I’m sorry, guys. I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with something either deep and insightful about the last weekend at WisCon (Ellen Klages’ speech about finding her community really struck a chord with me) or something light and entertaining about the same. Unfortunately, while I’ve recovered from the sleep deprivation — staying up late talking with amazing people is no less awesome than it was when I was young, but I no longer have the fortitude for it — my blogging brain hasn’t yet caught up. And my writing brain, though it has created a way to get unstuck since last week (I’ve made a bridge out of gravel, charred timbers, and spit! So to speak), is more concerned with writing that next section. So it’s out of commission as well.
Therefore, in the grand tradition of the Internet, I’m going to make a completely unfounded assertion and see what happens. Disprove me, world!
My theory about brontosauruses is this: stories have an internal and an external arc. The external arc is, simply, what happens during the story: aliens invade Yonkers; Lord Evil Von Nasty plots to kidnap Princess Asskicker; a mild-mannered astronomer becomes Mighty Guy; the Thistle Fairy must recover the Twinklestone; etc. The internal arc is how the characters change: the aliens discover the natural beauty of Yonkers; Princess Asskicker learns that her status as hostage has little effect on her daily life and therefore works to find a new path; Mighty Guy finds love on the far side of the moon; the Thistle Fairy decides that the Twinklestone’s power is best used to overturn the Fairyland monarchy; etc. Together these two arcs make a plot.
Stories can lack an internal arc and still function. (It’s hard to say that Sherlock Holmes changes much from one mystery to the next, for example.) But these stories run the risk of being all surface, with nothing for a reader to connect to once the explosions stop.
Stories can lack an external arc and still function. (A lot of experimental stories in particular do this, and sometimes to good effect.) But these stories run the risk of becoming so introspective that they turn into extended navel-gazing sessions.
Stories that have both can be excellent — and can still screw up. Think of the five minutes of “character development” shoehorned in between action scenes, or the huge, world-shattering events that somehow leave all the characters back in the same unchanged love triangle as before. Fireworks in the background are no substitute for an external arc, and occasional melodrama is no substitute for an internal arc.
Given all that (and assuming that I’m not just talking out of my hinder, which is quite an assumption), how do you decide what kind of story you’re reading? Reading one with expectations for the other is an exercise in frustration, but discovering an arc you hadn’t expected can be fascinating and illuminating. And, for writers, how do you decide which to focus on?