Tag Archives: Narrative Arc

Elements of the story: the structure of the scene

Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of :

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

The Arc of the Story

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says, “In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story: The end of a narrative arc is the denouement. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.”

However, as we’ve discussed before, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, “scenes” created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

Last July, at the 2014 PNWA Conference, in his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explained how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches.

Once he explained it in that fashion, I understood it. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

Milano_Duomo_1856

Milano Duomo 1856 via Wikipedia

In my mind, this means that novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each small arc of the scene builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel.

These small arcs of action and reaction ensure the plot doesn’t stall and create tension that drives the story to the four cardinal points of the story arc.

Conversations are scenes that form a fundamental part of the overall arc: they begin, rise to a peak, and ebb. They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

That is true of every aspect of a scene: action, conversation, reaction. A scene that is is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed conversation can give the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue, but it must be done in such a way that the reader is not faced with a wall of italics. There are two problems with long mental conversations:

  1. italics are daunting in large chunks.
  2. it can become a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.

Remember, in novels, not everyone in the scene knows everything, so their thoughts won’t be that critical, and are therefore not needed. Plot points are driven by the the characters who do have the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension.

Consider the concept of  asymmetric information–a situation in which one party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another. In business, one individual’s pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market–he has critical knowledge they don’t have, and effectively eliminates his competition. He has a monopoly.

That monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. Idle conversation will bore your reader to tears.

We deploy info, but we don’t dump it in one large chunk though–the reader must find it out at the same time as the other characters, over the first 3/4 of the novel.

We do this in small arcs that combine to form the overall story arc. Events occur, linked by conversations, forming small arcs (scenes) that support the structure of the novel.

The Story Arc

 

By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

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Crafting the scene

I often sit and stare out the window at some point or another during the day–a habit perhaps from the old days of being an ADD kid imprisoned in the basement classrooms of the old Michael T. Simmons Elementary school in 1965. Although that building has been long ago torn down and a new one now serves the community, I still remember sitting in Mrs. White’s overcrowded classroom, staring up at the small window, unable to concentrate on anything but the blue sky outside.  She was my favorite teacher, because she knew I needed extra help with math, and in a class with 42 children, she found the time to give it to me.

Amaranthus and Savvy at the needles by haystack rock cannon beach 2012I still stare out my windows when I am rolling a plot point over in my mind, and I sometimes notice what is happening in the neighborhood.  The window is closed, so I can’t hear their words, but I often see the children.

At first it looks as if they are all happily playing.  Then two of them stand up and from their posture you can see a quarrel is brewing. Suddenly one of them  clouts the other on the head with a toy sword, and another child intervenes. The angry child leaves, and the others are left to console the sobbing child with the bump on his head.

We know that what we have witnessed is not the whole story–there is a whole novel surrounding that interaction. If what I witnessed from my window was a book, this event would read this way:

1. Deciding to meet and spending the day playing in the neighbor’s yard is a chapter in the much larger story of how a group of children in one neighborhood spent their summer

2. The quarrel and resulting bump on the head with the final moments of consolation are one complete scene within that chapter, setting the stage for the next scene–tattling on and achieving penalties for the aggressor, who then apologizes and seeks acceptance back into the group. These two separate scenes comprise the whole chapter, Playing at So-and-So’s Yard.

The Arc of the StoryMost authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc,  which  consists of :

  • a. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  • b. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  • c. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  • d. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  • e. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

However, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, all scenes created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

The main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. 

This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

876MilanoDuomoWhen you are structuring your novel, think of the way Gothic Cathedrals are constructed–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries.

Like a Gothic cathedral, each small arc of the scene  builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel. By creating small arcs in each scene, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

Better You Go Home, Scott DriscollAt the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference this last weekend, I went to a presentation by University of Washington Professor Scott Driscoll, who is a highly acclaimed author of literary fiction. His book, Better You Go Home is a gripping tale of a man in search of his roots and something more. Scott spoke at length on the importance of creating an arc within each scene, small arcs that propel the plot forward and hook the interest of the reader. In Scott’s work, each scene sets that hook just a little bit deeper.

Some authors make each individual scene a chapter, and some group several scenes with a common theme together to create a chapter. It’s your book–do it however suits you best.

The important thing to remember is that each scene that comprises the framework of the overall narrative arc must have its own arc–the Arc of the Scene.

 

 

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