Creating a satisfying narrative arc out of your own life story is so difficult, partly because you're still living it. How do you write a story where there is no real "end," and when life doesn't actually develop in a series of "aha!" moments? There’s a certain amount of translation necessary to condense a sliver of the messy, complex, ongoing story of your life into something that fits into one book, and feels satisfyingly narrative to a reader. In this course, we'll talk about how to find the central arc in your story despite the fact that real life is never that simple, and how to create tension that will keep readers turning the page.
We’ll use outlines as the foundation of this course, so we can zoom out and talk about students’ full projects and story structures. Ahead of the first class meeting, students will receive detailed instructions for creating the outlines we'll work with throughout class, which should be completed by the second class meeting. (It wouldn't hurt to get a head start on outlining your project as soon as you sign up for this course!)
Each student’s full outline will be workshopped by the group over the course of this class. Through exercises and class discussions, we’ll tackle one challenging element of story structure at a time. Through the craft lessons, assignments, and group feedback, students will break down and rebuild their outlines, leaving the course with a clear plan for how to structure their story—and a roadmap to follow during revision. Students will have the opportunity to submit their revised outlines at the end of class, and get additional feedback on them from the instructor.
This course is designed for writers with a working draft of a memoir where they have all the pieces but they’re not in the right order yet.
Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the Zoom desktop client so you have access to all platform features.
- How to think of your life story in terms of narrative structure
- How to create sub-plot arcs that keep the reader invested in your story
- A revised outline and a plan to tell your story in the most engaging way
- One 1-on-1 meeting with the instructor to discuss your writing
- Access to Catapult's list of writing opportunities and important submission deadlines, as well as a 10% discount on all future Catapult classes
Week One: We'll meet for introductions and will be given instructions to complete your first assignment: your memoir outline. This week we'll also ask: What is a narrative arc, and do you really need one? We'll talk about what constitutes a satisfying narrative arc, and how to identify generally where your story should start and end.
Week Two: No live meeting. Deadline for outline check-in materials.
Week Three: Beginnings. Figuring out where to enter the story can be the most challenging part of the structure. This week we'll talk about what makes an engaging first chapter for a memoir—how to grab the reader's attention and set up all of your themes right away.
Week Four: Endings. We're skipping ahead here, but having a sense of where your story is going to end up can go a long way toward helping you figure out how to get there. We'll talk about how to satisfyingly "end" a story that you're still living through, or where no real resolution is possible.
Week Five: The Middle. Pivotal moments, turning points, revelations, and mini-arcs throughout the story. The middle is basically the whole story, and we'll talk about ways to keep the tension high as you make your way from the beginning to the end.
Week Six: Alternating storylines and subplots. Plenty of memoirs include more than one storyline, and this week we'll talk about how to weave multiple stories together without losing the reader's attention.
Week Seven: Creating tension without chronology. Narrative arc is a classic way to keep the reader engaged, but what if you don't want to tell the story in order? In the final class we'll talk about how to create narrative tension, and even an arc, in a story that's told out of order.
Lilly Dancyger is a contributing editor and columnist at Catapult, and assistant editor at Barrelhouse Books. She's the editor of Burn it Down, a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women's anger from Seal Press; and the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards, forthcoming in 2021. Lilly's writing has been published by Longreads, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Glamour, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. Find her on Twitter here.
“Catapult’s Narrative Arc class with Lilly Dancyger was a transformative experience for me. Lilly’s uniquely-tailored lessons, coupled with my classmates’ insights, helped me craft chapter summaries that were thorough, robust, and that captured the heart of my story. Shaping my memoir through this course was an empowering experience for me and I’m forever grateful for all I’m taking away.”
“It demystified the writing process a little bit, and made it feel like writing is more tangible, and less abstract – something I could achieve. Ms. Dancyger gave great feedback. She was approachable, engaged, and encouraging.”
“Lilly Dancyger is an enthusiastic and passionate instructor. She was well organized and provided a rigorous program for us to follow. Her criticism was honest and constructive.”
“Lilly is a thoughtful, considerate editor who combines her developmental skills with skilled line editing for a holistic editorial approach that makes the story sharper and cleaner, the narrative more compelling, and the piece's purpose clear. Lilly knows what makes a story effective, and how to employ the writing techniques that will sharpen even the best and most vulnerable personal narratives. She's attentive to the writer's needs, and knows how to ask questions that will direct the writer toward the best story possible while retaining their own artistic voice. Lilly's editing helps take the personal essay from personal to universal. It's not often I feel like an editor isn't afraid to give it their all in editing a vulnerable topic, but also isn't hunting for just the most shock value and ‘universally appealing’ parts of a story, all while wanting the narrative to actually be strong, tight, compelling, and effective.”
“Ms. Dancyger understands the craft of the personal essay, how to weave narrative with theme, how to make the personal resonate. She draws the reader into the scene, evoking our senses and emotions.”
“Lilly Dancyger is a lovely, incisive writer attuned to the emotional core of a story and the evocative details that bring it out. She’s able to be expressive while smartly avoiding sentimentality, and she's well attuned to structure.”
“Lilly has an innate understanding of what makes a memoir piece pop, which is evident both in her own writing and in her work as an editor. She is uniquely skilled at helping writers pull out the most interesting angles of their own personal experiences and present them in a way that reels in the readers.”