On Story Arcs

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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One of the panels I sat on at ConCarolinas was on “How to Write” which meant I spent a fair amount of time beforehand trying to figure out (a) how I write and (b) how I’d boil that down into something that could fit into the panel format (and hopefully be helpful).  It made me think about a lot of the “rules” 1 that I use when I write — the starting points for any project — which led me to ponder the arc of my stories.

Generally, for me, every story is somehow about change, either a character accepting change or rejecting it for one reason or another.  I remember one of the first craft books I ever read described it as leading a character up to a fork in the woods where the character must choose one of the paths or choose to remain where he is, stagnant.

The way I’ve learned to think of it is a little different.  At the beginning of my stories I take the character and force them endure some sort of “test.”  They always fail.  Then, they spend the course of the book going through all of these various experiences during which, hopefully, they learn something.  At the end of the book that character faces another test — almost parallel to the one in the beginning (but not exact) — and he either passes the test (because he learned the skills necessary over the course of the book) or he fails (because he refused to change and grow).

My example may be a bit of a spoiler, but it really only spoils the first couple of chapters so…In the beginning of my second book, The Dead-Tossed Waves, my main character, Gabry, crosses the barrier protecting her town from the zombies and heads out into an abandoned amusement park with her friends.  The park is mostly fenced, is generally safe but that safety isn’t absolute and, unsurprisingly, they’re attacked by zombies.  During the fight Gabry takes an ax and stands ready as a zombie comes careening at her and the whole time she’s reminding herself not to swing too early — to wait, wait, wait… but she’s so overwhelmed with terror that she swings early, misses, doesn’t decapitate the zombie, which causes someone she cares about to get infected (and in my world infection = death).

The test: can you keep your wits about you and be strong in the face of terror to protect those you care about?  And she clearly fails it with devastating consequences.  That sets up one of the arcs of the story which is whether she can learn to find her inner strength so that when she’s tested again at the end she can call upon that to survive and keep others safe.

Really what this means is that you’re creating a snapshot of who your character is in the beginning of the story and then another one at the end so that your reader can compare the two and recognize how the character has grown (or refused to grow).  I think one of the keys is making these two snapshots parallel enough to be able to compare the two but not so similar that the reader is bored.  Because at the same time, you don’t want your character to just be able to pass the test because they’ve taken it before, you want to throw some curveballs that will really show off how the character’s changed.  If the main character refuses to change and clings to their old way of life, often to their detriment, that’s one way to define a tragedy.

This isn’t the only way to look at stories arcs but it’s one I’ve found really useful when drafting and revising because it forces the writer to keep circling back around to the focus of the story: the growth of their characters.  And since I think the heart of many stories is the character’s journey (both internal and external), having a structure that supports that journey can be helpful.

1 I hesitated in using the word “rules” here because I don’t think there really are rules in writing, necessarily.  Or rather, if there are rules there are always successful exceptions.  But I decided to use this word because (a) it was easier than coming up with another and (b) these tend to be the starting points of my writing process though they’re not absolute.

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18 comments to On Story Arcs

  • Great example, Carrie. Very cinematic (in a good way)!

  • Hey, Carrie. It was great to get to meet you in person at the con. I was hoping to see the panel you just talked about but couldn’t, so I’m glad to get this mini re-cap.

    I’ll second the notion that the first test and the final test should be parallel enough to be recognized as such, but not SO parallel that it’s a blunt instrument you hit the reader over the head with. I’ve got this one short story I’ve been fiddling with for forever, and while I love the opening, it just seems that every ending I come up with too close to the opening to work. So it goes back on the shelf. I’ll hit it eventually, but that sense of close-but-not-too-close is a fine but important line to walk.

  • Carrie, I think this is a brilliant way to describe character arcs and it illustrates some things I’m going to be touching on in my webinar today. Would you mind if I quote you? (Full attribution, of course!)

    -Lucienne

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thanks for some great food for thought. Character story arc is something I REALLY don’t have down yet, and I know this is going to be a helpful way to think about things when I work on it in the future.

  • Great to see you again at ConCarolinas, Carrie. And I will echo what others have already said. This is a great approach to character and story arc. Returning to that opening test can be incredibly effective. I also like to create parallels in the attributes and journeys of my main protagonist and antagonist. As Ed says, some of this stuff can be too much is not handled carefully, but when done right, it can create a wonderfully satisfying experience for the reader.

  • Thanks AJ!

    And yes Edmund — you’re totally right about making sure that balance which can be really hard. I tend to try to think that there has to be at least some passing similarity, some way that the story loops back around (even if it isn’t parallel) to create that “after” snapshot to compare to the “before.”

    It was great to meet you as well (and I didn’t talk about any of this stuff during the panel so you didn’t miss out :)

    Lucienne, please do use whatever is helpful and quote, I’d be honored!

    Hepseba, so glad this helps!

    I wish we saw each other more than once a year David! Great point about the parallel not having to just be at the beginning and the end, but can also be throughout.

  • Carrie, back when I started researching how to write, I used to call a plot arc a circle of action. (You have to give me a break here. I was in high school and studying and marking up books with different colored pens, giving my own names to things… )

    To me the best books indeed always took the MC back to the first failure, where the conflict started, and allowed him/her to make the right (sacrificial?) decision this time. I soooo wish I’d had this post (this site!) way back when. Thank you for sharing. And like Lucienne, I’ll be using this info often. :)

    On another note – a HUGE shoutout to LScribeHarris!

    http://lscribeharris.blogspot.com/2011/06/magical-motivation.html

    Whoot! Thank you!

  • First, Carrie, it was great to see you again. Always a pleasure. Second, this is one of those wonderful posts that every member of MW can write about and come up with something unique to say, so don’t be surprised if you’ve started an avalanche here. Paralleling plot points, characters, ideas, etc — if done well — can be sooooo effective. I have to admit, though, that I skipped over your example because I’ll be reading that book within the next month or so and I don’t want any spoilage! :)

    Finally, let me underscore Faith’s shoutout! Thanks so much LScribe. That was a wonderful review and we appreciate it big time.

  • Unicorn

    Fascinating stuff, Carrie – I can see the two “snapshots” clearly in the novel I’m revising, and finally I’ve found something that I really like about it. (I’ve reached that stage in revisions where everything just stinks). My other WIP, which is in its first draft, is a different matter. Two of the main protagonists are a very humble prince and the extraordinarily arrogant groom who cares for his horses. The main character would be the groom, and I’m riffling through the first seven chapters of this story and looking for the “before” snapshot, the one where she failed, and I’ve realised that it’s not there from her point of view, because in her mind she didn’t fail. She’s too proud. But I can see a failure, only she didn’t. Bingo! Perhaps once she’s realised that she has failed, then we can get close to our “after” snapshot. Thanks for explaining this. I’ve just got a whole new take on my main character.
    Unicorn

  • No problem, guys! We’ll be re-posting it over at the Pendragon Variety website before too long as well, so hopefully that will generate more buzz.

    I was just going to slink in and write a comment about how much I agree with this post, and how much I adored that clear journey in “The Dead-Tossed Waves”, and call it a day, but that seems a little inadequate. Like Misty, I’m in the thick of revisions, and each time I read a post in here, I start thinking about whether I can apply or answer that question in my own work. Edmund’s post on conflicting character desires gave me a kick, and now this one is making me think a bit more about what weakness/flaw it is that my character must overcome. What character flaw is it that, like Gaby’s initial inability to keep her wits, my MC must overcome as a marker for her journey?

    The spiral is a strong symbol in my work, especially in reference to coming back around to the same point, each time slightly more enlightened. This idea of repeating actions that illustrated a character’s failures/flaws in the beginning, and having them succeed or improve by the end, is actually a good way for me to draw closer ties with the symbolism of the spiral.

    One of those things I should have known, but didn’t know until Carrie put it into words.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. :)
    ~Scribe

  • I second LScribe – I should have been able to articulate this, but didn’t think about how to express the different types of character arcs. In my solo WIP the character has already made a radical decision (to put her brother in jail, walk away from berserkers) and the story is about her living with and living up to the consequences of that decision.

  • Carrie, great post. I’ve been smacking around a few new characters in short stories for a while now and have struggled to see them beyond the current conflict. Looking at them in a before/after light just cleared a few things up.

    Thanks,
    NewGuyDave

  • I think I’ll have to consider this in my WIP! I’m at the point where the plot is tantalizingly *almost* filling in all its holes… But this might make the character arc stronger, and make the beginning part (which was at risk of being boring) more exciting.

    In a nutshell, my MC doesn’t like striking out on her own in a new situation, and is rather dreading the first day she’ll be attending high school after moving to a new country…but then by the end she has to face down a faerie king (albeit not completely alone). Yeah, that sounds like a parallel. Cool.

    Thanks for this post. ^^

  • Carrie: This post gave me a lot to think about. Thank you for writing it. I think circling back around like you describe not only helps readers see the character’s growth more clearly, but it provides a satisfying sense of story closure.

    I was thinking I’d better take another look at my character arc to incorporate your suggestion, but then I realized it was already there. What I realized is that the test itself may not be the important element. In my case, the character more or less passes the test both the first time and the last. What changes are his feelings about what the test has told him.

    The first time, he rejects what he has learned, and on the last, he accepts it. I guess you could say the “real” test is one of his courage to take action on what the test has shown him about himself.

    FYI, I ran over and checked out L.Scribe Harris’ post, and wholeheartedly agree with her regarding MW. You folks rock. You’ve taught me a lot in just the few months I’ve been here, and I look forward to reading “How to Write Magical Words.”

  • Bill Hause

    Carrie, it was great seeing you again at Concarolinas. You are a great source of knowledge for YA. This is a great…great…entry. I have been pondering my current short story and the novel. Lots of thinking to do…Thank you very much for your insight. Hopefully all of the games you bought at the con are replayable…

  • mudepoz

    This is a wonderful! Okay, although I hang here, I didn’t get a chance to read this yesterday. However, since Ms. Diver mentioned it yesterday (and happily MW) I had to check and read the entire posting.

    Good timing for what I’m trying to do. Must be doing something write (er, right) because I can see that I developed the story in a similar way. Now I can do some cleaning…

    Oh, for those that didn’t take the WD seminar, you better plan on a party of many bodies next year. I have no clue how many people were on-line yesterday, but if they all end up here and the betas? We’ll need one of the conference rooms, not a sleeping room:)

  • mudepoz

    Oh, the WD seminar was great. Ms. Diver, you spoke well, other than some cutting out (probably more due to my wireless than the WD broadcast, it was understandable and useful even to dummies like me! Looking forward to it online.