Weekly Writing Memo: Building a StoryPosted: June 29, 2016
Stories are essentially a million little pieces intertwined in such a way that they relay a picture from the writer’s head into the mind of the reader. Specifically, every scene, and every story, is made up of a series of arcs (character arcs, plot arcs, genre arcs, etc) that combine to tell the story on various levels. In order for the arcs to work, they have to be carefully constructed and woven together so that they support each other and so the story forms a cohesive whole.
One of the most important parts of building a story is the construction. Each of the various arcs within the story have to start and end at the correct place, and have to be balanced with the other elements. If any arc or element is out of place, the entire story can falter or fail completely. There are dozens or more elements and arcs within a story to consider, but the main arcs I’m going to focus on are character, plot, and genre. These three are generally the core of every story, and if they’re right, the other elements are more likely to be right.
The general rule in any story is that every character has to have an arc of their own, not just in the story as a whole, but in every single scene of the story. At the start of every scene, each character present should have two or more goals. The first goal is their overarching goal, and the second is their immediate goal. For example, in a scene where a man wants to get his daughter an ice cream, his first goal could be a larger goal that carries on throughout the story of trying to make his daughter happy, while his second goal is one that is the focus of the scene such as simply trying to buy an ice cream cone.
These goals are what drive each scene forward, and are what drive the character’s every action. A goal can change in the middle of the scene, but no matter what a character has to have a goal. The character arcs in every scene are generally caused by how they succeed or fail at achieving their goal. In the ice cream example, the character’s arc could be something like:
On the scene level: the character starts out hopeful that he will be able to buy the ice cream, he hits a peak in line when he is about to achieve his goal, but then when he gets to the front and finds out that they are out of the ice cream his daughter wants his hope disappears and he is in a much worse position than he started.
On the story level, this would be a minor arc in his larger development. This would be the arc where the father goes from trying to find his daughter’s happiness in material things to maybe looking deeper to find something more that can truly make her happy. The scene won’t resolve the problem, but it would be the first step of the father solving the problem and help him head toward the path where he will find the solution.
As shown above, by looking at and understanding the goals you can find the character’s arc of emotional and mental development in every scene, and in the story as a whole.
Each goal itself should be a part of the plot, and should have some form of arc as well. Some goals, like the larger story goals, will be made up of a bunch of mini-arcs, while the minor goals will just have a minor arc of their own. The goals make up the plot because they are what drive the action and create conflict within the story. They’re what the character wants and is constantly stopped from getting one way or another.
For each goal, there should be an arc of how it develops and changes throughout each scene and the story. Goals in general will be made up of some mix of the basic format of: conception of goal, plan to achieve the goal, enacting the plan, and failure or success. The outcome either leads to a new goal, or a new plan to achieve the new goal. Each arc of the plot can lead to new plots and goals depending on whether the character is successful or not, and whether the success/failure of the goal leads to new problems or new goals.
For example, in the ice cream story, the dad doesn’t get the ice cream so it leads to a new goal and new problem for the plot. He either has to find somewhere else to get the ice cream his daughter desperately wants, or he has to find a new way to make her happy.
Many people don’t consider that there are genre arcs within stories, but in there are almost always some form of genre arcs that happen in genre stories. For example, most romance stories involve some form of meeting of the potential couple, a period of interactions between the couple culminating in some form of acknowledgement of feelings, the breaking point where they are thrown apart, and then the reunion. This varies, of course, depending on the different types of romance stories, but being aware of the genre arc and knowing how to use them can help you create a certain flow within your story that readers find natural. It can also help you make sure your plots are working well for the genre you are using.
Even if you don’t go with a typical genre arc for your story, you should consider how the genre evolves throughout your story. For example, in horror there should be a general increase in the horror as the story develops, culminating in the final climactic moment toward the end of your story. If you don’t have an arc of the horror elements as well as the character and plot elements, then the horror part of your story could fall flat. So always consider the genre you are writing in, and think of how that influences your plot and character.
Whatever you are writing, there are many levels of story you are telling and each element should really have an arc of its own, even if it’s a minor one. Some arcs may not be super important or even that interesting, but it’s how they fit in with the other larger and more important elements that matter. Each element should be supporting the larger story as a whole. If you find a part of your story that isn’t doing its part to support the story, remove it. You’re building something where every part needs to do its job, so make every element count.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.