Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, August 28, 2012 8 comments
I've read a few YA novels recently that left me a little cold. As I thought about why, I realized one aspect of all the stories was underdeveloped or nonexistent--the inner journey or emotional arc.

All three protagonists wanted something. On the surface. That desire drove the plot arc. But the inner need behind that desire wasn't addressed. There was no emotional arc.

What's the difference, you might ask. I turn again to one of my favorite resources for these sorts of definitions--Les Edgerton's Hooked.

Edgerton says that a novel develops around two major components, the "surface problem" and the "story-worthy problem." The former is generally a bad situation or quandary that is introduced at the beginning of a novel. The kidnapped sister. The business collapse. Impending bankruptcy. Serious illness. Infertility. That sort of thing. The story-worthy problem is the deeper psychological need that is challenged by the surface problem. The need to feel competent. Worthy of love. Generous rather than grasping, or confident instead of fearful.

The story-worthy problem adds emotional stakes to your work, so that what happens to your characters and the decisions they make actually changes them deeply. If you only work on the level of surface problem, you'll have a surface story. Quality writing puts characters through an emotional growth process that is cathartic and healing for the reader as well.

You find story-worthy problems, Edgerton says, in "that dark place we all have inside and try hardest to deny and ignore" (64). These are areas of vice or weakness that need to change for a character to achieve goals and fully blossom into his or her best self.

Here's an example:
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and her family become impoverished after the father dies. The best hope of solving the problem is a wise marriage. But Elinor is so "sensible"--practical, wise, following every rule of propriety-- that she comes across as cold to men. In other words, her virtue has a dark side. She learns to risk loving, even in the face of what seem impossible odds. Hope might not be sensible, but in taking risk, Elinor becomes a more fully human person.

What are some other examples you can think of? How might this distinction help your writing?


8 comments:

  1. This is something I'm especially conscious off. You can have two books with the same plot, but it's the inner arc that will make them two very different stories.

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    1. So true, Stina! That is an excellent observation. How the surface problem affects a person emotionally is very individual.

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  2. I love Les's book! Thanks for this post, it's a good reminder each time we start a new wip.

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    1. It is a great resource. I find the emotional arc something that often needs shoring up in revisions. Characters' motivations have to grow over the course of the story. That's a weakness I saw in these books. The authors treated inner journey as "once and done" by inserting a little inner monologue at the beginning. The characters didn't continue to grapple with their inner demons, only the outer ones.

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  3. Hard to believe a book with no emotional arc could get published.

    I really like Hooked, too.

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    1. It happens more often than you might think, especially in genres where plot is considered far more important that characterization.

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  4. Hooked is one of my favorites--I re-read it whenever I feel stuck. When a story doesn't have me looking forward to reading it, it usually is because of the emotional arc!

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    1. I think the most readable books have the two arcs working in tandem. I've gotten equally bogged down by an overly diffuse "surface problem" too.

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