I've talked a lot about them over the years; heard many, many people discuss them; have kept the concept vaguely in the back of my mind as I wrote.
No. That's not true.
I never thought about narrative arc as I wrote any particular book.
(I'm lucky. I tend to write character-driven books. I internalize my characters until I know them. By the time I start to write, I understand what's important to them and why they do what they do and what their family and friends are like and so why those people respond the way they respond. This understanding tends to create it own narrative arc that I then can go back through, adding and changing elements.)
But I stray ... My point is that as I was trying to think about how to talk more clearly about narrative arcs, I decided to ask the class to read several books so we can diagram their arcs and talk about them together. They needed to be short so that everyone could read them in a week.
I asked them to read any version they could find of "The Three Little Pigs." We're all familiar with it. Its arc is obvious, even to a child, which is part of its comfort and charm. I thought that would be a good place to start.
Then I came up with the idea of comparing the arcs of two similarly plotted picture books to see how the authors handled them. I didn't ask them to read the books; I did. I chose Kevin Henkes "Kitten's First Full Moon," and one of Frank Asch's Bear books, "Happy Birthday, Moon."
In both stories, an innocent character - a kitten and a bear - is attracted to the moon. Kitten thinks it's a bowl of milk and wants to drink it. She fails several attempts to reach it until, at the end, discouraged and wet, she goes wearily back home to find that someone has left her a saucer of milk.
I drew the narrative arc of that, with rising action, hurdles, results, and resolution.
I did the same with Asch's book. In it, Bear looks up at the moon and thinks "wouldn't it be nice to give the moon a birthday present." He climbs a tree and calls to the moon, but the moon doesn't answer. Bear tries to get closer so the moon can hear him. He paddles across a river, hikes through a forest and climbs a mountain. The moon is now closer, so should be able to hear him.
I won't go into how it's all resolved, but it duly is. The great thing about both books is that they have clearly delineated narrative arcs that were a pleasure to put into my little diagrams and taught me things as I did so. They succinctly make the necessary points I hope to make in class.
The second book I asked the class to read is "Sarah, Plain and Tall" by Patricia MacLachlan. I can hardly wait to see what the group makes of this. It's the perfect length book to diagram. It has multiple characters, who all have definable motivations, and the rising action is so skillfully drawn out that the resulting resolution is a triumph. It's paced beautifully. The feeling of it reminded me of the slow rolling of the ocean. Building, building. Yet things happen or fail to happen. The outcome is of the greatest importance. Not until the very last minute is it assured.
First, I outlined it. Then I drew my arc diagram. MacLachlan is such a pro, that discovering - and having to discover and make note of, more importantly - the tiny bits of conflict, doubt, and promise that she judiciously scatters throughout, like a trail of breadcrumbs through the woods that's impossible not to follow, was amazingly enjoyable and instructive.
A-ha! I thought. So that's how she did it.
So that is how it is done.
Carefully, specifically, strategically.
Darned, if I didn't immediately think about something in the middle grade book I'm revising right now and rush straight to my computer and plant a clue where none had been and which made the story that much stronger and all thanks to Patricia MacLachlan.
And for having had to take the time to look. And examine. And take apart.
I can only hope my students learn as much as I did from the experience. I'll let you know on Friday.