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.