Monday, December 1, 2008

Coming to Terms

arc--the path or direction a story takes once it is set in motion. This useful term, its origins in geometry--a curved segment of a circle--helping it serve as a mnemonic device. Why is this so? The concept of "story line," also a traced path of the progress of a story, suggests the moment in medical thrillers when the patient dies and his vital responses flat line; thus a story line connotes a thin, even episodic progression of events, a story arc suggests layering, dimension, an orbital path, all constructs reminding the writer, the reader, and characters that story is multidimensional, multifarious, filled with implication, surprise, and the anarchic energy of impulse.

By its very shape, arc implies movement, the story being nudged, dragged, pushed, in some direction, both chronologically and in terms of pace. Helpful to writer, reader, and characters, arc allows each to see where the story has been, where it needs to go, and what further impediments may cross its path or, indeed, collide with it.

Two of the most important individuals in the writer's professional life, the literary agent and the editor, will frequently inquire about the arc of a story, by which they are asking where the story is going. Story arc is momentum informed by volition; it is episode injected with "because" or "as a consequence." Arc is a record of things done past in present because, and as a consequence.

arena--a place wherein story is the featured event; a locale for a scene or the entire story, its landscape never neutral, in fact frequently inhospitable. In some stories, the characters may not know they are in an arena, content to think of it merely as a place--perhaps not the optimal place nor even a good place, but not bad. The readers, however, understand. Why did Bobbie Ann Mason's iconic short story, "Shiloh," take place on the park grounds that were once the arena for one of the most fierce and bloody battles of the American Civil War? Was it mere accident that Allison Lurie named her protagonists the Tates for her darkly funny novel, The War between the Tates?

Arenas in story are famously located in bedrooms, offices, law courts, tennis courts, front seats of automobiles, back seats of automobiles, hospitals, supermarkets, Roman coliseums, anyplace where characters gather to explore and exploit their agendas. Wise writers have come to consider the settings for their scenes with the same care they use in selecting characters. If there is some plausible reason for including a particular scene in a story, its venue should be chosen with as much deliberation as the cast of characters is selected, allowing it's personality to have a tangible effect on the characters, whether a sneeze of allergy, a memory of a painful experience from the past, or a sense of discomfort and unwelcome.

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