Story Arcs and Story Wells

A character up a tree.

OK, so that's actually me up a tree, but hey.

Act one: Get your hero up a tree.
Act two: Throw rocks at him.
Act three: Get him down again.
– Attributed to George Abbott

Here’s the thing about me: I really like the rock-throwing part, I’m OK at getting him up the tree, I’m not so hot at getting him down again. Sometimes I manage all three things (and sometimes I just start by throwing rocks at him, and I think that’s OK, too), but I have many stories that just squat in my head with a character, or a bunch of characters, sitting there going: well, this sucks. But that’s not a story arc, that’s a story well.

And here you’ll note I lost the whole tree thing – it’s too upwardly mobile. And as with wells, as opposed to arcs, it lacks the momentum to carry me back down to the close.

Here’s an example. I was describing this really awesomely horrible (to me) thing, which I had carefully orchestrated my book around making happen to my main characters, to a friend who had offered to help me with my plot-road-block. His response was something to the effect of: ‘You’re right, that’s pretty horrible. That’s why you’re stuck there: you’re not going to want any more action after that, you’re going to want some heavy-duty counselling.’ Which is fine to happen in my head (sadly, sometimes it does, even if it’s gods counselling other gods, or shape-shifters counselling robots) but it’s not a good story for a book. It’s got no arc. It’s a well. It’s deep and dark, and my characters are just sitting at the bottom rocking slowly back and forth.

I know that it doesn’t have to be this way. I think what you do when you get your characters so broken that it may not be possible to fix them is that you throw some more action their way and make them do something else whether they want to or not. Robin Hobb is very good at this. I want to be her when I grow up. I will write a nugget of purest angst, and then I’ll throw some more plot at it, and somehow it will find a way towards a proper, grown-up resolution. (Although, I think the Forest Mage trilogy maybe had too many rocks in it even for me.)

Sometimes, I manage to do this, but it’s often complicated by the fact that I’m contrary, and don’t like to get my hero out of the well in any conventional way. And – here’s the tricky part – once I get to the bit where I’m getting them out of the well, I tend to lose interest. ‘And they lived happily ever aftektjsdgfaklsjdghlk…’ *snores* (Not that one has to end in a happily ever after, but you know what I mean.) I’m having this problem at the moment. I’m pretty much done throwing rocks at my character, I just need to bring him in for the close and… and my brain would much prefer to be throwing rocks at someone else than getting this guy out of a well.

I will do it, though. I do, at least, know *how* to get him out of the well. But for so many other stories… it’s just not as fun. And I guess that’s what makes it more like work.

Probably says something about my psyche. Oh well.

About Serenity Womble

I'm a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories, as well as many, many unfinished novels. I review things of a generally speculative nature. This is my blog for writing and reviewing.
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