The Arc of Understanding

Writing isn’t always an easy thing to see. I have a novel that has had me stumped for about a year now. The plot arc is complete. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The characters are all there. But I know it needs work–a lot of work–and knowing where to “put my pen” has evaded me for a while now. In my first ever MFA class I was introduced to the Ascending Arcs of Energy diagram and it was like the light was turned on for this novel I’ve been struggling with.

Since then, it has become my #1 tool for understanding where, why, and how my prose is falling flat. I frequently read something I’ve done, fully understanding it needs a hefty amount of revision, but I come up blank on where, why, and how to start editing. Mapping various elements of my piece on the diagram gives me a great starting place.

The orange lines to the right and left represent the energy expenditure of the reader and writer. The dotted green lines, depict what happens when the energy output isn’t equitable–either the reader or writer is working too hard.


The idea is that for a piece to work to it’s best potential, the writer and reader must exert equal amounts of energy to reach homeostasis, perfection. If the reader is required to expend more energy then the writer, the story is flat, undeveloped, and ultimately underwritten. On the other hand, if the writer does all the work, the story feels told instead of shown, lacks inference, and implies the reader isn’t clever enough to figure it out and needs to have everything explained to understand the story–it is overwritten.

Different stories require different levels of energy to reach equilibrium. For example, Dr. Seuss and War and Peace are two stories who have reached a place on the center line. Dr. Seuss is somewhere on the lower part of the line. It is well constructed literature but reading it is no great burden and writing it was not as challenging as writing something akin to a novel. War and Peace is also on the line but much higher up. Reading War and Peace is an accomplishment; War and Peace is something you achieve as a reader and it requires A LOT of energy. Just as it required a great deal of craft and energy to write (I’m sure Tolstoy would back me up on this one). It may take you months to read, but after you finish, you’ll feel great and you’ll be glad you put in the time and work (and you’ll no doubt post smugly about it on goodreads).

Here is the helpful part for writers: Using this tool can help you see where your work falls short. If you read a page and it falls flat, spend time mapping it on the arc. Does it fall to the right of the line? Did you write a single draft and revise it immediately afterwards? Was it very difficult or laborious to write? Did you spend a lot of time thinking about the characters outside of the scene? Did you invoke all your senses to fully develop the setting? If the answer is no, then it’s underwritten and needs to be fleshed out.

Or does it fall to the left of the line? Have you described the smells, sounds, and everything possibly in view of the character? Did you spend 5 pages telling backstory just to explain why the MC is feeling sad when she says that one brilliant line of dialog? If you’re saying yes, then it’s overwritten. Overwriting is my most common flaw. Sometimes, I become so involved my writing turns into dictating exactly what’s happening to a character and all the ways they may feel about it and why. I am working my way to the right!

I hope this helps you have fresh perspective on your work. Do you have any tricks or tips for when you’re trying to revise something you know needs work but aren’t sure where to start or why?

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