Monday, July 15, 2013

Find Your Central Story Arc And Stick To It

Since I opened the agency in 2003, I find that I am frequently rejecting a story for the simple reason that the author is trying to do too much in such a small space. In other words, the story has become so complicated with layers upon layers of characters, subplots, internal and external conflicts, that the story itself is so muddled that the reader gets confused. This, surprisingly, is a fairly common mistake that authors make, but also something that can be fixed easily.

So, why does this happen? I do think a lot of it stems from authors thinking more about how much they have to write in their stories and not enough about what they really want to say in their story. They are focused too much on that end product. This is something that doesn't just happen in novel writing, but in all forms of writing. When I work on composition writing with college students and tell them they will be writing a 20 page paper, their first comment is often "I could never write that much." As a result, when they select a topic, then end up with something that could easily fill a PhD dissertation. For novel writers, they end up with projects that could easily fill a 400,000 word manuscript.

The key to staying focused is really the same thing you would do in academic writing. You start with your thesis. What is it that you want to accomplish by the time the reader is finished with your story. What do you really want to say? What is your take away? This single storyline is what all attention needs to be focused on as you work your way through the chapters.

With academic writing, I often ask writers if what they are putting in their story supports their topic or does it support their thesis. In other words, adding the historical background to a topic might be interesting and educational, is that information necessary for the thesis and paper they are writing. If it isn't, then it goes away.

For storytelling, I do the same thing. Sure those secondary characters are interesting, but are they getting in the way of the main story arc? Are they detracting from the story? In the case of a romance, the ultimate goal is to show the building of a relationship toward that happily ever after. This is where all the energy needs to be going.

I used this graphic element once before on the blog and I think it truly does demonstrate what we are talking about here. The main story arc is that single line running through the middle. Everything else in the story always has to revolve around that thread and must be there to hold it all together.

For authors, I would strongly recommend finding a way to sum up what your single goal is for the story in a single sentence. Then, tape that next to your computer and pay attention to it. As your mind begins to wander, continue to return to that point and ask yourself if you really do need to add it. The odds are, you won't need to.

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