Narrative Arc – Your story needs a shape

By Louise Nayer, author of  Poised for Retirement: Moving from Anxiety to Zen (2017)

As a poet for many years, I didn’t obsess about “narrative arc” —though there was a beginning, middle and end to my poems that I tinkered with constantly.

When I moved to prose — plot, character transformation, tying it all together — the denouement — was new territory for me and very difficult. I didn’t even like the term “narrative arc” that everyone was throwing around. Why do I have to prove growth? Change? Don’t people stay the same? Or if the writing is good, isn’t that enough? Life is not neat. It’s messy, often very messy. I didn’t want Pollyanna endings. Why do I need arc?

When I sent out a piece to the San Francisco Chronicle, “The Panic,” about an accident that severely burned my parents when I was four and my later panic attacks, it was rejected. I decided to go back and change the ending with some words thrown in about how we all accepted our new, reconstructed family and became more compassionate people. Bingo, the article was published.

I’ve gotten more skilled at thinking about the arc — about the obstacles in the way and about transformation. We tend to gravitate toward characters that learn from the past and are resilient, despite the hard knocks of life. Resilience gives us hope that we, too, learn from our suffering and have a story to tell, a legacy to leave.

In memoir, especially, no one likes a whiny voice. However, memoirs are often written about terribly painful events. The writing needs to go deeply into the pain of a scene or moment in order for the book to work. But the author also needs to have a new perspective, a lesson learned, and an acceptance of pain, death, and separation and, yes, often a reminder that love and deep connections to others heal us.

So what is arc?

First, a character wants something and has a desire. Adair Lara, who wrote a wonderful piece “Key Elements of Writing a Memoir”, named it the “desire line.” Sometimes that’s hard to figure out, and that’s okay. In the new memoir I’m writing, at first I thought my nineteen year old self wanted love (which of course everyone wants), but as I wrote for a couple of years, I realized what I wanted first was to break away from my parents. I then went back and revised some scenes with that in mind. The desire must propel the book forward. Readers want to root for you—hoping you will find independence, or love, or a missing parent or sibling, or make it to base camp of Everest!

One reviewer said of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild “…it’s a woman coming out of heartbreak…with a clear view of where she has been.” We want to see that she has examined her life and also found resilience, in Strayed’s case both physically and emotionally as she walks 1000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the arc needs to be earned. People don’t easily change or suddenly gain a new perspective. Most people actually stay the same and don’t want to examine their lives. Who can blame them? It’s hard work. But as writers, that’s what we do. We examine the big questions and also the minutiae of life. Characters go on a journey, often to a new land. Some of these journeys are harrowing. In Beah’s Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, he goes from an idyllic childhood to being caught up in the terror of war in Sierra Leone and doing terrible acts, to being rescued by UNICEF and brought to America. We see the pain. We see the resilience. We see the forgiveness. In Jessmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped she starts with a question about why all these men she cared about died and finds answers as she examines racism and economic struggle.

We’re cheerleaders throughout the books we read, staying up late at night wanting to make sure she got back home before her mother died, or she was able to continue to be a nurse even though she was in an accident and had to be in a wheelchair, or that despite being facially burned, she found someone who wanted to be her romantic partner.

Arc is about life’s ups and downs—what a character wants and the obstacles she faces along the way. The denouement is the climax, when things are made clear and resolved. As humans, we know that the next week can bring more obstacles or difficulties that will need to be overcome As writers, we are the puppeteers, picking and choosing—what obstacles must be faced, and what lessons will be learned on the journey.

Louise Nayer is the author of five books. Burned: A Memoir was an Oprah Great Read and won the Wisconsin Library Association Award. Her most recent book is about emotional planning for retirement: Poised for Retirement: Moving from Anxiety to Zen. She teaches through OLLI at UC Berkeley and is a member of the SF Writer’s Grotto where she teaches memoir.

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