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Banespawn

Micro Arcs

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Warning: Some small spoilers for The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.

When I talk about plot, I tend to talk about arcs. Plot arcs, character arcs and story arcs. An arc consists of a goal, a conflict and a resolution. Internal conflicts are character arcs, external, plot arcs, and the biggest conflicts, the ones that get introduced in the beginning of the story and resolved in the climax/denouement, are the story arcs (whether they are plot and/or character arcs).

Micro arcs, and this is purely my own definition, are much smaller in scope. They don't consist of a goal, conflict and resolution, yet there are points in the story that are tied together. Jokes are often micro arcs because they will refer to something that happened earlier in the story, but they need not be jokes.

As an example, let's look at the movie, The Winter Soldier. The movie starts with Steve running laps and every time he passes Sam, he says "On your left". At the end of the movie, Steve wakes up in the hospital with Sam sitting next to him and says "On your left". That is what I call a micro arc. There is a connection between those two moments. I'm sure you also noticed that the Trouble Man soundtrack was playing in the hospital room, which is what Sam told Steve to listen to when they first met. There are at least 2 others that I can think of and probably more that I'm not remembering.

Micro arcs are small payoffs for the reader/viewer. They are satisfying moments because we remember the earlier reference and see the connection, and they can be incredibly powerful when the payoff comes in an emotionally charged moment. Think about Guardians of the Galaxy. All Groot ever says is "I am Groot". But then during the climax, when he is protecting his friends and Rocket asks why he is sacrificing himself, Groot says "We are Groot". Not only is this a micro arc, but we were led to believe that he couldn't say anything but "I am Groot", so the small change takes the emotional moment and dials it up to 11.

So, what micro arcs do you use in your stories? Have you seen other people discuss them? What terms did they use?

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I'm pretty sure both of these examples fall under what TV Tropes call Arc Words. In fact, they have the "On your left" quote from The Winter Soldier listed as one of the many examples there under Films > Live-Action.

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14 hours ago, Sam said:

I'm pretty sure both of these examples fall under what TV Tropes call Arc Words. In fact, they have the "On your left" quote from The Winter Soldier listed as one of the many examples there under Films > Live-Action.

Thanks for the link. I think the concept can be expanded to more than just dialogue, or at least not need dialogue to make the connection, as in the case with Trouble Man playing in the hospital.

Do you have any of these arc words in your stories?

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I'm trying to think of whether or not I currently have anything like that in Court of Shadows. I don't think they really exist in the current draft, but they, I think, might be something I'm planning to add in for the second draft. For example, I want a few of the fairies to show my main character, Alana, around the kingdom - show her the different animals/creatures, show her the library and different parts of the palace, etc. I'm thinking she might get to fly on a giant dragonfly or something, and she's never done that kind of thing before that point, so then she gets to apply it what she learns from it when she rides a horse for the first time later on. Is that kiiiiind of what you mean, or am I totally off? XD

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Oh, I as a reader, I love those little details that tie scenes together or reference previous scenes!

I don't use them consciously in my own writing - probably I should put more conscious effort in little details like this! Earlier decisions backfiring on characters is something I have done a couple of times - I guess that would count as a micro arc 🙂

@Banespawn How do you implement micro arcs? Do they just come to you as random inspiration during drafting? Do you plan them in advance? Do you add them in during editing?

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37 minutes ago, Jedi Knight Muse said:

I'm trying to think of whether or not I currently have anything like that in Court of Shadows. I don't think they really exist in the current draft, but they, I think, might be something I'm planning to add in for the second draft. For example, I want a few of the fairies to show my main character, Alana, around the kingdom - show her the different animals/creatures, show her the library and different parts of the palace, etc. I'm thinking she might get to fly on a giant dragonfly or something, and she's never done that kind of thing before that point, so then she gets to apply it what she learns from it when she rides a horse for the first time later on. Is that kiiiiind of what you mean, or am I totally off? XD

Kind of. The link that Sam posted is really close to what I'm talking about. It covers most of it, as it's usually bits of dialogue that are repeated in some way. Basically, anything in your story that makes the reader think about something that happened earlier in the story, I call a micro arc. It's that connection which provides the reader with a satisfying feeling. When it's done with dialogue, we get the same words, but in a different context, which invests the words with new meaning, and it can be really powerful. Those connections also make the story as a whole feel more cohesive. 

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1 hour ago, Manu said:

Oh, I as a reader, I love those little details that tie scenes together or reference previous scenes!

I don't use them consciously in my own writing - probably I should put more conscious effort in little details like this! Earlier decisions backfiring on characters is something I have done a couple of times - I guess that would count as a micro arc 🙂

@Banespawn How do you implement micro arcs? Do they just come to you as random inspiration during drafting? Do you plan them in advance? Do you add them in during editing?

All of the above. In the trilogy I'm working on, I have long planned a line of dialogue that a certain character would say to the MC during the climax of book 3, and it is a repeat of something the MC says to that character in book 1. The line of dialogue is representative of how that character has changed over the course of the story. When the MC says it to him in book 1, he doesn't understand it. By the end of book 3, he does understand it.

Another one occurred to me after I had written both scenes and realized I missed an opportunity to make life more difficult for the MC. In the earlier scene, I had the MC purchase a horse, and the guy who sells him the horse tells him:

“Don’t run ‘er unless you have to. She’ll give ya ‘er best if ya ask it, but she been too long pullin’ a plow.”

In the later scene, the MC is riding along the edge of the woods, keeping off the main road to avoid pursuit. Thunder rumbles in the sky, but then he hears a rumble that isn't thunder, which spooks the horse. He then hears a roar of pain or anger from deeper in the woods and his horse bolts. When I originally wrote it, nothing went wrong. The MC held on for dear life as the horse ran and he eventually got her back under control. Yawn. I realized later that I needed to rewrite it. The MC isn't an experienced rider, so he isn't likely to keep his seat on an out of control horse. So I decided that he would fall from the horse and break his arm. Thanks to his curse he heals quickly, but it's an opportunity for me to inflict a little pain/adversity on him.

This I consider a micro arc because the guy told the MC not to run her, the implication being that the horse couldn't take it. The irony is that the horse ends up being just find and it's the MC who gets hurt. That irony, assuming the reader picks up on it, is the satisfying bit. I guess this could be considered foreshadowing, but it's really not much of a plot point. It's just these two connected moments. Now the roar, that absolutely is foreshadowing. There are other references to it later in the story, but it is written off as a bear. It's not a bear, but that won't really be understood until early in book 3.

There's another that involves one of the MC's quirks, which is fiddling with the buttons on his coat. I guess that could be considered a running gag, as defined by the link Sam posted. That wasn't planned. It just happened as I wrote.

 

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On 8/7/2019 at 8:15 PM, Banespawn said:

Thanks for the link. I think the concept can be expanded to more than just dialogue, or at least not need dialogue to make the connection, as in the case with Trouble Man playing in the hospital.

Do you have any of these arc words in your stories?

I do! This is a concept I keep unconsciously gravitating to for some reason. 

I'm working on a future web serial right now, a story about a group of supernaturals squatting in a semi-abandoned house together, and the first arc/novella is focused on a young medium who is a newcomer to the house and the tightly-knit group. Initially, she views her stay there as temporary measure. When she first enters the house, the character who's guiding her there remarks, "There's no place like home," and she thinks that she could never feel at home in a place like this. By the last scene of the novella she's changed her mind, and the very last line is her saying, genuinely, "There is no place like home" about the same place.

In another project, a fantasy romance I almost finished during July Camp, MC1 describes his relationship with MC2 to someone by saying, "We're no longer friends. Perhaps we never were." At that moment he means that he believed the two of them to be friends for a long time, but then MC2 betrayed everybody so they're enemies now. Closer to the end, he uses pretty much the same sentence, but by that time he means he and MC2 have graduated from friendship to a romantic relationship and that perhaps the romantic feelings were always there.

Those are just two of the most recent ones, but I think there's something similar in nearly every story I've ever written, including some examples where it isn't just dialogue. Off the top of my head: in a novella that I really need to re-read and edit one of these days, the action kicks off when MC1 tries to poison MC2 by discreetly pouring a potion in her glass. Later in the story MC1 again discreetly mixes some weird magical concoction into MC2's wine using the same tricks, but this time it's not a poison, it's something that gives her immunity to the villain's superpowers. 

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1 hour ago, Sam said:

Those are just two of the most recent ones, but I think there's something similar in nearly every story I've ever written, including some examples where it isn't just dialogue. Off the top of my head: in a novella that I really need to re-read and edit one of these days, the action kicks off when MC1 tries to poison MC2 by discreetly pouring a potion in her glass. Later in the story MC1 again discreetly mixes some weird magical concoction into MC2's wine using the same tricks, but this time it's not a poison, it's something that gives her immunity to the villain's superpowers. 

I like the parallel between the two poisonings. The twist really make it work.

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I call them easter eggs. I know that's not technically the same way the tech world uses the term, but for me, it means a juicy bit that only a fan or someone who's paying close attention will find. They might be Micro Arcs but they work best when they reference, or fit inside one of the larger story or character Arcs. 

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