You may have heard phrases such as “the narrative arc is too flat” or heard it described as weak, strong, or complex and wondered what that means. The narrative arc refers to the structure and shape of your story, and how well the rising, peak and falling action are handled. So, read on, and the next time someone comments, you’ll definitely be all the wiser.
What is it?
The narrative arc, also called the story arc, are the events that make up your story. But it’s not just the sequence of these events that’s important, but how and where they are used to build momentum, develop characters, heighten tension, reach a peak, and draw a conclusion.
Rising peaks and falling action within the story form this arc, and how and when they should occur within the story are described in our blog on the story arc.
How to Structure it?
It can help to think of your story in terms of a play with various acts that take place, or in terms of plot points or key scenes that do much the same thing.
In the aforementioned blog on the story arc, we discussed the structure in terms of plot points (an inciting incident, plot point one, midpoint, plot point two, the climax). Here we’ll discuss it more in terms of a three-act play with an inciting incident, climax, and resolution. However, both structures mirror each other, and while it is described as a three-act play, you can include multiple points of action/interest or developing problems.
Inciting Incident: No story begins immediately with an inciting incident, and you usually lay some framework first in terms of who the characters are, where events are taking place, and any background information that’s important. However, once we’ve created the world of the story, we move into the inciting incident where things change forever and set in motion the actions that are to happen because of it. In a romance novel, this might be where the romantic partners first meet (think Bella meeting Edward in Twilight; Harry finding out he’s a wizard in Harry Potter; or Bilbo joining the dwarven quest to reclaim the Arkenstone in The Hobbit).
Climax: As the name suggests, this is where everything comes to a head. Think of the successful proposal in Pride and Prejudice or other romantic novels; Gatsby being shot in The Great Gatsby after a culmination of events leads to this tragedy; or Bilbo finally getting his hands on the Arkenstone. A lot can happen between the rising action and climax, and that’s where elements like plot point one, mid point, and plot point two can become other significant points of rising action. But the climax is essentially the point at which everything comes to a head
Resolution: The resolution contains the final scenes of your story, with a snapshot of what life looks like after everything that has transpired and where you get to tie up any loose ends.
Perhaps your characters get married after a long-winded romance, detectives return to normal life after a murder investigation is resolved, or our wanderer gets to go home after an adventure. Think of Bilbo heading back to Hobbiton after all his adventures (The Hobbit), or Harry returning to school after saving the philosopher’s stone or surviving the tri-wizard tournament (Harry Potter).
It’s also where you get to impart the ultimate message to the reader. It doesn’t have to be in the last lines, but there are some great examples in literature of how a concluding remark can help the reader understand what has happened and what the message is.
In The Great Gatsby, the final lines are “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”, which encapsulates the central idea of the novel that the American Dream remains elusive.
In the final Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the line reads, “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.” In other words, Harry’s life has moved on from the dark events that plagued him for most of his childhood.
In George Orwell’s 1984, it is, “He loved Big Brother,” which is a rather devastating conclusion for the reader who might hold out hopes for resistance against the totalitarian state featured in the novel.
Types of Narrative Arcs
There are various types of narrative arcs apart from those outlined above. Outlined below are the seven archetypal narrative arcs that you may wish to consider using in your next story:
Rags to riches. The main character goes from poverty to fortune/fame, loses it or almost does, but becomes a better person for it. These are often great stories for children. See: Great Expectations and David Copperfield (Charles Dickens), Slumdog Millionaire (film by Danny Boyle), Cinderella (Charles Perrault).
Overcoming the monster. In these plots, the protagonist must stop a person/force threatening them. This force is often far superior, so they take on an underdog status and they need great courage or strength to overcome it. See: Dracula (Bram Stoker), David and Goliath (The Bible), The Terminator (James Cameron film).
The quest. These are wonderful stories in which the main character goes on an epic journey to find something or someone, running into and overcoming multiple obstacles along the way. See: The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis).
Comedy. In these stories, events usually escalate throughout the narrative arc, and the main characters find themselves in a series of confusing and frustrating but ultimately comedic events, which are resolved in a happy ending. These often make great arcs for romance novels. See: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare), The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde).
Voyage and return. This is a common arc in children’s literature, as it generally involves a main character that visits a new world and returns home with a new perspective. On the voyage, things might start out well, but they usually have to learn a valuable lesson or overcome something in order to return home. See: Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis), Finding Nemo (directed by Andrew Stanton).
Rebirth. The main character experiences an event that makes them a better person. See: A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens).
Tragedy. In a tragedy, the main character has a flaw, makes a mistake, or delves into some kind of darkness or evil before their ultimate downfall. As the name suggests, terrible or tragic events ensue. Shakespeare is the master of the tragedy. See: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, or Macbeth (William Shakespeare), The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Difference Between a Narrative Arc and a Plot
The plot is what happens. It encompasses the individual events that make up your story. The narrative arc is about how those series of events create a flow or progression, or arc, that keeps driving the story forward.
Understanding the narrative arc and working it to your advantage generally leads to more cohesive and exciting stories.
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