Friday, October 2, 2015

Why False Agreements Make Strong Chapters

The inner story of a book is the transformation of a person, the main character or narrator, through a series of outer events.  This is called a narrative arc.  Without this narrative arc, a book is just like reading a list of crises.  
Readers want to witness growth.  The narrative arc is the journey of growth. A clear narrative arc makes a book feel cohesive. 

But since narrative arcs are about change, the character's journey often starts with something they don't understand.  Something they are challenged by.  Another way to look at this:  it starts with a false agreement.


This essay by Charles Baxter proposes that the character or narrator needs to be engaged in whatever triggers your story.  Consider the idea that this engagement comes from a belief, a conviction, a desire or hope or fear that is a kind of false agreement with self, another, or situation.  

Presented at the beginning, the story itself will show how this agreement is broken down.  By the end, there is a new realization.

What are some false agreements in story?

In Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander, the false agreement is that the narrator, a teenage girl, believes she can help her mother stay out of danger.  This proves false when the mother decides to kill her boyfriend and ends up in prison, abandoning her daughter.

In Jeanette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle, the false agreement is that the narrator, a young girl, believes that her crazy family is eccentric but normal.  This falls apart as the parents take more risks and put the girl in danger.   

In Lief Enger's novel Peace Like a River, the false agreement is that justice can prevail--when a young girl is attacked by boys in town and her brother defends her, his family can bring him back into the family.  Proven false when the brother runs away and aligns with a serial killer.

A false agreement will always be revealed as false by the end of the book.  It may be accepted, then denied, then accepted again during the story--humans rarely travel a straight line in growth--but it is exposed by the end for what it is. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Consider the false agreement that launches your book.  It will be hinted at in the first chapter, often in the first pages.