Arc not Ark
Following on from the fab guest post yesterday — if you didn’t see it, please have a read, I thought I would ponder for a few moments on the story arc. And I will talk about how this applies to non-fiction as well, in reference to memoir.
I have talked about the story arc a few times, but one of the key weaknesses I see in novels and shorts I critique professionally, is lack of a real narrative drive or focus, something both propelling and compelling the reader on. And it all comes down to two key things: motivation of the characters, i.e. what’s at stake? And lack of direction or goal: what question forms the key focus of your story and therefore will be answered at the climax?
Think of the plot as a set of barriers standing in the way of achieving the protagonist’s goal – physical, mental, organic (as in your antagonists) and the story as how your protagonist overcomes: this is the real essence of story-telling. And it matters not what genre you write in, and even in non-fiction it also needs to be there to create a story and not just a series of unrelated anecdotes.
When you know this, you already have a basic shape. In a novel, even your lesser characters will have their own arcs (character arcs are a slightly different thing and I will talk about these another time as well) but you need to have a key theme or question and those of your supporting characters will also explore — they will augment the main theme.
A basic story arc should not, in my opinion, be formulaic, but more prescriptive. If your story isn’t quite working, if you find it’s not driving the reader on as it should, refer back to an arc and ask yourself if you are building the tension, through a series of inciting incidents towards a defined climactic scene. Are you introducing enough barriers to the fulfilment of this goal, and after the climax make sure you have the cooling off scene, the homecoming that ties up most (not necessarily all) of the loose ends in a satisfying but not clichéd ending.
Non-fiction generally uses a more empirical language. For many years I wrote in science speak …
The results clearly indicate a shift in control bias. This is further supported by the evidence of Waal & Wall (2001: pp 101-103) who show the effects on temperature in ice boxes and a 10% degradation of cps values across all sample groups …
This is made up but see the type of language used. It’s far more ‘reportative’ as in telling in succinct and precise language. In fiction you can be far more loose and wordy and creative, although succinctness and brevity is also important. Over-wordy, over-clunky fiction, for the sake of it, for me takes you away from story, and should be handled with care. Writers often like to show off; but here’s my feeling on this (a slight digression I know) … if you overuse ‘cleverness’ – i.e. don’t say it in 5 words, say it in 50, you will lose some of the gems — they will be buried and the reader needs to mine them! Use them sparingly and in just the right place, you’re using a winning passing shot that can not go unnoticed! See what I did there, a little metaphorical language here and there can work. I hope!
In fiction I like to be right in the character’s head and I like immediacy, past perfect tenses, the he had thought, he had wondered … these tend to slow it, like he began to walk … while genre and style might lend itself to this in some cases, I usually find shifting to he thought, he wondered and he walked, are much more direct. And I really dislike hindsight in fiction unless used as a one-off narrative device to teaser the reader on. The little did he know moments. It weakens narrative.
BUT … now some of these things you will use in memoir. You often write memoirs in reflection and with hindsight, but the best memoir will do exactly what a novel will do and use the same combination of narrative drivers, devices … get into the head of the character. But you have more leeway for reflection and hindsight and you are reporting fact. But still use showing if you really want to engage your reader. Writing memories as scenes, as you might in a novel or flashback, as I showed Amanda Green when we worked on her memoir, made it far more visual and engaged the reader more.
But because of the use of so many texts, emails, journal entries and scenes, in her case it felt fragmented initially. For us the trick was to retain enough of this at moments of high stress, when her mental health was an issue, as a way of showing the mood swings and the ’emotional chaos’ for want of a better expression, so the writing became the metaphor, but it also needed compelling narrative to comment on and bring these fragments into a story, with a shape, or it was very hard to read.
But I did say no little did I know moments. But you can in memoir say things like of course at the time I thought all that was normal. I thought I was behaving like any teenager. But I wasn’t. Was I? I think this is more compelling because the reader knew when they bought the book and read the prologue this is a journey of someone who was diagnosed with a mental illness. And in fact Amanda pivots part 1 around the meetings with the psychiatrist, using flashbacks, to show the diagnosis from the outset, more or less. So I think here reflection is key to exploring theme.
In fiction I always think it’s better to show the action as it happens. That’s not to say you don’t have novels that start at the end, you know your protagonist is in jail for murdering his wife … and now the story goes back to show how it came about … but you would still then just show it. No need for the commentary or reflection.
I also showed Amanda how to take the truth, as it happened, but tell it in a way that really built the tension, as you would in a novel. This is in essence what creative non-fiction does. It loses the empirical speak, although it will use some of that in these narrative sections that comment on and bring the pieces into some kind of logical order, but it uses far more emotion and is structured so there is no reporting, showing the scenes and ending on moments of drama to tease the reader on. It is not distorting fact, merely using a narrative that engages the reader the most. And this we did work on in Amanda’s memoir, so it’s not just telling the story … it’s really bringing it to life. And as I said yesterday, parts that did not add to the story, or explore the theme (in this case her journey into mental health issues and her journey back to finding herself) we cut. Hard when it’s someone’s life … but necessary for story, in exactly the same way in fiction we cut superfluous scenes that do not develop character, move plot or explore theme.
Right now I need to write … but I will leave you with a story arc … use it against your own work and see if you have the right arc. Every story ever told, those that play around with chronology, go backwards, use parallel universes, every film, play, opera … all use this basic form … but of course with variations and most stories use some form of three act structure.
Hope it’s been helpful.