I’ve been thinking a lot about story, about the patterns that stories take. When I begin to write a book, I rarely know where it’s going. But go it does, on and on, through a trajectory that is both consciously and unconsciously created. It mainly follows the Western story arc – conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. Even though that seems formulaic, when I write that arc stretches above me, like a preordained path that I, willy-nilly, must follow. At the end of that path lies resolution. Editors (and readers) expect it.
In the young adult (YA) genre, it is expected even more. At the end of Shine, by Lauren Myracle, the culprit responsible for the near fatal beating of Patrick Truman (who is gay) falls off a cliff and dies; at the end of Feed, by M.T. Anderson, Titus visits Violet and tells her stories while she withers away on her deathbed; at the end of Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson, Lia says she is “thawing,” hence beginning her recovery from anorexia.
The problem is part of me has always resisted resolution. Life is not full of closure; it is full of gaping holes.
In Yellow Mini, I juggled five story lines, one for each character. “More arc, more arc,” my editor would say. The novel is told in verse, so I was to some degree liberated from focusing too much on plot. But still, for my editor, and ultimately the reader, there had to be “movement” for each character. Something had to be gained, learned or altered. I was willing to give up small pieces of resolution: a hug between father and daughter at midnight, or a ride home in an unlikely comrade’s car.
But what I’m always conflicted by is the way YA novels are held up to a higher moral standard; they require more learning and growth from their protagonists. I think it’s because there’s an assumption that our books, apart from being works of art, are also implements in the formation of young minds. Editors are troubled by villains who aren’t punished or heroes who don’t triumph. In YA lit, they always do. Could Suzanne Collins have killed Katniss off in The Hunger Games? It’s unthinkable; it’s anti-arc. Plus it would dash the hopes and spirits of all its young readers.
In my first book, Klepto, Kat’s negligent parents didn’t show the slightest glimmer of awareness that they’d been crappy parents. My editor wasn’t happy. “You have to give hope,” she said. “Imagine the young reader longing for that moment of parental comeuppance.” But in real life, I argued, there are crappy parents who don’t repent and who don’t pay. It’s their children who pay.
But fiction is not real life, and in YA fiction we are told that the young reader wants some reassurance that the world isn’t a despicable place. It was my first moment of awareness that writing for a YA audience came with some pretty heavy responsibility. There’s almost a moral imperative to make good guys triumph and bad guys pay. But, wouldn’t it be delicious to create a villain who isn’t punished, or a hero who doesn’t learn a damn thing? Through seven novels, I have found subtle ways of deviating, but never enough. In Klepto, I did have Kat’s parents apologize. But when they hug her, she stiffens and will not give an inch back. I know that she was me, the writer, saying, “Okay, repent if you must but I want no part of it.”
I wonder if authors of adult fiction feel the same responsibility to be moral. I once read that Dostoyevsky felt pressure to make Raskolnikov get caught. Did having to be moral bug him too? Still, adult novels don’t always contain closure or payback. Their authors can more readily abandon, alter or camouflage the Western story arc. YA novels simply cannot leave their readers dangling over a moral abyss. But what would such a pernicious reading experience lead to, other than a heavy dose of reality?
In my new book, Picture Me, there is a scene of remedy, but I deliberately leave the “bad girl” totally unrepentant and even unaware of her own moral failings; in other words, she has no regrets about being a bitch. There is only a closing door in an apartment where her distant mother sits mesmerized by the TV screen. I am hoping that is payment enough.
Lori Weber is the author of seven young adult novels, including Yellow Mini (2011) and Picture Me (2013). My Granny Loves Hockey, her first picture book, will be out in Spring 2014. Lori teaches English and Creative Writing at John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. She lives in Pointe-Claire with her husband and two highly amusing cats.
8 thoughts on “Damn That Story Arc by Lori Weber”
I think writers (and by your implication, the worse culprits, the editors) may be shortchanging their young readers. No wonder young people are so bad at managing failure; it doesn’t even exist in their books!
Good piece. Thanks.
It seems some readers are responding well to the open ending of my new book, Picture Me. Others hate it, thus proving my ideas about how readers and editors expect narratives to follow the traditional story arc, especially in YA. Thankfully, the reviewer in Quill & Quire got it. Benjamin Lefebvre wrote, “Whether this is a narrative comeuppance or a reminder that not all plot threads can be wrapped up neatly is up to readers to decide.” Now, how well does that mesh with “Damn That Story Arc”? It makes me wonder if he read the article first.
Reblogged this on Lori Weber.
I’ve been thinking about story arc, as well, while I write the lives of my grandparents. In their case, their lives began well but ended in prison for one and alcohol-fogged poverty for the other. I’m not interested in simple moral lessons but in exploring how people change with circumstances, even without a pretty ending. I wonder what editors will say about this one.