Tag Archives: story arc

Writers: What Motivates Your Characters?

While using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to analyze the effects of the ill-advised social and economic lockdown tactic under which we’ve been suffering for many weeks, it occurred to me that the challenge of writing plausible fiction about realistic characters could also benefit from application of the same paradigm.

Change: The foundation of character development and story arc movement.

If change does not occur to fictional characters, their story will go nowhere. In my post Spare Change“, I showed how to evaluate the general extent of change that characters must experience in their personalities or their motivation, by using a tool called a Punnett Box.

Today’s post uses Maslow’s Hierarchy to illustrate the layers of the human condition which form the motivation for behavior.

The pyramid is a study of drive. Each layer of the pyramid contains elements that must be reasonably satisfied before a person can turn full attention to satisfying the needs of the next higher level.

The layers are not mutually exclusive: the boundaries between them are permeable, so there can be some amount of movement back and forth between two adjacent levels. Therefore, a person can begin to experience the urgency which fuels the drive to achieve goals that support the achievement of Safety while still actively seeking to keep Physical Needs satisfied, as long as those efforts are successful.

Feeling that more advanced level of urgency is what underlies planning for the future; for example, it takes a lot of time and energy to start over afresh every day seeking food, water, clothing, shelter, and an opportunity to reproduce. Such were the daily challenges that faced people when they were still hunter-gatherers. The innovation of agriculture – first accomplished with simple digging sticks, and later infinitely enhanced by the invention of the plow – alleviated much of the uncertainty attending human existence, as better nutrition helped lower the death rate and increase the birth rate. This permitted people to better plan for the future, and to strive to thrive, not merely survive, which enabled the establishment and advance of civilizations.

The social structures that accompany the rise and evolution of civilizations can be regarded as part of the process of becoming “civilized” – essentially, the gradual “domestication” of human nature, even as human beings domesticated animals. While this “taming” of people has been defined differently during various times and in most places, and is still far from complete, the steps of the pyramid can be seen to echo the path of progress or improvement in the human condition, the struggle for which underlies all the conflict and change that must accompany character development in fiction.

Being completely pushed off the pyramid has been a perennially popular plot for three centuries: Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe, 1719), The Swiss Family Robinson (Johann Wyss, 1812), The Mysterious Island (Jules Verne, 1875), The Martian (Andy Weir, 2011), and the movie Cast Away (2000) have each explored how isolated individuals or small groups of people may realistically try to solve that problem by using their bare hands, what’s between their ears, and the technology of their times. This scenario can also be a premise for stories with fantasy, dystopian or post-apocalyptic settings.

But not every story needs to challenge its characters in such a massive way. During a character’s climb up the pyramid, acquiring a longing for or losing one’s grip on a cherished goal, achievement, or state of being that appears in the Hierarchy of Needs can be the change that motivates behavior, no matter what the genre of the story. This is because the pyramid’s levels are a way of describing what can happen in the lives of real people, and the more the reader can identify with a character and his or her dilemmas, the more plausible the plot will be.


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When is a Story Arc not an Arc?

When it takes another shape!

Meander, Spiral, Explode, by Jane Alison

I’d have found a bit more value in Meander, Spiral, Explode had its author also detected variant patterns in some rather more time-tested fiction (just because a novel is old doesn’t mean it must needs have been written in Aristotelian fashion), but she limited her observations to authors of recent works unknown to me. I had suspected the existence of different story structures, and will be looking for the patterns from nature in everything new I read, as well as in re-reads of old favorites.

As the author of the book maintains, it’s not necessary for every story to take the simple, caret-shaped, Aristotelian dramatic pattern (which Aristotle used to describe stage plays, anyway). It’s probably okay for short fiction, but it may be a bad idea for novelists to attempt to force their stories into the classic arc shape – especially if they’re organic writers. In fact, if they write Literary Fiction (especially the kind with a cast of thousands), they would probably end up with this kind of pattern, which was an astronomical map based on how the night sky seems to behave, to the naked eye:

Cassini Apparent Astronomy, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1st ed., 1777

Read more about this kind of shape here.

The natural shapes of things.

The patterns of nature are what inspired Meander, Spiral, Explode. You can learn about natural patterns in this video, which is my absolute favorite science documentary:

The shape my storytelling takes:

I’m an organic writer (also known as a pantser), and Irish Firebrands, written with no advance plan or outline, exhibits a distinctly meandering path:

Read more about this shape here.

It also takes the shape of a heartbeat wave-form, which seems particularly apt, since it’s a love story.

Read more about this shape here.

What natural shape does your fiction take?

Please tell us about it in the comment box!







Fractal branching pattern

Simple branching pattern

Double helix

Single helix

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Instead of Climaxing, Novels Should ‘Meander Spiral Explode’

I’m reading this one now. . . .

Chicago Review of Books

When you think of a
novel’s narrative arc, what immediately comes to mind? Perhaps a dusty old memory
from high school English class, of the teacher drawing an inverted ‘V’ on the
chalkboard to show the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and
then the resolution of a book?

As Jane Alison writes in her latest book, Meander Spiral Explode: “Bit masculo-sexual, no?”

Alison’s book is like
a cold shower to ward off the standard narrative arc and rewire our mental
circuitry to see the patterns of nature in the structure of novels. As she
quotes from Sukenick, “Instead of reproducing the form of previous fiction, the
form of the novel should seek to approximate the shape of our experience.”

Alison has an
enthusiastic and wandering mind, which starts with a book club in Germany where
she taught herself German just so she could read W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants

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