Whether you are writing a speech, a memoir, a novel or non-fiction, you’re going to need a narrative arc. This structural trajectory has been with us for over 3000 years; I’m confident it’s not going anywhere any time soon!
The narrative arc is the framework on which your story hangs. Let’s face it: as soon as you open your mouth, put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard or laser pointer to projection screen, you are telling some kind of story, for story is how we order the world, connect with humanity, and decipher the meaning of life. It’s also how we influence, explain and inspire. A good story, well told, wields incredible power.
So that your writing can generate that power, let’s break down that standard structure a bit.
Simple, right? A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Everyone knows that. But serious storytellers will agree that it is not so easy to start unfailingly with a bang, quickly accelerate the action, insert elements of drama and suspense that raise the intensity and sustain a high pitch of engagement to reach a climax, then level off, and provide an emotionally satisfying denouement and closure. That’s a pretty tall order! How do you find the best way to tell your particular story?
I’ve been combing the literature on the construction and effect of the narrative arc on all kinds of writing and presentation. Below are some of the tips, techniques and explanations I like the most.
- If your story is a journey of change and transformation (as most pieces of fiction are, and most memoirs should be) it may be helpful to begin at the end. What will the ending be? What is its point? Once you determine that, it becomes easier to go back and fill in the details of a chapter-by-chapter outline. John Irving reputedly never starts a new novel until he has written its concluding line.
- Speaking of outlines….you need one! It serves as a roadmap of where you’re going, even if you later decide to take detours. It’s much easier to start the trip if you know what direction you’re headed in. (Many experts advise a basic outline of fourteen chapters, with three or four scenes per chapter. Then you can start moving things around and expanding, compressing, or chucking some of the initial ideas.)
- If it’s a speech or presentation you’re working on, what’s your big idea? What’s the overriding concept/thought or feeling you want to leave your audience with? What Stephen R. Covey famously advised people who want to be “highly effective” in life applies equally to those seeking to be highly effective writers: “Begin with the end in mind!”
- “Start like you’re jumping on a moving train.” Instead of agonizing over that all-important opening sentence, start with a scene or incident that is crucial to the action, or something that represents the essential theme or thrust of the narrative or speech, and write that. It may help to get the creative juices flowing and spark ideas for other critical points or scenes that will then lead you back to where you should actually begin.
- There are two writing imperatives that may be clichéd, but that I’ve nonetheless found to always apply: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, and SHOW, DON’T TELL. Following the first dictum ensures that you will write what you are most interested in, what you probably love, and what you would like to read yourself. The second ensures that you get out of your own way and let the story tell itself. It avoids an information dump or the intrusion of an omniscient narrator giving the reader a filtered summary instead of letting the characters pull us into the action. For a speech, that translates to providing practical examples that your audience can easily relate to.
- Remember that stories aren’t about what happens; they are about what it FEELS LIKE when something happens. E. L. Doctorow said, “we are not reporting on the existence of rain, but creating the experience of standing in the rain.”
- Robert McKee reminds us that we have all told each other the same story since the dawn of time, and that story is called The Quest.“ An event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a Quest for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal.) He may or may not achieve it. This is story in a nutshell.” So reduced to its simplest form, what do all characters want? The thing that will make them happy.
- William Kenower describes THREE narrative arcs. The first is the physical arc: every single thing that happens in a story. The second is the emotional arc: the “trace of every single character’s emotional progress.” What do they begin believing and what do they end the story believing? The third, and most important, is the intentional arc: this is why you are telling the story…the theme, metaphor or message.
- Kenower also advises thinking of the story as a joke: the ending is the punchline, and the punchline is therefore the intentional arc. Since the ending is why you told the story, everything you put into the story functions to guide the reader to that ending. Always keep in mind that you are leading the reader (or listener) somewhere. Where are you taking them?
There are probably as many good techniques for kick-starting effective storytelling as there are successful writers, raconteurs and presenters. Do you have a set process? How does it start? How do you coach yourself to the finish line when you hit bumps along the way? If you, like biblical Noah, had to choose, what would you ensure made it into your arc?