The Secret to a Great Arc
Make your characters want something right away, wrote Vonnegut, even if it’s only a glass of water.
And as soon as we pick my four-year-old up from pre-school and strap her into her car seat, she tells us that she wants some water.
But a narrative, at its most basic level, is driven by the relationship between what a character wants and the obstacles in their way, and it just so happens that my daughter’s water bottle is empty.
Can I have some of yours, my four-year-old asks.
But even she must know – from every book we’ve ever read her – that a character can’t reach their goal without a little resistance and that the arc of a story relies on the heightening tension between hope and disappointment.
And while both my wife and I have water to share, I’m sick with a cold and my wife has added electrolytes to hers that, unfortunately, contain caffeine.
We could stop at a store, my four-year-old suggests. And lo and behold a CVS appears just ahead to our left.
However, while stopping to buy bottled water would certainly expedite our path to a climax, a good story must find ways to complicate the inner journey of the protagonist.
And when I explain to my four-year-old that we can’t stop because we are already late to pick her older sister up, I can sense the target and intensity of her frustration beginning to shift.
My wife tries to distract her by mentioning that she once heard that should you ever find yourself stranded in the desert you could suck on a stone because they absorb moisture from the air.
But I immediately object to this – not simply because I remember Dr. Spock saying something about not letting your kids suck on rocks in the car, but because giving her a stone would provide her with a deus-ex-machina.
No, I say, the change must come from within.
I remind my daughter that Rumi said we should seek not water, but thirst – but she has no patience for Sufi mysticism and begins grunting and kicking the back of my car seat.
Normally, this would bother me. But I know that sometimes a character has to hit rock bottom in order to realize that they need to undergo some sort of personal transformation if they want to reach their goal.
And yet the more my daughter digs her heels into my seat, the more I begin to worry that in her four-year-old mind – where everything is a competition – she equates personal transformation with losing.
Which makes me wonder if I’ve been tracing the wrong character’s arc – that maybe this isn’t the story of a young girl on a quest for water but of a middle-aged man who learns to stop tuning out the suffering of those around him.
I look back at my daughter, whose face is covered in tears, and I suddenly grok her pain – she is tired and strapped in and thirsty – and I remember my own childhood when I’d spend all day suffering small humiliations on the playground then wait until I got home to explode on the people who were contracted by ancient law to forgive me.
Poets traffic in awareness, writes Alan Shapiro, and each whack to the back of my seat registers like a Zen master’s stick until I am climactically aware of my daughter’s thirst.
And yet even at the peak of my empathy, I can’t help but think about Kurt Brown saying, How easy it is/ to write the words “fear” or “thirst”/ when they aren’t written/ in your own blood.
It’s not until we finally make it to my older daughter’s school and I rush my four-year-old to the nearest water fountain and she looks up at me and tells me that she’s not thirsty anymore then takes off skipping down the hallway does the story feel complete – do I sense an ending that offers us both closure and a reminder that we live, as Lorrie Moore says, in a constant state of non-arrival.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman