Monday, January 17, 2011

If something happens to you in real life that you (or people around you) think would make a great story, ask yourself: what’s the narrative arc?

It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare’s five acts, or the traditional three acts of Hollywood, but I believe there has to be some kind of structure in fiction (even if it’s an experimental structure: all the sentences begin with consecutive letters of the alphabet, or there is no letter “E”, e.g.) or else the human brain wanders off.

Think of a dinner party and that guy at the foot of the table who monopolizes the conversation talking about his trip overseas. If the story builds and builds (he lost his wallet, he was locked out of his hotel room, a strange woman took him in, they discovered a shared passion for fish…) you could listen to him all day. If he just lists a lot of things that happened in random order (he lost his wallet, it turned out it was in his luggage, the hotel room was sub-par, he had fish for lunch, the boss was late to a meeting) – all of a sudden your side dishes look really fascinating. Right? you want to tell this bozo to get tot he point or shut up and let someone else talk.

So in your writing this year, weed out the unnecessary to give your story shape. If what happened in real life to give you the inspiration for the story does not inherently have a narrative arc, impose one. Blend the interesting characteristics of three dull people into one fascinating character. Cut out all the events that are mundane. Describe only those things that matter. You are a writer of fiction and your stories should be so gripping that if you told one at a dinner party, people would forget to eat.

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