What is a story arc and why is it important?
A story arc is the episodes within a storyline, the narrative structure of a book or a story (or a film, or TV series). It is the rise and fall of tension, as well as the pace and timbre of a plot. Shifts in the actions and behaviours of the characters, as they evolve and are changed by what happens to them, should force changes in tension.
Although an arc suggests a curve, most stories look more jagged. The image above is only one of the many examples of a story arc, with a fairly classic rise and fall of tension, and ending with a denouement, a resolution. Films often use a simplistic three act structure: Setup – Confrontation – Resolution. Short stories also have a story arc, unless you are Lydia Davis! Her short story, Children, is a mere two sentences.
The introduction draws the reader into a setting, the characters, their goal, and any potential. This is where the reader discovers what drives the protagonist and what might stand in their way.
A series of complications will often develop in the core of the text, leading to a crisis or a series of problems. Each of these crises may be temporarily resolved, but the narrative will eventually lead to a climax. There is a rise and fall of tension with each crisis, with an overall rise in tension as the reader approaches the climax.
The 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, invariably getting lost and will want to put the book down. As a writer, you need to hook the reader to keep them turning the pages. Structure is an area of writing that I try to focus on, as I naturally tend not to plan too much of the plot. It depends on your genre and crime thrillers will demand many more plot twists and much higher levels of 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, too little tension and you will lose the reader all together.
I’ll leave you with a humorous video of Kurt Vonnegut on Cinderella and the shapes of stories. It’s highly exaggerated but worth watching.
Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories
This story was very good
Wow! Thanks for this.
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.
Of course. Just link it back to my blog post.
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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.
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
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Here’s a great link to Chuck Wendig’s post on traditional story arcs…. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/04/02/fuck-the-straight-line-how-story-rebels-against-expectation/
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!
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.
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!
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.