Building the (Story) Arc

By Jodi Moore

Confession time.

I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a crayon. I’ve attended countless writer conferences, workshops and seminars. I hold a degree in education.

But the concept of a story arc has always been somewhat of a mystery to me.

Obviously, I accept its existence. I bow to its importance. I would even venture to say I hold every story, whether I’m writing or reading, up to its brilliance.

But to have to explain one, especially to 300 wriggling children?

* shudders *

This past May saw the birth of my first picture book. I couldn’t wait to share my little Dragon with the world and eagerly set up an elementary school visit.

Rather than discuss the publishing process, I decided to try to inspire my audience’s own creativity. I wanted to show the students how building a strong story is like modeling a sandcastle. Each one needs its own set of tools. Each one requires a firm foundation upon which to build and sculpt the different layers. Each one flourishes with its own fine revisions.

It was all so perfect in my mind.

Until I realized that I would have to discuss the parts of a story and * gasp * weave them into a story arc.

I felt a bit like Noah. The drizzle had already started and I was presented with the challenge to build the “arc”.

“R-I-G-H-T. What’s a cubit?”

(Okay, I know I’m dating myself, but if you’ve never heard Bill Cosby’s shtick on the conversation between Noah and The Lord when building the ark, you must take a moment and do so. Go ahead. I’ll wait. * nibbles chocolate *)

Don’t you just love Bill? But I digress…

No problem, I thought. I can do this. I have the Internet. I am linked to great minds throughout the world. So I searched. I Googled. I Binged. I Yahoo!ed.

I found countless sites discussing the parts of a well-crafted story. I found dozens of depictions of story arcs.

All different.

Seriously, I couldn’t find two that were the same. While some were very complex and others (thankfully) more simplified, it seemed the only consistency was that no one could agree on the parts of a story, let alone the specifics of the elusive story arc.

I nailed a few planks together. I feared my initial attempts at explanation wouldn’t float. Everything felt too academic. Stiff. Hollow. I could sense both the ship and my spirits sinking.

Upon further pondering, however, I realized I wasn’t looking for a smooth sail. I wanted to give these students a good ride. My arc demanded spark. I needed to find a new analogy.

I wanted a thrill ride.

And then, in a Lucy-Van-Pelt-makes-Schroeder-flip-in-the-air-“That’s IT”-revelation, it hit me.

Have you ever noticed how much a story arc looks like a roller coaster?

Think about it for a moment. First, you and your friends/family (CHARACTERS) arrive at the park (SETTING). You climb aboard cars that are all linked together. The first pulls the others along, each one dependent on the one before it (ACTION and PLOT).

Then the TENSION builds…clank-clank-clank…ever so s-l-o-w-l-y as you make your ascent. A cacophony of emotions (thrilled/terrified/ecstatic/exhilarated) mount as you continue that climb…up…up…up…! How your heart fills (with joy, dread, panic) at the tippy top (the CLIMAX) where you seem to hang – breathless! – for a split second until you – WHOOSH! – rush downwards through the twists and turns and loops to the final (RESOLUTION) stop!

And, to continue this analogy…if the ride/story is exciting enough, won’t you want to ride/read it again and again…and recommend it to everyone you know?

Look. I’m not saying that I have all the parts included or completely defined. And it’s very likely that I will come across English scholars/teachers/writers/readers/roller coaster enthusiasts along the way that will shoot my theory – and my simplified story arc picture – full of holes.

But it worked for me. Following our “ride” (and yes, we even threw our hands up in the air as we plummeted down!), these kids seemed to “get it”. They were actively engaged. They could name characters, discuss action and plot. They could identify the climax.

Most importantly, they were ready – and excited – to buckle in tight and create their own work.

After all, doesn’t every story deserve to be a thrill-read?

Jodi Moore is the author of WHEN A DRAGON MOVES IN (May 2011, Flashlight Press) and GOOD NEWS NELSON (Story Pie Press, tbd). Jodi considers books, along with chocolate, to be one of the main food groups.  She writes both picture books and young adult novels, hoping to challenge, nourish and inspire her readers by opening up brand new worlds and encouraging unique ways of thinking.  Jodi is the proud and (admittedly) neurotic mother of two incredibly talented young adults and never ceases to be amazed at how far the umbilical cord really will stretch. She lives in central PA with her always-supportive best friend/husband, Larry, two laughing doves and an ever-changing bunch of characters in her head. In addition to reading, writing and chocolate, Jodi enjoys music, theatre, dancing, the beach and precious time spent with her family.  Finally, Jodi thinks it would be really cool if one of her stories eventually became a Disney or Universal movie or theme park ride. Or a Broadway musical. Just puttin’ it out there.