As Australians vote to allow same-sex marriage, I got to pondering how, when writing, I often base stories around major life events. The Armchair Bride brings former enemies together. Having it all sees the bride flee a dream wedding. My next book will see Evie find new ways to cope when every familiar situation ‘dies’.
Our holy grail is a killer narrative arc, but too often we take this literally. As a beginner writer, I used to litter stories with subplots and feel the need to explain everything away by flashback and reference to what went before. I didn’t trust my reader to make up their own mind. Big mistake.
To hold attention, we create tension in our writing – a reason to read on. But we need to let the reader make up their own mind. The skill lies in planting the clues and shining the light on what we want seen.
The facts of someone’s life, presented end-to-end won’t excite the average observer. What matters is how we (or rather how our characters) tell their story. Not just to the reader and those around them, but how they relate events to themselves. And that’s always going to mean bias. Not that this is a bad thing. What matters is that your characters believe in what they do. Or if they don’t, they justify their actions.
A powerful story rarely follows a straight timeline. As writers, we should feel empowered to pick apart a timeline and reassemble things, moving the emphasis onto key events. Often, these happen to be births, marriages and death. Not always literally. I’m not saying that no story will fly if there isn’t confetti. Birth might mean that a character becomes aware of being followed. A love affair can die. Rivals marry when they enter an uneasy alliance.
Strong narrative arcs don’t simply say what happened, they help the reader understand why it happened and why an event matters. They help the reader understand how the character moves from the first to the last page of a story.
When it comes to planning a novel, some writers fill walls with Post-it notes, others compile volumes of research. The brave/foolish ones sit down with a blank document and see what happens. I’m a ‘seat of my pants‘ sort and tend to rely on minimal planning. That said, minimal doesn’t mean I get to completely ignore the timeline. When we tell any story, we need a firm grip on where things start and where (we think) they will end.
Something happens and it causes a situation that goes through every twist and turn until the something that happened either comes good, or dies and goes away.
And the things that happen might not be ‘major life events’ in the truest sense of the word, but to your characters, this is how they must be. Missing a train can be the birth of something that changes the course of a life. Starting a new job could lead to one relationship that kills another.
There might not be arguments about whose turn it is to change a nappy or sausage rolls at a wake, but hatches, matches and dispatches are the most powerful tools a story teller has. use them wisely.