Sin #17: Ignoring the dramatic arc
Dramatic structure crops up in all works of fiction. The structure of any story will follow a rough outline, or pyramid in this case. This outline device has been analysed to death over the years and boiled down to a hundred different explanations all very witty in their analogies, but essentially the same.
One of the most clear and concise methods of explaining this is Freytag’s analysis of dramatic structure. Although this analysis was originally applied to plays, it works equally well with works of fiction (novels AND short stories).
The above diagram shows how complications will increase tension, developing a climactic scene within your novel. Once the climax is over, the tension decreases to the point of a satisfying conclusion. Although Freytag initially used his pyramid diagram to explain tragedies, I believe it applies to all genres of fiction.
Your novel should begin with exposition. This will establish your story, introduce the main character and give the reader a feel for what the novel will be about. The main conflict for the MC should be introduced at this stage, but only hinted at. This is where foreshadowing comes into play. By enticing the reader, you draw them into the story and keep them reading.
Next comes rising action, for me one of the most important parts of a novel. It doesn’t matter how exciting the climax is if the reader never gets there! The rising action has the job of drawing the reader in further, making it impossible for them to put the book down. You want them to really care for the characters at this point, and make them feel that it will be the end of the world if your MC fails.
Tension is built and the conflict is revealed in more detail.
Remember, a character must grow through conflict.
With the main conflict in place, complications…well, complicating things, and the characters motivations established it is time for the climax of the novel. This is the apex of the pyramid, the most important part of the story and your characters development. This is the chance for the character to show what they are made of, to finally overcome those pesky complications that have been plaguing them since the beginning of your novel. This is the equivalent of the third act, the penultimate moment in a story!
Tension is at 101%! The engines canna take it captain, she’s gonna blow! We’re all going to die! Readers perched on the edge of their seat, ignoring the phones, embarrassing themselves in public screaming for the MC to save the day; sweating with fear; feeling as if they themselves are in the novel and the conflict is their problem; that they will die if the MC does…
If you can do that…then you’re sorted. If not – rewrite!
Phew! Now that’s out of the way, the reversal takes place. Also known as falling action – this is where one of two things will happen:
The MC will fail, or at least make a terrible error. An established weakness, or tragedy, or plot point will come back and bite the MC (and hopefully the reader) right on the bottom! Disaster strikes and pain lashes out to strike both the reader and the MC. The suspense is over, the hero has lost and has to live (or not) with the consequences).
The MC will overcome the complications, not entirely, but enough to satisfy the readers. Obviously they can’t overcome all conflict at this point or the reader will put the book down happy with the mid book conclusion. Nope, that wouldn’t work, especially if you have a sequel planned! Instead the MC must overcome the rest of the conflict which they have bravely faced so far. Even if you’re going for a ‘happy’ ending, there is no reason the falling action can’t make it look like its not going to go well for the MC.
The final stage is denouncement. If you went the tragic route then the resolution stage ends with the MC in a worse place than when they started their adventure. This may be physical or emotional, but still has to be satisfying! Even with tragic endings, the reader must feel a slight sense of satisfaction from reading the book.
If you went with the comedy ending (as in the original meaning of the word: happy ending) then the resolution stage ends with the MC in a better situation then when they started the novel. This doesn’t mean they have to kiss the girl, get the riches, and that they saved the world. Maybe they just grew as a person, or learnt how to move on from a tragic period in their life.
Either way, a satisfying ending must be achieved and closure must be given to the reader. A good book should end with the reader slowly closing the book, sitting back and giving a sigh, and contemplating the words they have just read…at least for thirty seconds, before they run around in circles and look for a DVD or the XBOX remote…hey, what else can you expect with the tiny attention spans people have to…ooh look! A goose!