Everyone who’s ever studied literature or taken a writing class knows that every good story has an arc.story arc First, you’ve got the exposition, which is where you get a glimpse of the character’s every-day life. Consider Harold Crick, the character played by Will Farrell in Stranger Than Fiction (one of my favorite movies of all time). In the opening scene, we see Harold brushing his teeth (the same number of strokes up and down, side to side, each day, we’re told by Emma Thompson who’s narrating), tieing his tie (a single windsor, rather than a double, to save time), and running six blocks to catch the bus to his job as a senior agent for the IRS. Thompson plays Kay Eiffel, a reclusive author suffering from writer’s block. In the exposition, Eiffel goes on with her narration of Harold’s solitary life, as he goes home from work, eats alone, cleans his kitchen, and goes to bed alone, precisely at 11:13 each night.

We move on to the rising action, and see Harold brushing his teeth, the same way he always did. Only this time, he hears Eiffel’s narration as he brushes: “And he began it the same way he always did.” He looks at his toothbrush, thinking the narration is coming from there. When he stops brushing, the narration stops. When he returns to brushing, that narration begins again: “When other’s minds would fantasize about their upcoming day or try to grip onto the final moments of their dreams, Harold just counted brush strokes.” Harold becomes more agitated saying to the room, “Who are you and how do you know I’m counting brush strokes?” As Harold dresses and ties his tie in that single windsor, Eiffel tells us: “It was remarkable how the simple modest elements of Harold’s life, so often taken for granted, become the catalyst for an entirely new life.” Harold continues his day with Eiffel narrating throughout.

Queen Latifa is Eiffel’s secretary, provided by her publisher, as Eiffel says, to spy on her. “I don’t know how to kill Harold Crick. That’s why they sent you.” When Harold hears Eiffel announce his imminent death, he attempts to find her (with the help of a literature professor, Dustin Hoffman) and persuade her to change the ending of her novel.

As the movie continues, we reach the climax and the denouement (also known as the resolution, but denouement is more fun to say). I’m not going to tell you what the denouement or resolution are for the movie, in case you haven’t seen it, but it involves a baker, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I will tell you, I have a problem similar to Eiffel’s in the movie–I don’t know what to do with my character.

My character is either me, in a memoir, or based on me, in a novel. The trouble with my character, or me in the case of a memoir, is that I cannot envision a resolution. There is no shortage of crises. But you can’t have a story filled with conflict and crises and no resolution. The character has to undergo some sort of transformation. An example of a typical transformation a character like me might undergo can be found in Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert, divorced and devastated, ultimately finds love in the form of a wealthy Brazilian businessman. Which is precisely why I hated that book and never bothered to see the movie. You think the character is finding herself. Her Self. Instead, after chowing down on pasta, doing a little yoga, and ditching her friend for a man, she falls into bed with said man and lives happily ever after with her new husband.

Would I like me/my character to find the perfect man and live happily ever after? I suppose that might be nice, but I’m fairly certain it’s not going to happen. Just like I’m fairly certain (okay, damn certain) that at fifty, I’m not going to achieve the perfect body.

I don’t have a resolution. And with no resolution, there is no story.

Perhaps my character becomes comfortable with an atypical resolution. She chows down on pasta and does a little yoga–but there is no man sitting in the pot at the end of the rainbow. Her acceptance of the manless pot is the resolution. Her final understanding that while the pot does not contain a partner, it is not devoid of meaning and joy. Writing this ending is a lot more challenging than writing an ending that includes the perfect man. Which is why, like Emma Thompson’s character in Stranger Than Fiction, I am blocked.


  • I can’t help much with your character….but I can tell you they “Stranger Than Fiction” is one of my favorites as well. I love it when he buys her flours.


  • That ARC of suspense – that arcs around a conflict that has to be solved, a question to be answered – is held up by ONE main conflict. You might get some minor conflicts/questions interwoven in novels (never in short stories, there is no room for that) – but you have to link those to the main conflict or the reader will cry “digressoin”. So you will have to make clear in the exposition not only who is the main character but also what is his or rather her problem to solve.
    The ART behind writing is not to write about EVERYTHING that ever happened (you are not a photographer of life with words) but to leave out most of the things and put stress on the main actions. Even “adept” the main things when they do not fit into the story as they happened in real life.
    Creative writing is not journalism – and real life does not make the best story as it mainly consists out of repetitions, cliché-like solutions or out of unsolved questions never to be answered, out of conflict laden relationships just fraying, leaving a lot of loose ends.

    Life DOES tell the best stories – but the artist has to pry those from the rubbish – like a diamond from the bedrock.


  • very interesting!
    I’ve not seen the first movie you mention but did see ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and kept asking myself…why? why do these characters have to go all over the globe? But that’s just me. I do see your point(s), sort of been there myself and at some point I just ‘allowed’ things to develop and later, much later, couldn’t believe I did that or that happened to me… but that was in real life.
    I really like ‘franhunne4u’ comment!
    thanks for an interesting view on what it takes to write a story!


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