Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Story Arcs - Prrrrttttt!!

"Marzipan" raised this issue in a comment here.

In Boot Camp a discussion has started:


There's a question on the BootCampDiaries blog about story arcs. The questioner wanted to know AK's opinion of them.

I had a couple of lessons in my Uni course on this topic. They left me uneasy. The idea of story arcs is probably ancient, but it has been devoured by Hollywood, so that everything that comes out of there can be seen as a basic three-act story. (And we ARE talking start - middle - end here, nothing more complicated.)

I guess that's my problem. To me, it's only a step removed from the twist ending - everything is contrived, set up by the author.

I have no doubt that, in capable hands, the three acter can work perfectly well. But the pressure on the author to build to a massive finish is surely too great. You only have to look at the end of Silence of the Lambs, where a fantastic psychological study descended into puerile farce, to see how a story can go hideously wrong because it has to be seen to follow some artificial three-act template.


don't know anything about story arcs.

What's the problem with arcs, that makes them contrived? Isn't the theory like what we use already: setting up voice and conflict in the opening, developing character and theme, and ending in a way which shines a light back over the story? Are there more formal "rules" than that?


Yes, the trouble is that it does tend to be rigid. There's the start, where the problem is defined, the characters created. Then it goes on to the creation of ther threat.

Then it goes on to the MC confronting the threat, usually before anyone else does. He then persuades everyone to accept the problem.

End of act one.

So they march off into the fray, to confront the problem. They meet it, fail miserably. Meanwhile, the stakes are raised. We realise how important it all is. So FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION.

But at the end of Act 2 failure seems inevitable. We have the first confrontation with the enemy. It doesn't go well, and the enemy seems bound to win.

End of Act two

So act three begins with the MC on the defensive, seemingly about to fail. At this stage Hollywood will generally start introducing some Christian bullshit. If not, some quasi-supernatural reserve of strength will save the MC and he will finally prevail over the seemingly all-conquering enemy.

It's crude. It can actually work well. There is a book which reduces a number of films to the story arc format (except it inexcusably forgets the embarrassingly awful Silence of the Lambs escape scene, one of the worst plot twists in Hollywood history). I don't like it because it forces writers into a straightjacket. How can you be fresh when you have to follow a rigid story-arc?


Oh Lord.

Can you think of ANY good short stories which fit into that pattern? Take something like The Ledge, with the Sea as the enemy. It's great because some quasi-supernatural reserve of strength DOES NOT save the MC and he DOES NOT finally prevail over the seemingly all-conquering enemy.

Or is it that in a good short story the enemy isn't necessarily the obvious suspect?

Can you think of ANY good short stories which fit into that pattern?


I think short stories have a subtlety that can't be encompassed by the three-act formula.

Take A Silver Dish. It shifts. Your opinion of both Woody and Morris is constantly changing. They're real people, they're lives can't be reduced to a convenient three act summary. Both are flawed, in charismatic ways. How do you make a Hollywood ending out of that?

(Actually, you would make the Hollywood ending out of the scene with Woody getting into the bed to calm his father, because that's a natural end, but in this story it comes half way through. Thus showing a story arc doesn't work for this story. And, anyway, it would be a rotten ending because it doesn't take account of Woody's continuing ambivalence.)


Marzipan said...

Dear Al,

Thank you for addressing this issue.

This is what my course notes say:

'Nearly all stories will contain the 3 Cs (Characters, Conflict and Climax). They will also have a setting, a quest (however small), a critical moment – if not a fully fledged crisis – and usually some kind of resolution, surprise or closure.

in Joyce’s ‘Araby’, for example, at a structural level, the initial situation is that the narrator, a young boy living in Dublin, is infatuated by a girl. The inciting incident occurs when she asks him if he is going to Araby. His quest is then to go to the bazaar and buy her something. There is internal conflict between the young boy and the adult world. Complications occur when his uncle does not come home until late. This creates tension and leads to a critical moment when the young boy almost doesn't make it to the bazaar. The climax comes when the young boy arrives at Araby, but it is too late and the people make him feel uncomfortable.

The theme of the story, never stated, is disappointment.'

Surely, you couldn't say that 'Araby' was in any way 'Hollywood'.


Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Marzipan, Tom C here. I think it was me who made the references to Hollywood.

What I mean is that the use of the story arc tends to shoehorn a writer into a specific type of story - one with rising drama, until it reaches the point of bubbling over into melodrama. Because you're aware of this element of quest, and the concomitant challenges thrown at the protagonist, and the need for an initial failure followed by the final battle, it tends to lead you in often predictable ways.

If you have the ability of Joyce you avoid that and produce something (in this case) more understated and subtle.

I'm not arguing that story arcs are completely wrong - they're only an equivalent of a normal distribution curve, really - but I am very wary of writing while too conscious of the notion, because I think it would restrict my creative flow.

Marzipan said...

Hi Tom C,

Thanks for your comments.

I think you may be right about story arcs restricting creative flow, but without the arc, what makes a story a story, rather than a piece of prose or description ?


Tom Conoboy said...

A story is a story when it describes something - an action, a thought, a feeling, a person - which causes the reader to reflect on some thematic point. I'm talking in terms of literary fiction here. Genre fiction needs to work within its respective conventions, obviously. I see literary fiction as being much freer to experiment, and as long as there is some underlying point to it, I don't mind if it has no plot, no narrative, no conventional form. If it makes me reflect, it is a story.

Marzipan said...

Thank you.

I shall go and reflect upon that!