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Narrative Arcs by Seán Gibbons

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Sean Gibbons

Seán Gibbons

When we tell a story, we shape it around a narrative arc. That arc is the linchpin that holds the action, characters and dialogue together. It is also the driving force that propels the story forward towards its conclusion, and therein we have the basic narrative arc: a beginning and an end. Depending on the genre in which one writes, there are formulaic arcs that the readers of such books expect. In my genre, crime, it is the progression from the crime to the resolution or denouement. Readers can feel cheated if they are deprived of this. It’s a bit like telling a joke without delivering the punch line.

However, it would be a mistake to think of the narrative arc as a whip-wielding taskmaster successfully imposing its own idea of order on proceedings. We know from life that things are never as tidy as that. There may be a supposedly dominant storyline or plot, but that is constantly disrupted by competing narratives, periods of ennui in which nothing much happens and most of all by the people whose actions, attitudes, personalities and motives bump up against that progressive narrative arc.

As it is in life, so it is in art. When I begin a new book, and I have so far completed seven, I know only two things and of only one of those things am I certain. I know how the story is going to start and I have an idea of how it should end. When I sit down to the daily job of writing (I aim for about 1,000 words a day and I don’t leave my desk until that is done, no matter how much time it takes) I gradually surrender control of the narrative arc to the characters populating the world I am creating. I don’t have any choice in the matter. It is their actions, motives, and words that drive the story forward. It is the emergent dramatis personae who decides where we laugh or who, among their number, meets a sudden end. In that sense, I am a reader too, constantly stretching my horizons of expectation as my “people” act as people do – often suddenly changing direction and with no apparent rationale.

city of deathWhile my novels may each have a dominant plotline in the sense that there is a crime that has to be solved and wrongdoers to be punished (though that is another story!) there are always a myriad sub-plots each with their own narrative arcs that inspire spinoffs and transport the players within them on journeys of their own. Of course, we don’t follow all these subsidiary journeys, but it is important that the reader can imagine their existence. For example, when Ben Miller has finished questioning a witness, we must be able to imagine that person picking up the pieces of their day and getting on with it. They can’t be simply cardboard cut-outs who wander in and out of the various scenes without exuding a sense of their own independent existence. When the writer allows his or her characters to live the narrative arc, then the plotline is character driven and, to my mind, more interesting and the reader is more willing to suspend their disbelief.

I try to render my books more longitudinal than episodic. The same characters appear and reappear, their growth as individuals who the reader recognises as people with their own unique narrative arcs that happen to coincide with that of the book in question. Their contributions to the dominant storyline aid its forward movement. As the Ben Miller series progresses, so too does the existential reality of my characters. This way, their actions and interactions become authentic drivers and shapers of the narrative arc.

It should be obvious from this that a novel comprises many layers of narrative arcs. Each chapter, each scene, each paragraph has its own. They are independent of and not dependent on the writer, who ought to have ceded control to his or her characters. In my experience, my intervention is most needed when it comes to negotiating transitions, be they be within chapters (from scene to scene) or from one chapter to the next. How well the writer handles these is often the determinant of the success or failure of the novel as a whole. It is where the writer’s craft ought to be pre-eminent and we all have our own ways of dealing with them. In the actual writing process, I always strive to finish my day’s work at a transition, when I know what’s going to happen next, how and why. It’s a bit like creating a film. Your characters have left one setting only to turn up in another; shrewd editing will make that process appear seamless. So it is with writing, when the writer makes editorial decisions regarding how much or how little information the reader needs to stick with the narrative arc. As writers, we are all familiar with the advice about killing one’s darlings. Well, it is at such points in one’s writing that one’s weapon of choice needs to be most judiciously employed. It may also be the place where the writer exercises most control over his or her creations.

My Ben Miller series tells the stories of the various characters who get entwined in the plotline that underpins all the books: taxi-driver Miller’s struggle against the corrupt Gárda Superintendent Folan and his cronies. Each individual book is based on something I experienced or someone I encountered during my four years as a taxi-driver in Galway in the first of this century. It proved very fertile ground for a writer seeking to try his hand at crime fiction and, thankfully, I have an abundance of story ideas in storage. I don’t know how the series is going to end (or when!) but I do know that Folan will get his just desserts. In the meantime, my characters and I shall have immense fun travelling along that narrative arc. It is nice to know that we are accompanied by some very loyal readers, of whom more are always welcome.

(c) Seán Gibbons

Seán Gibbons is the author of the Ben Miller Investigations series published by Sapere Books.

About City of Death:

city of deathBen Miller is hunting down a murderer in this Galway thriller! Perfect for fans of David Pearson, Ken Bruen, Caimh McDonnell and John Carson.

Miller finds himself once again caught up in gang warfare…

Galway, Ireland, 2010

When taxi driver and part-time private investigator Ben Miller finds his friend Meili brutally murdered, he and her friend Qiang go in search of her killer.

Miller soon enlists the help of his friend, Gárda Aaron Dempsey and they find themselves caught up in a war between rival Chinese triads, seeking to wrest control of the city’s illegal gambling activities from Superintendent Folan and his allies.

They all become involved in a hunt for a diary in which Meili has been keeping details of the activities of the clients’ who pay her for sex, possession of which will give whoever finds it the tools they need to protect themselves at the expense of their rivals.

Matters are complicated by the presence of three men claiming to be either Meili’s current or ex-husband.

When one of them is involved in trafficking Meili’s daughter from China into the sex-industry in Ireland, rescuing her becomes the priority…

CITY OF DEATH is the fourth novel in the Ben Miller Crime Thriller series: hardboiled gangland novels set in Galway, Ireland.

BOOK ONE: A Deadly Calling
BOOK TWO: Back Street Murder
BOOK THREE: Find The Killer
BOOK FOUR: City of Death

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Seán, the father of three adult children, originally from Galway City, now lives with his partner in Wexford in the sunny South East of Ireland.

After a career spent mostly in youth work and social care, Seán is at last able to indulge his lifelong passion for writing. In the early 2000’s he spent four years driving a taxi in Galway and it was from this experience that his unconventional, taxi-driving crime-solver, Ben Miller, gained life.

When not writing, Seán is a patient, often frustrated, and always passionate supporter of Galway United FC, his hometown League of Ireland club. As his London-born mother lived on Britannia Road, SW London, there are no prizes for guessing the identity of his other team!

Seán is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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