Beginning. Middle. End.
Setup. Conflict. Resolution.
All stories have a certain formula to them. That formula can be played with, rearranged, and altered, in a variety of different ways…but even that has some form of structure, when you sit down and think about it. Straying from a conventional method of telling a story doesn’t mean that the original blueprint doesn’t exist. We just choose to find a way of subverting expectations concerning the norm. A norm that set the standard for us in the first place.
The most interesting stories and character revelations aren’t drawn as a straight line. Most memorable stories have an ‘arc’ to them. The beginning, middle, and end, are bent into a shape that gives our readers somewhere to go. A journey. An adventure. And I know that we hear about story arcs all the time, but do we really take a moment to think about what that term actually means?
Many people may be familiar with the depiction of the theater masks, ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’. One mask is smiling, and the other one is frowning. But what many not be aware of is the fact that these two masks aren’t just grins and frowns, but the visual representation of two true story arcs. It describes how the story is going to begin and how it ultimately ends.
Look at the smile on the comedy mask. That’s how comedies or ‘feel good’ stories work, isn’t it? It starts at a high point, then it dips down to a low point where things look dark and hopeless four our main character…but then the smile slopes up again, and with the dodging of a myriad of obstacles and hardships, the story ends up on a high note again. This is the natural story arc of a comedy. (Not always a ‘Ha Ha’ comedy, but a story with a happy ending.)
Now…take a look at the frown on the tragedy mask. This is the exact opposite. Things start out being dreary and miserable. A serious low point. Then…it slowly rises up to give the main character feelings of hope and salvation. Things begin to turn around for the better. However, to complete the frown, the high point is short lived, and then it’s a downward slide back into misery again. The character ends up back where he started, and that brief glimpse of joy and promise makes the tragedy all the more unbearable in the end. It’s a crushing blow to the protagonist, and there are no pots of gold at the end of this particular rainbow.
Whichever way you go, the story arc is what keeps things interesting for your readers. You want your characters to have somewhere to go, whether it be to their benefit or to their ultimate demise. It is that journey that creates the feeling of purpose when it comes to people reading your story. They’re looking for a reason as to why they read your book from beginning to end in the first place, right? You’ve got to give them one.
Imagine if your story was traveling along a straight line instead of an arc. What if the protagonist started off miserable…ended up miserable in the end…and was miserable every moment in between. I mean, would YOU want to read that story? I wouldn’t. There are no moments of hope. No promise of rescue or happiness…no shining light at the end of the tunnel. Just…more tunnel. And a depressing journey that never gets any better than it was when you started.
In the same respect…imagine that your character was soooo perfect and soooo beautiful and happy at the beginning of your story…ended up getting everything he wanted in the end without any struggle or sacrifice…and had nothing but good fortune and heartfelt giggles every moment in between. That would be equally boring. I wouldn’t want to read that story either. There’s got to be a FEW pitfalls and missteps along the way, right? Otherwise…I’d know how the story ends just from seeing how it begins. That’s not entertaining, in my opinion. Even a baseball pitcher knows to throw a few change ups in there every now and then to keep people guessing. Why should your art be any different?
Remember…people scream on a roller coaster…but they fall asleep on a train. Take that any way you want to take it. 😛
Have you ever been on a long road trip? Driving down a straight road with no scenery, no turns, no buildings….just an endless road? Yeah, that would be your story without an arc. When you create an idea for a story…think of your plot as a yin yang symbol. Think about all of the wonderful parts that you want to add to it, but also keep in mind that there have to be a few challenges and obstacles in the way as well. Whether you’re writing a comedy or a tragedy, these same rules apply. A happy story needs moments of misery to create a sense of joy for your readers. And a tragic story needs moments of levity in order to keep your audience from being so depressed that they stop reading. If you can master a sense of balance on either side, then you will attract an audience willing to laugh and cry along with the characters that you create no matter what. But it takes some finesse. And finesse takes practice.
Now, I’ll admit…I’ve never been the bravest soldier in the battle of growing up as a kid. Hehehe! I was the shy guy. I had secrets, I was scared to reveal a lot of the feelings I had for other boys, and well…hindsight is always 20/20. So I do include a lot of teen angst in my stories. Silly mistakes and bad decisions. That was my life back when I was trying to navigate through life for the first time ever. And believe me…I get HAMMERED for it sometimes in my comments and emails. LOL! My characters are ‘stupid’ and ‘ignorant’ and ‘GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!!!’ But that’s not how I remember it. Not when I was a teenager myself. There were peaks, and there were valleys. I remember being scared out of my mind sometimes, and being brave to the point of being downright reckless other times. But that’s life. We all go through it. And we all don’t have the wisdom and experience of a full grown adult when we shuffle our way through it for the first time. But, that aside…when folks ask me, “Why can’t this character just throw caution to the wind and tell the whole world he’s gay and get it over with?” Or, “Why doesn’t he just profess his undying love already for the most beautiful by EVER in chapter TWO of the series?” Hehehe…well, because I wouldn’t have a STORY to tell then, now would I? There’s no arc to constant misery or constant perfection. My teen years weren’t like that, neither were yours. Be honest! So why would my characters’ teen years be like that? I don’t WANT my stories to read like, “I saw this boy. He was cute. I asked him out within the first ten minutes of meeting him. He said yes. We had hot sex. The end.” I mean…how entertaining is that? Where’s the meat of the story? Where’s the fear and the folly and the reward for going for broke? That’s ‘porn without plot’! And there’s an audience for that, but it’s not what I write. That’s not why I started creating my stories and sharing them online. Am I crazy? If I wrote that story, none of my ‘romantic’ fans would read it. None of them would connect in the same way, or relate to the situation at hand. What would be the point?
Can’t writers just paint a decent picture from their hearts without being ‘jumped’ on all the time? Hehehe! Let me give my characters somewhere to go, something to learn, something to deal with and wrestle their way through to a satisfying end. The ‘arc’ is everything in a story. No matter how short or how long it may be. Give your characters something to triumph over. Some kind of opportunity for redemption. Or even an unfair hardship that eventually leads to them crashing and burning at the end. Either way, the idea is to have your character start somewhere…end somewhere…and have a change in mood and tone and experience significant challenges along the way. That’s the fuel that makes writing fiction fun. And if the writer is having fun, then the readers should be having fun too.
And if they’re not…because they desperately want the story to go a different way? Then…sorry…but they should be spending time writing their own story instead of wasting time telling you how to write yours. As I’ve said many times in the past…you don’t write for your readers. You write for yourself. Then you SHARE it with your readers when you’re finished. Don’t get those two things confused. I’ve learned that ‘all’ readers will never be happy with anything you write. Hehehe! Not ever. Don’t try to sacrifice your voice to please them, it won’t work. If you’re going to write a story, at least make yourself happy with it. And if others jump on the bandwagon, then that’s a bonus. But if they get mad and complain…at least you know that you put out a good project. Your best work. And those readers have the entirety of the internet to go find what they’re looking for. So don’t you dare feel guilty for one second about being true to your own voice. K?
Alright…had to say that, because…’tangent’…
Anyway, an arc is created when you visualize where your character begins, and figure out where you want him/her to end. Then you try to find an interesting way of getting them there. Think about the lessons that you’ve learned in your own life growing up. Think about what defines your thoughts and beliefs surrounding everything that you do. It may seem mundane now…but those beliefs might have come from somewhere.
Maybe you have a policy to never date a musician. Hehehe, ok…well, why? Do you have a history with someone who was a musician? Maybe you fell in love with him, the had some good times…then saw some pitfalls in the relationship, then it ultimately ended in tragedy. Well, that’s you’re story arc. You learned something. Experience was achieved through good or bad fortune. You traveled from your starting point to where you are now. It’s hard for me to put into words, but if you keep writing and drawing from your past experiences…the grand design will present itself to you naturally. And you’ll adopt that same practice to all of your characters when writing your stories in the future. You just have to be able to visualize the arc in the planning stages.
Think of Scrooge. How he progresses from one attitude about life to another. But only when being shown the truth, and making an attempt to take that journey to see what’s on the other side. That journey…the struggle…that creates the arc. The need to succeed or to fail is what pushes the main character forward within the storyline. So the key is to create the ‘opposite’ of where the character started from…and then bring them back ‘home’ in the end. That’s the secret.
If they’re happy…put them through the ringer and give them some significant obstacles to maintain that happiness. There ya go! Character arc! 🙂
If they’re miserable, then their obstacle is being confronted with glimpses of joy and hope. They ‘overcome’ that obstacle by screwing it all up and letting everything go to shit. And the end up back where they started. Miserable.
Either way, changing emotions is the hidden key to creating interesting character arcs in your stories. So play around with a few ideas, and see if you can find a comfortable way of creating story arcs of your own. Remember, you want to give your character somewhere to go…therefore, giving your readers somewhere to go.
Everything you write should be a journey. And that comes with both good and bad times for the characters you use to tell your story. Give them something to do. K?
I hope this gets a few brain cells sparked up, and it helps with your next story. Take care! And I’ll seezya in the next issue!