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.
Today’s guest post is written by Elizabeth Craig who writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink.
Conflict is one of the elements of an interesting story. As much as we love our characters, if everything goes smoothly for them, then it’s hard to keep our readers reading. After all—if it’s just an ordinary day for our protagonist, then we really don’t have much of a story.
A few tips for developing conflict and tension:
Quickly introduce conflict into your story. If it’s delayed too long, the reader might start flipping ahead through the set-up and back story to see where the story really gets started.
Use both larger conflicts and smaller ones. A lower level of conflict can be easily maintained by introducing tension in our story. Maybe we’ve got a character who lost his job and is struggling to make ends meet. He finally snares a job interview—and it’s for his dream job. His car breaks down on the way to the interview. He was in a hurry when he left, and forgot his phone. This approach can resonate with readers, too—it’s realistic and relatable. It can also give us an opportunity for us to display a character’s personality to our readers…when we show how the character reacts to the problem.
Provide conflict through other characters. Here we do need to watch our character motivation and know our character and what matches his personality. Who rubs our character the wrong way and why can tell us a lot about the protagonist as well as the other character. We could bring in an ex-wife, an overprotective father, an annoying neighbor, or a backstabbing co-worker. Every time we have a scene with one of the troublesome characters, we have the opportunity for tension.
Use both internal conflict and external conflict. What are our character’s inner demons? What’s our character fighting with himself over? Consider how his internal conflict can shape the story and his reaction to events. What external conflict prevents him from obtaining his goal?
Raise the stakes to create a faster pace. Raising the stakes and making the conflicts and outcomes increasingly dire for the protagonist is one way to increase our story’s pace and keep readers turning pages.
Try to delay resolution. One thing that’s been difficult for me as a writer is delaying resolution of the protagonist’s problems. I’m a problem-solver in life and I want to solve my character’s problems, too. But letting problems spiral out of control and allowing them to gnaw at my protagonist can add excitement and tension to a story.
Give readers some breathing room. Some of this is personal taste, but as a reader, I really enjoy having breaks in the tension and conflict. This break can be accomplished through humor, or a subplot that’s moving along the path to resolution when hope in the main plot seems to be lost.
Make the protagonist’s external conflict and internal conflict collide. What if our character had to sacrifice what’s most important to him in order to accomplish his main goal? What if he’s got to face his inner demons to save the world?
Tension and conflict are two ways to keep readers turning pages. What tips have you got for developing them in a story?