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Friday, April 12, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Story Arc: Without One, Your Roof Caves In"

by Barbara V. Evers

As a first reader for Stupefying Stories, I recommend rejecting more submissions because of incomplete story arc than any other element of writing.

What is a story arc? Think of it as representing the plot of your story. It’s the structure into which the characters, world, and action of the story must fit. Most stories follow the traditional three-act structure: the story begins with some action to hook the reader, which introduces a problem that must be solved or a question that must be answered. In the second act the tension builds, one stone upon the next, until in the third act, the climax answers the question or solves the problem.

Now, imagine you are building a house. You lay the foundation, but once you’ve laid it, you immediately try to put on the roof. This is often what I see in story arc development. The writer starts out well, but then skips part of the development, puts in fluff that doesn’t contribute to the story, or otherwise fails to provide any second act supporting structure. Then, when they put on the roof in the third act, there’s nothing there to support it, so it caves in.

Readers—and people who buy houses—don’t like that. They want a progression where each piece contributes to a solid structure and justifies the ending. We don’t have to see how it all fits together as it’s being built, but once it’s done, we should be able to think back and say, “Ah, now I understand why A happened, and led to B.”

Where do most writers go wrong? Short stories are tricky. You must start with action, setup, and tension, all in the first paragraphs. Every word and scene must contribute to the completion of your story arc, and usually in fewer than 5,000 words. In a novel you can slow down the pace, but not so in a short story. It much surge forward, each sentence and paragraph building a complete picture.

However, examining a novel’s story arc can help you see how this works.

Novels typically contain more than one story arc: there’s the extended arc of the full story, and beneath it several smaller arcs, or subplots. Fantasy and science fiction series also typically connect through an overall arc that bridges the entire series, beginning in the first book and concluding in the last book, and each book in the series has its own arc that is both self-contained and contributes to the series’ overall arc.

For example, take J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. What is the overall arc of the seven books? Harry must defeat Voldemort. Each of the books in the series contributes to this, but each book has its own arc, too. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the book’s arc is that Harry wants to fit in and be accepted by a loving, caring family. In the beginning of the book we meet Harry, hopeless and lonely, living with the Dursleys. Enter Hagrid, and Harry begins to form a picture of his family that his aunt and uncle never shared with him. At the end of the book, when everyone is boarding the Hogwarts Express to return home for the summer, Harry says, “I’m not going home, really.”* He now knows that his true home is Hogwarts, where he is a hero with friends who care for him. Close of the story arc.

Everything that happens in-between these two scenes contributes to building this arc. Harry wants someone to care for him, and mysterious letters begin to arrive. He learns he’s a wizard. He learns that his parents didn’t die in a car accident, they were killed. On top of that, he’s famous. The tension begins to mount as Harry learns about his past and begins to place each new piece in the picture of his new life. Most of the arc of the first book allows Harry to learn about the world of wizards and witches, and the reader learns with him.  If you re-examine this book—or any book, for that matter—with the end in mind, you will begin to see how each scene contributes to the full arc of the story. When you read a book or story to study it, ask yourself: what is the overarching problem or question in this story? Then examine how each scene contributes to solving that problem or answering that question.

At the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone, we can say: “Ah. Now I understand why Hagrid picked up the secret item from Gringott’s on the same day that he took Harry to the bank. And now I understand that the scene of Ron and Harry playing wizard’s chess was in there to set up the scene where Ron must direct a life-sized version of the game, with his, Harry’s, and Hermione’s lives on the line.” Imagine if we hadn’t had the earlier scenes setting up those parts of the story. Ron’s winning at wizard’s chess would feel unrealistic and forced, and the discovery of something hidden on the forbidden third floor of Hogwarts would hold less intrigue without the knowledge that Hagrid withdrew something mysterious from the bank’s vault. Each piece contributes to the whole arc, and no questions are left unanswered.

That, in sum, is a story arc. Whether you’re writing short stories or a series of novels, your arc must be a complete structure by the time you reach the end. Don’t let your roof collapse because you didn’t spend enough time developing the supporting walls.

[* Actually, that line of dialog is in the movie, not the book, but it merely makes explicit what is implicit in the book. Sometimes screenwriters get it right.]

In addition to being a first reader for Stupefying Stories, Barbara V. Evers has a Master of Arts in Professional Communication and is a writer, mother, wife, corporate trainer, avid reader and movie-goer, and generally curious individual. She blogs at An Eclectic Muse.


John Albers said...

I often think the individual elements of story arcs are constructed backwards out of necessity. Take for example Harry Potter. A life-sized chess field with potentially homicidal pieces is a pretty entertaining interlude before reaching Voldemort and a good way to ramp up the tension (not to mention a way to get Harry alone for the final confrontation). And you're right, it would've seemed contrived and out of left field had not there been a previous scene with Ron playing wizard's chess.

Most writers, you would think, would first think, "Ok, what's really cool that I can throw in here?" and then look back earlier in the book to see where they can establish a precedent so it doesn't seem such a non-sequiter.

As someone who's done a lot of construction work, I often see writing a story arc in a similar fashion. The homeowner sees the finished wall, but only the builder knows about all the tape, putty, spackle, and jury-rigging it took to make it look like it's perfect. It's all an illusion.

jimmcfarlane said...

I think of a story arc more like a blueprint for a house (than spackle for the wall). You have to fully visualize the final structure (or story) to know where to place the supporting elements. The building inspector (or editor) will flunk you if the supports for a load-bearing wall (or plot element) don't align with the wall (or plot point).

Barbara V. Evers said...

Jim and John, I think, depending on your writing style, you're both right. Some writers have it all laid out like a blueprint before they start writing. Others have a general idea, which means sometimes they do have to go back in the story and establish something that makes the ending work. Either way, if the structure isn't there, it's not going to work.

Barbara V. Evers said...

I just ran across this blogpost that adds to the completion of a story arc. Enjoy!