Lately, I’ve become interested in the concept of ‘story arcs’. An arc is essentially, the journey from the opening of a story to the resolution of a conflict, via the peak of the crisis, and in its most basic form it looks something like this:
When I wrote my first novel, A New Map of the Universe, I gave no thought to story arcs. It was not because I didn’t think they were important, but because I had no understanding of the mechanics of how to write a novel. I just sat down and wrote what came out. As a result, I wrote a book which, though praised for the beauty of its language and its emotional depth, didn’t really keep people up at night.
My second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (published in the US as Whiskey & Charlie), centres on the story of a man in a coma, which is, by definition, a state in which nothing happens… not exactly page-turner material. Intuitively I understood that the stasis of Whisky’s condition had to be punctuated by a series of dramatic episodes. Some of these came from research into secondary complications of coma (for example, a life-threatening spike in temperature) and others came from flashbacks to Whisky’s life before his accident.
Inadvertently, I had stumbled across the concept of story arcs, though I still didn’t call them this. But what I learnt from writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot is that the larger arc of the story actually comprises several smaller arcs. The number of arcs, and the shape (i.e. steepness) of their curves relates directly to the levels of tension for the reader, and, if combined with ‘cliff-hanger’ endings, create that feeling of being literally unable to put a book down. So a book with a really thrilling story might have a story arc that looks more like this:
via Darcy Pattison
These kind of story arcs are traditionally more associated with ‘genre’ fiction i.e. murder mysteries, thrillers, etc But there is undoubtedly a new wave of ‘literary-genre’ fiction, as exemplified by books like Hugh Howey’s speculative fiction Wool, and Justin Cronin’s zombie/vampire trilogy The Passage. These books carry all the hallmarks of literary fiction – complex multi-faceted characters, settings rendered in great detail, descriptive language, engaging dialogue etc But on top of this, they have the heart-in-your-mouth thrills and spills of epic adventure stories.
My writing process for my first three novels has been what you might call ‘organic’ i.e. unplanned. But I am about to begin a new novel, tentatively titled Ciudad, and for the first time, I am going to plot it in advance, using my new understanding of story arcs. The overall story arc involves a naïve young monk, a cocaine-addicted mad scientist and a super-intelligent monkey in a race against time to save a group of mute children from being sacrificed by an evil priestess, before a tsunami strikes their city. It sounds completely crazy, right? But wait, there’s more. Some of the mini story arcs I plan to incorporate include a punch-up in a brothel, a duel and a prison break-out. Eat your heart out Dan Brown!
What are your thoughts on story arcs? Do you use them in your writing? Or notice them in your reading? What kind of incidents do you think make for excellent mini-arc episodes? Make me a list in the comments and I’ll take on the challenge of putting them in my new book. And don’t hold back!