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.