Ask the editor: Constructing the “narrative arc”

Q:My writers group thinks I need to strengthen the narrative arc in my novel. How can I do that?

A:The “narrative arc” is a fancy way of saying that every story needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you need an act one, act two, act three.

Take for example a coming-of-age novel or memoir. The 13-year-old hero starts out an innocent lad, poised on the brink of challenges, opportunities and choices.

But in many proposals and draft manuscripts I see, the poor boy is in much the same place by page 476. Not enough has happened to him.

A successful narrative arc requires action

If there had been the necessary narrative arc, our hero would have been tested and endured a series of adventures, symbolic actions and meaningful experiences that would have left him more mature at the climactic epiphany. Like Aeneas or Ulysses or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter.

In a successful narrative arc, the hero or heroine is confronted with dangerous threats, seductive choices, major decisions, necessary feats of physical bravery, or emotionally powerful assaults from family or social pressure.

Editor & writer go scene-by-scene to find the holes

When I’m working with a writer who needs to strengthen the narrative arc, we go through the story scene by scene and find the holes, the moments in time when something needs to happen to get the central figure to the next level.

We brainstorm specific scenes to insert that target the character’s weakness or dramatize the symbolic threats from rivals, challenges from mentors, dangerous social stressors within the political or cultural context of the situation, opportunities to succeed or fail.  For writers seeking professional guidance, here’s my advice: Choosing a Freelance Editor: What You Need to Know

A good story needs to:

  • start with a bang
  • quickly accelerate to a level of action
  • have moments of drama and suspense that keep rising in intensity
  • sustain a high pitch
  • level off
  • gradually come down to earth in an emotionally satisfying closure and denouement

Constructing such a narrative arc is not easy but it is mandatory. If you’re having a problem, I suggest first writing a rough chapter outline to chart out the geometric rise and fall of your arc.

Take a look at the 2nd piece in this series, Ask the editor: 6 steps to writing a memoir, which also touches on issues related to the narrative arc in a work of non-fiction.

And for more on the narrative arc in the broader context of developing a coherent and compelling story, look here at Ask the editor: 7 techniques for a dynamite plot.

20 Responses to Ask the editor: Constructing the “narrative arc”

  1. Janelle Kimball

    Having done a multitude of revisions on my narrative memoir about living with a Mother who was mentally ill and how her illness devastated our family, I worry that over the course of time that I will edit out the passion and emotional impact that I initially wrote with. Is this something to be concerned about or, if done correctly, will those same emotions be better defined?

  2. Alan Rinzler

    Dear Janelle,

    Writing is rewriting. Every good writer does draft after draft until it sings, and flies, and slides down smoothly into your reader’s consciousness. And even then you may come back to it for another pass. I’m sure that such an effort will build the passion and intense emotions of the story of living with your mother. And if it doesn’t work the first time, take heart and try again.

    You might want to take a look at my most recent post on what to include and what to leave out when writing a memoir.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Suneetha

    hi

    I am writing about a “unique” subject… I know everyone says that, but I know that there isnt even a little known book about the subject yet. How can I make sure the subject will really interest the reader? Are there any taboos that a publisher looks at?

    sincerely

    Suneetha

  4. Karen Levy

    Dear Mr. Rinzler,

    Thank you for all your useful advice. However, I seem to be facing a different challenge as a result of the style of my memoir. It consists of vignettes, much like Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, and while my agent is receiving very positive responses to the writing itself, editors seem to be nervous about the style and want a more traditional narrative. I’m hoping to find a way to add to the manuscript without having to tear apart very carefully and chronologically constructed vignettes.

    I’d love some advice…

    Respectfully,

    K. Levy

  5. Alan Rinzler

    Hi Karen-

    I can’t offer any iron-clad advice without reading your manuscript but I would say this:

    a. Editors often write hurried rejections that should not become guidelines for a specific revision. Does being “nervous about the style” really warrant tearing apart your unique narrative structure?

    b. There’s no one formula or literary style for a memoir. But always try to make your story more clear, understandable, and inspiring. If what you’ve written is the form of vignettes, take another hard look and ask yourself: is this coherent and easy to follow?

    c. Are there too many confusing flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, awkward leaps in time, shifts in point of view or narrative voice, like from first person to third, to second, back and forth? Can you insert any glue or new transitions that would help?

    These are some of the issues I would look at if I were working with you as a developmental editor.

    Good luck!

    -Alan

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  8. K.R. Spooner

    In my experience the narrative arc must include the following ingredients: exposition, descriptions, dialogue, and character develoments through back story, including the first three. When and how much to add these ingredients can enhance or impede the proper mix that produces the best margarita! And isn’t the best recipe a matter of taste and whether your tome is literary or commercial? What do you think?

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  13. Heidi

    Wow, so glad I found your blog (via The Passive Voice blog). You are now going into my google reader, and on my blogroll.
    Thanks!

  14. LKWatts

    My third book will be a total work of fiction so I found this post very helpful indeed. Thanks!

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  16. Sylvia Waldman

    Dear Mr.Rinzler:

    Is the narrative arc applicable in children’s books? I’m talking about 6, 7, or 8 year olds.

    Thank you for your advice.

    Sylvia

  17. Alan Rinzler

    Sylvia,

    Yes. Whether it’s an illustrated book you read to kids or a chapter book for young readers, the same principles apply. The story needs a beginning, middle, and end.

  18. Fernanda

    Hello.

    I’ve written a book with almost 82,000 words, I love the story in my mind, and think it has a lot of potential.
    I have finished the rough part where I wrote all the ideas down, and I am now struggling to edit the book.
    I’am brazilian, and my first language is Portuguese,however I enjoy writting in english, and now think in English since I’ve lived in Australia for six years. I have decided to study literature in the future, to understand the usage of the English Grammar, but at the moment, I have three children, one two year old boy, and one year old twin girls.
    So editing my first book has become a nightmare, since I have no time or quiet to be able to rewrite and construct the arc properly, as I study the proper use of grammar.
    I do want to publish my book, becaause since the story came into my mind it has become a dream. But I have so many ideas that my book is only the first out of three that I wish to write since the storyline takes so many turns.
    Is there a website, os someone that would be able to freelance and help me turn my rough diamond into a work of art??
    Would very much appreciate any help given.

    Thank you.

  19. Alan Rinzler

    Fernanda

    There are many freelance editors available who can help you develop your book from its present form to something more likely to appeal to readers. You may find them in local college-level extension courses, trainings, or writers’ groups. You can search on line, and explore the various editors listed to see if they have a good track record, respond promptly, and offer clear financial terms. Keep in mind that experienced developmental editors are not inexpensive.

    Read the posts in this blog about finding and working with a developmental editor. Here’s one to start with — http://www.alanrinzler.com/blog/2009/07/02/choosing-a-freelance-editor-what-you-need-to-know/

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