Saturday, June 12, 2010

Emotional Arc of Your Story--How Act 1 and Act 2 Create Rhythm a Reader Will Follow

I've been reading Amy Bloom's new book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, a collection of interrelated short stories that form a sort of novel.  Although a few stories were published in earlier collections, this grouping takes the characters another step.

I like practically everything I've read of Bloom's work.  I appreciate the intricate weavings she manages, and I often recommend her to students struggling with character and pacing.

There's a trend in publishing right now of such collections, sometimes called story cycles.  Olive Kitteridge won much attention last year; it's a group of stories about a small town in Maine and a fierce retired schoolteacher.  It's tricky to create a story cycle that keeps the reader engaged as well as a novel, leaving us wanting to dive into the next chapter without hesitation once we finish one story.  Short stories by their nature are complete in themselves.  But a story cycle must release some of that finished feel and create a whole-book rhythm.

In Olive Kitteridge, author Elizabeth Strout stays with the traditional rules--a group of characters, a single place--which gives sense to the collection.  Olive builds a strong emotional arc and can be looked at as a three-act structure without much difficulty.  Act 1 sets the stage for
Olive's scowly nature in the small community, with her strong personality often repelling those she loves.  The finale of Act 1 presents us with the first big tragedy, her husband Henry's stroke.

Act 2 continues with Olive's life after Henry goes into a nursing home.  It moves toward the second big turning point, Olive's visit to her nearly estranged son.  This is where we begin to see Olive as vulnerable, as human, as needing love.  By the third act, I felt great compassion toward this character, and admired Strout's success in making someone so unlovable, lovable.

Bloom's characters are equally difficult to love.  We start off with four stories about William and Clare, deep into an affair.  Their marriages die because of it, they marry each other.  William is an obese man with gout and a swollen foot the size of a turnip, not your average romantic figure.  Clare is as fierce as Olive and can't really explain why William is the one she loves.  We end the section, Act 1 of the collection, with William's death and Clare's disorientation.

Between Acts 1 and 2, Bloom creates an intermezzo, a between-courses diversion into another unrelated story.  Act 2 launches us into deeper waters:  Julia and her grown stepson Lionel are dancing with their attraction after Julia's husband dies.

While Olive Kitteridge gave us movement from Act 1 to Act 2 with Olive's internal growth from dark to light, Bloom's travels the territory of deep human mistakes and the irreversible consequences to the human spirit.  After Julia and Lionel make love in the upsetting aftermath of Lionel's father's funeral, the effect erodes their lives in unexpected ways. Bloom doesn't moralize, even though Julia and Lionel's story will be extremely difficult for many readers.  She believably ups the stakes, creates the one-two punch so necessary in the first two acts of a three-act structure.

Act 1 starts a certain question or quest, and the momentum of it should carry the reader to the first big crisis at the end of Act 1.  If you start pretty low, you need to go even lower.  Consider Act 1 the point of no return.  What is going to come about as a result of that?

In Bloom's book, at the beginning of Act 1 William and Clare begin their affair.  By the end of Act 1 William is dead and Clare begins to live with her choice:  she can't go back to her family, her friends, the way things were, and William is no longer there to make sense of it all for her.

In a short story collection, Act 2 must take this consequence and raise the stakes, put someone at greater risk.  What much worse thing could happen?  Maybe for Bloom this was Julia, after her husband's death, sleeping with her stepson. Act 2's action creates deeper effect than Act 1.

 This Week's Writing Exercise
In my classes, I've discovered that most writers err in creating low risk in Act 2.  So this week, consider your book's middle.

Does it sag a bit?

Compare the Act 1 question or quest with what happens in Act 2.  Do you accelerate appropriately?

If not, try this exercise:

1.  Make a list of 10 things your main character would never do.  If it's a true story, consider the same question.

2.  Pick one.

3.  Set a timer for 20 minutes.  Write a scene as if that person did the thing they'd never do.

4.  What did you learn?  Can you use some emotion that emerged, as you work on Act 2?