By Lyssa Tall Anolik
If you’ve been doing the exercises in this series for the last few months, you’ve pulled lumps of raw material from the clay bank of your memory. Now let’s start shaping them into the story you want to tell. The first step: Find your story arc and structure. This is a big topic, so I’m splitting it into two articles. This month, we’ll focus on narrative story arc: the spine along which a story is built.
What is “story arc”?
A narrative work – like a novel, short story or fairy tale – includes a beginning, middle and end. It often (but not always) progresses chronologically. In its simplest form, you can visualize the story arc as a bell curve drawn across the page. The bottom left is the beginning, in which you describe the situation at the start of the story. For example:
Little Red Riding Hood sets out for Grandma’s house with a basket of goodies.
Then a conflict develops and the line begins to rise:
Red enters the forest, meets the wolf and tells him where she’s going.
Next, we follow the bell curve up the line of rising action, a series of obstacles and events that build tension:
The wolf gets to Grandma’s first, eats her, puts on her clothes and lies in wait for Red. Red arrives and is confused and suspicious: “What big teeth you have… .”
At the top of the bell curve, we reach the climax of the story in which the situation comes to a head:
“…the better to eat you with!” The wolf jumps out of bed and devours Red.
The downward slope of the curve represents the falling action, the “denouement,” in which the situation resolves:
A hunter arrives, cuts open the wolf and frees Red and Grandma; they live happily ever after.
By the end of the story, the protagonist – in memoir, that’s usually you – has changed in some clearly-definable way:
Red Riding Hood has lost her naiveté when it comes to trusting big bad wolves.
Different kinds of arcs
The bell curve should be used as a beginning point of departure, rather than a rigid model to stick to. You may, for example, choose to start with a climax, like a death. The remainder of the story could go back in time and bring us slowly to the present moment. Alternatively, the story could move forward in time from the death, following the narrator’s journey of healing towards an emotional or spiritual climax that leads to her life taking a new course. If you’re writing a book-length work, each chapter may have its own internal arc, creating a series of smaller climaxes that lead up to the big one. There are endless possibilities. As you read, both memoir and fiction, start noticing how different authors structure their story arcs to give you ideas.*
Finding your own arc
Sometimes your stories will fall easily into a narrative structure, but other times you have to go looking for it. This is the biggest difference between memoir and fiction. In fiction, you get to create your plot line as you go along. In memoir, you are taking the events of your life and searching for the narrative arc within them. This can be tricky! A temptation for memoir writers is to try to include too much, which dilutes the tension by going off on tangents. Take your group of stories and anecdotes and look for a theme you want to follow. Put everything that doesn’t directly relate to that theme aside. You can save it for a later project.
Draw a bell curve length-wise across a sheet of paper.
Fill in the pieces of your story along the length of the line:
- Describe the situation at the start of the story at bottom left edge.
- Where the line begins to rise, describe the emerging conflict that changes the situation.
- List the series of obstacles and events – stair-stepping up the hill of the curve – that build towards the main climax.
- Describe the climax of your story – the height of the conflict – at the peak of the curve.
- Describe the events that follow – the “denouement” or resolution – along the downhill slope.
- Describe what’s changed in the narrator’s life at the bottom right edge of the line: How is he/she/you different after going through this experience?
Now play with your story arc. Try starting your story in different places to see what feels right.**
This exercise will help you start to piece your story together and find gaps that need to be filled. Some of you, however, may be asking, “What if my memoir doesn’t fit into a narrative arc format?” Don’t worry! Stay tuned in February for a discussion of additional memoir structures, such as snapshot vignettes, mosaics, essays and poetry. In the meantime, I still encourage you to try the story arc exercise. You may be surprised by what emerges.
* A few of my favorite narrative memoirs include Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Beryl Markham’s West with the Night; and Signe Pike’s Faery Tale.
** For a more in-depth discussion of story arc construction and additional exercises – including “the fairy tale” and “hero’s journey” story spines – see Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff.
Welcome to VoiceCatcher’s fourth in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.