Friday, May 9, 2014

Story Arc

In an effort to add form and substance to my work-in-progress, my Bishop Hill mystery, I participated in a workshop entitled “The Novel as Machine of Desire: A Crash Course in Story Structure” offered at the 2013 David R. Collins Writers’ Conference.

Amy Hassinger, of Iowa City, began the three day workshop by posing three questions:

  • What do your characters want?
  • Do they get it?
  • What gets in their way?

According to Amy, to know the answers to these questions is to know your story. They are at the heart of plotting and novel structure.

I was far enough along that I could answer the first two questions fairly well. However, I couldn’t say I knew everything I needed to know about my protagonist. She needed more obstacles to overcome, ways to stretch, grow, and become a “real” person.
By day two, we were using sheets of paper to actually draw arcs for individual characters, plots, and subplots. We then filled in basic details appropriate to each one. I really liked the visual aspect. I needed to see form, shape, and negative space come together. It reminded of my jewelry-making days in the Colony Blacksmith Shop in Bishop Hill.

Modern word processing pretty much gave me the means to seriously start writing—less than ten years ago. I discovered I could put together a story in the same manner I created my jewelry. I always started by sketching out designs before creating the physical segments that I could move around, change, and reorganize into a new, creative whole. Merely another way to cut and paste.

Now, instead of creating silver rings, I fashion sentences and paragraphs. Instead of forming sections for a necklace or bracelet, I link up scenes to form a story. Just as I once worked to refine and polish metal, I now rework and fine-tune my grammar and punctuation. It’s all a similar, ongoing process using different tools.

These days, I employ spell checking programs and use online search engines to supplement old copies of textbooks, the OED, and a trusty thesaurus. No more hammers, wire cutters, and files.

By the last day of the workshop, I had such empathy for the process I was learning that I dug out of storage one of my larger necklaces. Every link was wire wrapped in a different way. Small links for behind the neck with larger, more complex ones progressing outward from there. At the center, a set of interlocking rings for maximum movement.

If someone would have commented on the necklace, I would have taken it off and shown them how easily the shape could change. Demonstrate how malleable it was and, to me, the perfect symbol of the story arc.

But, no one did. I was left to savor my cleverness alone.

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