The Narrative Arc September 8, 2008Posted by LHK in writing craft.
At Doug Crandell’s workshop last week, I realized that I’ve been writing my novel backwards. Not in terms of chronology — I have a hard enough time keeping track of the forward-facing timeline of events — but in terms of which aspects of the novel were conceived first, and which came later. To someone who was struggling with getting through the first draft of a novel, Doug suggested to follow the narrative arc all the way to the end, and then go back and make the necessary rewrites and revisions. Of course, any person who has taken a writing class, done NaNoWriMo, clicked around on a writing forum, cracked anything in the 808 section of the library, or even picked up a pencil has heard this tossed around as the conventional wisdom and advice given out anytime anyone’s feeling stuck. Just finish the first draft and then go back and edit! I get it, too — from well-meaning friends and various acquaintances who know better than to insinuate that there’s anything new in my life besides however many words I’ve written in the novel since last Tuesday. I got it recently from my mother, too. Well, her wording is a little different. “Just finish it,” she likes to say. “It’d be great if you’re able to publish it, but we really just want to see you get to the end.”
“I’ve gotten to the end,” I tell her. “I’ve gotten there multiple times. I’ve put several drafts to rest. It’s just… still not done.”
And how do you go about trying to explain that incompleteness to someone who’s never attempted this sort of writing marathon? Well, some people would probably like to tell me (politely, of course): You don’t. Don’t explain. Just finish the stupid thing.
Okay, fine. I will. But how do I explain to myself why I’ve written numerous drafts-with-endings that still weren’t complete enough to be revised and edited? Why do I keep having to start over with the blank Word document, writing the same story again and again? The phrase narrative arc clicked with me at the workshop last Friday — that should be the backbone of the story, and yet, in my story, it’s flimsy in so many places.
What’s a narrative arc? It’s what gives the reader that immensely satisfying we’ve-come-a-long-way-together feeling upon the finishing of a story, whether that story is 15 pages long, or 150, or 1500. It’s what makes a story a story rather than merely a recounting of events or a description of a character’s life. It requires some sort of catalyst for change — even if the main character himself doesn’t change (think Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and other characters who are static from book to book), something about his situation does. Of course, I deal in character-driven stories, so I’m working with a character who needs to show growth, and a story that needs to run in a parallel line to that character growth.
I’ve discovered that you can get through a whole ton of drafts without knowing this narrative arc. You’ll have all these great little character details, and you’ll have a bunch of lines that came to you on your nightly dog walks that you were finally able to work into one of your later drafts, and you’ll write chapter after chapter, and things will happen — character-based things, even — and there’ll be something that you and your readers will call a plot. But you’ll stall out on the ending, because the ending is where the promise to the reader should be fulfilled — and if you’ve never promised anything to your main character, much less made a promise to the reader, then the story could, technically, end at any point.
The other day, I used the Plot Board of DOOM to point out to Adam where I was at in the story. Yep, that’s me pointing at a big empty space. I’ve reached the end of my outline and fallen off into a pool of gray dry-erase sheet metal.