There’s nothing better than a roller coaster. Whether you prefer traditional wooden roller coasters that whip you around corners and over hills to the point you’re convinced you’re going to come off the seat. Or the latest launch coasters that fling you out at top speeds that water your eyes so badly you can’t see half the twists and loops you go through. Perhaps even hanging coasters where you get the sensation of flight, with the air rushing around your body to the point you can picture the wings attached to your back. Your heart starts racing, blood rushes to your brain, and synapses fire at an alarming rate. And then the car slams on the brakes, and you shudder into the station. Ride’s over, and you’re left with an incredible rush of adrenaline.
Kind of like the feeling you get from an exceptional story.
So imagine the sensation you’d get if someone forgot to finish the tracks on a coaster. You’d drop off the end and plunge to the ground. Not quite fun ride you were expecting. Or you experience so many twists, loops, batwings, and corkscrews that your blood pressure plummets and you can’t see straight. If your brain loses comprehension, your enjoyment isn’t quite there, either. (No one likes getting taken to the ER as a result of a carnival ride) And, of course, if you board a roller coaster that makes a single loop, with NOTHING, you’re going to complain (or wonder if you accidentally ventured into the kids’ section of the park)
Yet people do this ALL the time with their writing!
Regardless of the genre you write, or the form you choose to work in (I’ll exempt poetry because those rules are all over the place), you have one framework you’re expected to build your plot beneath: the story arc. And it’s the most basic skeleton in a writer’s tool box! The story arc contains these basic elements of your plot:
- The beginning: Your introduction of characters and the problem
- The middle: The conflict and action
- The end: The resolution
At it’s most fundamental, that’s what’s required for ANY story. Do most stories resemble a real arc or parabola? No, not really. The best tales – even short stories – have dips and raises, and a few quick hairpins and corkscrews you weren’t expecting. However, the framework exists. If you leave out one element of the arc, your readers wander around scratching their heads. Or they get supremely annoyed. You’re not being clever or “breaking new ground.” You’re being an idiot.
Beginning, middle, end.
Introduction, conflict, resolution.
It’s really NOT that difficult of a concept. Or, at least, I wouldn’t think so. Nor should it get so complicated to realize you need to introduce dips and rises into the middle of your arc. This is an adventure for your readers (yes, even if you’re writing something heart wrenching). No one wants to get on a flat, go nowhere ride. SOMETHING needs to occur. How interested are you to read about someone eating their white bread and mayo sandwich? No one’s picking up that story. Give them a REASON to invest their time. Don’t bore them half to death with the mundane!
And don’t you dare leave everything unresolved and then have the nerve to pat yourself on the back and walk away. I’m not talking about a cliffhanger, either. I understand those; they’re employed all the time by writers intending to write a sequel, trilogy, etc. No, I mean I actually read an epilogue where the writers announced they’d FINISHED a story arc (their words, not mine) despite the fact every single ball was still in the air! NO! BAD WRITERS! You’ve finished NOTHING! That isn’t a story arc. It’s…it’s not even a recognizable piece of geometry. I threw the book across the room. That’s an affront to a loyal reader – and to writers everywhere that slave over their computers or ink pads.
If you’ve written yourself into a corner, go to your publisher and admit you need more time. Don’t decide it’s “good enough” and walk away, dusting your hands. The story arc exists for a reason. It’s a principle of writing that dates back to the ancient Greeks. (Probably further than that, but we can document their work) People get annoyed with incomplete work. They lose interest. They throw things (literally). They refuse to pick up the next thing you put on a shelf (assuming your publisher decides to maintain a relationship with you).
It’s a simple framework to build a story upon. What you do under that arc? That’s completely open to you. So it seems like a small thing to ask you to respect it. Hell, even in my non-fiction writing, I use a story arc. I have a brief introduction, then I flesh out the topic, and then I round everything up with a summary. (Crazy how that works) It’s a respect for your readers. And it doesn’t take much work to follow it.
Use ALL the elements of your story arc. And you can pat yourself on the back that no one will throw your work across the room. At least, not for that reason. (I throw books for other reasons, too)