Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Effective Arcs

A popular post from July 2010

by Annette Lyon

The current (July/Aug 2010) issue of Writer's Digest focuses on the memoir: How to write one, what agents are looking for, how to pitch one, and so forth.

As I've read the articles, I've found it fascinating to see how applicable the very same tools are to both memoir and fiction.

Memoir is one person's memory of real events, but to be something readers want to keep turning pages on, it can't be a laundry list of events in a person's life. It needs to have a structure, a narrative arc.

One piece in the magazine, "Elements of an Effective Arc," by Adair Lara, discusses how to create your own effective memoir arc. Throughout the article, I couldn't help but think how applicable the same concepts are to crafting a novel.

Here are a few tidbits she includes, but tweaked by me a bit to fit novelists instead of memoir writers:

The Desire Line
What does your MC want most? It should fit in one sentence and be specific. "Rhea wants to be happy" isn't good enough. Think of what your MC's happiest possible ending would look like. What did they get? THAT is what the desire line should be about.

Actions and Obstacles
No story is complete without conflict. (I'd venture to stay it's not a story if it doesn't have conflict). Lara uses a formula to show how this works. It's in first person since it's talking about memoir, but put your MC in place of "I" and fill it out:

I wanted _________ (the desire line).
To get it, I ________ (action).
To get it, I then _____ (action).
But ________ (obstacle) got in my way.
So I ________ (action).

And so on (many times) throughout the book.

Characters we love are those who want something and act on it. They don't sit around and react to life as it happens around them. They make things happen. Since they're active in the story, they naturally run into obstacles (hence, conflict).

They then try to find a way around those obstacles. (Still being active participants in events.)

That creates a story, especially when the desire line is compelling enough that the reader wants the MC to get what's in the Desire Line as much as the MC does.

Emotional Beats
Lara describes emotional beats as shifts in emotion that lead to events, which lead to obstacles. Emotion is what drives a story. When your MC feels something strongly (positive or negative), they take action. And then they run into an obstacle.

Belle is terrified of the Beast (Emotion)
So in spite of her promise, she runs away. (Action)
But a wolf pack attacks her. (Obstacle)

Check out page 37 of WD to see the graph Lara has there of an effective arc.

She includes the Inciting Incident, the first emotional beat and the moment things change in your MC's life. Beats will ramp up. Some will be life-altering, while others won't be quite so intense, but they should all point toward the desire line: what is motivating your character to keep moving through these emotions, toward action, around obstacles?

The Ending Incident
Someone once said that to write a good story, you start at the beginning, tell the story, and when it's over, stop.

Much easier said than done.

Knowing when the story is over and to stop writing is a tricky, especially for something as big as a novel, where there are loose ends to wrap up. But knowing where to end is a must: you can't go on and on and on once the major conflict is resolved.

To put it in Lara's terms: once your MC has achieve their Desire Line, the story is over. The MC has what they want/need. The end.

Granted, it's not quite that simple, but the concepts she outlines for a memoir arc are sound and worth paying attention to as you map out your novel.

WHAT does your MC want? What will get him/her to that place? What does finding that thing look like in your story?

When your MC reaches whatever that thing is (assuming you're going for a happy ending), that's where your arc comes down, and therefore, the story, ends. If your story doesn't end happily, the arc still needs to come down in a satisfying way: maybe the MC realizes they want something else and get that. Or they find that they can't get it, and they go through the process of accepting that. Whatever it is, the arc must be satisfying.

If you're stuck in the middle of your book, stand back and analyze the elements of your arc.
  • Do you have strong emotional beats where they're needed to propel the action?
  • Are your obstacles big enough?
  • Are the obstacles a result of the action your MC took?
  • Do the emotional beats/actions/obstacles bring your MC closer to what they want in the end?
Whether it's with memoir or fiction, readers need something to hook onto, something to grip them and keep them turning pages. A solid arc will do that for you.

(For the full article, see pages 34-38. Adair Lara teaches memoir writing.)


Juliana said...

Really enjoyed this post! I freeze up when I think of creating compelling story arcs. Thanks for the encouragement to keep at it.

Kimberly said...

Brilliant! I don't often think in these terms when writing and my story will be far more compelling if I learn to. Thank you!