Narrative Arc: Shaping Your Story

 

story-arc

What is a story arc and why is it important?

story arc is the episodes within a storyline; it is the narrative structure of a book or a story (or even a film, or a series of TV episodes). It is the rising and falling of tension, and the pacing and timbre of a plot. The tension should, in turn, force a shift in the behaviour of the characters and changes in their behaviour as they evolve and are changed by what happens to them.

Although an arc suggests a curve, most stories look more like a roller coaster. The image above is only one of many examples of a story arc, with a zig-zag of tension which falls at the point of obstacles in the story and ends with a denouement, a resolution. Films often use a three act structure: Setup – Confrontation – Resolution. Short stories also have a story arc, unless you are Lydia Davis! Her short story, Children, is just two sentences.

The introduction draws the reader into a setting, the characters and any potential conflict or goal. It is where the reader discovers what drives the protagonist and what will stand in their way.

A series of complications will often develop in the core of the text, leading to perhaps a crisis or a series of problems. Each of these crises may be temporarily resolved but the story will lead to a climax. There is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax.

Denouement ties up the loose ends and resolves the conflict. Tension, at this point, rapidly dissipates leading towards the ending.

The three act structure was used by Aristotle, and in Greek tragedy.

The importance of a story arc lies in the need for structure, however varied. Without it the reader will meander through the book, get lost and but the book down. As a writer, you need to keep them turning the pages. Structure is an area of writing which I am working on, as I tend to err on the side of descriptive narrative. It depends on your genre, and crime thrillers might need more plot twists and higher tension than literary fiction, for example, but the story arc should be such that the reader’s emotions rise and fall throughout the narrative. Too much high tension, and the reader will run out of steam, and too little tension will lose the reader.

Some useful links to posts on story arc:

Connecting Subplots. Victoria Grefer

What Character Arc Really Means. Jim Hull

The Importance of Story Arc. Alexis Grant

And finally, here is a humorous video of Kurt Vonnegut on Cinderella and the shapes of stories. It’s really exaggerated but comical.

 

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

12 thoughts on “Narrative Arc: Shaping Your Story

  1. The story arc is definitely in my mind as I near the end of rewrites/revisions on the second draft of my novel. I am diving into the climax now, with the denouement just ahead.

    Thanks for helping me picture this arc!

    1. I’m glad it was a helpful post. I am also nearing the end. I think it gets tougher to keep the writing and story tight and to tie up all loose ends. It’s much more freeing at the beginning I find. Best wishes for the final stages.

  2. I’m always interested in what models other writers use, if any, to plan their plots. I loved Larry Brooks book, ‘Story Engineering’ and found it helpful. Enjoyed that video hugely. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation. I agree with you, it’s interesting to know how others structure their writing. Glad you enjoyed the video. Best wishes, SJ.

  3. This was so helpful. I’m working on my first novel (the one I wrote in 8th grade probably doesn’t count) (does it??), and your diagram has helped me work out my arc. Thanks so much. The Vonnegut video only added to my enjoyment. Congrats on your novel, and best of luck. What have you published recently that you can refer me to? I’d love to read something short, or longform, to see how you apply your arc in practice.

    1. Thank you Jann. I’m glad it was interesting and helpful. My work is listed on the website – fcmalby.com with short story publications and there are 3 available to buy and download. Good luck with your stories! Fiona

  4. Another question, no need to publish this one: Just want to know if I have your permission to publish your story arc graphic on my blog, http://austindetails.me, at some future point? Thanks, F.C.

    1. Of course. Just link it back to my blog post.

  5. Wow! Thanks for this.

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