May 26, 2014
Today’s Writers’ Tip
DEVELOPING A GOOD STORY ARC
If you’re interested in writing any kind of fiction—short stories, novels, or a book series—you must be aware of the fundamental elements of a story arc, the progression of action the characters take through the story.
The basic story arc is quite simple, which includes just four elements:
- Introduction of the characters and plot
- Conflict: the progression of plot toward the climax
- Climax: the turning point in the main character’s life that changes his/her behavior
- Resolution: usually a positive or satisfying conclusion that pleases the reader (but can be a negative resolution that prompts the reader to evaluate his/her own life.)
Now, how simple is that?
However, if you need more depth to developing a best-selling novel, let’s take a look at eight points developed by author Nigel Watts in his helps book, Writing a Novel and Getting Published.
The eight points Watts develops are:
- The quest
- Critical choice
As we take a look at these eight points, evaluate which of them you need to incorporate into your fiction.
Can you write a good story or book manuscript without incorporating all of these points? Sure, but if you want to improve your writing skills to produce that best-seller, it might be worth your while to use these elements as you write. Let’s have a look at the eight points:
This is everyday life in which the story is set. Think of Meg Ryan putting books on her shelves in her little shop around the corner in YOU’VE GOT MAIL or Jo in her cozy home with her mother and other sisters in LITTLE WOMEN.
The trigger is the event out of the main character’s control that sets the story in motion. Tom Hanks is putting all the ma-and-pa bookstores in NYC out of business with his FOX mega-stores OR Jo’s dad’s away for a long period of time, so the mother and four girls must make it on their own.
The trigger results in a quest. An unpleasant trigger: Meg Ryan does everything to keep her little bookstore open, but she knows she’s going under; a pleasant trigger: Jo and her sisters find love along the way as they strive to mature into responsible young ladies
This element may involve not one but several points and comprises most of the middle of the story. Surprise may include pleasant events but more often means obstacles, complications, and conflict for the main character.
Watts insists that surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable. They need to be unexpected but still explainable. The reader should be able to say, “I should have seen that coming!” Tom finds out that Meg’s his email buddy or Jo and Laurie part their ways.
At some stage, the hero needs to make a crucial decision: the critical choice. At this point in the story, the reader finds out what kind of a person (or animal or alien), the hero is, revealed at moments of high stress. Watts stresses that this has to be a decision by the character to take a particular path, not just something that happens by chance. In many classic stories, this critical choice involves choosing between a good but hard path and a bad but easy one. Meg chooses to forgive Tom; Jo continues writing but comes home and then finds love.
In tragedies, the sad resolution often stems from a character making the wrong choice at this point, such as Romeo poisoning himself on seeing Juliet supposedly dead.
The critical choice(s) made by the hero need to result in the climax, the highest peak of tension. In YOU’VE GOT MAIL, this climax comes with only one minute left in the entire story, that of Meg discovering that Tom had been her “e-mail buddy” the whole time. In LITTLE WOMEN, you could point to several climaxes: when Dad returns home, when the younger sister dies, or when Jo’s true love shows up at her doorstep.
The reversal is the consequence of the critical choice and the climax, changing the status of the characters, especially the hero. Although Meg starts changing her feelings about Tom about half way through the story, she doesn’t admit to anyone, including herself, that she really loves him until that last minute. And Jo? All the way through the story, the reader is led to believe that she and Laurie will hook up, but both fall for someone else.
An important note here: The story reversals should be inevitable and probable. There has to be a reason, and changes in status should not fall out of the sky. The story unfolds as life unfolds: relentlessly, implacably, and plausibly.
The resolution is the start of a new life, one in which the characters should be changed, wiser, and enlightened but where the story is finally complete.
And…if you’re working on a series? You can always start off a new story, a sequel, with another trigger.
Want more details about the story arc?
Interested in a different kind of Amish fiction?
LOVE SONG FOR LOUELLEN
The Loves of Snyder County Series
Twenty-five-year-old Amish Louellen Friesen finds herself falling in love with forty-year-old Englishman Dr. David McAndrew, a widower with two children, for whom she cleans house regularly in Mapletown, Snyder County, Pennsylvania. There’s only one problem. Louellen is already married. Well past the “marrying age” at twenty-two, Louellen Bidleman had wed Amish man Eli Friesen three years prior, mostly because of pressure from her family. Eli, also in his mid-twenties and in danger of being “passed over,” had married Louellen for one main reason, to have sons. Louellen has some love for Eli, but because of her church vows, sets out to be the best wife and mother she can be, especially when God blesses them with little ones. However, after three years, there are no children. Louellen is devastated, and Eli becomes bitter, feeling trapped in a marriage that has produced no offspring even though he knows that he has the medical problem, not his wife. Although he treats Louellen civil in public, at home he ignores her needs, and their wedded life is nothing but a disappointment to both. What should Louellen do? Turn her back on her husband and her Amish Ordnung? Should she leave, become “English,” and marry Dr. McAndrew, a man who has promised her the moon?