Friday, February 5, 2016

How Long Can My Timeline Be? Story Arc Questions and Answers

Many first-time novelists and memoirists struggle with timelines, asking excellent questions in my classes.  Two favorite ones: 

* How long a span of years or months or days can my book cover?

* What should I condense, what should I expand (Do I have to relate everything in real time or can it be summarized)?

A memoir writer from Massachusetts recently emailed me about this.  She wants to cover her childhood in the first quarter of her book.  Then she asked about fast forwarding fifteen years to the next major turning point.   What will this do to readers' attention?   Will they stay with her?

Similarly, first-time novelists ask me about how much of a character's background is necessary, for the reader to make sense of their actions in the main story.  Isn't it easier to just start early in their lives, show why they are who they are, then bring on the crisis?

Neither a novel or a memoir is an autobiography of anyone, real or imagined.  Unless you're famous or writing this for your children as a family legacy, it's totally unnecessary to include everything.   In fact, readers get bored with the details that fascinate you, the writer. 

Not sure about this?  Pick up any recently published novel or memoir.  Where does it start?  With the person's birth, or childhood?  Not usually.  That part is background, so it's often left out of the early parts of the story, the first act.  You're only trying to engage the reader, get them hooked on what's happening now, the big fight.  Then, they'll begin to be interested in the background, the why.

So, first find the big fight.  It's the biggest struggle in your story, for the narrator.  Then consider starting at the very edge or right in the main action of this big fight.  Finally, choose careful sections of the backstory (the past) to weave in. 

Great examples abound.  Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild, starts with her PCT hike, and weaves in her abusive childhood and heroin addiction.  By the time these appear, we're already engaged in the current big fight (is she going to survive the hike?).   Paula Hawkin's The Girl on the Train starts with a train ride where the narrator sees what looks like a body.  We learn as we go along about her soured marriage and her alcoholism. 

This is harder work than just starting with day 1 and working forward chronologically, granted, but it's compelling to readers today.  An agent was talking about the hundreds of book openings she reads, and many that she never reads on:  "The opening has to grab me.  Don't start with exposition, the background.  Put us right in the action." 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Look at a few books online or on your bookshelf.  Pick books published in the past year or so, because these give the most accurate sense of the publishing industry today.  Where do they start?

Then consider your own book.  If you set aside the childhood, the background of this book you're writing, where might you begin?  Rework your plan from there, and trust your reader more.  Then choose small sections of your backstory that are vital to the motive of the narrator.  List them.  See how you might weave them into the main storyline in small bites.

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