The Literary Draw

I’ve been watching plenty of World Cup soccer this year. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to insist that soccer is the world’s greatest sport and people who aren’t fans are ignorant boors. I’ll personally take hockey over soccer any day, but I definitely get sucked in to the international tournaments.

I think one of my big prejudices when it comes to soccer is the fact that the first couple of professional matches I attended ended in a 0-0 draw (one MLS game, one Scottish Premiere League). No overtime, no penalty kicks, just a 0-0 draw, and go home.

Here’s where real soccer fans are going to start telling me that a nil-nil draw can be just as exciting as a 5-4 shootout. Sure, I can buy that. But after 90 minutes, nothing has changed. Each team gets a point and goes home neither a winner or a loser.

In my Foundations of Fiction class, we’ve been talking a lot about plot these past few weeks. Specifically, we’ve talked about perhaps the two most critical points on the ol’ Freytag pyramid: the inciting incident and the climax. It’s no coincidence that these are the points that introduce change into the narrative, and often the spots to look for when something in a story just doesn’t feel satisfying.

I’ve read plenty of stories lately that are well-written, introduce interesting characters, have clever voice and structure, but leave me cold at the end. And almost every time, I can go back to the plot arc and identify one or the other of those points as the missing piece. I’ve seen it a lot in my own work, too, and making the effort to try to quantify those elements has helped me tremendously.

I like to tell my students that narrative arc is the big second-draft task. Make sure you’ve established desire in your protagonist, introduced change and found clear points where the characters make decisions that affect their lives in a tangible way.

The alternative is like a 0-0 draw. It may have be punctuated by moments of intensity, but in the end, no one walks away completely satisfied.

I’m not sure yet what the literary equivalent of rolling around on the ground holding your shin might be.

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