Friday, April 18, 2008

On Emotional Arcs

Almost every story has an emotional arc, a trajectory that the reader can trace–like the flight of an arrow–as the character makes his or her journey through the story.

This arc is the spine of the story, the backbone that gives the story its shape as the action rises and falls, depending on how near or far the character is to reaching her heart’s desire.

Sometimes you can chart the trajectory of the arc by following the opening sentences or scenes in each chapter.

Here, for instance, are the opening sentences of each chapter in Catherine Bateson’s Being Bee, an insightful portrait of a young girl whose father has recently started dating seriously.

By studying these sentences and weighing the emotional content contained in them, you may be able to get a sense of how Bateson has structured her story to underscore Bee’s emotional journey.

So, let’s start with the first sentence in Chapter 1, which sets the emotional arc of the story in motion:
I didn’t mean to shove Lulu, my guinea pig, at Jazzi, my dad’s girlfiend, which is what she told Dad.
The narrator–Bee, or Beatrice, as Jazzi, her Dad’s girlfriend, prefers to call her (much to Bee’s chagrin)–makes it plain from the start how she feels about Jazzi.

Each chapter then builds on Bee’s emotional response to her Dad’s decision to date Jazzi.

By the second chapter, Bee's conversation with her friends reveals one of the story’s central issues: her displacement in Dad’s life as a result of this woman:
“It’s not that I don’t like her,” I told Lucy and Sally at recess. “She’s okay. It’s just that Dad’s different when she’s around, and he wants to do things with her and not with me. They kiss all the time, too.”
By the start of chapter three, Bateson shows us Bee softening a little, the arc leveling out a bit in its rise toward its apogee:
As it turned out, Jazzi’s idea of cleaning out the guinea pig hutch myself wasn’t all that bad. Jazzi was at our place more and more and cleaning up after Fifi and Lulu gave me something to do while she and Dad gazed into each other’s eyes, held hands, and drank endless cups of tea. At least with Jazzi around so much, the guinea pigs never ran out of apples or celery or broccoli.
Bee’s not exactly warming to Jazzi, but she’s beginning to accept her presence as something outside her control...something that her father wants–and perhaps needs, as Nana suggests–even if Bee doesn’t quite understand why.

By chapter four, Jazzi is picking up Bea from school:
When Jazzi picked me up from school later that week she wasn’t smiling.
And by chapter five, you can clearly identify the rising arc as Bee’s friends begin referring to Jazzi as her step-mother:
“So, you’ve got a stepmum now?” Sally said at lunch-time. “Is she nice?”
“Jazzi’s not my stepmum.”
“Well, she’s picked you up every afternoon this week, so that means she must be living at your place, and that means she’s your stepmum.
Of course, Lucy and Sally have got it all wrong. Jazzi hasn’t moved in ...yet. The last thing that Bee wants is a stepmum, and, yet, not wanting a stepmum is a reflection of what she deeply wants but knows she can’t have: her mother who died of cancer.

So... there is a part of her that’s missing her mom... and the love and encouragement a mother might give her... which means, in terms of emotional arc, that Bee is looking/longing for that closeness again... and it’s possible that Jazzi–if she and Bee can come to terms with each other–might be the one who can provide it, even if Jazzi’s not her mom.

The next chapter shows the emotional arc rising again:
I stayed with Nana on the weekend because Dad and Jazzi wanted to go away. I suggested they take me, too, but Dad laughed and tugged my hair and said that wouldn’t be the most romantic thing now would it?
Which leads to the next step in the following chapter:
I didn’t want to tell Sally and Lucy at school that Jazzi was going to be my stepmother, but Jazzi told them herself.
“Well, here we are,” she said when she picked me up. “Hello, Sally, hello, Lucy. Has Beatrice told you the news?”
“No,” Sally said. “Beatrice hasn’t.”
“I’m moving in with Beatrice’s father, Nick, so the first thing we must do is to celebrate that by you girls coming over for a play as soon as I’ve settled in.”
In the next chapter, the arc rises even higher:
Almost as soon as she’d moved in, Jazzi started cleaning.
And in the next chapter, Jazzi prepares a dinner to celebrate her move:
Just before seven o’clock, Jazzi lit the candles. She wore a silky top with flowers on it almost the exact pink of the daisies, and she’d brushed her hair up to a knot on the top of her head, combed her eyebrows, and put on dark red glittery earrings. She’d persuaded Dad to change out of his weekend work-around-the-house clothes into a soft, dark blue shirt I’d never seen before. I felt drab beside them, still in my jeans and a t-shirt that was almost too small for me.
“Come on, Bee,” Jazzi said, looking me up and down. “Do you want me to do your hair?”
Here’s where the reader notices Jazzi calling Beatrice by her preferred name: Bee. And, also, that the tone of Bee’s description has softened. She sees Jazzi in ways that she didn’t before and has come to know and, perhaps, trust her in ways that she couldn’t at the start of the story.

In the next chapter you can begin to see the arc turning toward the story’s resolution:
I wanted to be happy because Dad was happy and Nanna told me to be happy and even I could see that Jazzi had brought some good things into our life.
But it’s not a smooth descent... as we learn in the next chapter, which provides the emotional climax: Bee decides to run away after learning that Jazzi, in her efforts to clean up the house, has tossed out one of Bee’s most treasured possessions: a box containing things that her mom had given to her.
I raised the issue with Jazzi. That’s what we did in our house now. We didn’t just talk about things. We raised issues.
And, finally, the resolution appears in the final chapter:
Dad didn’t even know I’d gone and Jazzi asked me not to tell him because she thought he’d think badly of Harley for not coming straight home with me.

“I was so scared,” she said. “I thought, if anything has happened to Bee, I’ll never ever ever forgive myself. I’m so so sorry, Bee, so very sorry, about the box and you seeing Harley like that and everything.”
It’s with this admission that Jazzi finds her way into Bee’s heart, and we watch as Bee’s heart melts with acceptance of Jazzi and as she comes to understand that Jazzi is someone who will be there for her, not just for her Dad.

By reviewing the incremental stages of Bee’s emotional arc, we can begin to see the underlying structure of the story, as well as the issues that serve as the foundation stones for that structure.

Notice how other authors use incremental stages to build their stories, and, as you revise your own work, try to define the steps in your own character's emotional arc.

For more information on emotional arcs visit:

For information about Catherine Bateson, visit her website:

1 comment:

Jack said...

The abridged story of Bee was endearing and the tie-in with story arc was so right.