Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

The Story Arc

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Pretty much any resource on writing fiction will tell you that there needs to be a natural arc to the story that you tell. If you’re writing for theater, it’s in three acts:

  • Introduce the characters and the dilemma.
  • Bring the characters and dilemma to a crisis.
  • Solve the crisis.

For fiction, it works roughly the same as for theater, whether it’s a novel or shorter fiction. In a novel, you might have a long drawn out arc that parallels the three acts, and in each chapter you’ll have shorter versions.

Rules are made to be broken, though, right? I mean, how many murder mysteries have you read where the chapters are only a page or two long. Each chapter is basically a “scene,” driving toward a satisfying point along the arc, but not having much of an arc itself. You can almost imagine the writers’ work ethic: One chapter a day. Or one page a day.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but obviously, you can’t break the rules endlessly or people will grow tired of plot points without any connection to one another. And there’s the reverse, where the whole story is one long stream of consciousness, unbroken into digestible chunks. There may be an arc, but it’s darned hard to ferret it out.

I have a dilemma, as I sit facing the first round of revisions on my freshly finished (or nearly finished) historical novel. You see, real lives don’t necessarily come with a nice story arc. There’s a fair amount of dishwashing and planting the crops and such that don’t warrant coverage. In a novel where everything is fictional, you can design the characters’ lives around nice plot arcs, but it’s not so for fiction based on real people. Especially if a lot of people know a lot about your central character.

In my first draft, I peppered a fairly factual account of a famous person’s life with little vignettes that revealed how life was in the 12th century and the skeptical attitudes of   contemporaneous people toward the famous person who later became fairly universally revered. Some of the little vignettes felt contrived as I wrote them. Tales at the end of the book felt particularly contrived as I headed toward the end of the lives of my stars. Like I was filling in the space between accomplishments.

I think what I’ll do as part of my revision process is something I’m always telling technical writers and editors to do:

I’m going to pull an outline out of the work.

Chapter by chapter, I’m going to make an outline so that I can see where I do and don’t have arcs. Maybe there are some plot points that are pathways rather than arcs, but I don’t want any true side trips and I want to make sure that everything drives toward the same end point.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

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Written by Melanie Spiller

February 25, 2011 at 11:14 am

Posted in Writing

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  1. […] is fun. I went through and put a story arc on each fictional chapter (as I’d threatened to do in The Story Arc) and now I can see the slow points. I highlighted them in the outlines. I can focus on whether to […]


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