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What’s This Arc You Speak Of?

I’ve been querying agents regarding my Alaskan-themed story collection, Glaciers, and had a brief nibble that concluded in the agent telling me my stories don’t have the “arc needed to make a short story work.”

I’ve been told a lot of stuff about my stories, but I’ve never been told they don’t have arcs. Along with THIS I was thinking a lot over the weekend about these kinds of critiques, you know the vague one’s that don’t really express anything concrete or give you any direction of how it can be fixed. This happens a lot, I know, because editors, agents, and undergrads in your writing classes don’t have a lot of time they want to spend on your work. I get that. But is it being helpful to say anything if this is the kind of critique you’re going to give?

But that’s the secondary question. The primary question is what is an arc, in relation to a story, if not the movement from where the story starts to where the story ends? Just by starting a story and ending a story have we not created an inherent arc, even if it’s a crappy one?

Which is why I think this agent was telling me my stories have crappy arcs. But at least I don’t build crappy arks, ’cause then we’d all be in big trouble when the flood comes…

(By the way, I’m not here to whine, or bash on anyone, I’m truly interested in the question of narrative arcs. I just happen to be kind of a smartass.)

Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.

9 thoughts on “What’s This Arc You Speak Of?

  1. I think an arc, based on the word itself, is seen as the rise and fall of the story. And I think what probably makes the arc good or interesting is where and when in the story changes happen, how much they happen, and what exactly causes them. I think it’s mostly about timing. I was thinking there are some stories that have only minor arcs, without being totally flat, and these are pretty good, and sometimes seen as “arty” or “slow.” Then there are others with major arcs where the journey from point A to point B is a wild ride, and you’re nowhere near where you thought you’d be when it started. Either way, sounds to me like the agent is bad at describing, in language we can all understand, what makes short stories work.

    1. right. and i totally agree with everything you said. for there to NOT be an arc of some kind, crappy or otherwise, literally nothing would have to happen from beginning to end. because even if all your characters do is get up off the couch and go to the bathroom, that’s an arc, as lame of one as it might be.

  2. Hi Ryan,

    Of course I have no idea what this agent is looking for, but I’d guess that when they say “arc,” they mean they’re looking for a familiar plot pattern.

    What’s a familiar plot pattern? It depends on whom you ask. Different readers like/expect different things to happen in stories. But my guess is that this agent expects the story to proceed in a way, or ways, that your stories don’t proceed in.

    (Mind you, I don’t think that stories need to follow familiar patterns to be good. Or not follow them to be good. Plot’s just one element among others.)

    Maybe the agent can recommend a good example of a story that follows such an arc? Then you’d have an idea of what kind of plot patterning he/she is looking for (and that other agents might look for).

    This is a tangent, but I’ve been thinking for a while now that a great deal of “academic writing” (writing produced by writers who have been to college/grad school, or who teach at universities) is a-narrative. Meaning that narrative (or plot) isn’t a central concern of the writing. The author doesn’t sit around shaping the writing according to a plot, or (in other words) the story doesn’t motivate the writing the way it does in, say, Chekhov. Or Conan Doyle. I find this to be the case in both self-professed experimental writing *and* in self-professed realist writing (which in my experience is often more based in character psychology than in story).

    I’m not trying to say this definitively, and I’m sure there are exceptions—but the diminished emphasis on plot seems to me to be something both realist and experimental academic writing often has in common. Although lord knows I don’t see everything…

    Meanwhile, plot/narrative seems to still be more important in commercial fiction, and in a lot of other genres of fiction besides realism and experimental. (And I don’t mean to claim definitively that commercial fiction and those other genres aren’t academic—but I think you know what I mean—that many or most academic programs tend to discourage such writing.)

    (I’m also not trying to say whether any of this is good or bad. I like experimental fiction, I like realist fiction, I like commercial fiction, I like genre fiction. I like narrative writing, I like anti-narrative writing, I like a-narrative writing…)

    I’m working on a novel project right now that I hope winds up being a more commercial or popular thing (meaning that it will appeal to a broader audience than my other writing), and one thing I keep thinking about is how I can plot it. Because my impulses in this case keep pulling me away from plot. And the reason I want plot is because I want suspense, because I think that a lot of people really like fiction to be suspenseful. And to have suspense, you need plot. (Or, at least, plot greatly facilitates suspense.) But a lot of my realist and experimental training keeps pulling me away from plot and suspense, and I have to keep fighting it.

    But I also find plot a lot of fun to write. The critic who most helped me like it was Viktor Shklovsky; I really like his formulation of plot as progressing from false awareness to a truer awareness. So, for instance, in the start of the novel, I have a character who’s very wealthy, but who doesn’t have access to the fortune she’s inherited (it’s in escrow). Later in the novel, she goes to get her money, and it turns out it’s gone. And she realizes she never had that money after all—she just thought that she did.

    I find these kinds of “arcs” fun to plan out, especially when they involve right turns like that. I find myself brainstorming lists of things that could happen to the characters, along these lines. And then choosing the most surprising one, or most interesting one. (This character could also be able to actually get her money. Which would allow her to then do certain things in the story. But what will she do when she doesn’t have the money? She really hasn’t lost anything she didn’t already have. But it seems like a crushing loss.)

    Anyway…. Best of luck with GLACIERS!

    Cheers,
    Adam

    1. yes, i think when words like “plot” or “narrative” or “arc” are used in accordance with vague statements about what a story is missing that often people are really saying “this story didn’t take me on a ride” or “there was no double cross, no twist, no clear bad guy-good guy dynamic, etc”

      just because it’s the first story to pop in my head, Ron Carlson’s “The Governor’s Ball” is a story about a man trying to make a dump run before meeting his wife and friends at the Governor’s Ball. Along the way he loses a mattress off the back of the truck and he goes to retrieve it. There is no crazy adventure, it’s a realistic adventure. Some homeless people help him find the mattress in exchange for some liquor. it’s not even as adventurous as it sounds, but it’s still a damn good story. There’s an arc, but one that doesn’t necessarily “end” or resolve fully.

      so is it a matter of “literary” writing having a different definition of “plot” and “arc?”

      1. Hi Ryan,

        I do think people distinguish between “arc” and “plot.” Plot can be defined many different ways. It might be all of the narrative’s events, which are usually causal. But it can mean other things as well, depending on how one defines it. (The Russian Formalists definied it differently, as syuzhet, or presentation.)

        http://atec4346.pbworks.com/Fabula+and+Syuzhet

        Arc is simpler, I think, and refers more to a progression. It can be the overall progress of the narrative, or it can be the progress of a character. In both cases, I think it assumes that the story or character should move from one place to another. So the character should move from wealthy to poor, or bad to good, etc. The story itself might move from peril to calm, or from conflict to resolution, and so on.

        Plots and arcs can be the same thing. Despite everything that happens in it, Hamlet tells a very simple story: Hamlet, having spoken with the ghost of his father, summons his resolve and kills Claudius, losing his own life in the process.

        I think that the 20th century saw a movement away from plot (meaning here “a sequence of causal events”) as a central organizing conceit in “literary” fiction. Plot wasn’t the only thing in a lot of 19th century writing, but it was important.

        Then, in the 20th century, I think plot was assailed from at least two directions. On the realist side, character psychology took over more, while on the experimental side, anti-narrative techniques became more fashionable. I’m generalizing wildly of course. But it seems to me that both camps, inasmuch as they’re even camps, seemed influenced by a movement away from thinking of “real life” as plotted, organized, causal, etc. And so the writing came to reflect that.

        In other words, plot became less dominant in “literary” fiction. This was certainly true in my experiences. When I took workshops, regardless of whether they were realist or experimental workshops, we never really sat around discussing plot. Rather, people made comments about how convincing a detail was, or how better to explore a character’s psychology, or how some metatextual or conceptual element could be improved, etc. But we never did any plot outlines, for instance, and no one ever commented on whether a particular turn of events might be better than another one. The only time this ever came up at all was when someone suggested a different ending, or starting in a different spot, or eliminating an episode…but that was it. It never really led to a detailed discussion of plot.

        And, again, I’m speaking very generally. And lord knows there are exceptions. But this is why I often find it funny fans of realism tell me they like “good stories,” because I often find the work they’re talking about not very satisfying as stories. (They’re usually more satisfying as portraits of character psychology, or deep descriptions of places and things, etc. But I rarely read them wondering what’s going to happen next, the way I do when reading a Harry Potter novel, or a Dan Brown novel. Or even Hamlet.)

        Meanwhile, genre fiction–what we more commonly call genre fiction–continued using plot. Genre fiction is often anti-realist in that, even when it contains realist elements, everyone goes into it acknowledging that the writing is an artifice. A good detective story (which are usually extremely plot-based). A fantasy trilogy. A sci-fi allegory. And so I think there was less challenge to plot there. Although there have been many writers who have written “plotless” genre work, or confounded readers’ plot expectations. But I think that plot is more an expectation in “genre fiction” than it is in “literary” fiction. (Lord, how I hate that term, “literary”!) If you talk with genre fiction folk, you quickly see that constructing the plot is an important part of writing for them.

        I’ve been trying to write more plotted “literary” fiction, because I like plot a lot. And I’m finding that I have to learn a lot of things I never learned in school, and that I never learned from reading Donald Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver, etc. (A lot of these authors write fiction that has plots, of course, but I don’t think we’d consider plot as being a central organizing force in any of their writing, the way it is in, say, Chekhov. Or James. Or Conan Doyle. Or Austen.)

        (Again, this is all very general, and using plot to mean “a sequence of causal events”–not the Russian Formalist concept of it, which is something else entirely.)

        Cheers,
        Adam

        1. indeed. i wasn’t trying to imply that plot and arc are one and the same, merely that they are both clearly looked at differently depending on the genre or type of writing. certainly you wouldn’t expect a fantasy novel to lack an adventurous plot with fantastical elements and clear villains, etc. whereas a literary novel approaches similarities in plot and arc differently. yet in critiques these things are often referred to as if they are universal. which is the only reason i used the agent’s quote, because the idea that there is a single arc that make stories work is funny.

          1. I think that when most people talk about these things, including agents, they’re not being all that specific. (Sorry, Edward.) I think instead they’re basically thinking, “Does this fit my expectations for how the writing should be organized?” In the case of a more commercial agent, in this day and age, I imagine they want the characters and story to progress from one place to another. Since that seems all the rage.

            Mind you, I think it can be a false progression. Look at Tao Lin’s EEEEEE &c. novel. That last chapter, where everyone’s suddenly at the party at the Applebee’s or whatever it is—how does anyone actually end up there? And it’s absurd; of course nothing happened in the plot to get any of the book’s Domino’s employees there. But I think it satisfies a lot of readers’ expectations that the end of the book should move somewhere different, even if it does so in a “crazy” way. And I think that’s one reason (among many) why Tao Lin’s been able to break out of the small press scene somewhat. (To the extent that he even has.)

            Or as Blake Butler put it at Bookslut:

            The narrative of EEEEE EEE EEEE shifts so frequently and maintains such energy that it becomes difficult to stop. I began reading minutes after the book came to me in the mail. I continued reading while using the restroom and later when I went downstairs to exercise on a stationary bicycle. I held it in my hands and sweated and laughed aloud amongst the weight lifters at least three or four specific times during one scene where numerous animals have a philosophical discussion with the president. People in the gym kept looking at me. Often I was laughing because things were true. In EEEEE EEE EEEE, the president says, “Patriotism is the belief that not all human lives are worth the same.” The president says, “Power is stupid.” The president’s cell phone’s ringtone is “coconut noises.”

  3. An example of arc , or inconsistent arc is found in schindler’s list . The movie turned first person and followed the jewish girl with a red jacket(black and white movie) under the bed where she was hiding . That’s cinematic arc, literary arc is similer (opinion). But an example of bad arc would be Slaughter House Five, when the author , protagonist, and faux es machina are in the book. Bad arc just means making the audience stop and collect themselves for a sec and is usefull device for shock or what have you. (dont judge me by my spelling either) , arc is associated with time too , so you cannot have orthodox arc in time travel stories(oppinion).Slaughter House Five and Schindler’s list are some of the greatest stories ever too. one is arcane and another is a raider of the lost arc (haha cheesy i know) but rebuttal to noah’s arc.

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