The Story Arc that Wasn’t
Every story needs an arc – a beginning, middle and end. Inside sit surprises, conflict and complications. It’s common writing knowledge. It’s common sense. A series also needs its own story arc, an arch stretching across all the titles with hooks backwards and forwards to make the set a cohesive whole. Could a series be written without the organisational structure created by a story arch? Surely the writer would get lost? Would it still be possible to end the series with any authenticity?
Yes, no and yes. Sometimes you don’t get a choice.
White Crane, the first in the Samurai Kids series, was originally a stand-alone book. It was my first accepted manuscript. I knew nothing about narrative structure; I had never even heard the phrase ‘story arc’. I just wrote. Experience soon taught me that a while a story arc can naturally assert itself within a manuscript, when an existing book becomes a series, the organic approach is difficult to sustain.
Walker Books Australia felt White Crane had wide appeal and asked me if I could write a second book. Did I have an idea? I did, even though it wasn’t really my own. When I read White Crane to # 2 son, he asked: “Where are all the ninjas?” I was about to explain this was a book about samurai when he said: “I know. They are in Book2.” I thought Owl Ninja was the end of the Samurai Kids’ story and on the last page I left Sensei and the Kids waiting on the shore for a boat to China. I even said that Nezume would stay behind.
So when two more books were requested, I’d accidentally set the third book in China and deleted a character. What to do next? The Kids had learned samurai and ninja skills, so I decided Sensei would take them on a journey across China to learn Shaolin fighting (Shaolin Tiger) and Chinese Lin Ninja moves (Monkey Fist). The incremental nature of the series’ expansion dictated each book was a complete free-standing story. In retrospect I am glad of this. Students often have trouble getting the books in numerical order from the library and ask me whether they can read them in any sequence. I like that I can say yes, once you’ve read the first one and met all the Kids. There is a chronology but not following it doesn’t significantly impact on each individual story. Of course, now that there is a final book, it needs to be read last.
When a fifth book was mentioned and more alluded to, it became clear I needed a series arc. It was a bit late for that but perhaps I had accidentally given myself something to work with. Rereading the early books, I found it. In White Crane, I said Sensei had once committed a great wrong and that the village women believed he served penance by turning into a tengu (winged mountain goblin) at night. The Kids laughed but Niya was never quite sure because he knew Sensei’s past troubled him. This was initially a throw away piece of description. I added it simply because Sensei was too good, wise and kind. He needed a flaw. So I casually and carelessly put one in his past. I never elaborated and occasionally referred to it in the next three books.
In Fire Lizard and Golden Bat I began to develop this thread actively. My problem was I still didn’t know what Sensei had done and that meant I didn’t know what he had to do to ultimately pt things right. I had written myself into a corner that could only be answered by the question: What could such a wonderful and wise almost magical teacher have once done that was truly, truly terrible? I didn’t know but I am an excellent researcher and I knew who to ask. I asked my readers! They gave me the answer and I started to think about how Sensei could redeem himself.
My story structure had assumed an almost mathematical element of geometric progression. Every book the kids learned a new martial art skill. One kid was the story focus with Niya, the narrator, featuring first and last. Sensei was a story teller so each book included a tale based on an existing myth or fable. Some were from Japanese culture such as the story of the snow maiden Yuki–Onna and some were classical such as Sensei’s story of the Cockroach and the Dragon which is a retelling of Aesop’s Lion and Mouse.
Every book introduced new characters that sometimes travelled into the next book. I would reach a point where I had to leave characters behind because I had too many to keep track off. This created wonderful turning points but I can’t claim that I planned them. Each book had its own villain and settings varied, as the kids travelled from Japan to China, to Korea and Cheju Island, to Cambodia and home. All these elements dictated the story.
When I reached the seventh book, Red Fox, I knew number eight would be the last. I couldn’t survive on mathematics any longer. I had run out of permutations and I was concerned that my series arch, built in retrospect, was not strong enough to hold any more titles.
I knew my final setting had to be a return to Japan. I knew Sensei had to face his past. I knew what had happened thanks to my readers but not why, or how it would be resolved. I had to shape all this in the pages of the last book and I had to make it fit seamlessly with the existing titles. I sat down and reread these carefully, making notes.
I love a snow and ice setting so I sent Sensei and the Kids to Hokkaido in northern Japan. I decided this was Sensei’s birthplace. Historically it was a time of deepening conflict between the samurai and the indigenous Ainu people. Sensei’s childhood straddled this backdrop, the tengu myth hovered and how the terrible thing happened became clear to me.
Some of it was luck but I believe much of it was about knowing my characters so well it was obvious what they would all do once I had set the circumstances. I wish I could share the end now without spoiling it for future readers. It fits perfectly even though when I started the first chapter of Black Tengu, I still didn’t know where I was going. I built the image – a castle, the snow and the great himuga brown bear. Build it and they will come, I’ve heard. They did and the story, as usual, told itself.
I would love to be a planner and to have my story arc firmly in place before I begin but I accept now that this is how I write best, building my story arc as I go, whether it’s one book or eight.
Sandy Fussells’s fabulous Samurai Kids’ series is published by Walker Books and is available at all good bookstores.
There are some great resources for teachers at the Samurai Kid’s website.