Tag Archives: arc

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Killing your darlings

It’s kill my darlings time. Major revisions a-comin’. Seasoned writers talk easily about it—the need to delete descriptions, characters and scenes that served a function during an early draft but later detract from the story as a whole. We wish it weren’t so. Wish that the first draft would work just the way it was. Wish the process weren’t so brutal.

A Beautiful MindLast week I enjoyed Ron Howard’s movie A Beautiful Mind for the second time, then viewed the deleted scenes with the commentary turned on. Talk about killing your darlings! Howard reflected on the way each cut enhanced the film’s dramatic tension. Some of the cut scenes were especially touching and well-acted, and some shed light on schizophrenia, the protagonist’s illness. But they slowed the pace, so they went. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002.

Dramatic tension. Emotional arc. Pacing. I come back to these elements again and again. From my current work-in-progress, I just slashed an entire section in which a secondary character took center stage. I’m thankful for early-readers who identified problem spots I hadn’t seen. Which darlings will I cut next? Like Howard, I keep them in a “deleted scenes” folder. I fight off the lament—the disappointment—the fear—that I wasted my time writing them in the first place.

Cut & PasteHere’s a snapshot of my cut-and-paste work on one section of the muddy middle. (I use Scrivener, but this revision was hard to picture until I laid it out across a bed.) I have to remind myself that writing those now-deleted scenes was a necessary part of the process. Even Ron Howard develops scenes that end up on the cutting room floor. And he blows a lot more time and money in his process than I do! Somehow I find that comforting. The creative process is nonlinear and sometimes maddening and frustrating and seemingly wasteful, but it is what it is. Either you love the process and accept it, or you’re better off doing something other than writing.

The structure of a novel

In the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, John Stazinski (page 29) bemoans the tendency of MFA programs to concentrate nearly exclusively on the short story at the expense of the novel because it’s too time-consuming to workshop complete novels. Thank goodness Grub Street is now experimenting with a novel-revision class to fill the gap.

VCFA logoLucky for me, VCFA was not one of those MFA programs. In the first few semesters, there were limits to the number of pages I was allowed to submit for critique/review, but in the final semester, the complete draft of a novel was welcome. It was an intense final semester. My faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, required multiple re-writes of my novel—never mind line edits. The focus was on structure—on the intersection of the story arc and the emotional arc—on Big Picture elements of the craft.

Now I can’t read a novel without marveling at and dissecting its structure. Of course writers need to learn how to craft engaging characters and settings with mesmerizing descriptive details. But plot matters! A well-conceived story arc is just as necessary as beautiful prose.

Take John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for example. He intentionally deviates from the classic climax-and-denouement structure with brilliant results. Early chapters are labeled “before” and later chapters “after” and the life-changing moment occurs in the middle, leading to a denouement that at first glance appears too long. But no. The climax is not that moment-in-the-middle, but comes when the protagonist realizes he can’t live fully if he remains stuck on life “before Alaska” and “after Alaska.”  The structure Green has given to his novel is the very structure the protagonist is struggling to escape.

Or take Uma Krishnaswami’s delightful The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Her theme involves life’s coincidences, and she presents the story from the points of view (close-third person in alternating chapters) of one protagonist and multiple secondary characters. Readers glimpse a postal carrier here and a Bollywood movie star there, and in the end, of course, the characters’ lives intersect. But it’s the structure of the novel in multiple POVs that makes the intersection work.

It’s one thing to know the story you want to tell, and another to figure out how best to tell it. Such is my current quandary. Last week I completed the draft of a novel, and I’m now letting it rest so that I can return later with fresh eyes to ask: what structure—what sequence of scenes—will provide maximum dramatic tension for my readers? Right now I’ve got one viewpoint in part one and another in part two. But will alternating the points of view (the way Uma did) serve this story better? Hmm. Thank goodness I have early-level reader-friends willing to critique an entire novel, not simply ten or twenty pages at a time.

The difference between content and process

In mid-March, as I staffed the James River Writers (JRW) table at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, it occurred to me that the JRW Conference differs from the VA Festival in the way an MFA differs from an MA or PhD. The VA Festival is all about books and the JRW Conference, about the craft of writing.  Of course, there’s an overlap.  But it comes down to the difference between content and process, between analyzing literature and writing it.

I particularly enjoyed hearing Kekla Magoon talk about molding historical facts to heighten her protagonist’s struggle in The Rock and the River.  But if Kekla were to speak at the JRW Conference, she might go into more depth about the challenges of the craft.  She might note how she picked up the narrative pace in the fourth chapter by manipulating readers’ sympathies (her policemen characters beat up a boy, then charge the boy with resisting arrest).  She might tell us how she wove setting into plot.  She might talk about scenes added or deleted to enhance the story’s emotional arc.

It’s one thing to have a story to tell, and another to tell it well—to show up at the page every day in order to wrestle with the tense and pace and voice while developing characters and searching for the right structure. It’s one thing to love reading, and another to embrace the art and process of writing.

The VA Festival may not have showered me with tips on craft, but it drenched me in warm fuzzies.  I staffed the JRW table with Meg Medina and caught up with writers who have spoken at the JRW Conference over the years—Clifford Garstang, Charles J. Shields, Bill Glose, Michele Young-Stone, Irene Ziegler.  JRW members Linda Dini Jenkins, Kristi Austin, Beth Rogers and Judy Witt were there, as were conference-regulars Becky Mushko, Stephanie McPherson and Michelle Ehrich.  I saw SCBWI colleagues Ellen Braaf, Kathryn Erskine, Valerie O. Patterson and Anne Marie Pace, and Vermont College alums Kekla Magoon, Tami Lewis Brown, Maha Addasi, Louise Simone and Winifred Conkling. JRW shared a table with Rose Esber, and Lee Knapp sold her fun, grammatically-correct ceramics. I’m already looking forward to VA Festival 2012.