Agent Questions Volume Seventeen: What is a story arc and do I need one?

The story arc, also called the narrative arc, is the journey of a story and its characters from one way of life to something completely different. It is defined as the change that takes place between one cover and the other. Arcs are stories with characters that make life changes that take them from weakness to strength or vice versa. Some other well-loved story arcs include the transition from poor to rich, unloved to loved, slavery to freedom. When graphed, it creates an arc like the diagram below.

Isn’t that the plot? No, a plot structure “follows individual events that make up a story, but the story (narrative) arc is the sequence of those events.” One man’s post said, “If plot is the skeleton of your story, the narrative arc is the spine.” The narrative arc can be strong, or it can be weak, simple or complex, or have plot holes. This is why it’s good to map out your story arc with events before you start writing. Many of these problems can be fixed with added or subtracted scenes. Now, I know, the “pantsers” (Those who fly by the seat of their pants) are saying, but I go with the flow. That plot diagram does not apply to me. I forge my own way and  have no need of this structure.

Hear me out, your story will have an arc whether you like it or not. It could be all exposition and rising action over and over with no climax, just falling action and resolution, or any number of combinations. But that would be boring. Why not have a complete story? The model works. It’s what readers want and love. Are you going to take that gamble with your book baby?

Some will say yes, out of principle. And some will say that you can absolutely craft a manuscript with the correct parts of the story arc as you go. That’s true. But if you are already doing so, I doubt you are looking up the definition of a story arc because you don’t understand it. You write what you want to write. If you are writing a cookbook, obviously this does not apply to you. So if you feel like going where the wind takes you without an inch of planning, go ahead. I wish you well.

For those of you still with me… An arc’s story is told in three acts. Aristotle (347BC) said, “A whole story should have a beginning, middle, and end…a well-constructed plot…must neither begin nor end at haphazard.” The diagram below shows a detailed version of a classic story arc divided into three acts.

What about a character arc? What’s that and how does it relate? A character’s arc will run parallel to the timeline of the story. Where the story arc is external, the character arc is internal. It follows the change of the characters themselves. Each main character will have their own journey and therefore their own arc. You can have arcs for your side characters, too.

Part of a character arc can go one way, while another part goes another way. The MC’s romantic arc may be dipping, and at the same time, his arc for his professional business may be climbing. Plot your arcs on a timeline for each: the story and the characters. Sub-plots make small arcs inside the big one. See the diagram below that shows Katniss’s timeline for the Hunger Games, including her arcs for family and romance. Notice how they don’t seem to have a pattern– That’s for the overall story arc.

There are a few types of character arcs. Thanet Writers says there are four types of arcs for characters: “A ‘maturity’ arc is ultimately defined by personal growth in the face of external factors… An ‘alteration’ arc is perhaps the most subtle of character arcs, similar to a ‘maturity’ arc in the sense that it focuses on telling a story where a protagonist undergoes only a modest shift in their attitudes by the novel’s closure. However, an ‘alteration’ arc is somewhat different in that it is more about a character changing their perspective than it is about making wholesale changes to their behavior or personality… A ‘decline’ arc does exactly what it says on the tin—it follows a character (who may or may not possess flaws and/or personal failings) who makes poor choices which ultimately dooms them, jeopardizing either themselves or others in due process. Stories like this tend to be tragedies, following a character as they fall from grace, either by way of madness, or death.” The final character arc is called the ‘transformation‘ arc, also known as “The Hero’s Journey.” In the hero’s journey, the author brings our hero to a low point, then takes away his crutches and all those things he uses to deal with his problems. Finally, the character is forced to grow strong without them. See the Hero’s Journey diagram below.

Are you noticing some similarities in the diagrams above? They have a similar shape. They all follow the pattern modeled after a famous pyramid. Freytag’s Pyramid. In 1863 Gustav Freytag, German author, used a pyramid model to study plot patterns in narrative fiction. His idea was that a narrative arc has five dramatic stages: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. Do you see all of these things in the previous diagrams? See Freytag’s Pyramid in the diagram below.

So, to conclude, a story arc is the shape of your narrative as it rises with action and falls to loss, then rises in conflict until a climax that changes our character’s lives, forming their character arcs as they go. Do you need to plan one? Yes!

Write it out. Take what you’ve got written already, and see what arc your work is following. If you need to add rising action, put a few action scenes in there before the climax. Did you forget falling action and jump from the climax to the end? I’ve done that. You don’t have to know everything that happens in the story before you write it. There is room to create, but plot out the bones of your narrative to make sure it’s complete.

Even if it’s just a written list of scenes or notecards with bits of dialogue. I have found that to create a story rich in meaning, with sub-plots and surprises, and maybe a twist at the end, it must be thought-out. You must know when to foreshadow and when to hint at things coming in the tale. If I don’t diagram my story, I find I end up with plot holes. I know where I want my story to go, but don’t know how to get it there. Or maybe the ending I’ve had in mind becomes implausible or doesn’t match the character’s arc. Then it’s back to the drawing board. Unless you’ve crafted your story arc ahead of time…

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I hope this was helpful and gives you some idea of the terms. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

Do you have a story arc? Want to share? Leave us a diagram in the comments.

Until next week,


7 thoughts on “Agent Questions Volume Seventeen: What is a story arc and do I need one?

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