The Last Arc

There are three arcs to every story: The physical arc, the emotional arc, and the intentional arc. The physical arc is what happens, it describes where your characters are in space and time and what they are doing while there. The emotional arc defines the evolution of your characters’ personal growth or lack thereof, and is usually best expressed, narratively, by what they want. The intentional arc is what in high school Language Arts can get called theme. It is the underlying belief or point of view that knits the story together and usually determines where it will end. Although the physical arc is the most visible of the three, although it is what often gets mentioned in plot summaries and query letters, it is the least important. It is the subordinate arc. Characters’ words and actions are driven by what they want emotionally, even if what they want is to find a murderer haunting the streets of Nashville. If a character were not driven on some emotional level to find said killer she would not be the heroine of a detective novel.

Yet both these arcs are subordinate still to the intentional arc. The characters and their corresponding emotional arcs that you choose to put in your stories are dependent on the intentional arc. The intentional arc is the combination of all the emotional and physical arcs, and what your reader will most like carry away when they close your book.

It is as easy to reverse this hierarchy in a story as it is in life. It is easy when a novel gets tangled to focus entirely on what all your characters are doing. In a story, I am searching for events that match the emotional trajectory of my characters, whom I hope are simpatico with the intentional trajectory of the story as a whole. I know I am in trouble when I just start throwing so much narrative spaghetti on the wall—either I don’t know what my characters want or I’ve forgotten to ask them.

I am in just as much trouble when I start trying decide what I should do to be happy. It is a backwards approach. There is a feeling of contentment within me that is available at all times. It is my intentional arc. If I am uncertain what to do next, I must stop and listen to that current. All I ever want in my own life is to follow that intentional arc, it is at once both happiness and meaning, and everything I have ever done is merely a reflection of how faithfully I have followed its path.

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