Story arc: definition
The story arc, or narrative arc, is the terminology used to explain the path a story follows. In other words, it’s the course of the story, the storyline, the chronological construction, the rise and fall in a story, or simply the way the story develops. Basically, it follows the full progression or change of the story (the arc).
Story arcs are not just a term reserved for novels, but are also used for any episodic story such as television shows, comic strips, film series, comic books, etc. That means everything from your favourite Netflix series has a story arc to a classic Jane Austen novel, an Oscar winning film, or your favourite cartoon.
Humans love stories and their meaning, purpose and shape take place through the story arc. Now you know what a story arc is, let’s break it down a bit more.
A story arc provides the backbone to the story with a clear beginning, middle and end. It’s because of this rising peak and falling action that it is called an arc.
A story arc comprises five key scenes called the Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, the Middle, Plot Point 2 and the Climax. These are described below, along with the rough placement they should appear within your arc. While story writing is not formulaic, it is true that if these points come too late, it can feel like the storyline is dragging, and if they come too soon, the plot may feel rushed, like you haven’t laid the right groundwork.
Inciting Incident: This is usually about 10-15 percent into the story when you’ve already established the backstory, the protagonists and key characters, and then present an issue/crisis/moment of truth. This will change the world of the story, and is a great way to ensnare your reader to keep reading. Some people describe this initial part of your story arc as the exposition, where you set up the world of the story.
Plot Point 1: This occurs about 20-30 percent into the story and is really the point of no return for the characters in your conflict. By now, we must force them to take action. The stakes have risen, tension and conflict have gone up a notch, and the reader is now fully invested to keep devouring your story arc. This is sometimes called the rising action, and may also incorporate the next section.
Midpoint: As expected, this occurs about 45-55 percent into the story. Stories often lag around this place, but this is where you need to raise the stakes, add a life-changing or threatening event, and continue to develop your characters and tease your reader to want to read more. Often, this is the point where protagonists are no longer reacting to the events around them, like the inciting incident or plot point one, but taking proactive steps to resolve the conflict or the situation.
Plot Point 2: At about 70-80 percent into the story, you present another challenge for the character(s). This might be the point that they have to face their demons or they may lose everything. Don’t make it easy for them or the reader just yet. It could be a low point, emotionally charged, difficult, despairing. But hope remains.
Climax: This is where the characters overcome their demons in an adrenaline-packed scene about 80-90 percent into your novel. This scene should have the highest conflict, tension and upheaval for all concerned. It doesn’t have to end perfectly, but there should be a sense of resolution. Action after this falls away and you begin to tie off all the loose ends of your story.
You may also see a story arc described as having these key components: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. These are fairly interchangeable with what is described above. The exposition lays the groundwork to establish characters and plot, the rising action introduces tension and conflict to move the story forward, the climax is when the story reaches a critical mass, and the falling action and resolution occur on the other side of that peak of the mountain.
We’ve dissected the parts of the story arc, so now let’s look at some of the main types of story arcs that are admittedly quite self-explanatory. There are others, but this will help get you going.
Rags to Riches. This is a fairly common story arc used in stories like Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) or the famed children’s story Cinderella, where the main character starts out poor and comes into money, fame, power or love. Sounds good, right? Often, these stories have happy endings, but some even take this further, and have the main character lose it all again, but perhaps become a better person as a result. Charles’ Dickson’s Great Expectations is a fabulous example of this.
The Quest. Going on an epic journey or adventure is the underlying theme of this story arc. In these stories, the protagonist must find something or someone or achieve a goal. J. R. R. Tolkien was the master of this in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As we know, Bilbo Baggins goes on the most epic journey to thwart a dragon and returns a changed hobbit in the first book. And in the latter series, his nephew, Frodo, must destroy the one ring Bilbo found on the original quest. It is utterly epic.
The Voyage. In this story arc, a main character(s) travels to a new world, or is even thrust into it, and when they return home, they have changed. Perhaps they have matured or have a different perspective. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is a great example of the children journeying to Narnia and coming back wiser and able to resolve their earthly troubles, as is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, that details Dorothy’s adventures in the mystical world of Oz.
Tragedy. In this story arc, tragic events occur or an unfavourable ending for the main characters. So, no, they don’t always make for happy endings. Perhaps the main character has a flaw, makes a mistake or doesn’t recover from something and that results in their downfall. Romeo and Juliet is a prime example of how fateful and flawed choices separate the lovers forever and cruelly at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Other well-known tragedies include Macbeth, Hamlet and The Picture Of Dorian Gray.
Rebirth. In the rebirth archetype, the main character must experience a positive conversion by the end of the story. Often an event, or series of events, occurs that makes them a better person and they redeem themselves. So, the story focuses very much on the enlightenment or transformation of that character. Some great examples include Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the transformation of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast and even our beloved potions master Severus Snape in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Overcoming the monster. Monster stories are always a lot of fun and there are lots of options for a good monster that could be an evil human, a mythological being, something from folklore, religious, an alien or wild animal. The monster may even be a problem within that a character has to overcome. Whatever the choice of monster, the main character must stop the person, force or animal from threatening them. Some great examples include Dracula by Bram Stoker that draws on mythological and even religious themes. There are also monster films with giant or crazed animals like Jaws (Peter Benchley) or King Kong (Merian C. Cooper). They can also utilize supernatural powers like Roald Dahl’s The Witches.
One of the best ways to improve your novel is to look at how successful authors craft their story arcs. Fictionary.co has provided this excellent one of Twilight:
The Inciting Incident
Twilight’s Inciting Incident: Bella has already met Edward. This leads up to the inciting incident where Edward saves Bella from being killed in a parking lot. She gets her first glimpse of his powers and is set on her path of discovering more about him.
Twilight’s Inciting Incident happens 10% into the story. The percentage is based on the word count.
Plot Point One
Twilight’s Plot Point One: Bella suspects that Edward is a vampire, but she decides to pursue him anyway. Edward has emotional power over Bella.
Twilight’s Plot Point One happens 25% into the story.
Twilight’s Midpoint: Edward reveals his true powers as a vampire to Bella. He saves her from an attack, and this strengthens how she feels about him.
By now it should be no surprise that Twilight’s midpoint happens at 50% of the story.
Plot Point Two
Twilight’s Plot Point Two: A bad vampire decides to go after Bella, and Bella must leave her home. Bella wants to survive but not if it means risking those she loves.
Twilight’s Plot Point Two happens 75% into the story.
Twilight’s Climax: Bella is lured into a trap. She faces down the evil vampire and gets injured.
And you guessed it. Twilight’s Climax happens 90% into the story.
The resolution is everything that happens after the climax. It shouldn’t be longer than 10% of your total story. This is the time to give the reader an emotional resolution as well as tie up any loose ends.
Twilight’s Resolution: Bella and Edward are home, safe, and together, but when Bella tries to persuade Edward to turn her into a vampire, this leaves the reader questioning what happens next.