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Here it is, the exciting conclusion to my SCBWI conference notes! Just a quick review…in Part 1 I did an overview of the conference with the good, the bad, and the just plain weird, Part 2 talked about publishing alternatives, Part 3 was all about letting your characters tell you who they are, Part 4 delved into ways to put the real into fiction, and in Part 5 I discussed great openings. Which brings us to…Part 6: Keep Your Eye on the Arc.

City Doodle -pen

This workshop was once again led by HarperCollins editor Andrew Harwell, who had a very busy day. He started off with a picture of the typical plot mountain: Exposition, followed by rising action, leading to the climax at the top of the mountain, and then down for falling action, and finally the resolution. Some plot mountains include  a sixth category – the inciting incident, which happens between the exposition and the rising action, but for the purposes of this workshop Harwell just went over the dos and don’ts of the traditional five.

EXPOSITION:

Do:

  • establish the voice and mood
  • give us a sense of setting
  • introduce your conflict
  • know what happens on page 0

Don’t:

  • stop moving forward
  • dump info on us about the character or world
  • use a prologue as a crutch

Most stories need to hit the ground running, while still giving readers enough of a sense of character and setting that they’ll stick around for the ride. The exposition is all about this balance. According to Harwell, writers should also be aware of what happens on page 0 as they begin their stories, meaning they need to know what will happen at any point either in the story or even off the page.

RISING ACTION:

Do:

  • raise the stakes of the conflict with each and every scene
  • reveal more and more of who your characters are
  • set up details that will pay off later

Don’t:

  • stop moving forward

As you can see, that “don’t stop moving forward” is essential throughout your whole story (spoiler: you’ll be seeing it listed for each step of the plot mountain…consider yourself warned). In every scene you write you should be asking yourself if it advances the story in some way. And if you’re a pantser like I am, don’t worry about it – on your first draft you might have a bit of a mess, but you can always go back and add in those building scenes, and those little details as you edit. Like Harwell said, “As a writer you always get to remember your punch lines.”

CLIMAX:

Do:

  • raise the stakes of the conflict to their absolute boiling point
  • weave in as many threads as possible

Don’t:

  • stop moving forward
  • resort to a screaming match!!!

If the climax of your story is the climax merely because all of your characters are screaming at each other, well, that’s probably not enough. It doesn’t matter how many exclamation points you put in, if you haven’t raised the stakes to their absolute boiling point, it’s not going to feel like enough. Oh, and don’t forget to keep moving forward…

FALLING ACTION:

Do:

  • start tying up loose threads
  • give your characters a post-conflict “cool down”

Don’t:

  • stop moving forward
  • rely on dialogue-heavy explanations

Personally, I think the falling action can be some of the trickier parts of a story to write. You have to start tying everything up without being boring about it because, of course, you can’t stop moving forward. And as Harwell mentioned, it’s best to avoid those dialogue-heavy explanations, although I still enjoy the old-school detective stories and their big “parlor room” scenes. Also, if you look at the Harry Potter series, most of the books have a dialogue-heavy scene near the end where Dumbledore explains what’s been going on, and it works. So clearly these are more guidelines than actual rules, and of course there will always be exceptions.

RESOLUTION:

Do:

  • leave us with a memorial thematic “chord”

Don’t:

  • leave your story unfinished because there’s a sequel

Of course, you can always leave pieces unfinished, but there should be a real, solid ending, even if it’s a series of books. Harwell especially dislikes cliff-hangers in kids books because he feels kids will be disappointed if they spend their time and money on a book, and then there’s no resolution. As someone who has been disappointed by cliff-hangers in the past, I kind of see his point, although again, there are definitely exceptions to this that work quite well.

CHARACTER ARCS:

Adventurer

So all of the above was dealing with the plot arc of a story, but equally important is the character arc. Much like the plot mountain, your character’s mood can be charted and should start off sort of neutral at point A, before a problem brings them down to point B. Then there might be some improvement, so your character is feeling better even than he/she felt at the start (point C), until disaster strikes, plunging your character down into the deepest depths of despair, or point D. But…your character triumphs, ending on point E, the highest point yet. (Want more on this? Check out this website – it’s amazing!)

Your character arc and your plot arc should be working together. One great way to interweave the two is to have the plot ironically contrast with the hero’s expectations.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

You need some variation in your character arc. If too much action is happening on the same emotional level at the start of the story, your reader has nothing to really hold onto. So, it’s best to start somewhere kind of in the middle, and then have things get worse for your character, then better, then much, much worse, before finally it’s resolved.

Also, Harwell told us the most important piece of advice to take away from this workshop was the idea of setup versus payoff. This means any detail that’s supposed to be important in the end of your story was hinted at in the beginning. I can say from personal reading experience that there’s nothing worse than an ending that comes out of nowhere, or a character who suddenly develops a new skill (or, even worse, has had that skill the whole time but only now mentions it) just in time for said skill to save the day. It makes you feel cheated, like you invested all this time in a story and none of it mattered except the last few pages. Don’t do this to your readers.

And that’s it! Thanks to everyone who stuck around for the full conference experience – I hope this was helpful. Kati will be going over some of what she learned in the Illustration Track next week, so stay tuned for that.

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