Michaeline: Story Arcs and Flatlines


A rainbow arc poster with a clown artist, dancing girl and other assorted characters. Circa 1898.

Sometimes an arc can look a little crazy in the first draft. Keep the faith! (Cheret, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a big idea in genre fiction writing that at least one of the main characters must change. It’s got to be a big change, and it has to be irrevocable. No backsies. Ideally, one has died a death (physical or psychic), and the other has grown into a new, powerful character.

And, I love some stories that follow this pattern. One of my favorite books is Faking It, by Jennifer Crusie. The heroine, Tilda, goes from a reproduction artist to someone who displays and sells her own work. Her dead father goes from being a memory that confines and constricts his surviving family to being put in his place as a memory that guides their actions mostly by being a horrible warning. (The real antagonist is Davy, ((I think)) but to tell the truth, the only psychic death I see him dying is his identity as a playboy. He grows and changes, but I don’t see him fundamentally destroyed. Is this the big, mainplot character arc for most romantic story antagonists? Losing their womanizing or patronizing tendencies?)

But at this point in my life, one of my pet peeves is the story arc that begins with the little lost orphan, hated by everyone, deserted in the rain and mud and feeling so sorry for himself or herself. Sometimes the arc is magnificent, but I must confess that I often close the book if the miserable worm isn’t heading up the rainbow in the first three paragraphs.

Real life isn’t always a beautiful arc. And this could be one good reason why writers say, “Fiction has to be better than real life.” We are often messy backsliders who take one brave leap today, only to find that the cliff on the other side of the chasm is covered with ice.

Well, no. That’s fictional and overdramatic. It’s more likely that we save up a small nest egg, and get back-ended at a stop-sign by a driver with no insurance. The deductible eats up the nest egg, and we are back to our small, daily struggles again with no movement on the arc.

These posts from the By Heart series on The Atlantic Online inspired my musings on the arc that just refuses to develop. I think some spinning in circles by characters can add realism to the story. And I also think that as writers,

An old woman is hunting for mushrooms in a forest full of them. A squirrel on a birch tree watches her hunt. Painting, from the late 19th or very early 20th century.

“Hunting Mushrooms in the Old Forest.” I know what I’m doing today, LOL!
(Georg Janny via Wikimedia Commons)

sometimes we just miss the arc that is there. It’s like how fish don’t see water, or people don’t feel air. It’s there, and sometimes it takes someone outside the system to see what’s really there. A subplot may be misidentified as the main plot by the first draft writer, for example. Or a grand arc may be developing sneakily under the disguise of a subplot.

Anyway, I’m spinning in circles myself, but I’m going to trust my girls and keep spinning until I get to the end of the first draft. When it’s all out there on paper, maybe I (or a beta reader) will see what’s there, and what’s not.

So, how’s your writing going today? Have your muses handed you sandwiches on a plate, or are you in a dark forest, poking under debris for mushrooms? Both are fine ways to get a meal. Let us give thanks for what we are about to receive . . . .

13 thoughts on “Michaeline: Story Arcs and Flatlines

  1. One of my pet peeves is the clueless, ditzy heroine who constantly gets herself into all kinds of stupid trouble and has to be rescued. I know she’s going to develop agency and by the end of the book she’s going to be rescuing herself and probably the hero, but unless she makes some big moves up that rainbow, fast (unlikely – she’s probably going to get more dopey before she wises up), I’m done with her.

    Today I drove home from visiting my mum – spent last night in the hotel where Jane Austen stayed while she was writing P&P 🙂 . Now I’ve had a nice cup of tea and it’s time to pack for my flight tomorrow. When I’ve done that, I’m going to make a start on Shadows and Light, the second book in Anne Bishop’s Tir Alainn fantasy trilogy. No official writing or thinking about writing, but I hope my Girls will be working away, inspired by the Spirit of Jane.

    • One of my guilty secrets is that heroine. And she never really develops too much agency over the course of several books — it’d mean the end of the series, after all! I’m not sure which category to put those kind of books in. She’s often reactive, and she doesn’t grow much. I think it’s her tone of voice that draws me in.

      Safe travels! A stay at Jane Austen’s hotel sounds fabulous! (I just finished reading Juvenalia . . . I’d stopped reading in the middle and neglected it for a few months while doing other things . . . .)

    • Agreed, Jilly – I can’t stand clueless protagonists. That’s not to say I haven’t fallen into the trap of writing a few of them myself, but I hope I clean out all the ‘stupid’ in revisions. There is a very well-known series, (which shall remain nameless, but it was made into an HBO series that recently ended) in which not the heroine, but the heroine’s best friend was TSTL (too stupid to live). I got to the end of the first book, decided I couldn’t get behind a protagonist that couldn’t pick better/smarter friends than that, and quit the series.

      Obviously, LOTS of readers disagreed with me, because the series was a smash and then there was that, you know, HBO deal. In the TV series, they did a lot to bring up that supporting character’s IQ and agency (in fairness, maybe subsequent books in the series had done that, but the writer had already lost me), but there were still times when I could see the writers struggling with that best friend and her stupid choices.

      • I wish sometime that with characters too stupid to live that the author or producer would actually kill them off. I suppose in horror, when the blond teenage girl walks down the dark alley alone to see what the noise is and then meets her terrible fate, that sort of happens. But I mean characters that have more than one line.

        • (-: I’ve got a line between TSTL, and just kind of an airhead.

          There’s also a problem between writing a Mary Sue (perfect in all the ways that I, the author want to be) or a nuanced character who is a genius in some ways, and lacks common sense in other ways (Sherlock might fall in this category), or a hot mess of good and bad traits that never really gel into a firm character.

          (-: And yet, some really boring characters make it into published books and TV series and movies. So who knows what the gatekeepers are looking for when they choose? Not I . . . .

  2. My muses have handed me a pile of dog poo today – let’s hope tomorrow they hand me the ability to turn it into something marginally better.

    Safe journey to any of the 8LW who are travelling to your Winter Retreat today.

    • Well, there are the dog poo days . . . my sympathies. I had a good day yesterday, but I think my muses were frightened off by the dentist today. The biggest writing I did was editing my daughter’s college application essays . . . . Tomorrow may be better.

    • There’s a story that Utah Phillips, an American folksinger, tells, and I won’t tell the story nearly as well as he does, but it goes something like this: in an old logging camp, the rule was that whoever complained about the food had to cook the next meal. And after a hard day of work cutting down trees, nobody wanted to cook for a gang of ugly, smelly, ornery loggers. One day the guy who’d been stuck with the cooking decided he’d make sure that he never cooked again, so for dessert, he made moose turd pie. He just knew that whoever bit into that pie first would complain about it. He makes the pie and serves it to the loggers. Everybody thinks it’s chocolate. The first guy takes a big bite. He yells, “My god! It’s moose turd pie!” And then he realizes he might be stuck cooking. So he adds, “But it’s good!”

      Just a long way of saying, tomorrow the dog poo might turn out to be pie. Good pie.

      • (-: OMG, I have had writing days like this. Moose turd pie . . . “but it’s good!” — because I don’t want to rewrite.

        I did want to distinguish from cow pie, but ran out of time to express it elegantly.

  3. I’m a sucker for a good character arc. When it’s well done, it’s like watching yourself grow into this stronger, better person.

    One of the things I love about SEP is that, even though her protagonists are in trouble as her books start, and they have a great arc by the end, they’re never idiots. They may be immature or show poor judgement, but they’re not stupid.

  4. It’s a mushroom day for me, partly because it is a busy one and writing isn’t going to fit in (other than visiting my time waster websites – this isn’t one of the time-wasters, of course). In fact, I’m off to run The Boy Child around. Happy writing. May the character arcs be with you.

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