Rethinking the Story Arc in Novels

Writers need to take inspiration wherever they find it. It might not be pretty, or conventional, but if it’s there and you don’t use it – then the moment will pass you by and you’ll probably come to regret it.

Such was the case this summer with my young adult novel.

I’ve been struggling with it for some time. I know the ending; I knew the ending from the first line, in fact, since it’s bookended. I knew the beginning and I had dozens of scenes drafted out, ready to go. What I kept stumbling over was that traditional story arc – rising action on top of rising action, your MC’s journey, his setbacks, his struggles to get to the next level – you get the gist.

Some might say that I didn’t know the story well enough, if that was my problem and there’s no doubt a grain of truth there. I knew my MC. I didn’t know his nemesis very well; his motives were murkier, more difficult to sort out. All I’ve ever gotten from this guy is stone-cold killer, and in that case, why not just take out my MC on page 80 and have done with it? What was holding him back?

But what puzzled me more was all those scenes I had. I thought I knew what order they went in, and yet, when I tried to fit them together into a coherent novel, they refused to fit snugly into place. Stupid puzzle pieces. Don’t they KNOW they’re supposed to go together? πŸ™‚

So this spring, I thought – maybe this isn’t one novel. Maybe it’s really two novels.

And oddly enough, when I thought about it that way and started putting together what I thought was Book 1 – puzzles pieces began to slide into place.Scenes got deleted. Scenes got moved up. New scenes were written. It was smoother and flowed and it wasn’t quite perfect but it was better – and yet.

There wasn’t a story arc.

There was no forward momentum.

I pondered. I walked. I paced. I ate a lot of chocolate cake. I demanded toΒ  know why my characters weren’t doing what I wanted them to do.

And Nicky, my MC, gave me a look from under his tweed driving cap and said “‘Cause you know it’s only one novel and don’t you go thinking you’re gonna change that ending, either, lady. You ain’t.”

So. I had a nice beginning and nowhere to go with it. In frustration, I jotted down every scene on a separate notecard and tacked them to the wall, where I could rearrange them at will. I’ve done that before, with a good deal of success. But not this time. Yes, I knew I could create a story arc, but the very idea felt artificial. It felt wrong. It almost felt like a violation of my characters. And Nicky was absolutely refusing to go along with it, anyway.

I refused to let it go. I had to figure out how this novel went together. I was trying to write, trying to force scenes into place, but it felt like I was stitching together a Frankenstein-esque monster – a mishmash of parts that didn’t quite fit. I spent days wrestling with it.

Then, finally – THANK YOU, UNIVERSE! – inspiration hit.

Maybe I was thinking about it wrong. Maybe instead of trying to make it fit into a story arc model *(which, I’ll admit, is a difficult concept for me to visualize even with flow charts and, well, visuals), I needed to think about a different model. One I know well.

Television series. Television seasons.

Oh, I know. I’m a traitor. Shoot me now. But wait.

It actually worked.

Really. It did. I thought about the first season in a television series – how there’s usually an overarching theme or goal or quest, how you’re getting to know the characters, how by the end of that season, that overarching goal should be reached. It often leaves you on a cliffhanger as well – and if it’s not picked up for Season 2, you write many bad letters to, let’s say, CBS – but not everything is focused 100% on that goal in every episode. It might be mentioned in some episodes, with no visible progress made. And some episodes are devoted to that goal completely.

Take, for example, Season 1 of Supernatural. From episode 1, you know Sam and Dean have some relationship problems, they need to find their dad, and they’re on a quest to hunt the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend. That’s not the only thing they do during that season, of course – there are a lot of monsters to hunt out there. πŸ™‚ But. By the end of Season 1, they’ve found their dead, shot the demon they were hunting, and begun to act as a team. We’ll ignore the cliffhanger.

Or Season 1 of my favorite cancelled show ever, Moonlight. From Episode 1, we know that Mick is a vampire living in L.A., he’s in love with a mortal named Beth, and all he wants is to be human again. Oh, and he’s a PI. During the season, he’s forced to reveal his true nature to Beth, and by the end of the season, they are sort of together – though Beth has doubts about how they can fit into each others’ worlds – and Mick is on the trail of something that might make him human again. (And then the bastards at CBS cancelled it.)

For some reason, this makes more sense to me than the traditional story arc idea. I know it’s basically the same thing, but the idea of ‘episodes’ instead of ‘chapters’ somehow made it easier to slot scenes into place. I went to my local coffee shop and three hours later not only had the entire timeline drafted into 20 ‘episodes’ but also had rearranged the entire manuscript, complete with notes about what needed to be added or changed when I got to that point. It wasn’t set in stone – I gave myself permission and room to rearrange as needed – but I had the basics.

Not to say it’s been perfect – I’m still fiddling with it, and just rearranged a pretty major scene yesterday – but the framework is there and I can live with that.

And from there, I can move forward – something I haven’t been able to do for months.

 

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