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Posts Tagged ‘Character Arc’

Donna Cangelosi and Chana Stiefel have interviewed me for their blog KidLit Takaways. Thank you, ladies! In the interview, I share some picture books with good arcs and break them down to show the various plot points. I also offer a 25% discount off my picture book writing course Art of Arc. Because their blog’s theme is “Bite-size bits of wisdom & inspiration for writers on the go!” we weren’t able to include everything from the interview, so I offer some of the outtakes below.

How did you come up with the idea for your online writing class, Art of Arc?

After critiquing hundreds of picture book manuscripts, I saw the same issues repeatedly. As my professional critiques include mini lessons, I found myself recreating the same lessons but customizing them for each story I critiqued. There had to be an easier, more efficient way to do this. And a course was born.

The reason I created a course that focuses on the classic arc is because 90% of the stories I critique are built around that structure. Many successful published picture books are built around an arc on some level. It is the number one structure in picture books. Therefore, I believe this course fulfills a need that has not been available until now. Many courses are taught using the classic arc, but none goes into the detail that this course provides.

Define “story arc.”

Story arc (sometimes called narrative arc) refers to the plot’s development, and character arc refers to the character’s development. Sometimes this can get confusing, with kind of a which came first the chicken or egg type of conundrum. However, usually with picture books, neither comes first because they develop simultaneously as the story progresses. Your character can’t develop unless your plot creates events that instigate your protagonist’s growth or change. Your plot can’t develop unless your character reacts to the plot events through action that moves the story forward, hence developing the plot.

The character arc is the structure that shows how the character develops (grows/changes/or learns) over time. Without a change, the story would be flat, and the reader would not have much to relate to. Usually, the main character starts out with some sort of conflict that he tries to work through, and he is eventually forced to make a choice that leads to his change in thinking or growth. Sometimes the change in thinking is acceptance. Character arc is sometimes confused with character motivation (the thing that makes him take action).

Motivation is the “why” of the protagonist’s action.

The arc is the “how” of the change and growth that occurred because of the action he took.

So, motivation is the driver. It is the energy that moves the protagonist to react or act. His growth is the result of the actions that he took.

Arc determines the ups and downs that set the pace of your story. A good arc is key to engaging readers from beginning to end. There are many picture books based on a similar idea or theme. The arc helps to differentiate one of those same-topic picture books from the other. The narrative arc (also called story arc) is related to the external events and the character arc is about the protagonist’s inner journey, hence the importance of some sort of growth in the character by the end of the story. But still the two arcs form a symbiotic relationship. They rely on each other. The situations and challenges that your characters face are part of the story arc. The choices your character makes and the action he takes that lead to growth and change all fall into the character arc zone.

The main plot points of the story arc include the exposition, ordinary life, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Not all picture books show the ordinary life. Many start at the inciting incident.

The beginning of the story usually provides the who, what, when, where, and why of the story. And the protagonist and his problem/goal are introduced.

Describe the class curriculum and learning objectives.

The focus of the course is the storytelling structure that uses a classic arc. The purpose of this course is to deepen writers’ understanding of picture books written with a classic arc and to introduce them to many other picture book structures. The course also addresses a number of common issues I have found in the manuscripts I critique.

The objective of the course is . . .

• To give a strong foundation in storytelling that is built around the traditional story arc
• To teach picture book writers some techniques and structures that will improve existing manuscripts and make future writing stronger
• To provide writers with the knowledge and tools to assist in analyzing their own work prior to investing in professional critiques
• To guide writers through a manuscript self-assessment process that may help prevent submitting manuscripts prematurely
• To show writers how to avoid common writing errors and apply writing elements that will enhance their stories in a way that takes them to a higher level
• To shed light on writing elements previously learned in less-detailed courses
• To expand writers’ ability to revise and polish their manuscripts
• To expand writers’ ability to develop a strong plot

The curriculum is based on the following lessons:

LESSON ONE: BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS

LESSON TWO: BEYOND THE HOOK

LESSON THREE: OVERVIEW OF PICTURE BOOK PLOT STRUCTURE

LESSON FOUR: CAUSE AND EFFECT

LESSON FIVE: EPISODIC STORIES

LESSON SIX: THE MIDDLE – FIRST, SECOND, AND THIRD ATTEMPTS TO SOLVE PROBLEM OR REACH GOAL

LESSON SEVEN: DARKEST MOMENT, INNER AND OUTER CLIMAX, ENDING

LESSON EIGHT: SHOWING VERSUS TELLING

LESSON NINE: USING ELEMENTS OF FICTION IN NONFICTION

LESSON TEN: OTHER COMMON ISSUES

BONUS MATERIALS AND WRITING RESOURCES

Describe your background in writing?

I’ve written my whole life. First, I wrote for creative pleasure. Then I wrote in various jobs. I wrote newsletters, processes, and procedures. I wrote greeting cards for a small business my sister and I had. When my granddaughter was born, my interests turned to children’s book writing. I started my children’s writing journey and education with the Institute of Children’s Literature, moved on to their advanced course, and then I started taking courses from authors, editors, and other writing schools. In addition, I went to SCBWI conferences and workshops as well as other writing workshops and webinars. There is a partial list of the courses I’ve taken on my website.

And in critiquing?

I’ve been critiquing for ten years. It started with critique groups. Then as I progressed with my knowledge, I felt the need to help other writers, so I started critiquing people’s manuscripts out of generosity. In the process, I learned things I hadn’t learned in the courses I had taken. Issues that I sensed were concern worthy piqued my curiosity and drove me to research. I was especially interested in understanding plot and arc on a deeper level because I saw so many stories that were missing cause and effect or had no arc or a weak arc. The more I critiqued, the more people would tell me how much I helped them understand and strengthen their story. So, I decided I must be pretty good at this critique thing. After writing hundreds of picture book critiques, I opened my professional critique service in January 2014. In 2016, I was invited by Julie Hedlund to be a Critique Ninja for 12 X 12. This will be my third year as a Critique Ninja. I still give critiques away to help other writers. For paid critiques, I mostly critique manuscripts for my students and alumni because I know that I can refer back to lessons that they should revisit to help them strengthen their manuscripts. My students get a deep discount on critique fees.

What are some of the common mistakes writers make regarding story arc?

There are so many! I could write a book, but I will give a few of the top ones that have major impact on the story.

I see a lot of episodic stories. I explain episodic stories on my blog.

Many stories have a lack of growing tension or lack of variety in action.

It’s common to read stories where it’s not clear who the protagonist is. When I query the author, we often find who they think the protagonist is does not convey in their story. This is usually a sign of an episodic story or a weak or nonexistent arc.

I find that the darkest moment and inner and outer climax are either weak or missing.

There is often a lack of motivation or stakes that drive the protagonist to take action. This and a lack of obstacles (or try and fail scenes) result in a story with very little to no emotional core. The lack of stakes and obstacles prevent the rise in action and the tension that keep the reader engaged.

I see many weak beginnings that don’t hook me as a reader. They don’t create questions in my mind that make me want to keep reading. They don’t set up any expectations that make me want to keep reading.

And then there are weak endings. Just a few examples: The story is resolved too easily. Someone else steps in and saves the protagonist. It might be predictable. There are loose ends left dangling.

Tell us about your writing career.

I covered this pretty much in my answer about my background in writing. I will add that my picture book Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa was my first published book. And it won the Mom’s Choice Gold Medal and the Independent Publisher’s Silver Medal. My first chapter book Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy: Trying to Make it Rain was released last year. It is the first in a series with three other Sienna books that are scheduled to follow. I have started giving chapter book critiques, and gosh darn it, if I’m not pretty good at those, too 😉

Can you share any success stories from your students?

While some of my clients have signed with agents or sold books to publishers, I don’t believe that it is entirely a result of taking Art of Arc or any one course. I believe that it usually takes a combination of courses (where the author gleans a bit from each one). And then there are critique groups, professional critiques, conferences, and craft books, and on and on. It’s also important to give credit to the determination and the blood, sweat, and tears that authors put into their work. In my opinion, reaching success as a writer usually takes a village. I’m happy that Art of Arc can play a role in the growth of many writers’ knowledge. I will share a few recent comments about the course below.

Michael Samulak said, “I don’t have a ‘success’ story in the traditional sense, but I can at least support the ‘village’ idea and say that the course has helped me with my writing and approach. I recently was able to finish a story that I am currently submitting to agents. I realized how much of my writing up to the ARC has been ideas more than a complete story.”

One of my students, Karla Valenti has signed with Essie White and her picture book Marie Curie and the Power of Persistence has been acquired by Sourcebooks. This is the first book in the My Super Science Heroes picture book series. Following is what Karla shared with me about how Art of Arc impacted her writing.

“So I took your course after I had taken a few other PB courses. What I loved about it was that it (1) reinforced a lot of what I already knew (hooks, story structure, conflict, showing vs. telling, etc) but it provided supplemental material to study, (2) there was a lot of new content that was really useful and that I’d never read before (e.g. episodic stories and using elements of fiction in NF), and (3) you have assembled a truly fantastic list of resources!!

In the end, the exercise of working through all of these materials, truly helped cement (and ultimately internalize) key elements of picture book storytelling which have undoubtedly made me a better writer.

As for how this helped me in my career, the course gave me a number of tools I could use to improve upon my stories as well as the confidence to know that I was on the right track as a writer. It also helped me become better at reviewing my work and critiquing the work of others. This last part continues to be a huge benefit as I find no substitute for reading picture books (published or otherwise) and trying to understand what makes them resonate.

On a personal note, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to also learn from you through your manuscript critiques. It is clear you have a solid understanding of effective and meaningful storytelling, and your insights have been invaluable in helping me develop my own work.”
For those who might be interested, there are many more testimonials on my website.

Other suggestions for picture book writers.

Read, read, read. Read picture books. Read books on writing.

Analyze picture books written with a classic arc. One good way to do this is to write out all the plot points in simple sentences. I find when writing critiques that sometimes getting away from the wonderful writing and distilling the story down to simple, bland steps of the protagonist’s actions, challenges, and turning points, I can see the actual structure better.

You can find more information on Art of Arc on my website. To learn how to get your 25% discount, be sure to visit KidLit Takeaways.

 

 

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roller-coasterA LITTLE OF THIS

This year has been one wild and crazy ride for me, and it seems it’s time to share just a little bit. The year began by purging my house of a lifetime collection of possessions, and by the time my husband and I were done in April, about two thirds of all we owned had been donated or sold. We also sold our house with no intention of moving into a traditional home or apartment. We moved onto our 35-foot sailboat. My husband retired in May, and our next step was to start our RV hunt, which did not go as smoothly as anticipated. Actually from the time we moved onto the boat, it seemed we had one challenge after another. But I won’t bore you with the details. Maybe another time. In July, we settled into our 43-foot RV just across the way from our boat. A beautiful setting. Yet, the challenges continued. We believe this month will be the last month of getting the creases out, and we can finally settle down and start traveling in November.

Did all this have an impact on my life as a writer? Oh yes. Big time! And even now that I’m finding my way in this new lifestyle, there are still challenges like inconsistent Internet, which drives me crazy. But, getting up each morning and looking out at the lake with our boat’s mast waving hello sooths my soul and all is well. I must also say that I’ve never seen so many beautiful sunsets in such a short time. Life is good.

In the midst of my madness, I was invited to write a guest post on maintaining your health as a writer. It took me a while to get around to it but it is finally here!

balance-writing-lifeThis month, I’m honored to share that Colleen Story is featuring my guest post HOW TO BALANCE AN OUT-OF-CONTROL WRITING LIFE on her blog and in her newsletter, WRITING AND WELLNESS: Putting the Power of You Behind Your Best Creative Life. I hope you’ll take a little time to read it and ponder the balance or lack of balance in your writing life. Thanks to Colleen for inviting me to be her guest.

A LITTLE OF THAT

Writer friends often express their struggles with rejection and the temptation to throw in the towel. So, I’ve been trying to post inspirational quotes here and there. I share a few of them below.

If you are thinking about or feeling like giving up, don’t do it! Hold your ground. “Victory is not won in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later win a little more.”

– Louis L’Amour

“I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions, I have been entrusted to take the game’s winning shot . . . and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why . . . I succeed.”

– Michael Jordan

“Perseverance is not a long race: it is many short races one after another.”

– Walter Elliott

“Fall seven times, stand up eight.”

– Japanese Proverb

I like the following quote because it not only applies to us as writers, but it applies to the stories we write as well. Think about it. . . . “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.”

– Frank A. Clark

This brings me to . . .

WHY ARE CHARACTER ARCS IMPORTANT?

In most picture books, the main character doesn’t just wander through the plot. They move through with purpose. They overcome challenges. And most importantly, the plot changes them. They learn from the events and challenges that the arc builds, and this is how they arrive at a satisfying conclusion/resolution. The tension and emotional core that the arc creates show the reader that the story is worth reading. It makes the reader care about the character and shows them why the story matters.

Art of Arc V3Whether fiction or nonfiction, if you’ve been told your story needs more arc, or it needs more tension, or it needs more heart, or it needs more focus, my Art of Arc picture book writing course will help you find what your stories need to take them to the next level. And it only costs as much as one professional critique.

Enjoy putting more balance in your writing life!

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12X12 NINJAOne of the many benefits of Julie Hedlund’s 12 x 12 group is the Manuscript Makeover section in the 12 x 12 forum. Members post their picture book manuscripts in the forum and critique ninjas pop in and offer critiques. Last month, I had the pleasure of being a critique ninja. I’ll be returning in September for another month as ninja. There are many talented writers in 12 x 12, and I read lots of stories – some fun, some funny, some touching – all creative. I found a pattern in many of the stories I read. They had elements of episodic storytelling.

 

Following, I provide a brief overview of episodic storytelling in an abbreviated lesson from my online picture book manuscript writing and analyzing course Art of Arc.

 

Rising Chaos

 

A while back, in response to a critique I had done for a chapter book, the author responded, in part, with the following:

 

“For me, rising action means adding story problems! Rising chaos!”

 

That’s one way I would describe an episodic story. While the story might be entertaining dogand move forward, it meanders. An episodic story reminds me a bit of the expression, “The tail wagging the dog.” For a while, the story is taken over by some fun and entertaining scene(s), but eventually it has to get back to the story as a whole – the one with a cohesive beginning, middle, and end. The entertainment is the tail – the dog is the main character who is being wagged by the tail – and as a result, your reader is also being wagged by the tail.

 

The story takes the reader down a meandering path that is disconnected from the other parts of the story. Perhaps the path is loosely connected because the protagonist is involved and there is some sort of loose connection to the character’s problem. But the question to consider is, how connected is each scene to the scene that came before and the scene that follows?

 

The goal in a picture book with a classic arc is to have scenes flow seamlessly, building off each other until they are so blended you don’t even notice the changes that lead up to the end.

 

In an episodic story, the scenes often feel disconnected.

 

The scenes feel erratic, and even though the scene itself might have some tension, it doesn’t add tension to the story as a whole. The story might be moving forward, but the reader has a sense that she is not getting anywhere.

Whackamole

In the picture book manuscripts I critique, I often find main characters taking action, going from one place (or one thing) to another with no real reason. It’s a little bit like the main character is playing a game of Whack-a-Mole. To the reader, it feels like the main character is spending all his time reacting to any obstacle that pops up. He has no real plan or reason for his actions – no real direction. Episodic stories lack focus and direction. Many times circumstances or other characters drive the direction the story takes, and the main character seems to go along for the ride. We see no change or growth in the scenes or in the story. One way that change and growth are revealed is through decisions.

 


SOME WAYS TO TEST YOUR PICTURE BOOK MANUSCRIPT FOR EPISODIC ELEMENTS

 

DOES IT MATTER WHERE EACH SCENE APPEARS IN THE STORY?

 

With storylines built via cause and effect, scenes rely on each other to tell the story and to build tension. What if you moved your scenes around? Would the plot change? If it doesn’t matter where a particular scene happens in the story, it is likely episodic.

 

ARE SCENE GOALS RELATED TO THE STORY GOAL (larger plotline)?

 

Although scenes stand alone, they also need to be steps in the story plot. How does each scene advance the story (related to the plot as a whole)? Does the resolution or discovery made at the end of one scene set things up for the next? Or stated differently, does the next scene start with something that stemmed from the prior scene – an event, a decision, an action – and then move on to something new that leads to the next scene?

 

IS THE RISING ACTION, RISING CHAOS?

 

Are the main character’s challenges independent problems that create a meaningless (as related to the big story problem) obstacle course for the main character?  How can the challenges all be connected to the common thread of the story? Resist causing unnecessary trouble for the main character. Even when the trouble is entertaining, fun, and exciting, if it doesn’t have “whole story” purpose, it is probably episodic.

 

Each of the main character’s challenges should involve the following:

 

  • Overcoming the obstacle for that portion of the story.
  • Have significance to the bigger story. Remember, the main character has a big story goal and then smaller goals as the story builds. The smaller goals should not be too far removed from the big goal.

 

IS THERE A GOAL DRIVING THE SCENE?

 

Why is the main character in this scene? Why is he taking action? Is he taking intentional action or is he just reacting with no goal in mind?

 

DO THE SCENES INFORM THE READER?

 

  • What will the reader learn about the story (as a whole)?
  • What will the reader learn about the main character?
  • Do these events and actions move the plot forward in a way that makes the reader care about the main character, become curious, want to know more?
  • What is the purpose of the scene?

 

At the end of this post you will find a couple of links that will lead to excellent posts on episodic writing. Although they are not about picture book writing, they still help clarify what an episodic story is and why it can be problematic. Although some people write episodic stories intentionally, I believe there is no room for episodic storytelling in picture books. Young children do not have the attention span to follow the chaos that is created in such a story.

 

Let me be clear about the above statement. I am talking about classic stories. There are picture books that may seem episodic, and at times that’s okay. Concept picture books are a good example. The reason these books can be episodic is because they are built around a theme or concept. Take a look at THE BELLY BOOK by Fran Manushkin or EVERYBODY SLEEPS (BUT NOT FRED) by Josh Schneider. Many of the events in these books could have happened at any point within the book (or story). But these books are not built around a classic arc. Every story you write will NOT need to be analyzed for episodic elements. However, if the story you are writing is built around a classic arc with rising action and cause and effect, watch for episodic elements.

 

In the Art of Arc Course, I list some books in the cause and effect section that have somewhat episodic segments, but they are still built around cause and effect. NO DAVID, by David Shannon and WHAT IF EVERYBODY DID THAT, by Ellen Javernick are a couple. Although many of the segments could appear anywhere in the book, these segments each have their own cause and effect.

 

In NO DAVID, David’s actions lead to a reaction from his mother. But eventually the sum of the events lead to a reaction from David and that event leads to the final reaction from his mother.

 

In WHAT IF EVERYBODY DID THAT, each time that question is asked the reader sees the effect.

 

In BECAUSE I STUBBED MY TOE, by Shawn Byous you will find a perfect example of how important the order of events can be. Everything that happens in this story is a result of the boy stubbing his toe, but it is also the result of the event that came before it. This is a true cause and effect book.

Copyright Alayne Kay Christian 2016

LINKS TO ARTICLES ON EPISODIC WRITING

 

Plotting Problems – Episodic Writing

By Marg McAlister

http://www.fictionfactor.com/guests/plottingproblems.html

 

From Moody Writing

Episodic Storytelling is a problem

http://moodywriting.blogspot.com/2012/11/episodic-storytelling-is-problem.html

 

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CAUSE AND EFFECT, EPISODIC STORIES, art of arc extraOR STORY AND CHARACTER ARCS contact me and ask about the new TRY IT plan where you can try the first five Art of Arc lessons for $35.00 – purchased with no obligation to buy the remainder of the course. You may contact me using the “contact” tab at the top of this page, or via my Art of Arc webpage.

 

An outline of the first five lessons follows:

 

WELCOME SECTION

 

The welcome section includes a nine-page supplement demonstrating sixteen different picture book structures with diagrams, descriptions, and book titles.

 

LESSON ONE: BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS

 

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • What drives your protagonist?
  • Beginnings and hooks.
  • Who, what, where, when, why?
  • Story promise, reader’s expectations, and story questions.
  • Page-turners.
  • How the whole story connects to the ending.

 

This lesson includes supplemental materials that demonstrate the components of strong beginnings and endings. It also includes worksheets for analyzing published picture books and your manuscripts.

 

LESSON TWO: BEYOND THE HOOK

 

  • Setting the hook.
  • Creating a connection with the reader.
  • Inciting incident.
  • Ways to keep the reader reading.
  • More on page-turners.

 

This lesson includes supplemental materials that demonstrate the components of strong beginning and endings. It also includes worksheets for analyzing published picture books and your manuscripts.

 

LESSON THREE: OVERVIEW OF PICTURE BOOK PLOT STRUCTURE

 

  • Story arc (plot development)
  • Character arc (character development)
  • Questions to ponder
  • Small, scene goals
  • Tension
  • Feelings
  • Character turning points

 

LESSON FOUR: CAUSE AND EFFECT

 

  • What is cause and effect and why is it important
  • Diagrams
  • Writing exercises
  • Worksheets
  • Examples
  • Bonus supplement with links to additional info

 

LESSON FIVE: EPISODIC STORIES

 

  • What is an episodic story?
  • What causes a story to be episodic?
  • Worksheets and tips for testing your story for episodic elements
  • Links to additional info

 

 

 

 

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