The Essential Arc of Your Story

Every week I talk with people at different points on the writing journey. Some people have an idea for a book, some have finished a first draft, some have started writing and want to know the best next steps.

With all the writers I work with, we start by considering the shape of the story. Memoirs are a journey story. They are not an episodic recounting of a situation. You have to be sure you have found the story in the situation, that you show the change(s) you made from Point A (the beginning of the book) to Point B (the end). This shape in the storyline is known as the narrative arc.

If you have no narrative arc you may be doing what’s called episodic writing. With episodic writing, the recounting of events, you may feel you’re writing a story because there are the components of a story in every one you recount. But episodic writing tends to come across as unfocused, sometimes even monotonous. There’s no unfolding story, no progression with a tension to it that keeps a reader curious and engaged (How will she get through this? What will he do next?), leading to eventual resolve in the final part of the book.

If you’re writing a book, wherever you are in the process, be sure you can track the development of a key aspect of your journey in the story, from beginning to end.

Russell Baker gives a great example with his book Growing Up (a Pulitzer Prize winner). His book’s timeline covered twenty years of his life—childhood to young adult. His agent turned the manuscript down. The book, she told him, was full of beautifully written stories, but it was missing The Story.

Frustrated, Baker went back to the writing desk. What else could he say? He had told his story. After deep consideration of it, Baker succeeded in finding a theme that ran through his book, a theme he could shape the story of the book around. He added a new beginning to start the narrative arc, he drew the theme forward throughout the chapters, and he finished with a satisfying conclusion to the journey story he was clearly showing now. And what was that journey story? Russell Banks’ mother wanted something from him. She wanted him to make something of himself.

March is a good month to consider your own growth journey in the book you’re writing or want to write. What is the narrative arc, the shape of your story? Looking for it you may even find out more about your life than you thought you knew.