Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A writing rule to break: when arc isn’t a best choice

During a book club discussion of a writer from outside the United States, a writing friend from an Eastern European country pointed out triumphantly, There’s no structure! Did she secretly hope to prove that structure in book-length manuscripts is an American plot that should not apply to her own writing? Sorry, no. The book in question actually did possess structure. It just wasn’t the narrative arc that’s come to seem standard in modern fiction. It was, in fact, an ancient and honorable structure, which I was pleased to hear Australian writer Kate Forsyth describe at a recent writing workshop.

Kate Forsyth
The dramatic arc (also described as 3-act or 4-act structure) isn’t the only model available. There is, in fact, an alternative more amenable to some narrative forms – the episodic plot.

Episodic plot has been in use at least since the 15th century writing of Le Morte d’Arthur. Don Quixote doted on it in the 17th century, The Pickwick Papers in the 19th. Many memoirists and writers of narrative nonfiction still employ it, not to mention writers of children’s chapter books. Why has the episodic plot fallen into disrepute? And how (and when) is an episodic plot an appropriate story vehicle?

To review: the dramatic arc (also called a narrative arc) features a story in which, over the entire length of the story, the action rises ever more tensely to a climax, and then falls to a resolution. The pedigree of the narrative arc dates back to the origins of drama – Act I, Act II, Act III, and so forth.

By comparison, in an episodic plot, the narrative consists of a series of interconnected episodes – stories or chapters – which each tell their own story, with its own dramatic arc in miniature, but are also complete and satisfying in their own right.

It demands a strong beginning – think of that as an engine – to grab its readers’ attention and pull them all the way through its long train of story cars, connected by a common character or setting -- until it ends in a final resolution, like a train’s caboose.

Forsyth suggests using the episodic plot for stories that span a long period of time, such as the book my friend complained about at the beginning of this post. Think multi-generational sagas. Think biographies. Think stories covering a long period of time. (James Mitchener, anyone?)

image: wikimedia commons
However, when Forsyth used the beloved children’s book Anne of Green Gables as an example, it occurred to me that the format is also suited to writing for young readers. In fact, the classic “chapter books” parents read to their children (or kids read for themselves) once they’re beyond the picture book stage. Ideally suited to the 15- or 20-minute daily reading requirement my grandsons’ elementary school asks for.

Forsyth credits Jane Austen and her romantic interest in fairy tales for adapting the narrative arc of these short fictions into the gold standard for modern long-form fiction. (And Forsyth knows her fairy tales, having earned a graduate degree in fairy tale studies, as well as adapting them to modern fiction in books such as Bitter Greens, her retelling of the Rapunzel story.)

But if an episodic plot seems to suit your story, give it a try. I’ll add some caveats. An episodic plot isn’t a mishmash. It requires a strong connection between all its story cars. I’ve also heard at least one book editor knock episodic plots as “bus ride” stories. If you know the publisher, editor, agent, you’re aiming for has similar feelings, don’t seek to outrage their feelings. As Forsyth also says, when you break the rules, break them wisely. And well.

Forsyth’s appearance last week in Dallas was sponsored by WORD (Writing Organizations ‘Round Dallas). If you’re looking for a compatible writing group, check out the site. And stay tuned, I hope, for more visits like that of Forsyth.


Is anybody ready for another contest? Perhaps as an extra way to get our prose in front of agents, editors, publishers? While researching agents to query for my latest, I came across an intriguing idea called prose challenges. The Inklings Literary Agency  site includes a button labeled "prose challenge" that links to a site called Prose. Trident Media Group simply lists its current “challenge” at the Prose site. Demonstrate your writing talent, they say. If they like it. . .

(Later: continuing the conversation with Kate Forsyth)

No comments:

Post a Comment