I participated yesterday in a workshop where the subject was the Story (Narrative) Arc. We wrote 1-2 pages of a new story in preparation for the class, and then we had to determine our story arc and our “hook” (that part of the beginning that captures a reader’s interest). The story I used was not actually new to me but the group had not seen it and I haven’t worked on it since I wrote it.
The workshop was interesting and I want to share some of my moments of enlightenment. Firstly, a definition of Story Arc:
A story arc is an extended or continuing storyline in episodic storytelling media such as television, comic books, comic strips, boardgames, video games, and films with each episode following a narrative arc. A narrative arc refers to the chronological construction of plot in a novel or story.
A story, whether in book form or film, can contain several story arcs. However, each arc should contain the same elements. Typically, these elements are:
an exposition: introduction of characters, setting, and a lead-in to the conflict
the rising action: the part of the story where the conflict increases
the climax: the point where the conflict is reached and the turning point in the story occurs
falling action: the unfolding of events of the climax and release of tension
and the resolution: rather obviously, the conclusion.
In picture form, it looks like this:
I want to emphasize that this is a typical/traditional definition. In reality, your story/narrative arc should look more like this:
The basic reason is you want to give your readers some breathing space. You can’t keep them on a constant high. If there is no downtime, at some point, you will make them want off the ride…for good. Giving them a commercial break allows, ultimately, the tension to build even more and permits you to throw in surprises they will not expect.
A few months ago, I read a novel that used this particular type of story arc. Dear Stephanie by Mandi Castle was one heck of a rollercoaster ride. Her main character, Paige Preston, is a hot mess, but what Ms. Castle did, brilliantly in my opinion, is give you a break from the drama where you can sit back and go “whew”, until she hits you with the next hill, which is higher and deeper than the one before it. And her resolution? Let’s just say it was like having the first bite of the best dessert ever…and then the restaurant catches on fire. I highly suggest you put this book on your reading list.
One of the other things we discussed was your “hook”. As a reader, you want to be taken into the story right away. Else why bother reading the rest of the book? For me, Inkheart was one of the hardest books for me to read because it didn’t grab my interest. It didn’t “hook” me. I read that book out of pure determination (shut up, AJ-determination/stubborness, poe-tay-toe/poe-tah-toe). It was hard for me to get into the book, and I never read any of it’s sequels. I’m sure it is a good series, but, for me, if a book takes me several chapters and I still don’t know why I’m reading, then I’m not going to be interested in the other books.
One of my favorite contemporary novels is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Ms. Morgenstern begins her book with a prologue (don’t get our fearless leader, Amanda, started on prologues), and it begins with this:
“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
And, just like that, I am transported into magic. My brain begins firing and my imagination conjures up the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes. Let’s ignore the prologue. Even without it, the first sentence of the first chapter hooks you in.
“The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspsondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.”
I am all in now. I want to know more. Who is the note from? Who is Prospero? And why is the note pinned to a little girl?
In the workshop, we had to discover our story arc and then pinpoint our hook. To be fair, I had never put any thought into story arc. So, trying to find what the arc is in a story that isn’t fully realized yet was not easy. Even harder was trying to figure out what my hook was. Because what I thought it was turned out not to be the hook for everyone else. This is why beta readers are incredibly important, but that’s an article for another day.
I have been working on a story I began last November during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I basically began by writing the ending of my story and working my way backwards. Or so I thought. Now I’m looking at it with a different perspective. I’ve decided to go back to my ending and upload it to my writing group for a critique with the focus being on whether it will work better as the beginning. I also now see the possible story arc in it as well as a hook.
I challenge you this week to look at your current work in progress and view it with an eye to story arc and finding your hook.
Have a great week!