Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Arc of Story

I used to be a panster. But I'm not anymore. I needed more structure to be productive enough to get all the work done that I want to get done. Yes, I’m an organizing freak, a slave to my left brain. But, I tried outlining and that didn't work. I wrote exactly what I should, and my work SUCKED.... So I do not outline.

In my struggles with trying to trick myself into getting organized without outlining, I found something that did work. An old enemy had come back to offer help: the story arc.

When I took my first creative writing class, for the first time in my life I started talking to a lot of the other people about writing. I didn’t know the jargon, outside of grammar and maybe plot. So when someone started talking about having trouble with a story because they couldn’t figure out the arc, I had no idea what he was talking about and thought he was being a writing snob and using a fancy word for the plot. Workshop after workshop I heard this word, “I really like the arc of your story,” etc…. And I was feeling left out. What was this ubiquitous arc?

Jump ahead a few years. “Cynthia, you need to have the synopsis for your novel done next month. Cynthia you need to finish your novel and … yes, it needs to have an ending or it won’t pass…”

This was my situation: I refused to work off an outline, so I never wrote one. I had my synopsis but the ending I put down had nothing to do with my story anymore. But I needed something to point me in the right direction. I looked at the beginning, I looked at the middle...yes, there was a “shape there” I could feel it. But I needed to extend the shape. Then it clicked. It all fell into place. So simple. Why hadn’t I seen this before?

The arc is, in a word, progress. It keeps the story from getting boring, from going in a straight line. You can think of it like a learning curve. At first you know nothing, but the more you learn the easier and faster you pick up this new thing until you know so much you can’t learn as much because there is less to know. You might say, “This resembles the shape of a story, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement.” Bingo. That’s exactly what it is.

The thing is, I had seen this before. The arc I’d just come to terms with was easily recognizable in poetry. When I’d studied poetry with Wes McNair, he said a poem always has a turn. In class, we read some poems and found all the turns in them. I was hooked. My favorite poems are short lined with lots of enjambment. The turns in poems were always easy to find, for me (but not in a story, shrug). It always had something to do with the feel of shifting.

Here’s an example from Sandra Kasturi’s The Animal Bridegroom. Try to find the turn.*

The Burning Woman
You can hear her pale voice
from within the conflagration.
It always speaks truth.
It always lies.
She crackles like marrow-bone
when she walks.
Her eyes and mouth open
and burn like magnesium.
She is a contrary Gorgon;
everything she looks at
is forced into frenzied life.
If you are very lucky
and can run after her
until she catches you,
you can put her in a canning jar
to hold in the air:
a blaze of fireflies
to light the darkness.

I vastly expanded the shape of poetry that I loved so much to fit my novel. I finished it and moved onto revisions. By the time I got to the end, cutting passages, moving them around, heightening the action to give it meaning, I had a properly structured story, more importantly, I felt like I had control of it.

Now, when I go to write a story, I need to have the arc in mind or I meander around and go nowhere, or I go everywhere except where I should. To keep organized, I use arcs to keep not only my plot on track, but also my characters.

Writing is a craft. Like any craft its practitioners will improve and get better results with practice and the use of tools. This one magical tool has helped me resolve one of my biggest weaknesses.

So, do you outline, write by the seat of your pants or, like me, something in the middle?

*The turn occurs on line 13. See how it’s just after the middle of the poem? And then it moves on to the real kicker at the end—just like a story.

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