The importance of a story arc

This post is the ninth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before we begin writing, I wanted to discuss your story arc. Knowing and understating the nature of this arc can help you ensure that your story stays on course or let you know if the story is getting away from you.

A story arc covers the beginning, middle and end of your story. Characters also have arcs – typically covering internal growth or change. If your story is about just one main character, then your story arc and your character arc could be the same. But if you have a large cast of characters, each character will have their own arc. Some may be ending their own arc while others are just beginning. Your story arc will tie or weave these arcs together.

Beginning/Establish Routine – This is where the reader is introduced to the characters, and we get a taste of what happens in their everyday life.

Example – Think of Cinderella sweeping the ashes or Harry Potter living with the Dursley’s.

Note: Last week, I mentioned starting your novel with a gripping scene that grabs the readers’ attention. But most of the time this gripping scene is probably not what is drawing your character to leave their “normal” life to partake in the adventure. An example of this type of start would be in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. While we meet Indy during an exciting scene, we are then returned to his life as a professor.

Trigger/Inciting Incident – Something beyond the protagonist’s control triggers the spark of the story causing the protagonist to act. This incident or trigger will require your character to make a choice and truly begins the story.

Example – For Cinderella, it is the appearance of the fairy godmother. For Harry, it is the appearance of a mysterious letter which leads to him finding out he is a wizard.

In a romance, the inciting incident is probably where the two romantic leads meet each other for the first time. In a mystery, it may be when the first dead body is found.

No matter what the event is, this is what gets the story rolling. It introduces an inequity or problem into the character’s life. The protagonist will seek the solution. The Antagonist seeks to prevent it. But without this event, nothing changes. If Harry hadn’t received the letter from Hogwarts he would have continued to live under the stairs – something very unexciting and certainly not worth a seven-book series.

Rising Action/Conflict – The trigger results in a quest which often has obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist.

Example – Cinderella must endure the antics of her stepmother and stepsisters after her happy time at the ball. Harry stumbles through learning to be a wizard while finding clues about what the Dark Lord wants.

Crisis/Critical Choice – Along the way, there should be incidents of crisis followed by brief breaks. Often the protagonist must make a crucial decision. This is where we find out what type of person the character truly is. At the critical choice, the protagonist must decide to take a particular path.

Example – Cinderella decides to fight her Stepmother for her right to try on the glass slipper. Harry decides to stop Professor Quirrell from stealing the stone.

Climax – This is the highest point of tension in your story and comes from whatever choice your protagonist made during the critical choice. It doesn’t have to be a huge battle between good and evil. It can be something as simple as an important decision being made.

Example – For Cinderella, it is the point where she attempts to escape her locked bedroom as her stepsisters try on the glass slipper. In Harry’s instance, it is his battle with Professor Quirrell.

Falling Action – This is where the consequences of the critical choice and climax play out. It should show the changed status of your characters – especially the protagonist. The changes must make sense with how the story unfolds. The outcome should be probable as nothing should happen for no reason.

Example – Cinderella meets up with her prince and gets married. And for Harry, it is his time in the hospital where Professor Dumbledore divulges the meanings behind the recent events.

Resolution – This is where the story wraps up. Your characters return to their lives but now are perhaps wiser or changed.

Example – We see Cinderella and her prince driving off in the carriage, presumably to live happily ever after. Harry gets back on the train to return to the Dursley’s but this time knowing that he will return to Hogwarts for another year of school.

If you search the Internet, you can find more complex diagrams of the story arc. Some use different terms or add more steps, but these are the basics of a story arc. Knowing these steps of the arc can help you in planning your story or at least making sure you stay on track.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline