EXERCISE - ARC OF SUSPENSE

An arc of suspense is a device used by all good writers. It is a tease, a lure keeping you reading to find out the answer to whatever the writer has hinted you need to know. There are time arcs (the bomb is set to go off in 12 hours), arcs of mistaken identity (Cyrano, Shakespeare in Love), arcs of injustice (Les Mis), arc of the bizarre (Twin Peaks), arc of the one forbidden thing (Bluebeard's closet) and many others. Whole books can carry one arc (who-done-its).

1-  The best way to see the effect of arcs is to chart some of them for yourself. Take a story or novel you have enjoyed, and chart the arcs.  Start with the first sentence or the first paragraph.  What is it about it that compels you to read further?  Mark the arcs within that sentence or paragraph, and then follow them out to the page where they pay off.  If you want to get fancy, mark the beginning of an arc with a letter or number designation.  Then, at the point where it pays off, mark the same number, followed by the letter “p” for payoff.  Don’t necessarily try to find all of the arcs. You can limit yourself to the first chapter or the first few pages.

2.  Now write a short piece (maybe it is the beginning of a longer piece) that drives itself by the arcs you put into it.  Start with a compelling first sentence that sets up a future for the piece.  If you are starting fresh, you yourself might not know yet, at the moment you create an arc, how the arc will pay off, so you will be following it too, as you create the piece originally.  After the first paragraph, you might think of other, perhaps lesser or incidental arcs, that add momentum to the story.  Drop them in and see how it feels.  Because this is a short exercise, you might not end up actually paying off every arc that you set up, but notice how the story (or novel) begins to tell you how long it wants to be, simply by the arcs that you are establishing at the beginning.