Never Overlook the Arc
This is a guest post by Vic Shayne. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.
There are many elements that are key to creating a good story, and the arc is one of the most important of all. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about fiction, nonfiction, a fantasy story, documentary or screenplay. I could say that even Noah knew the importance of an ark, but homonyms lose their charm in writing.
What is an arc? In the world of physics, an arc is a curve. In writing we can explain it in similar terms — it’s the path that a story and its characters follow, from their introduction to their finale. It starts here and ends there, so to speak.
I’ve seen a lot of people’s writing that completely misses this fundamental element, and they wonder why their work is flat or unsalable. If they set their egos aside, they can learn from their mistakes. If not, they go on chalking up their failures to stupid editors or readers who just don’t get their genius.
To make sure your work is rich, plan your arcs from the outset. Before you sit down to write your story, make an outline that includes an arc for the story and all its characters. Figure out how your story begins and how it ends, including all the changes in points in between. Figure out how your characters act at first compared to how they act when your work comes to a conclusion. If they do not exhibit change or growth, then something’s wrong and your work will lack dramatic interest. This is true of a silly comedy, a farce, a musical, a slice of life story, a science fiction work and a tear-jerking drama. Everything has to keep moving in a direction that exhibits change. They say if a shark stops moving, it dies. Don’t let your writing go belly up.
Let’s get more specific. Take a look at your own life as an example. Your life, like everybody else’s has an overall arc with a series of events in between. You started off as a baby, moved through childhood and got to where you are now. You’ve changed, changed some more and changed again so that you are not the same person you were in the beginning. Your life story has an arc. At this present moment, you have accumulated wisdom. You have experienced sorrow, happiness, hard work and moments of reprieve — all of which are evidence of your arc.
Remember too that in addition to an overall story arc, there are also many in between arcs that need to be written. Each chapter needs to have an arc in which something is accomplished, ruined, created, thwarted, grown, deconstructed and/or abandoned. Only by creating these chapter or scene arcs is your audience or reader compelled to move to the next event.
Many movies suffer from an absence of arcs and even uninformed audiences will complain that the film they just watched “didn’t go anywhere,” even if they can’t articulate the exact source of the flaw.
I have a friend, John, who goes to the movies on a regular basis. John has little patience. If there’s nothing that compels him to watch what happens after the first ten minutes, he leaves the theater. He considers sitting any longer in his seat a waste of his valuable time. Worse, John is angry at the writer and director for taking advantage of him and robbing him for an unfulfilled promise. John’s a tough critic, but to me he’s a reminder of the importance of giving your readers something to look forward to from scene to scene and chapter to chapter until, by the end of the affair, you’ve taken them through a journey.
This “something” depends on well-crafted arcs.
Vic Shayne’s latest book, Remember Us, just hit the bookstores nationwide. Vic has been a professional writer since 1978, with six books and more than 500 articles over his career, as well as screenplays, stage plays and commercial work. To learn more about him and his work, you can visit his website.
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5 Responses to “Never Overlook the Arc”
Very nice article. I am much like your friend; if a film doesn’t garner my attention in the first ten-or-so minutes, I stop watching (or at least, entirely focusing).
Aminul Islam Sajib
Explained in a great way. Thanks to the writer for sharing these stuffs that I believe will be helpful for me next time I sit for writing something dramatic. 😉
I like the analogy of an arc, and I’m probably much like your friend John. However, I don’t take a chance and haven’t been in a movie theater for over 20 years. It’s easier to cut off a dull one when it’s a video/DVD rather than go out only to waste more time. On your other point, life is more like a roller coaster with a number of arcs rather than one large arc. Some highs and lows are higher or lower than others, and some parts are flat. Some of the highest arcs may occur early in life rather than crescendo near the end. So, if someone is reflecting on his or her own life to tell a story, it might be best to limit it to one of those many arcs rather than force a listener/reader through the boring parts in between!
Love that movie. Also love the post and the reminder of how a story should change and grow, while still coming back to an end point that makes sense given the events.
A good example of arc is a movie I watched on DVD this past weekend: Gran Torino. Watch it, and watch the characters grow.