Learning by doing (or the importance of story arc)

October 11, 2010

From the beginning, I've been stubborn about following a model for my story arc. If I wrote a good story, I figured, it would have a natural arc without me obsessing over the “inciting incident” and “crisis” and “resolution.” If all authors stuck to a strict story arc template, I rationalized, books would be boring!

But I had a major change of heart during this last revision. Not because I wanted to – because I had to.

After a year and a half of working on this manuscript, most of the important elements were in place. Plot? Check. Voice? Check. Dialogue? Check. But again and again, as writer friends read and critiqued the manuscript, I'd hear the same criticism: Strengthen your story arc.

So I found myself doing exactly what I'd avoided from the beginning: learning what the heck a story arc was. I learned with the help of several generous writer friends, through the magic of Google and by re-reading the best book I've found on writing memoir, Tristine Rainer's Your Life as Story, which dedicates a good chunk of pages to story development.

I went through my manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, looking for my inciting incident (now that I understood what it was), my crisis and my realization. I asked myself how my story fit into the classic line of desire, struggle and resolution. Once I tied each of the elements of a story to a physical or psychological event in my book, it was easy to see what was missing, where my story arc was weak, and how to fix it.

Because that'd been my problem from the very beginning – how to fix it. I knew my story arc needed work, but I didn't know what to do to make it better.

Part of the reason this has been so difficult for me – probably thee most difficult part of writing this manuscript – is because this is the first time I've ever had to write a story with arc. Sure, I've published lots of articles in newspapers and magazines, but for most of those pieces I plopped the most important tidbit at the top, gave it away from the very beginning. It doesn't work that way in a book. It's much more complicated.

The other reason this has been difficult is because my story arc, like the story arc of any memoir, is tied so closely to my personal growth. Showing what I learned while backpacking solo through Africa is essential to my story, but it wasn't clear to me from the beginning. In fact, it wasn't until I went through the process of writing this memoir that I realized what I'd learned, and how different events throughout my trip and life contributed to that growth. That's why writing memoir can be so rewarding, because it's a process of self-discovery.

But I learned more than just story arc here. I learned a lesson. Though my writer friends told me from the very beginning that I should focus on story arc – my good friend Peggy even tried to help me to map it out from the get-go – I didn't understand its importance until I needed it to succeed. I didn't “get it” until I went through it. It didn't make total sense until I butt up against the obstacle in my own manuscript and had to work my way through it.

Sometimes the only way we really learn is by doing.

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    26 Replies to “Learning by doing (or the importance of story arc)”

    • Andrea James says:

      Wow. This sounds so daunting. Good for you!

    • Andi says:

      Sooo good to know for the future! I’m glad you were able to successfully revise your book.

    • Great post! The diagram was incredibly helpful. I’m having the same issue in part 2 of Julius, but now I have a much better idea of how to approach this issue. Thanks so much.

    • Lanham True says:

      Story arc development is definitely my biggest writing weakness, too. It can seem so overwhelming — I won’t admit how many drafts I’ve just thrown out rather than fixed, over the years. I’ve ordered Tristine Rainier’s book — thanks for the tip!

    • alisha says:

      I also am trying to focus on my arc – it’s really difficult! I have requested Your Life as Story from the library though and hopefully that will help. 🙂 Glad you pushed through!

    • Susan Saxx says:

      Thanks for this great article, Alexis. Like you I’ve written many magazine articles, and had no issues. However, I’ve been thinking I need to get knowledgeable about this topic, as I finish revisions on my wip. I’m going to check out the resources you mention. Thanks for jogging me to this necessary step.

      By the way, your book … your personal story…sounds fabulous. Looking forward to its release. All the best!

    • Megan says:

      Thanks for this great post. Despite having gotten my start in writing by writing plays (a.k.a. story arc central), I seem to forget about the importance of a solid story arc when it comes to writing novels. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Great post Alexis. It’s so important to learn by doing, but also to have people around you who can point things out that you don’t necessarily see yourself. Best of luck with your memoir.


    • Hi Alexis, great post! That sounds especially challenging to translate a memoir/personal growth into a story arc. Thanks for explaining story arc so clearly, with a picture too! It helps reinforce what I’m doing with a novel I’m working on. I believe I just finished “Act I”.

    • Too many writers resist learning the nuts and bolts of their chosen business. If you are to be serious about writing, you have to learn story structure. Not story formula, but story STRUCTURE. The same story structure that has been in place since Gilgamesh.

      Read STORY by Robert McKee. Deals mostly with screenwriting, but his ability to impart the principles of storytelling are useful to any writer.
      Read WRITING TO SELL by Scott Meridith

      I’ll bet that you slog through your story without an outline as well (otherwise, you’d nail your character arc with ease). Learn to construct and utilize a step outline and writing will become easier by tenfold. And more enjoyable.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        I do slog through without an outline (though I have a vague idea of where I want the story to go). But hey, it worked for me! The cool thing about this process is that something different works for everyone. Cheers!

    • Lisa McKay says:

      This made me laugh (in commiseration). I’ve been through exactly the same process with my memoir in the last four months. I didn’t know what the elements of a story arc were either, despite having successfully published the first novel. Google – from a cafe in Laos with high speed internet – was my friend. I’m just about to start working through the memoir draft again and it’s good to be reminded to be double checking all of this as best I can. Thanks. And congrats on the draft going to your agent by the way – great stuff.

    • And you’ve done such a great job! And thanks for the shout-out! I’m just waiting for the finished product to hit the shelves.

    • Emma says:

      This is very helpful! I’ll check out the book that you mentioned. Thanks!

    • Ami says:

      I needed to hear this. I tend to leave story arc to chance and expect that my essays (and whatever other creative pieces I’m working on) will naturally develop their arc as I write and edit (and edit and edit…). But it doesn’t always work that way, and I’m guessing after reading what you wrote here that if I paid more attention to the arc in when I started writing, the editing process might be a less stressful and time consuming. Great stuff, as always, Lexi!

    • I have one friend that’s urging me to write a memoir, and if and when I ever do it, this will be a huge challenge. My China story has had so many little ups and downs. I have an idea of what the major crisis would be, but I wouldn’t want to make other people involved look bad. All things to think about if I ever have the time and headspace and burning desire to write this into a book…

    • Ian Robinson says:

      Wow! Thanks again for quality information.

    • Pamela Towns says:

      Loved this article! I actually used it in my blog post: Pen Paper & Perseverance: “How to keep your Story Arcs Straight”

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