Mar 30 2012

Narrative arc: What the heck is it?

Have you ever had an agent, editor, or a reviewer say something like this about your novel?

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“This story has a weak (or non-existent) narrative arc.”
“While the characters are strong, the narrative arc did not maintain my interest.”
“The writing is solid, but the narrative arc is unclear and inconsistent.”

I have. And on many occasions, I’ve had to be the editor to say something along that line.

It’s easy to say that a story doesn’t have a strong narrative arc. It isn’t so easy to define and describe a narrative arc. It’s even harder to write a story with a strong narrative arc. I know how difficult it can be from my own experience as a writer.

Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Act one, the beginning, introduces the characters and sets the stage—the current situation. Then an inciting event sets the story into motion.

In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.

That decision leads to act three and results in two things: the climax to the story (the peak of the curve), and the character is profoundly changed in some way. The character finds the strength within and a method to overcome the conflict. The story questions are resolved and the character has changed from the person she was at the beginning of the story. Or, the character is defeated, fails to accomplish the goal, dies, or some other tragic ending, but even then, the character has changed is some way, for the better or worse.

A slightly more complex outline is the eight-point narrative arc, described by Nigel Watts in his book, Write a Novel and Get It Published. Merging these eight points with the three-act play formula would look something like this:

ACT ONE
1. Stasis – the current situation and characters in everyday life
2. Trigger – the inciting event that sets the plot in motion

ACT TWO
3. The quest – the trigger results in the character needing to accomplish some goal
4. Surprise – a series of events presents obstacles that make achieving the goal more difficult
5. Critical choice – the character must choose a particular path to confront the obstacles
6. Climax – the critical choice results in the climax of the story, the highest peak of tension

ACT THREE
7. Reversal – the consequences of the critical choice changes the status of the character
8. Resolution – the story ends at a new point of stasis, and the character is changed is some way

Note that the ‘typical’ three-act play structure in a novel does not usually break down neatly into equal sections of one-third each. Act one may be a single chapter or two. It can be longer, of course, but it may be contained in the first few pages. Likewise, act three might be fully contained in one or two chapters at the end.

Act two is the giant middle in which the story takes place. This is the toughest slog for any writer to execute, and this is where the narrative arc can fall apart. Does each scene add to the story: raise the stakes, increase tension, create obstacles, or show the character overcoming (or failing to overcome) an obstacle? Does the scene further a sub-plot that is inextricably tied to the main plot (a love interest, a personal or family issue that the character must deal with while also trying to save the world from aliens or her family farm from the tax collectors)?

Or, are new sub-plot elements created, new obstacles raised, or new characters introduced that have nothing to do with the main storyline? Does the main plot disappear for chapters at a time? Does the character go here and do something, go there and do something else, then go somewhere else and something completely different happens? Do all these events create a disjointed storyline that bounces hither and yon with no coherent narrative arc?

Each scene should lead to the next in a logical, coherent manner that advances the story. This proceeds until the obstacles and the conflict are overwhelming and it appears the character may fail unless she makes the right choice in her critical decision. Instead of ‘this happens, then that happens, then something else happens,’ the narrative arc will look like ‘this happens, which leads to that happening, which causes something else to happen.’

This doesn’t mean every scene has to be more dramatic than the one before it. Pacing in a novel is important. Readers need a slower, more sedate scene periodically to catch their breath. The character needs time between obstacles to review her journey and think about how to proceed, time for romantic interludes, times where things seem to be going right for the character just before BAM the next big thing happens. If you chart the scenes in a novel, it might look like a rising stock market over a period of time with a series of ups and downs, but on an overall rising path until the climax and the slow curve down during resolution and denouement.

If you think (or have been told) that your narrative arc is weak, try writing out a scene-by-scene outline of your current draft. See if the outline makes sense, if each scene advances the story in a logical way, or if there are scenes that veer off course and distract from the main storyline.

Your narrative arc should look like a bell curve, not a map of a suburban neighborhood full of circle drives, cul-de-sacs, and dead end roads.

For more resources:

Nigel Watt’s book, Write a Novel and Get It Published

Alan Rinzler, a renowned book editor, blogs about narrative arc.

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. talks about the shapes of stories here in a wonderful four-minute video.


Sep 2 2011

A surprising announcement!

And now, I’m going to tell you something very interesting and dramatic. It will be sudden and surprising. Ready? Okay, it’s coming up next: 

That opening paragraph is an announcement of what I, the writer, am about to tell you. Of course, it better be interesting and surprising or you, the reader, are going to be disappointed, or think that I’m being a bit overly dramatic.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just told you something, and you found it interesting and surprising?

It works that way in fiction too. Do you announce to your readers when a big scene or moment is coming?

Here are some actual examples from manuscripts I’ve edited (I’ve made some changes in the sentences so no one should recognize your work, if I borrowed from you).

And then, just when I least expected it, something exciting happened.

What happened next made her scream in terror.

Things got even worse after that.

So here’s what he decided to do.

The rest of the night went like this.

Later that day, something very strange happened.

For the rest of the trip, we had one stroke of bad luck after another.

Wrongly assuming it was my wife, I opened the door.

It was a calm day with bright sunshine and blue skies, not the kind of day they expected something horrible to happen later that afternoon.

Today things were good between us, but tomorrow, they would go terribly wrong.

I’ve heard these called announcement sentences or thesis statements. They can be useful—if you’re writing a thesis or an essay or a news story. They probably don’t belong in your fiction, at least not to announce to readers that something important is coming up.

An announcement tells readers in advance, ‘Hey, I know this section has been boring, but keep reading, something dramatic is about to happen.’

Why not just let something dramatic happen? Why ruin the surprise and the enjoyment for readers?

Especially in first-person stories, these announcements distort the narrative perspective. It puts the character into the future and looking back on events, telling the whole story in flashback mode. If the narrator knows something dramatic is about to happen, the narrator isn’t experiencing the story first-hand as it happens, and neither are readers.

There are also announcement words that can easily be eliminated most of the time:

Suddenly …

Now …

Began …

Started to …

Next …

These are only a few of the more common examples. Obviously there are times when you need those words. But when one of these words announces the next moment, see if you can drop the word or rewrite the sentence to avoid it. Don’t tell readers ‘Suddenly , this happens …’. Just let it happen, written in a way that shows it was ‘sudden.’

ORIGINAL: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying our peaceful Saturday breakfast when we couldn’t believe what happened next. Suddenly, a man neither of us knew opened the door and started to walk in. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I noticed he wore no clothes. Next, I asked if he wanted cream or sugar in his coffee.

REVISE: My husband and I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our Saturday breakfast, sipping coffee and munching on croissants and strawberries. I turned to refill our cups when the door flew open and a strange man walked in. Stark raving naked. “Cream or sugar?” I asked him.

In short, don’t tell readers you’re about to surprise them. It defeats the purpose.


Feb 23 2011

Chapter endings

Someone who read and critiqued my manuscript recently commented that several of the chapter endings were ‘flat.’ What does the term ‘flat chapter ending’ mean, and how do I fix it?Lorraine, NSW, Australia 

Chapters (and scenes within chapters) should end on a note that makes the reader want to turn the page to find out what happens next. Often called a ‘thrust,’ it’s something that pushes the reader into the next chapter to find out what happens next, unable to put the book down.

If a chapter ends on a flat note, it’s a good place to put the book down, turn off the light, and go to sleep. And maybe not pick it up again if there wasn’t anything to drive the reader forward.

A flat chapter ending can be a scene that fizzles out. Maybe it’s a scene that never is fully resolved, doesn’t drive the story forward, or doesn’t seem to have a point. Every scene must have a purpose, and that purpose is to push the story forward and raise the interest in some way.

One common situation that causes flat chapter endings is a story that is a collection of scenes from the character’s life, but without a driving, common thread, a story, a plot. Think of reading a journal where the writer details each day as it happens, but there’s no overarching theme or plot – just ‘here’s what happened today.’ Even if each individual journal entry might be well written or interesting on its own, they don’t make for a story that engages the reader.

Here are a few ways to end a chapter on a thrust.

- A cliffhanger: a tense, suspenseful moment that leaves the reader hanging. This doesn’t have to mean an action/thriller/mystery story. An emotional story, a romance, a coming-of-age story – all can end a chapter on a suspenseful moment.

- A revelation/surprise: something unexpected happens right at the end of the chapter. This can even be an internal realization by the character of something surprising. The tension or thrust is created by the unexpectedness of the new information, and the reader is left wondering how the character will deal with this new situation.

- A new obstacle, challenge, or raising of the stakes: just when things were looking up, or looking bad enough, a new development increases the conflict and makes it more difficult for the main character to achieve her goals.

- A new and interesting character appears on stage, one whom the readers know will create new tension (love interest, antagonist, or whatever the case might be) even if no actual tension is explicitly raised.

- An emotional high (whether for the character, the reader, or both).

- An emotional low.

Having a strong thrust at the end of a chapter can be especially important if it’s one of low tension such as back story or a calm moment in an otherwise tense story. But if this low tension chapter ends low, it deflates the tension of the overall story to that point. A low tension chapter is a good scene to intersperse throughout higher tension scenes to give the reader a breather and to provide flow and pace to the story. If this low-tension chapter ends with something unexpected, it helps drive readers into the next chapter (where ideally the tension and stakes are raised yet again).

There’s also the chapter ending that does double duty. It may seem on the surface like a low, quiet ending, but if the reader knows there’s something ominous looming on the horizon that perhaps the character isn’t even aware of, it still creates that compelling forward motion in the story (and the page-turning).

Your first readers – agents and publishing company editors – are looking for a book they can’t put down. If they find a chapter that doesn’t raise the stakes, increase the tension, or pique their curiosity to keep turning the page, that dull, flat chapter ending makes for the perfect spot to stop reading and send a form rejection letter. That’s because many readers will also be putting the book aside at that point.

And that’s not something a writer wants.

For some specific examples of thrilling chapter endings any writer can adapt and use in his or her own work, I refer you to the literary geniuses at McSweeney’s.


Jan 10 2011

Pace yourself

How can I tell if the pace of my novel manuscript lags in parts? Ames from Alabama.

First, let’s define terms. What is pace in a novel?

Pace is what provides the flow and rhythm of the story through the arrangement of action, suspense, conflict, rising tension, intermixed with slower scenes to give readers a breather.

Pace is the forward momentum of the story, the speed at which the plot unfolds. A novel is a marathon race, not a sprint. It’s not flat out as fast as you can go from start to finish. It’s uphill, downhill, around curves, speeding up during a straightaway, slowing for an uphill climb, taking a few minutes to go steady and take in the scenery, the position of the other runners, the lay of the course ahead, even pause for a sip of water and a breather. The runner (in our case, the writer) needs to know when to preserve energy, when to turn on some speed, and when to give it the final kick to the finish line.

The overall pace you want to create in your story can be from one extreme to the other depending on your story and genre. The pace of a Tom Clancy thriller is going to be very different from a Nicholas Sparks love story. But pace is crucial to both.

So how do you know if the pace lags in places? The easy answer is when readers skim pages looking for something interesting to happen, put the book down, fall asleep, or gouge out their own eyeballs from boredom.

But how do you gauge the pace when you’re writing the manuscript?

Every writer has a different approach, but many don’t worry about pace during a first draft. Get the story down, pay more attention to plot, character development, the writing style and voice. Then during your first revision, map out each scene to see where the pace increases and decreases, and where it needs to speed up or slow down.

Other writers map out the scenes before writing, taking the pace into account as they outline.

Either way, plan for pace. Slower scenes still must move the story forward. Flashbacks, narratives, characterization scenes, sedate scenes, transitions, and breathers all must be placed at the right point so the information conveyed is crucial to the reader at the exact moment it’s needed. These scenes must fit into the story at that point, not randomly tossed in.

If you plotted the scenes on a graph, does the pace go up and down with a gradual increase over the course of the novel as the tension builds? Are there long stretches with slow pacing that might lose readers’ interest and cause mass eye-gouging? Do you have page after page of back story, flashbacks, descriptive narrative where nothing really happens, no rising tension or conflict or suspense? Those long low points on the graph are likely spots to look for lagging pace.

At the other extreme, does the main character lurch from one crisis to the next with no breaks in the action, no lulls, no introspection or places for readers to catch their breath? Even in a fast-paced thriller, one car chase, shoot-out, and explosion after another becomes repetitive. Repetitive becomes expected. Expected becomes boring, and then eyes get gouged.