THE ARC OF A STORY: Do Readers Think About It?

Do you wonder how a writer gets from the beginning to the end? It’s one thing to find the point-of-view character and the situation. It’s another to find the arc of the story. I know a few who find it before they begin their first draft. They claim to plot it out in a synopsis or summary and put it on a timeline. They know where it begins, where it ends, and all the stops in between. I’ll wager most will admit that when they’re actually on the road, they put their noses on the ground, get places they hadn’t expected, and make some of their best discoveries through the characters’ interactions and the POV character’s private reflections and revelations.

My characters speak to me. They show me a world, however made up, that compels me to return. The trail now belongs to them. As we do in the stories of our lives, I look forward to rejoining them as they move to ends and new beginnings they cannot predict.

When I first picked up a scent to find the story that became “Milt’s Advice Booth” (which you can find in Last Night At The Vista Café, Stories), all I found was a distraught man whose woman friend had decided to leave the relationship. Right away I knew he would escape on many mornings to his favorite breakfast café for his favorite window booth. I did not know that in the course of a few weeks several people would mistake him for the same someone else – a local therapist who they had seen on a local TV show – a public personality. That idea presented itself to me after the first time I got him out of the house and into Dot’s Diner. Milt told me where he wanted to go. Soon different people were making the same mistake. A few would sit down across from him to implore him for advice. Before I knew it, he was dispensing advice, nodding with familiarity when they returned another day. I began to wonder why I chose this arc. It grew clear to me when – you may have guessed it – he got in trouble. Big trouble.

That’s how it goes, I think, for many writers. Wanting to discover a story from a seed evokes wonder and imagination. The appearance of what became “Milt’s Advice Booth” most likely grew from a dark mood about lost loves, my own and those of friends and acquaintances who had suffered the fate most of us do at one time or another. For some it leads to a true story. Others prefer to wander off the known path for the alchemy of mixing and matching, of wonder and imagination.

When you readers with a keen interest in the human condition let your mind go back to important pieces of your own stories, do you ever find yourself wandering away from the facts? Or letting one true story bleed into another? That’s when the narrative approach to getting one’s hands around experience leads a writer down story trails that aren’t true…but are. That’s the beauty of it. As one writer friend likes to say, it’s all fiction, and it’s all true.

If you decided to respond to a strong impulse rising from within you about something you wanted to put in a place of greater repose, would you write the truth (memoir) or you would engage in the alchemy of fiction?

I’d love to hear from you whether you are a reader or a storyteller or a writer or some combination thereof. To paraphrase Linda Richman from years ago on “Saturday Night Live,” “let’s talk about it amongst ourselves.”

Jim

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