When story arcs collide

When story arcs collide

Anyone who has written, or studied writing, understands that a good scene does more than advance the plot: It develops characters, introduces or enlivens conflict, and (we hope) deepens the reader’s connection to the protagonist or particular point of view character. In a sense, that’s the default aim of every good scene: To further the journey of the protagonist toward her story goal.

We’ve all read – and written – stories that are a string of these “default” scenes. And they read just fine, especially if there’s plenty of action and interesting characters to engage us. But we may put the book down afterward and feel that the story is, perhaps, a little thin. One thing happens after another in a linear fashion, but the story doesn’t quite have the rich texture that we sense would make it more satisfying.

But how do we achieve that texture?

We might start with the idea that if we have more characters or more plot points, then we’re creating texture. But I suspect we’d quickly discover that our story veers out of control as we attempt to juggle too many point of view characters or too many characters generally or too many plot lines. The story might feel disjointed thematically or muddy in terms of its action. In the wise words of Sabrina (1995), “More is not always better. Sometimes it’s just… more.”

Examination of our “default” linear story, however, may reveal several opportunities with the characters we already have.

Consider the writer’s adage, “The villain is the hero of their own story.” If the villain has their own story, so shouldn’t our secondary characters? If a secondary character’s mini-arc intersects our main character’s story arc in a way that creates conflict or throws an obstacle at the protagonist, we start creating texture.

Photo credit: Tony Dejak / Associated Press
Photo credit: Tony Dejak / Associated Press

This is how one of my favorite dark moments in literature comes about: In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is on the verge of renewing his proposal to Elizabeth Bennett on the very day Elizabeth receives news that her foolish sister, Lydia, has run away with, but not married, the dashing scoundrel, Wickham. There’s no way even Mr. Darcy can thumb his nose at strict social convention and propose to Elizabeth because her sister – and by extension the entire family – is ruined.

In this case, Lydia’s story goal is basically to have as much fun as possible; Wickham represents an endless supply of fun. Wickham’s story goal is to marry into some portion of money; he’s figured out that he can exploit Lydia to squeeze money from the Bennetts or, more likely, their wealthy relatives. So Lydia and Wickham’s joint working to achieve their goals throws a massive monkey wrench into Elizabeth and Darcy’s goals.

That’s a wonderful example of how the dark moment can be impacted by a secondary character’s storyline. But what about scenes other than the dark moment?

Since we’re now talking about secondary characters having their own mini-arcs, you will probably instantly see that each scene could potentially advance not just one arc – the protagonist’s – but that of a secondary character (or even two secondary characters). In an early scene in Evelyn (coming soon, I hope!), several goals clash in subtle and not-so-subtle ways among the five main players:

  • Evie receives a promotion she believes should have gone to a more deserving coworker, Gloria.
  • A quiet exchange between Gloria and Evie’s old boyfriend suggests more than collegial respect between the two.
  • A too-hearty congratulations from the handsome new salesman indicates his special interest in Evie’s success.
  • The boss is convinced that Evie’s promotion will keep him in good standing with his boss.

Chances are, readers won’t consciously notice the layering and intersection of goals in such scenes. But allowing the characters to engage with their goals in this way can increase the reader’s sense of story depth at an unconscious level.

Should every scene have texture in the way I’ve described here? Definitely not! Sometimes a scene needs to concentrate only on furthering the protagonist’s progress or provide her a chance for introspection and reflection. Those “default” scenes are necessary!

But including one or two scenes that cultivate the story goals of multiple characters simultaneously can generate more conflict, suggest greater difficulties lie ahead, and yield interesting twists and turns both for writers and readers.

Sandra K. Moore

Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.

6 thoughts on “When story arcs collide

  1. What I find the most fun as a reader (and the most challenging as a writer) is when all this twisting and intersecting is so seamless I don’t even recognize it till long after the fact! Your Pride and Prejudice example perfectly sums up your point. Atta girl!

    In the story I’m working on right now, I’ve realized that in order for book two (which is a reunion romance, my personal fav) to pack a punch, I need to get that H/H on the page together in book one. It’s turning into a tricky feat to pull off, since Hero II is working for the bad guy and doesn’t exactly want to be sharing oxygen — or page time — with book one’s good guys.

    Your reminder of why it’s so important to put in the hard work couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

    Thanks, Chica!

  2. Ah, I have every confidence in you, Dawn! You’re more than capable of making that work.

    I’m wondering now about the mini-arcs H/H II might have either individually or together — and how that might intersect/cause trouble for/generally mess up H/H I’s story…

    My hat’s off to you for giving it a try!

    With a deep bow,

  3. Damn you Sandra – you’ve got me thinking – is there a way to have a secondary character arc when you’re writing in 1st person. I’ve mulled it over for a couple of days, and I think it is possible – but damn! It’s complicated. This story has a family feud that dates back five generations. Thinking about secondary character arcs has made me resurrect the hero’s grandpa. For h/h to live happily ever after, there needs to be a resolution to the feud – and that can only come about by the grandparents generation – the grandparents were children when their grandparents started the feud – so it goes back 5 generations. Layering in this conflict/feud and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion is going to truly make me pull my hair out, but if I can pull it off, I think it will give this story an added depth …. so, at this point its damn you Sandra, but if I pull it off, it’ll totally be THANK YOU, Sandra.

    1. That’s a very cool discovery, Terri! That sounds like a super-cool development, and I’m sure you’ll be able to layer that in.

      And your comment reminds me that our characters’ story might start on page 1 for our purposes, but in a sense, these characters have had a rich life before we ever write Chapter 1 at the top of the page. They have family and childhoods and heartbreaks and loves and ambitions, all of which can be brought to bear on the story.

      Indeed, because your story has that matrilineal cast to it, those old wounds coming up would definitely bring the story full circle. It’s a great idea! I’m looking forward to reading more!

      P.S. Sorry for the hair-pulling!

  4. The Girls have me naturally trying to complicate plots. I tend to do this through a variety of means: complex backstory, time hopping, diverse setting – blah, blah, blah. I suppose it would be nice if, for once, I was doing the conflict-add purposely. As it is, I have trouble getting beyond the surface reason for the complication and down to the nitty-gritty physic reason why. Thanks goodness for Crit Group

    1. I don’t know. Sometimes I suspect the Girls have us add stuff in willy-nilly like that in order to reveal something amazing later. And the way your Girls have worked in the past, They’ve probably got a lot of irons in the fire…

      Can’t wait for more!

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