Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Faculty Voices: Claire Rudolf Murphy on Narrative Arcs

Last week Jackie wrote a fascinating post on structure. Today I going to talk about structure, but in a  personal way. We now have about six weeks or so on the winter residency countdown. The theme for January is structure and plot. Aha, Jackie got us started. 

I will be giving a talk on nonfiction plot and structure and also a short reprise of a lecture I gave many years ago on the four narrative arcs. I first got the idea after hearing illustrator Richard Jesse Watson speak on his theory of the three narrative arcs involved in writing and illustrating a book. 
1. There is the narrative arc of The Story Itself.
2. The narrative arc of Me Actually Making the Book. 
3. The narrative arc of My Life and World During the Journey of making this book. 
Each of these has, basically, a beginning, a middle, an end. Read the rest of Jessie's post at:

I contacted Jesse after his talk and told him how thought-provoking it had been for me. I then wrote about the different narrative arcs in my works-in-progress. And it led me to take Jesse’s idea further. I divided #3 into two narrative arcs – the writer’s personal life and the world outside the writer – the social and political events of the time. 

I believe considering these different narrative arcs can deepen our writing and help us solve problems that come up. What we learn from one part of our life can inform and help us figure out challenges in another. Around that time, my husband and I had just finished building a house. I began to think about how much building a house and writing a book had in common – euphoria at the beginning, depths of despair when things are going badly, a shy sharing of  work/a house when you go public. Then finally an acceptance, a joy that yes, it's not perfect, you could have done things even better, but a worthy effort that gets better with time and has a life of its own.

Try doing a free write on the four narrative arcs in one of your manuscripts. See if you can figure out the solution or the influence in your book project - of political events, personal issues, the writing life … If you are at the January residency, I will guide you in this process. If not, try it now. Don't we need all the insights we can get to bring out our deepest work? Send me your experiences, if you uncover what you needed to complete a project or get to the next level. I have meaning to write a longer piece on this idea for a long time.

Side note: when you turn your book over to an illustrator, they will have their own narrative arcs. I was delighted to find this article on the illustrator of my upcoming book and note in the photo of Bryan Collier's work space, sketches from our book up on the wall. How cool is that?


  1. I am either in agreement with Claire or have totally been Claire's student before. Okay, it's both. I think about this every day. I think these arcs are very similar to the writing life and real life that Claire is so excellent in describing. We have both, and we don't have to apologize to either one for the other. Just keep working at both. This makes my writing life very relaxed (Okay a little too relaxed sometimes with the lack there of.) Anyway, I'm seriously in need of a plot. I'm going to try this one Claire, and let you know how it goes. At work someone told me, "I like your name. Sounds like a movie." I told her that it's a great one, I have a lot of plot twists. This is what my novel really needs--- So here's to helping one overflow into the other. I mean whether your current story is without plot, or your life is sans plot--- it be better if things would just balance out a little right?

  2. Wow, Claire--how great to see sketches from your own forthcoming book on his wall! And I look forward to your talk, as I work on the arc for a non-fiction picture book. See you soon!

  3. Polly, great to hear your voice. Yes, indeed. Balance is a good thing. Borrow from one to help the other. that's what I say.
    And Liza, yes, I loved seeing Bryan's sketches. Sometimes as writers our work doesn't seem real until something like this. The residency countdown is on.