The arc of a story points in one of two directions: upward, lifting your spirits as the characters struggle toward a particular goal, or downward, your spirits drawn into an abyss with the characters as they try to keep their footing while falling ever closer toward disaster.
In Francine Prose’s After, a dark harbinger of the future, you can see this downward arc play out in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at Pleasant Valley High School as the main character, Tom, and his friends at nearby Central High School begin to lose their freedom, one liberty after another.
At first, they lose the freedom to walk into school without having to suffer the torment of invasive searches and metal detectors.
Then, they lose the freedom to wear the color red and use cell phones and act or speak freely on their school bus after new video cameras are installed to monitor their behavior.
The grief and crisis counselor who takes over Central High after the shooting removes more and more of the students' freedom, curtailing their ability to act in ways that he deems threatening to others and themselves.
Little by little, with the loss of yet another liberty, the characters begin to feel as if they're locked in an air-tight room, and the room keeps shrinking as the arc of the story plunges downward.
What's interesting is how this downward arc creates its own momentum, compelling readers to turn page after page to find out what happens next to Tom and his friends.
How will the characters respond to the increasingly stressful obstacles placed in front of them? That's the question which Prose plants in her reader's mind to sustain the story's suspense and carry the reader forward.
Until the very end of the story, Prose keeps the reader wondering if these characters will come to their senses and attempt to escape from the downward plunge before they hit bottom.
If you're looking for ways to create suspense in your story, push your characters off a cliff... and watch as they cling for any handhold that they can find as they plummet toward disaster.
For more on plotting and raising the stakes, read:
For more on After, read:
And for more on Prose, read: