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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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The Story Arc

Pretty much any resource on writing will tell you that there needs to be a natural arc to the story that you tell. If youíre writing for theater, itís in three acts:

         Introduce the characters and the dilemma.

        Bring the characters and dilemma to a crisis.

         Solve the crisis.

For fiction, it works roughly the same as for theater, whether itís a novel or shorter fiction. In a novel, you might have a long drawn out story line that parallels the three acts, and in each chapter youíll have shorter versions.

Rules are made to be broken, though, right? I mean, how many murder mysteries have you read where the chapters are only a page or two long. Each chapter is basically a ďscene,Ē driving toward a satisfying point along the arc, but not having much of an arc itself. You can almost imagine the writersí work ethic: One chapter a day. Or: One page a day.

Thereís nothing wrong with that, but obviously, you canít break the rules endlessly or people will grow tired of plot points without any connection to one another. And thereís the reverse, where the whole story is one long stream of consciousness, unbroken into digestible chunks. There may be an arc, but itís darned hard to ferret it out.

I have a dilemma, as I sit facing the first round of revisions on my freshly finished historical novel. You see, real lives donít necessarily come with a nice story arc. Thereís a fair amount of dishwashing and planting the crops and such that doesnít warrant coverage. In a novel where everything is fictional, you can design the charactersí lives around nice plot arcs, but itís not so for fiction based on real people. Especially if a lot of people know a lot about your central character.

In my first draft, I peppered a fairly factual account of a famous personís life with little vignettes that reveal how life was in the 12th century and the skeptical attitudes of contemporaneous people toward the famous person who later became fairly universally revered. Some of the little vignettes felt contrived as I wrote them. Tales at the end of the book felt particularly contrived as I headed toward the end of the lives of my stars. Like I was filling in the space between accomplishments.

I think what Iíll do as part of my revision process is something Iím always telling technical writers and editors to do.

            Iím going to pull an outline out of the work.

Chapter by chapter, Iím going to make an outline so that I can see where I do and donít have arcs. Maybe there are some plot points that are pathways rather than arcs, but I donít want any true side trips and I want to make sure that everything drives toward the same end point.

Iíll let you know how that goes.