Thursday, April 19, 2018

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, April 19, 2018 No 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?

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