Character arc: someone living their life
Narrative arc: the things that happen when someone lives their life
When I worked with children, I’d always teach them the simple, zen fact: every sentence has a subject and verb.
Someone does something.
I’d tell them, “From this you can learn that storytelling is holographic. Do you know what a hologram is? It’s a picture made of light, of which every tiny bit is actually the whole picture in miniature.” I’d wave my hands, showing them tiny and whole. Then I’d say, “Or the other way around. Anyway, they’re both very cool.
“Because a story—like a sentence—has a subject and verb: someone does something. And everything in between the whole picture and the tiny bit of an individual sentence has a subject and verb. No matter what granularity—cosmology to quantum mechanics—it’s all designed the same: a subject and verb.”
Now, these children didn’t know what holograms, granularity, cosmology, or quantum mechanics are, but that’s okay because I didn’t mind telling them. And kids love that! What cool ideas!
All those big words and concepts make subject-verb, frankly, laughably easy. Just two things stuck together. A person. And what they do. Anyone can remember that.
I liked imaging their parents’ faces when they’d go home and say, “Did you know a holo-something is something that’s the same in its tiniest parts as it is in its biggest parts? And atoms are characters and what they do are verbs? And it has something to do with other stuff, but I forget what because I ‘m starting a novel?”
Character arc. Narrative arc. Subject. Verb.
Someone does something.
As writers, we work on a story, living with the characters in our heads, hearing their voices, watching them move around their homes, the wildernesses of city or forest or desert or small towns. And they’re doing things (things they shouldn’t), making decisions, running into each other under inconvenient, embarrassing, or even dangerous circumstances. They’re doing, doing, doing, and it keeps twisting back on them, thwarting them, turning their carefully or not-so-carefully laid plans inside out, tossing them cavalierly out of the frying pan into the fire.
What are their arcs?
Well, we go through arcs. We go to a child’s basketball game, maybe, and some kids there are mean to other kids, and we don’t like it.
It sets up an internal conflict: we have our own personal issues about confrontation in public situations and, maybe, our own experiences as children. And at the same time we hold the dearly-cherished value that we don’t let people hurt kids. How do we resolve this internal conflict?
That’s our character arc.
Meanwhile, this trigger sets off a series of events sparked by that original event. We go to the game, which causes us to see the kids being mean, which causes us to make a decision. Maybe we decide to shuffle out in embarrassment. Maybe we decide to pretend it’s all fun and games. Maybe we decide to blow our top, and the police arrive. Maybe something else.
Whatever we decide causes another event, which backs us into a more specific corner, about which we must make a new, more refined decision, which narrows our options even further.
That’s our narrative arc.
So the further we work our way through our character arc—resolving our internal conflict—the more focused our narrative arc becomes, until we reach the point after which the life we were leading before this chain of events (this narrative) came along has been irrevocably altered into something different (by our character).
Who’s your story about? What’s going on inside them that sets them up for this original decision with which they must cope? What’s on one side of their internal conflict—what need in their character forces them into this decision? What other need contradicts that original need, turning this one aspect of character into a narrative?
What values, beliefs, fears, hopes, prejudices, assumptions, secrets, denial, habits, and history bear on this character from all sides, forcing them to be able to react in just one way? What’s the core of their internal conflict, the Gordian Knot beyond which they simply cannot continue? How does this illuminate their mutually-exclusive needs, the clues to how all of us—every single human on Earth—live with irreconcilable paradox in our souls? How we resolve conflict matters less than what we learn about ourselves in the process.
We’re not just revealing characters when we create fiction. We’re revealing the key to being human. And what scenes occur, one after another, other characters coming in and out, conversations, gestures, activities, milestones in a life?
We’re not just chronicling narratives. We’re chronicling the inevitable forward motion of being alive. And that’s what story is all about.
Victoria has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She is the author of the Art & Craft of Writing series and offers email subscribers a free copy of Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Advice for Writers. Catch up with Victoria on twitter or visit her website for more information on her editing services.