line that is attached to a drip. You watch the slow movement of liquid sliding along the tube, pumping through your veins and arteries and you wonder how pure is the saline or whether its density is that of the sea. The tidal rhythm of the pulse in your neck is thudding the pillow, booming, sonic. You shift as far as you can down the bed until your face is covered by the sheet. The warm air below the surface lulls you back, into the dream where you are reaching for the coarse cloth of the sack, the sack full of grain. You gather it in, tie the neck with a loose thread of hessian, lift its weight and throw it over your back.’

Alison has an MA in Literature and Creative Writing. She writes short fiction and poetry and facilitates Life Writing workshops. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. was a winner of the 2010 Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition. Her poetry has won prizes and commendations in: the Virginia Warbey Competition, the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and in the collection and single poem categories of The New Writer 2010 Prose and Poetry Prize.  Her poems and short stories have been published is magazines and anthologies and she was Poet-in-Residence for the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2012.  Her collection of short stories, Above the Parapet, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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Her stories have been described as ‘an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy.’

You can find Alison at http://www.alisonlock.com

 


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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.


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Sewing the Seeds of an Idea: When to Start Planting

Different seed samples await germination testi...

Long before the first word of a novel is written down, there is an original seed, a thought, a scene which plants itself in the author’s mind. Once there, it grows and evolves into possibly a longer scene, a chain of ideas, a few characters and events, and maybe a whole novel.

The question is when do you start to plant the seeds in soil, water them and let them grow? When do you put the first words of the very first chapter down on to paper? It might seem like a strange question because most people imagine that the whole story just comes to you, like the carousel in Mary Poppins, and then you just sit down and write. But it’s an important question because the process of forming a story and growing a seed, if you like, is the bedrock of the whole narrative. The when of starting a story is often overlooked, but starting in the right place at the right time can save hours of painstaking editing and redrafting.

The answer, I have come to realise, is as late as possible. This is different to starting a story as late as possible in the plot and avoiding back story or long chunks of scene setting. It is waiting until your ideas have formed more than just a thought or an image, but a theme, a reason for the story, a conflict or a desire of your protagonist.

I have found the same thing applies with writing short stories, although the process is considerably shorter and you can afford to play around more with the text and change direction if you need to.

With a novel, the longer you leave the seeds to germinate, the more ready they will be to plant and grow in to the full and final plant product. It may seem counter productive to wait, and it might feel like a waste of time, but if you can wait until the ideas are more fully formed it will save heart ache in the long run and give you a clearer picture of the full story.

corn seedling


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Permission To Not Write In A Linear Fashion?

Jigsaw

Following on from my last post about writing styles, plot and structure, I have been wrestling with my next novel. I am 6,000 words into the manuscript but last week I hit a wall. The story refuses to be written in a linear style. It refuses.

I have several key scenes in my mind and have been wanting, itching, to write them but the little voice inside my head says – you’re not there yet, finish the introduction, take your time. So, I struggled on, limping through ways to unfold the characters, their motives, setting the scene for future events. I almost gave up.

Over the weekend, the story – which, let’s face it, becomes your inner world while you write the novel – evolved and wouldn’t let go. I was still faced with the same problem on Monday when I sat down to write. I wanted to keep going and I couldn’t. If you have ever seen a race horse at the start of a race practically ready to storm a building, let alone the track, you’ll know what I mean when I say I wanted to skip the links, the build-up and just cut to the chase, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Animated sequence of a race horse galloping. P...

I did something I haven’t tried before, I gave myself permission to just write the scenes which needed writing and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can link them up successfully. This, I suppose, follows the scatter graph model which I talked about. I know that some writers use this method but it is risky and I’ve only ever written one. word. after. the. next. one. chapter. at. a. time.

It does, however, feel a little like constructing a jigsaw in the dark in the hope that when I turn the light on all the pieces will give me one story and that the picture will look good and just as it should.

How do you write? Do share your techniques, methods or tips however strange or unorthodox. It would be really interesting to see how other writers work.


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Warning: Structural Work Needed – Plotting Your Novel

Dilapidated Room

I drove past a beautiful old building this morning with incredible detail around the windows. When I looked again, the inside had been completely demolished and was being gutted and restored. From the outside it was a beautiful picture of fine architecture and decadence, an eye-catching building which stood out from the rest, but from the inside there was nothing, just rubble and empty space.

It was a strange sight in some ways and it reminded me of building a novel and the differences in how writers construct their work. I have spoken to people who work in any one of the following ways:

Inside Out Model – Beginning with the bare bones, getting the story down onto paper, and then going back and layering it with detail and links, flashbacks and subtle hints of what is to follow.

Outside In Model – Constructing the outside, the look and feel, the genre, narrator, tense, style and character of the novel, and then working inwards to develop the structure, the chapters and the story arc.

Scatter Graph Model – Starting to write chapters, in no particular order, filling in the gaps as and when the inspiration strikes. This method is often discouraged by agents and editors as it is less structured but some of the most creative writers work this way.

Sprint Runner Model – Beginning in great detail with a clear idea of your central character, racing through the first 1,000 words or so and then drifting as you get further into the plot, not being sure where the novel will end. Instead of it being a slower and more steady pace throughout, the writing decreases in speed as the ideas thin out. 

Foregone Conclusion Model – Knowing exactly how the novel will end, much like a science experiment with an expected outcome, but struggling to begin or sagging  in the middle.

These are just some of the many ways in which authors work and there are many cross-overs in their method. I was impressed by Will Self’s ability to do away with chapters completely in his Booker Prize Shortlisted novel, Umbrella. He is not the first author to do this and I am sure he won’t be the last. Some authors prefer fine structure, plotting meticulously before beginning a single sentence, then there are those who are somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong way to plot a novel and to construct a story, although there are books which tell you otherwise. You have to experiment with what works. Every writer has a preferred way of working and it changes and develops with time.

I’ll leave you with some interesting quotes from the various writing handbooks:

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”  The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.”  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

“Writers of literary and much mainstream fiction usually begin by imagining a character…some writers can’t help starting out with a theme that obsesses them. They imagine characters whose lives might involve the theme, or they work out a plot first. If their allegiance is to character, their theme-based story has a better chance of survival.”  Stein On Writing, Sol Stein

“If there are no rules, or none worth [the writer’s] attention, where is the beginning writer to begin?”  The Art of Fiction, John Gardner


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The Creative Process

Author Jon Rance is guest posting today on the creative process of his writing. His book, This Thirtysomething Life, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is a love story about what happens after we’ve fallen in love, when we’ve swapped frolicking in the bed for cigarettes in the shed and Match of the Day for Mothercare. Brutally honest, laugh-out-loud funny and heart-warming, this is a diary about one man’s bumbling journey on the road to adulthood. If you like Nick Hornby, you’ll enjoy this. Thank you, John.

30something

Firstly, a big Thank You to Fiona for letting me loose on her blog. She’s a brave lady indeed! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Jon Rance, author of the romantic comedy novel, This Thirtysomething Life. I approached Fiona and asked her if I guest blog on her site. Luckily she agreed and so here I am.

Being a writer, people often ask me the same sort of questions. Where do you get your ideas? How do you write? Where do the characters come from?  I guess what they want to know is what my creative process is. It’s an interesting concept and I’m sure different for every author. Mine is a bit haphazard if I’m honest. I read about authors who meticulously plan out books down to the last full-stop. I don’t.

When I start a novel I need the following things. A title. Main characters. Motivation. An ending. I think having a title from the off helps bring the whole thing together. I often think of the title before I know anything about the book. I need to know who the main characters are. By this I just mean a brief bio, name and what they look like. Motivation is what will drive the book forwards. In This Thirtysomething Life, I knew from the beginning that the story was going to be about a guy having a hard time growing up and coming to terms with becoming a father. Right from the word go everything else stemmed from this idea. An ending. Endings can change during the book, it happens, but I think it’s important to know at the beginning where the story is going. The journey is something else, but a destination is important, whether it’s a scene you have in mind, a sentence or just where the character is emotionally.

Once I have those I just start writing. For me writing is a very organic process. I need a few chapters to really get to know the characters properly. I often find that once I know them better, the plot is formed mostly in part by them and the choices they make. My writing has always been character based. I think in my genre of commercial fiction, characters are the base of everything. Plot is important, but for me the first draft is where I get to know the characters. Once I have the first draft down, the second, third, fourth – fifteenth are mainly about tweaking the structure and the plot. I often think writing a novel is like building a house. The first draft is building the structure. Every other draft after that is about making it look nice. The last draft is the one where you get to hang up the paintings, pop the interesting sculpture you bought from the market on the mantelpiece and then sit down on the comfy sofa and marvel at what you’ve accomplished.

I’ve definitely improved as a writer with every book. I wrote four complete novels before This Thirtysomething Life was picked up and published by Hodder. Those four novels were my learning curve. I made some mistakes, but more importantly, I learnt about my creative process. I think it’s a very personal thing. We can learn from others, read books about writing, get hints and tips, but at the end of the day, we all have to learn our own creative process. I used to think mine was ridiculous and that I should change and be more organised, but what I’ve come to realise is that it doesn’t matter how you write, as long as you do it your way because writing is about being creative, it isn’t painting my numbers and checking boxes. Think of the creative process as your friend rather than your enemy. It’s taken me a long time, but I love mine now because it is all mine and I couldn’t do it any other way.

hodder2Jon Rance is the author of the romantic comedy novel, THIS THIRTYSOMETHING LIFE, which was a Top Ten best-selling book on the Amazon chart. Born in Southampton in 1975, he studied English Literature at Middlesex University, London, before going travelling and meeting his American wife in Australia. He is currently working on his second novel, HAPPY ENDINGS. Outside of writing Jon loves travelling, music, sit-coms, art and watching football (but not playing anymore due to dodgy knees).

Both THIS THIRTYSOMETHING LIFE and HAPPY ENDINGS are published by Hodder and Stoughton. Jon is represented by Ariella Feiner at United Agents.

His website can be found at www.jonrance.com

You can also follow him on Twitter @JRance75