Earlier this week I wrapped the final sentence on the first draft of One Shot, the third and final novel in the Mercenaries Trilogy that started with Wild Nines. While I’ll have more to say about finally closing down a trilogy, I’m focusing today’s post on a concept that’s both understood but also applied sporadically.
That idea is, as you might guess from the image, completing the arc.
An arc, in this context, is that looping line that represents the journey of the characters from their beginning as flawed, useless individuals to, at the end, mighty gods of destruction. Or something like that. There’s a beginning and an end, and during the journey from one to the other, things change. The world is saved or destroyed, the man is redeemed or hung, the Turtles vanquish Shredder and save April, and so on.
Just about every narrative, no matter the quality, starts with an arc in mind. Or at least some idea of what they want to do – even writers that just pants their way through have to have an idea of the story they want to tell. The issue of completing the arc comes about when the story is nearing its end and suddenly the writer, or company, is faced with the prospect of no more stories in that thread. TV shows are notorious for this – the guy and girl will break up a dozen times over the course of multiple seasons just to keep providing fodder for more dollar-generating episodes.
With this trilogy, at the end, I’m facing the same issues. Marketing a long ongoing series is more profitable than a bunch of separate short ones, and it’s easier to keep telling stories in a universe that’s already defined. Where characters have their quirks identified. You (the author) can just have fun with the playground that you’ve built. And there’s nothing wrong with that – have a hundred book series if you want.
But, please, complete your arcs.
If the main conflict in book one is that your sulking protagonist must pull him or herself together and save the world from certain doom, then let them save it! Then, start a new arc! Maybe, having saved the world, the hero now finds themselves in a position of great power and a bunch of people are trying to manipulate them. Disaster occurs, and the hero finds themselves on the wrong side of every argument. So they snap and tear apart the very world they just saved. So, uh, now you’ve got a second arc and a ruined world. Time for a third arc to build it back up – but at least things are moving forward.
This applies to character development too, not just the series’ overall plot. Unless you’re doing a show like the Simpsons where the central conceit is that things never change, characters that are real tend to be more interesting friends for long journeys. The main stars of the show are usually easier to give this sort of growth to, but if you can manage it for the side characters, the friends and enemies, then you’ll wind up creating a more cohesive reality for your readers to play in.
I’m by no means perfect at this, but I’ve become better at it through outlining. Not necessarily super detailed diagrams of every scene, but understanding where characters begin and end during a given series, and writing that down helps. That way, when you’re trying to determine what a character should do in a scene, you can look back at their arc and determine where they are on it. Should they make a mistake consistent with their personality? Or, because they’ve made that mistake earlier, should they know better now and react differently?
Lastly, I get a lot of value out of sharing general ideas with some friends that, thankfully, take my yammering about insane plots with aplomb. You might be surprised at how many inconsistencies or holes a good listener can pick out – they’ll help you find those characters that don’t make sense, even before you’ve written an actual word of a story.
One of the unexpected surprises I had when finishing this series was, at the end, seeing how different my characters were from where I started. Your readers will like it, but you might find you enjoy writing it too.