Here at Duck Pond headquarters (aka The Palace) I’ve been thinking about narrative arcs. Story arcs. Those things what you hang a story on…
They’re pesky, aren’t they?
- Rising action
- Falling action
They are supposed to look like this:
But more often they look like this:
My friend (who writes superb fiction) refers to stories with saggy arcs as ‘souffle stories’. They sink in the middle.
Here’s my simile.
Writing fiction is like skiing.
The first time I went skiing I had every rule and trick firmly embedded in my noggin. I was ready for it! I knew how to stop, start, turn, slow down. I had a gorgeous red ski suit and matching gloves. I even had a woolly headband apparatus that suited me fine. I left nothing to chance…
Up we went on the ski lift, yours truly in Ray-Bans and red lippy, smiling indulgently at the new boyfriend—the action man who had lured me into this adventure.
Higher and higher we went. Legs dangling. Blue sky, snow-capped mountains. Below was a scene from Lord of the Rings. Was Gandalf down there? Aragorn maybe. I drank it in. If this was skiing I was hooked.
Then the ski lift stopped. I waited for an assistant. Someone to…assist.
No one came.
Apparently we had to ski off.
SKI OFF, I tell you.
Shamed by the lemmings around me (some of them still in primary school) I took the leap.
I hit the snow.
And hit my arse.
I spent the rest of the day on my arse—and not by the fire sipping hot chocolate. I mean on my arse. In the snow.
I can’t tell you how much I despised skiing. DESPISED. None of the rules worked once I was on the slopes. I was a pelican posing as a swan. I did not belong.
So, that was the end of skiing. And the end of the boyfriend. The BoyFIEND. Honestly, action men are highly overrated.
Sometime later I fronted up to my old PC. For years I’d been wanting to write some fiction for kids. Now I had the chance. I was unemployed. FABULOUS! The perfect time for a project.
I got busy. Tippy tappy, tippy tappy. Look at me! I’m writing a book!
It wasn’t long before I realised, holy mother of all things holy, I’m back on the slopes.
It wasn’t voice or setting or characterisation that tripped me up. It was NARRATIVE ARC.
I was clueless. But you know what? I didn’t even know I didn’t know.
I just knew something was weird. But I persisted. After all, I had worked in publishing. I had a First Class Honours degree in Literature. Surely I could write a kids’ book.
Still it wasn’t coming together. So. I got wily. Instead of ONE book I would write a whole stack of short-story-entertaining-clever-type-thingies. Each one of these would pose as a children’s book. Little books. Thin, little books. If someone added illustrations, the books, nay booklets, might even have a spine. Oh yes. I had vision.
I bundled up the finished products and sent them off to a couple of publishers. (Snail mail in those days). Then I retired to my scriptorium to wait it out.
Six months later ON THE SAME DAY I got a phone call and a letter. The phone call was from publisher number one. They rang to tell me they enjoyed my ‘stories’ but really they were just a string of anecdotes and basically useless.
Stung, but not surprised, I hung up the phone.
Then I went to the mailbox. There was a letter from Penguin. With trembling fingers I tore it open. They said, ‘We love your stories but we think you should combine them and make them into one story. We would then be happy to PUBLISH your story as an Aussie Chomp.’
Now, here’s the best bit. The bit that saved me. ‘We’re sending you a copy of Ruth Starke’s, Catland. You’ll need a narrative arc. We suggest you read Ruth’s story. It will help’.
I’m paraphrasing of course. But do you see how lucky I was? Not only were the women at Penguin willing to guide me, they were also sending me a map!
I got busy and studied Catland with the eye of a writer.
The narrative arc jumped out at me.
I cracked the code! I knew what I had to do.
With imagination and focus, I could build these anecdotes into a real story. (Yes, the other publisher, the one who said I’d written a string of anecdotes was spot on. Her honesty was also priceless in terms of my learning…arc).
There are many morals to this story:
Stay away from action men.
A degree in Literature teaches you to write like an academic but not like a children’s author.
Publishers can be incredibly kind and nurturing.
Narrative arcs are like wire coat hangers. Seen one, you’ve seen ’em all—but a lot of work goes into making them. (BTW I go deep into this theory in my online course, Scribbles.)
When something looks simple it’s probably complex.
And lastly, snow is slippery.
And so, my darling, is fiction.