Story Arc

Video clips that show highway traffic in fast motion approximate the way our lives go. We take in more and thirst for more sensations. When you think that the human being is bombarded by millions of atomic particles thrown off by the expanding universe every second, it is a wonder we live in such a linear civilization. I don’t know if most people are taming chaos, but it is easy to see how the analogy is drawn.

The task of the writer is to make sense out of this frantic activity. Most of us keep a constant lookout for the novel event, something we have not experienced ad nauseam. We court danger, depending on our appetite, and danger infrequently comes to us, in a fall, a highway accident, or a death. These occasions are the ones we deem worthy of recording.

One person’s idea of what is entertaining depends to a large degree on their ability to write about an event in a fresh way. That is why some memoirs rise above the rest. An author probes a subject that might strike most as tedious, and mines new insights that make us see it in an entirely new way. The more acute the perspective, the more banal a topic can be.

The great majority of writers do not possess this talent, which is why structure of the memoir becomes more valuable. A rambling assemblage of fond memories becomes wearying by its very length. What is the point? the reader starts to ask. That is one reason so many memoirs end up being fictionalized—in order to place the memories within a story’s progression. Because this happened, it led to that....

Rather than chronology, which is linear but also useless in terms of organizing like material, an author might ask: what is the point of this block of events in my life? That question can be raised every 20-25 pages. Okay, that stuff happened: what is, in business parlance, the take-away? When regarded in this light, the most basic template might be based on significant rites of passage: graduation from high school and college, marriage, birth of first child, first mortgage, etc. 

When a series of events is corralled in this fashion, you can line up the events as building blocks toward that signal change. You’ll find it affects your interpretation of the smaller events—because you know where they are leading. Rather than an undifferentiated parade, you have a pilgrim’s progress.

Exercise: If you have already written reams of material, start by throwing out chronology. Look at the different events with an eye toward their thematic content: e.g., mischievous deeds leading to what outcome, romantic encounters leading to what right choice, etc.? The reader doesn’t care about looping back in time, so why are you writing in a straight line?

“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”
—Emily Dickinson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.