Traveling Along A Story Arc

We’ve been traveling a bit lately, my special guy and me.  Last week we flew to Los Angeles, and this week we drove with our English friends to Mount Rushmore.  In a way, the drive to the north was more engaging than flying to the west.

In an airplane, the excitement drops after you’re done walking through security.  You step in one door of the plane, find your seat, rattle around for a couple of hours, and walk out that door in another location.  Who knows or cares where the heck you are?

When you travel by car (or bus, or train, I imagine), you can follow your progress on maps. My special man has an I-App that shows our vehicle as a pulsating blue dot traveling along roads to our destination.  How cool is that?

Anyway, in writing, I like to map out where I’m going as well.  This map allows me to see where my characters have been and where they’re going.  It let’s me keep in mind that characters need to grow and change, just as all of us humans need to do. The map is referred to on-line and in writing magazines and books, as the Story Arc.

I think most people are familiar with the concept of story arc.  My granddaughter taught me about it when she was in third or fourth grade.  However, like chess, the story arc is a simple concept that allows for dynamic, in-depth strategy and complications.

How you create your story arc has a lot of room for interpretation and execution.  I have seen how some people stick with a three-act play concept and others have gone with as many as eight steps to completion.  I think it’s important to choose what is easiest for you.  Why easy?  Because you really need to focus on writing.  The story arc is your map, but your story is really the stops along the way you travel–the people you meet, the sights you see, the places you pass by, but wish you hadn’t.

Right now, I’m working on a set of story arcs for the Daisy Arthur novels, so that I can have Daisy travel along in a few different dimensions.  These dimensions are all a part of Daisy, but focus on consistent story themes I’m using:

  • Creative writing and aspiring to publication
  • Romantic involvement and interests
  • Sleuthing and becoming more capable as an amateur detective
  • Learning to be a good pet care giver
  • Sharing skills in special needs empowerment

The cool thing about a story arc is that it needn’t, indeed it shouldn’t, follow a smooth arc from start to finish.  There are bumps in the road called “obstacles” or “complications” that give the arc a jaggedness and complexity that keep readers engaged.

How do you go about making an arc?

Let’s look at the creative writing aspiration.  First thing you notice is that Daisy has a goal–she wants to be a published author.  Goals give characters a chance to succeed or fail, but in the quest, you know that change will occur.  If you’re into diagramming (and I always am), start your arc by drawing a horizontal line across your paper.  This line represents both the goal, and the time to reach it.  I don’t write the goal on that line (but I suppose you could, if you wanted).  The line simply represents the time your story will spend with your reader.

Next, draw a vertical line bi-secting the horizontal X line (aren’t we sounding like mathematicians here).  This vertical Y access represents “tension” or “conflict.”  This is the thing that switches your story from a straight forward plane trip, to a well-traveled road quest.  The key here is to keep giving your character higher and higher challenges as he or she moves along your road to the end of the story.  Each peak your character meets is a turning point in your story, a challenge addressed, a narrow escape or other heart-stopping excitement.

Now, here’s an important part–if your character keeps hitting small challenges and moves on, you won’t have much of an arc in the end.  As a writer, you need to make each challenge progressively more difficult to overcome. This forces your entire story to escalate toward a mountain top event.

Ah.  What’s that mountain top called?  Mount Climax.  In this part of your story map, your protagonist is going to face a challenge he or she would never have been able to meet if we were still at the beginning.  This is the point where every bit of steel that protagonist has within her soul must come to the surface.  She draws on everything she’s learned on her journey, and we as readers are right there with her.  Whether or not she succeeds in her quest is all answered at the climax.

The last part of the arc is called the Denouement. The word comes from the French for untying a knot–or tying up loose ends.  Although some may see this as a necessary evil, I see it as the dessert to a great meal–the pie a la mode in that diner you’ve stopped in along the way.  The denouement allows you to say, “yes, this is how it should be.”  You end on a satisfied note.

Now, there are two keys to a denouement in a story arc.  First, keep it short.  The main action is over, most questions have been resolved, so wrap up and get out, so your reader has no chance to get bored.

The second point for a denouement, is to make sure you’ve wrapped up all the loose ends in your story.  You can hint at the resolutions, or you can hammer them home without a doubt, just make sure your reader isn’t given the chance to say, “but what about…?”

And here’s an intriguing last point–even though your novel follows a story arc, and is a complete work of art on its own, your first book is only the first “obstacle” in a much larger arc called a “trilogy” or a “series.”  How cool is that?

Have fun plotting away the day.



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