Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Story Arcs

(Above: Interior of St. Bartholomew-the-Great)

Much of my understanding of story arcs comes from reading how-to books written by screenwriters. Novelists can waffle all over the place and still succeed on the strength of their wonderful prose or unforgettable characters, but no one can nail a story’s structure like a good screenwriter. Moreover, Americans today spend so much time watching TV and movies that I think we're conditioned to stories told in a Hollywood-like framework (just as the length of the old 78 records conditioned us to the 3 minute song). So I advise anyone interested in writing genre fiction to read books by people like Syd Field and William Froug. (But no, you don’t want to be a screenwriter. As bad as the publishing industry is, the screenwriting business is even harder. And when they say they won’t look at a screenplay by anyone over 40, they mean it.)

The old rule of thumb is that the first quarter of your story should be devoted to “setup” or Act I; the next 5O% should be the middle of your book or Act II, while the last quarter of a book should be Act III, or the crises/climax/finale. But in my experience, if you follow that formula—whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel—you risk writing a story with a very slow beginning. I also don’t like formulas. I think every story needs to find its own flow, its own balance. Nevertheless, people have been telling stories in three acts since Aristotle, so it’s obviously a useful concept to keep in mind.

Perhaps the most important contribution this whole Story Arc concept has made to my own writing is that thinking about it makes me take a step back from my manuscript and look at the story as a whole. It is very, very useful for a writer to ask herself things like, Does the tension keep increasing? The conflict? Do the stakes keep rising higher?

I also like the concept of “pinch points” and “plot points.” They remind me not to tell a story that’s too linear, and to space out my twists. The best stories go zinging off periodically in new, unexpected directions, like they’ve just been whacked by the flipper of a pinball machine. Think about the books you’ve read that somehow didn’t "feel right” to you. Sometimes it’s a failure in character. But often it’s the story arc that’s out of whack.

I don't know about you, but I'm getting fed up with plotting. Since I've now started writing the chapters for my proposal, I thought next time I'd talk about the concept of Scene and Sequel, which I suppose is a kind of plotting, but more organic to the writing process. A friend of mine, Charles Gramlich, has been talking about plotting over on Razored Zen . Now he's started a discussion about what he calls the "Periodic Writing Table," looking at the various elements of writing. Charles writes in the three genres that I don't read--science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I have read his short stories, so I know he's a terrific writer. But I didn't realize how terrific until I recently started his COLD IN THE LIGHT. It's taken me years to get up the courage to try it (I scare easily), which is a shame because it's a wonderful read. I'll be talking about it more when I finish it (which won't be until after the proposal is in!).

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. If you're going to use 25 percent of the story arc for setup then you'd better have a lot of really interesting things happening. Thanks for the mention of my stuff. Much appreciated. Glad you're enjoying "Cold."

Anonymous said...

This is a great series. Your posts on plotting are excellent classes not only for aspiring but also for experienced writers. I'm "plotting-challenged," but I'm inspired by your series to try to plot out on of those WIPs I've had hanging around for years unfinished.

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