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:

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

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

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 27 2011

Genre and market categories

As I research agents, I’ve encountered a lot of terminology that is obscure at best: upmarket, mainstream, literary vs. commercial, character-driven vs. plot-driven, high fantasy, steampunk, etc. One agent says she is looking for “upmarket contemporary mainstream” and the “next crossover novel,” while another agent says she does not accept “cross-genre.” What’s the difference between crossover and cross-genre? Can you shed some light on these terms? Chris Karim, New York

A work of fiction can be described and categorized by different sets of terminology. There are genres, sub-genres, market audience definitions, and style or setting descriptions. Sometimes the same term can be used in different ways. Often a style and market term may be added to the genre category to more narrowly define a work.

So yeah, this can be confusing.

Genre includes the standard categories such as science-fiction, fantasy, romance, historical, young adult, horror, thriller/suspense, crime, mystery, erotica, women’s fiction, commercial, and literary. Then there are sub-genres within genres, e.g., sci-fi space opera, paranormal romance, high fantasy, and chick-lit. Steampunk is a sub-genre that combines historical, sci-fi, and fantasy in unique, anachronistic ways, such as a story set in the Victorian age with high-tech gadgets powered by steam engines.

For a more detailed list and description of genres, go here.

The difference between commercial and literary fiction is a longstanding debate, and I’ll save that discussion for another day. In a very broad-brush stereotype, literary fiction may be more focused on the quality and the art of the writing itself. Literary fiction is often more character-driven, while commercial fiction is usually more plot-driven. And yes, there are thousands of exceptions to any attempt to delineate the two. I’ll also tackle the character- vs. plot-driven story in the later post on literary vs. commercial.

As a genre, commercial fiction (sometimes called general or mainstream) might have a wide appeal and sell to a larger audience, and it doesn’t fall into one of the more narrowly defined genres which appeal to a specific group of readers with a particular interest. Think Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) for commercial fiction, although Da Vinci could also be categorized in the thriller/suspense genre. So ‘commercial’ might be the genre description, or it can be used to describe a different genre book that appeals to a wider audience.

Beyond categorizing a book by genre, there are market categories and descriptions. This is where the term ‘upmarket’ has come into play in recent years.

From an audience perspective, upmarket means fiction that will appeal to readers who are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes. Upmarket describes commercial fiction that bumps up against literary fiction, or literary fiction that holds a wider appeal, or a work straddles the two genres.

Upmarket fiction has been described as literary appeal with commercial potential. For examples of upmarket fiction, think John Irving, Jodi Picoult, Amy Tan, Sarah Gruen, Arthur Golden, and Ian McEwan.

Mass market (as opposed to upmarket) usually means those small paperbacks lining the shelves in the grocery store. These might be crime, thriller, romance, detective, or general fiction, but these are the books some readers devour at a rate of one or more a week, or buy a stack to take to the beach on vacation.

Other market categories include Christian, ethnic or multi-cultural, and LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender).

So you can now categorize your book by genre, by sub-genre, and by market audience. On top of that, you can describe it in more detail by the time and place setting.

Contemporary fiction means the story is set in today’s real world, as opposed to historical fiction (e.g., set in England during the Victorian era or in the American Civil War), or the fictional worlds of sci-fi and fantasy (Starship Enterprise or Middle Earth).

‘Crossover’ means a book that, while neatly labeled with one genre or market category (such as women’s fiction), also appeals to other readers (such as men). Or middle-grade/YA (such as Harry Potter) that appeals to adults as well as teens/kids.

‘Cross-genre’ is completely different from crossover. Cross-genre books are a mix of two or more specific genres. When a particular cross-genre gains popularity and has enough books written in that category, it might become its own sub-genre. A romance novel set in the Victorian era falls in the sub-genre/cross-genre of historical romance. A vampire novel aimed at teens might be labeled YA paranormal fantasy, which might be considered a cross-genre, or a sub-genre (paranormal fantasy) aimed at the YA market, or its own sub-genre.

A cross-genre novel can be a difficult sale because, instead of appealing to the two separate audiences, it might disappoint both sets of readers. A sci-fi/romance novel, for example, might not be sci-fi enough for hard-core fans, while the sci-fi aspects turn off romance readers.

The Twilight series is a good example of several of these genre and market descriptions. It’s cross-genre (YA/paranormal fantasy/romance). Its tremendous commercial success is due to the great crossover appeal to adults, primarily women. It would also be described as contemporary because it’s set in today’s real world (other than things like vampires and werewolves, which are the paranormal fantasy part of its genre mix). It probably wouldn’t be described as ‘upmarket’ because it wasn’t written with that intention, and it wasn’t necessarily aimed at an upmarket readership group, even though it appealed to many upmarket readers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe Twilight as literary, but I do know some literary writers who became engrossed in the story even if they groused and quibbled over the quality of the writing.

So Twilight – a YA contemporary paranormal fantasy cross-genre crossover commercial blockbuster success – is the pinnacle of good things that can happen with cross-genre and crossover novels. It appealed to huge audiences – teens, adult women, paranormal fantasy fans, romance readers, etc. That perfect confluence of appeal to various market segments is what causes books like Twilight and Harry Potter to take off into stratospheric sales.

Many more writers have tried blending genres and markets, and wound up with no agent, no publishing contract, or very low sales. Perhaps the story wasn’t strong enough, or the writing wasn’t good enough, or no one knew quite how to market it. Maybe the mishmash of genres appealed to no one. So be careful of trying to straddle or combine genres, and make sure it will appeal to a combined audience rather than alienate both sets of potential readers. Mainly, be sure you have a compelling story, engaging characters, and quality writing.

So what does any of this mean to writers? Everything or nothing at all.

Do you write the book you want to write, the story inside you that has to come out, and deal with the marketing and categorization and ‘shelf-spot’ later? Do you let your agent or someone else deal with that messy stuff? Do you write in a specific genre with a specific target audience in mind? Do you want to expand your potential audience to readers who don’t normally read that genre? Do you intentionally set out to create a story that will appeal to specific market segments so you know how to pitch the novel to agents, editors, publishers, and publicists?

Maybe you’ve decided to write a Christian YA contemporary literary high fantasy detective paranormal romance with crossover appeal to upmarket multi-cultural women and MG boys who love steampunk. Let me know how that works out for you.

Sep 12 2011

Creating complex fiction

I’m wondering if you can give some tips for creating more complex stories? I tend to gravitate toward writing stories with only a handful of characters, with only one or two subplots (the most I’ve done is seven primary characters, only one of whom is a POV character, and three minor subplots). This is fine, and I’m confident in my abilities to write these types of stories, but I’d love to try writing something…grander…than that. I’m just not really sure where to start or what to keep in mind. Any tips or suggestions would be great! Thanks! – Cameron Chapman, Vermont

Great question. One option is to write two completely different novels, print out the manuscripts, then shuffle the pages together like a deck of cards. Voila! Complexity.

Okay, probably not.

First, I’ll point out that there’s a difference between making a story more complex and just making a plot more complicated. Complicated isn’t always good. But if you want to go for more complicated, just keep adding new plot points and sub-plots and characters. Just don’t make it so complicated no one wants to read it. But that’s not what you asked.

There are more ways to develop or structure a more complex novel than any single blog post can address. So I invite any other writers out there to jump in with comments and share your experiences and knowledge.  The group here will be a lot smarter than any individual (like me).

And that segues nicely to one method to structure a more complex novel: ‘The Group.’

Instead of a single protagonist, or several individual protagonists, what if the protagonist is a group of people? Yes, the group is made up of several individuals, but there is a collective ‘group’ as an organism, person, or character as well. Think of the Lawrence Kasdan movie, ‘The Big Chill,’ as one example. There are seven primary characters. These adults, all thirty-something years old, were college classmates together some years before, and now they are gathered in a reunion of sorts because the eighth person in their group has committed suicide. They’ve gathered from around the country to attend his funeral and spend a weekend together. The interconnecting relationships, the memories, the shared grief and guilt over their friend’s death, and the emotions of coming together again after years of going in their own directions creates a tremendously complex plot.

Each individual in the group has his or her own story, his or her own conflicts. But the protagonist isn’t any of the individuals or all of the individuals, but the group as a whole and how the group comes to terms with grief and guilt, not just over their friend’s death, but all of life’s disappointments.

Rebecca Wells’ novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another example of ‘the group.’ Lord of the Flies by William Golding comes to mind as well.

Another option to make a story more complex is to structure it in two different timeframes – current and past (or recent and more distant past). Back to ‘The Big Chill’ as an example, while there is some reminiscing going on about times past, the entire movie takes place over the course of one weekend. There are no flashbacks. There aren’t two different timeframes.

The novel, The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, has a single protagonist and narrator, Razi Nolan. The story, however, takes place across two timeframes. Razi is a young woman in 1920s New Orleans. She falls in love, and also has a dream of becoming a doctor – not an easy task or accepted profession for a woman in the early 20th century. Tragically, she dies at an early age. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. She remains ‘between’ this world and the next as a ghost. In today’s world, she hangs out in this old New Orleans house where a young married couple has moved in. Amy and Scott have their own set of relationship problems, and Razi involves her ghost-self in their lives to try to help them achieve the lasting love she was never able to enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start at the beginning in the 1920s, proceed to Razi’s death, then start up again 80 years later with the next plot development. That wouldn’t be complex. The story slips back and forth in time, drawing connections between the young Razi and the modern day Amy as the two story lines and the characters are intertwined with each other, until the resolution reveals an even deeper bond between the two women.

So not only is the story more complex with two timeframes, the overlapping structure of how it is told is also deeper and richer.

To tell a story from two timeframes doesn’t have to involve a ghost, of course. It might be the story of one character as a child or young adult and that same character years later. It might be intergenerational – the story of a man in World War II and his great-grandson in Afghanistan, their families back home, the letters they wrote, and a secret they share.

This is different from an epic novel that may cover several generations over the course of hundreds of years, but starts at the beginning and moves forward in time.

A writer can also go for the ‘grand scale’ novel. My favorite example of this – and one of my favorite novels of all time – is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s a story that covers the entire life of the main character, Garp. It even starts before his birth and tells all the back story of his mother and how Garp came to be born (and named). But it’s more than just a novel about one man’s life from beginning to end. Everything about Garp is larger than life – starting with his mother and his birth. It stretches, but doesn’t break, credibility. It is perfectly grounded in reality, yet everything he does and all the rich characters that come in and out of his life are just slightly bigger, and odder, than reality. It’s much bigger than writing a standard, non-complex novel about one character’s life from beginning to end. Most lives, even of fictional characters, just aren’t interesting enough for 80 years or so to hold a reader’s attention from start to finish. But if that character is Garp, his life holds your attention throughout the novel, and plot threads that start in his childhood wind up in full bloom (for good or bad) later in life.

The character of Garp is a writer, and layered throughout the novel are the stories and novels Garp writes, drawing on the experiences of his ‘real’ life.

Beyond the grand scale of the story, a writer can also go for the grand scale of the story’s theme – a deeper, more complex theme. More complex than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl’s parents. Go for the deeper motivations. Not just the conflicts between right and wrong, but between one right and another right, or between two wrongs, such as when a moral person is forced into a situation where she must choose the lesser of two evils knowing whichever she chooses, it will hurt someone she loves. Explore that conflict in depth. How does it affect the character, and how does it affect the rest of the story?

Are there at least two levels to your story? There’s the story level – the plot development, conflict, resolution. And there’s the character level – inner development, inner conflict, and resolution. Just as you may have sub-plots and plot twists, you might also add sub-character conflicts and dilemmas.

In the novel I’ve just finished, ‘Hannah’s Voice,’ I tried to go for something a bit more complex in structure. I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but that was my goal. The initial idea was for the main character, who starts the story at age 6, to become mute. After some initial inciting events in the early chapters, she stops talking. What made that more complex to write was that it’s in first person. That’s right, a first-person narrator who doesn’t talk. I had to stop and think about every single scene and how to present it, how to convey the story through her voice when she doesn’t speak, and how she will interact with other characters. On top of that, I had to keep it in the voice of a 6-year-old for the first 100 pages or so before the story skips ahead in time.

I also went for the grand scale, as her silence is misinterpreted by various groups and factions. From a child whose silence tears apart a small, southern U.S. town, she grows into a college student whose silence rips an entire nation apart. We’ll see if I’ve been able to get the words on the page to convey to readers the complexities of the story in my head, but at least that was my goal.

So a few ways to deepen and enrich your fiction:

–          The Group protagonist

–          Two or more timeframes

–          The Grand Scale (of a character’s life or of a plot with higher stakes)

–          The Grand Theme

And that’s only four out of countless ways to add complexity in story, richness in character, and depth in theme to your fiction.

I highly recommend two books that address this topic in much more depth and expertise: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.

Now, time for everyone else chime in with your advice on what has worked for you as a writer or a reader on how to make a story more complex.