What makes 110,000 words a novel and not a collection of scenes and snippets? A story arc.
Photo by Jimmy Allen Photography
When you’re working with a full plot line, you’re more likely to catch yourself straying into left field. But when you’re writing without a plot—or, as my writer friends say, “pantster” (aka by the seat of your pants)—it’s easier to veer away from the arc. Or, as Martin Scorsese said in my favorite American Express commercial of a few years ago, “I’ve lost the narrative thread.” See, I just went off topic. It is so easy to do, especially when you’re having fun with what you’re writing and not realizing that your pet/beloved/precious scene doesn’t have a danged thing to do with what you need to accomplish in your book.
I have committed this sin on numerous occasions. In fact, the first draft of Armed & Magical basically had no story arc at all. Well, it kinda/sorta did, but it was buried so deep that even I couldn’t find it. In what I can only call a delusional state, I thought the book was brilliant. My agent dumped a metaphorical bucket of ice water over my head and brought me to my senses. As soon as she started pointing out its many problems, I could see every crack, crevasse and bottomless gorge that the thing had. It was nasty.
I rewrote the book and did it right. It was a hit. Disaster averted. And I vowed never to lose sight of my story arc again. Being on deadline, I can’t afford to lose the time it takes for a huge rewrite. My process is this: I have to write the first draft to get the story down and to “firm up” the story arc. I have a vague notion of it in my head. Whenever I sit down to write, I’m constantly asking myself, how does this move the story forward, grow a character, thicken a plot?
To build a story arc that will support the weight of a book, I’ve found I need the following: Each scene and chapter must build on the one before. Crimes are committed and solved. Secrets are discovered and revealed. Problems are encountered and overcome. Characters learn and grow. And all of this must happen over the course of the book, so I interweave the various elements until the story becomes seamless, comes to life, and jumps off the page.Oh, and it has to be funny, exciting and fast-paced and keep you all turning the pages. Piece of cake, right? Definitely not. But I’m finding that the more I write, the better I’m getting at keeping that arc in the forefront of my thoughts, and making sure that everything I write helps build that arc—and make a satisfying book.