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"Strengthen Your Writing with Narrative Arcs"

By John Moir

Narrative arcs—the intentional repetition of words and events in a novel—add power and an emotional resonance to your writing. As a chorus does a song, narrative connections give your story line cohesion and power.

I first learned of narrative arcs when I heard the award-winning young-adult author Paul Fleischman speak at a writer’s conference about the similarities between writing and music. He talked about how a piece of writing is like a symphony—there is a main theme, then variations on this theme, and then perhaps some minor themes. He showed how repeating these themes at strategic places is very powerful and noted that writing, like music, gains strength from these arcs of repetition.

Fleischman uses these arcs in his novel The Borning Room, which recount the life of frontier-woman Georgina Lott. The story takes place more than a century ago, when houses often had small “borning rooms” set aside for birth, illness, and death. The novel opens with the story of Georgina’s difficult birth. Many details of this scene—a maple tree outside the window, the hooting of owls, the German midwife—appear again, woven into a much later section of the novel, when Georgina gives birth to her own daughter. The repetition of these details links the two scenes and makes each more powerful.

Narrative arcs can be formed in two ways. The first is the repetition of an event or situation that gathers meaning when it is repeated. The second is the repetition of certain word, phrases, or even names.

Ken Follett combined both techniques in his epic novel of the Middle Ages, The Pillars of the Earth. The book begins with a young man about to be hung for a crime he did not commit. The opening line of the book reads “The small boys came early to the hanging.”

Although the novel stretches over several decades and is more than nine hundred pages long, Follett ends the story just as it started: We are at the same gallows, it is dawn, and there is to be another hanging. With a wonderful sense of justice fulfilled, we read that this time the man to be hung is the villain responsible for falsely accusing the youth so many years before. The narrative arc gives us a satisfying sense of completion.

But Follett takes this technique one step further. The final hanging scene opens with the same line as the book’s first chapter: “The small boys came early to the hanging.”

These words and story line, arcing back to the opening of the book, form an emotional and structural bridge for the novel. But not every repetition need be so dramatic. Even small narrative arcs can be effective in helping the flow of your story. Just as the gun on the wall must be used before the last act of a play, first mentioning something peripherally gives the reader a sense of recognition when it later moves center stage.

Nonfiction can also make use of arcs. Three quarters of the way through Sylvia Boorstein’s bestselling book on Buddhism, It’s Easier Than You Think, she tells the tale of a friend who is dying. The friend talks about what is important in life and how even simple things can carry great meaning. She mentions one of her favorite recipes, telling how happy it makes people, and asks that it be shared at her memorial service.

The last page of Boorstein’s book I is a simple rendering of that special recipe. It provides a narrative arc that packs an emotional wallop for readers as they recall the words and thoughts of her dying friend.

Sometimes narrative arcs happen by happy accident in our stories. But good writers rely on more than narrative luck. Once a story is roughed out, finding ways to link back and forth and so tie your story together gives it power and cohesiveness.

Finally if you want to crash a course in using narrative arcs, check out the video of the movie Avalon. Not only is it a wonderful film, but the underpinnings of the story are based on this powerful storytelling technique.

First published in The Best of Novel Advice, by Novel Advice Press, 2002.


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