The Arc and the Impetus
From The Festival of Writing a workshop on narrative arc and well-made structure with Nelle Andrew, an agent at Peters Fraser & Dunlop and a novelist. She begins us with a picture of a tree-lined road through a woods. That is how a reader feels, beginning a novel. For a reader, every book is an emotional risk. And, she reminds us, agents are readers themselves. As a reader – and a writer – we are often thinking: What is the point? Why do I care? Why should I bother reading this? Compulsion, impetus and journey: the components all bestsellers share.
When planning a book, your choice of the narrator dominates how your narrative journey will play out. Usually, when an author comes unstuck it is due to the limitations of the narrative and the choices made. Plot is determined by your characters, not the other way around. When you read and think – I don’t buy it – it’s because you don’t believe the characters would act that way. We have to understand our characters inside out, the cause and effect of them. If we don’t have our characters down, the book won’t work.
To discuss how narrative arcs are made, Nelle shared clips from films. The narrative arc is made of the following:
SET-UP: We read the opening paragraph of Notes on a Scandal, wherein the players are introduced, with who is the narrator and who is the protagonist. The problem is introduced – it is about a scandal. And we can already feel who the narrator is.
CONFLICT: In conflict is where character development begins. We watch a bit of August: Osage County and the battle for pills on the living room floor.
RESOLUTION: We watch a scene from Never Let Me Go, which ties together all the plot strands at once. Resolving your novel doesn’t mean it has to be an easy ending, but it must be a conclusion, that the questions I have posed have been answered. A good resolution should make the novel feel complete. The entire point of a book is to have a point. It must feel resolved and the questions answered that your novel has been posing throughout.
The driving force of a book is the impetus – something has to happen. There are different sources of impetus:
Universe: The world is against you. We watch a bit of Jane Eyre and see how circumstances and the outside world stand against her.
Mind: The attitudes of your character can be the driving force for their choices. How do their attitudes and behaviours impact on their choices. One character’s cruelty and jealousy makes the other character into an antagonist, as in Memoirs of a Geisha.
Physics: Events and direct actions of characters that affect the world around them. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s volunteering makes the whole of the plot, her ability to act and challenge the world she lives in. Plot can also hinge on inaction, such as the Bridges of Madison County and the character’s not opening her car door to run.
How are narrative arcs created?
Exposition: setting the scenes, characters and background of the main event. We looked at the opening of Rebecca as Manderley, the characters, the death of a wife and a grieving widower are all set up as one.
Rising action: building to the climax. The climax is the turning point of the novel. The climax is the peak, the pivot around which your novel swings. Sophie’s Choice. What is the pivot upon which the novel turns?
Falling action: the conflict of the novel unravels with the protagonist. Suspense, tension and doubt of the overall outcome of the conflict you have set up. In Harry Potter, the falling action means that everything gets changed. The hero might lose. The antagonist is not an antagonist. The protagonist might be an antagonist.
The end: Denouement, resolution, revelation, catastrophe. All the strands come together. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice receives a phone call and Hannibal Lector announces he’s having an old friend for dinner. It is a suitable, satisfying conclusion with some question left as to how the characters will really end up.
This was a fast, well-thought out workshop and a whistle stop tour of the “well made book” that had us all writing as quickly as possible, and Nelle Andrew speaking and clicking on clips as fast as she could. A very solid introduction to key concepts. Thank you, Nelle!