Story Arcs In Everything

Your creative toolbox.

There is a story arc in everything you do. Consider the small moments of your day, or mine. Our son comes to our room at seven in the morning. My eyes unglue and I notice him at the side of the bed.


“Who’s morning is it?” he always asks.

I answer “Mine” or “Mommy’s.”

Then the day unrolls. We do yoga, try to meditate for five minutes to the sound of our son playing with Legos and the cat meowing for his breakfast. Then the assigned morning person makes breakfast for humans, breakfast for the cat, lunch for our son, and sets out his clothes for school. Two outfits, so he has a choice. Then one of us walks him to school. Then that person walks home. Then that person goes to work.

These things sound like a list. But they are the basic building blocks of a story arc. Let’s revisit the list and move through the day.

It starts with me asleep, moves toward a rising emotional crescendo as we try to get to school on time, then settles into equilibrium as I walk home from dropping off our son at school, then rises again as I think about my deadlines and client calls for the day, then drops again as I relax on a bike ride to work, and then rises again as I procrastinate before writing. The story arc is a deeper way of looking at the list of “stuff that happens.”

Everything you write has a story arc. If you don’t write with one in mind, your readers will create an arc to fill the void. Readers are let down by flat story arcs. They skip slow story arcs.

With the rise of fast-paced media — radio, TV, social media — we’ve seen a compression of plot events. We demand characters who board an emotional roller coaster on page one and don’t get off until the end of the story. Compare — unfairly, just to make the point — any Henry James novel to any Tom Cruise movie.

Story arcs are everywhere. Listen to pop music, any genre from rap to country, and you will hear a story. The protagonist of the song starts lonely and finds love. Or starts downtrodden. Kicks ass by the final chorus.

Traditional sitcom structure has the characters ending up where they started. The Friends remain friends. Few homicides in Seinfeld. The status quo is maintained.

Most of us are not writing sitcoms, so it’s better if the story arc includes lasting change. The way to know this is to ask yourself if, at the end, your main character can go back to being the person they were at the start. If they can’t — you’ve done the right thing. You’ve created a character who is forever changed.

Readers want that. They also want structure. They want you to create a world with its own rules. They want to live by those rules even if only for the few hours it takes to read your book. They want an arc that rises and ends up in a different place from where it started.

Thanks for reading,

Lee

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