Suspense drives fiction. Arcs stretch suspense. An arc of suspense is the technique of
making the reader aware s/he has no knowledge of what will happen next and teasing
her/him with the possibilities. Think of arcs as fireworks that are structured so that the
reader triggers them as she walks along. Some of them are rockets that dart off in a
definite direction. Some are aerial bombs that burst and go out in many directions. Some
are quiet. Some are loud. Some disappear over the horizon and cannot be found for a
very long time. Some can never be found again.
The danger of course is that if you over-stretch an arc, creating too much tension, it
becomes melodrama. The challenge is to get as much tension in as possible without
going over that limit.
The first thing the writer has to do is to set up the launch, to make sure it goes off with
just the right amount of explosive and heads in the right direction. The main goal of the
launch is to give the reader momentum and direction to follow the arc out to where it
GENERAL RULE: Always have at least one arc launched and flying over or through a
scene, any scene. If there aren't any, or if they are too high up in the air to be noticed
immediately, get some going.
PROHIBITION: Never fail to pay off an arc of suspense. This is a fundamental breach
of the writer/reader contract. Your readers will never forgive you.
TRICK: Pay off small arcs early. This establishes credibility for you with readers, who
will trust you with the longer arcs.
TYPES OF ARCS:
1] Secrecy & mystery. Colonel Mustard is dead and there's hardly a clue, and our
protagonist has to find the killer. This is not limited to mystery genre (For example,
Prince of Tides is driven by the mystery of why Savannah attempted suicide) and
includes minor mysteries.
2] Unfinished scene. "Do you want to know what I was dreaming?" says a character
at the beginning of "Outside" a story by Jessica Treadway in The Atlantic. The response
comes: '"Wait here," he said to Steven, before his lust to know could betray him." ' And
the reader stays around to find out what the dream was.
3] Time pressure arc. Beating the clock. "My mother will die in three months, and we
will not be reunited unless I find her."
4] arc to the next chapter. Connecting rope
5] the incidental arc. This is an arc that has nothing directly to do with the story but
advances it because of its incidental interest. Vonnegut tells of one of his students
writing about a nun who had a piece of dental floss stuck in her teeth, so that everybody
who heard it ended up fishing around in his own mouth. Also, Joads repairing broken
down car pp. 157-62 in Grapes of Wrath.
6] Arc of the bizarre. Sometimes a story is so off kilter and kindled with a potential
for the bizarre that it fills itself with lightning and becomes its own sort of stand alone,
off the shelf arc machine. Wejumpka, by Rick Bass, Kafka's Metamorphosis. The
television series Twin Peaks ended up proving you could do the whole thing with arcs
alone (at least for the better part of a single season). There was no story, only a
continuous series of arcs of the bizarre that kept people tuning in.
7] hubris arc [defying the gods] "I'm simply the best. I can't be beaten." "I'm just
lucky, I guess. I never get caught. Why, I can get away with anything." Ever since the
days of the earliest Greek theaters, the audience has stuck around to watch the hubris
8] arc of fate: Will the character be able to break out of the road that seems to be
assigned to her? Will the bad guy break and do a good thing? Will the good guy be
tempted to do a bad thing?
9] off-pov arc. tanks massing, killer stalking, intercuts of ominous developments.
Will it happen or won't it? When will the character find out? Will the protagonist screw
up the escape? or the windfall? The reader here has the benefit of being able to see
around corners the protagonist can't see. The tension comes from the reader's desire to
communicate superior knowledge to the character and the inability to do so. This is
different from character-driven tension, such as solving a mystery or working through
guilt, where the character leads the reader to the site of the tension and it unfolds on both
of them together.
10] arc of justice. A bad thing happens to a good character and you want to stay
around to see if the right wins out, and if it doesn't then a new arc is created.
11] arc of mistaken identity. Cirano de Burgerac. Shakespeare in Love.
12] arc of the one hidden prohibition. Bluebeard the pirate: to new wife – don’t look
in the closet! Lot’s wife and Eurydice in mythology – don’t look back! You know they
are going to, so you stay tuned to find out when, how, and what happens when they do.
1- Malcolm Wedge was a very nice man. [Boring, Ho-Hum. Who cares? Even if
you are about to tell a poetic story about a lovely man who did wonderful things in his
life, nobody is going to follow along to find out]
2- Malcolm Wedge was a very nice man. Really, he was. [Adding the emphasis
sentence gets something going. Is there reason to doubt Malcolm's niceness? Turn the
page and find out.
3- Malcolm Wedge was really a nice man. In most respects, that is. This one is
more openly ominous. But it need not pay off in Malcolm Wedge turning out to be a
Norman Bates character.
4- Did you ever notice that anybody you ask will tell you what a nice man Slade
Wedge is, but then right away, they will look off in another direction, or find something
else to do? Now we've got some arcs going! But now, you've got readers who will
follow you anywhere.
And while we are talking about arcs of tension and how to build them, here is a way to
add an arc with just one word: change Malcolm's name to 'Slade!' Right from the
beginning, people are going to question whether anyone named Slade could ever be a
very nice man.
The writer-benefit is that by structuring the arc, you've given yourself a distinct push in
the direction your story is going to take you. All you have to do is follow it and your
story goes forward. In fact, some writers begin a story simply by starting with an arcing
first sentence. They slip into it from there and find their way to the payoff, leaving a
story that creates itself in their tracks.
IN-CLASS ARC OF SUSPENSE EXERCISE
Write a simple descriptive sentence about a person, then rewrite it to have a twist that
leads the reader to want to know more, then rewrite it again to become a sentence that is
so provocative, the reader MUST read on.
ARC OF SUSPENSE ASSIGNMENT
Write a story (2-5 pages) using as many of the arc-of-tension devices we've described as
you think you can get away with. Have fun with it. Tempt us to follow you down
promising or unpredictable paths, to turn the page, to wonder and need to know.
It is important that you not disappoint us by failing to pay off an arc, but some arcs can be
paid off sooner, while with others, you could make us wait and read on.