A story arc is the chain on which the pearls of your novel are strung. You can think of story arc as the things that happen—the scenes or episodes—from the beginning of the novel to its conclusion. The story arc—also called a narrative arc—is the same thing as plot.
Some writers are naturals when it comes to plot. Others find it easier to capture the essence of a story through voice. Still others focus initially on character. At some point, however, a writer will have to string together a first draft’s random scenes so that the end connects to the beginning.
I believe this is true for literary writers as much as it is for writers of mysteries, sci fi novels, or fantasy. We simply must find ways to keep readers turning the pages, and that means grappling with plot.
What I’m going to share are some simple concepts about story arc. Although I am pretty much a seat-of-the-pants writer, I’ve discovered a simple way to weave plot into the disorganized mess that is always my first draft. I begin by asking myself this question: Because of what happens in the novel, what is my character capable of becoming?
Keep Emotion Front and Center
When it comes to plotting a novel, you, the author, have two responsibilities.
- You must create tension.
- You must write in such a way that your reader will feel an emotional connection to your main character.
- Tension + Emotional Ups and Downs = Story Arc
If you pay attention to the character’s emotional journey, tension will go up.
Many literary novels do not have antagonists per se. There is no “man in a white hat” vs. “man in a black hat.”
Instead, the character might be wrestling with forces of fate, with changes in society, with inner demons, or with self-defeating behavior. Tension comes from the reader being deeply invested in the emotions of the protagonist.
So how can an author write in such a way that the reader is willing to make that investment?
The Psychic Wound and Emotional Baggage
In the beginning you will want to show the emotional baggage burdening your main character. Is there a traumatic event or deep wound that shaped your protagonist’s personality, coping mechanisms, and beliefs? What lessons has the character learned from this trauma? If there is no trauma, does your protagonist have limiting beliefs, such as those of the butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day?
- Would you say that your character trusts easily or not at all?
- What is her outlook on life? Does she expect bad things to happen, or is she optimistic?
- Is he guarded or open?
- Does he plunge in, no matter what the risk, or hang back?
- Is he a spendthrift or a miser?
- Does he yearn for a missing father or mother, or does he chafe at the constraints of family?
In the beginning you’ll want to provide scenes that show a character caught up in her or his normal life and coping in her or his normal way.
In the first chapter, it’s also a good idea to give that character a temporary or provisional goal. Writer John Gardner said, “Give a character something to want, even if it’s only a drink of water.”
Hollywood guru, Chris Vogler, in his popular book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, urges writers to create a provisional goal that will constitute ten percent of the novel’s length. This goal is similar to, but not identical to, the goal that will kick in once the character encounters the “inciting incident.” The inciting incident derails her normal life.
I’m not totally convinced that hard-and-fast rules help us when we confront our messy first drafts. Vogler is a film guy, and fiction differs from film in important ways, namely that authors of fiction must come up with words to approximate the feelings that filmmakers can show us in a visual. Nevertheless, Vogler has a point: that readers’ interest perks up when the “real” story arc kicks in. Prior to that, readers are testing the waters and checking out whether this is a character whose plight interests them enough to keep reading.
Narrative theorists like Joseph Campbell and Gustav Freytag have tried to understand what compels us to turn the pages of a story. Possibly, as both men assert, stories of heroism and derring-do have common elements; but, it might just be that we’re hardwired to be curious about how others live their lives.
Freytag created a pyramid that is often used to illustrate the key plot points in a story, but when I’m faced with a pages and pages of scenes and summaries that don’t go anywhere, I’ve never found the pyramid much help. Instead, I’ve relied on the following sentence to make a first pass at a story arc.
What Is Your Character Capable of Becoming?
A way to think about story arc is to ask this question: “Because of what happens in the novel, what is my character capable of doing or becoming?”
Because of what happens in the novel, your character will become a far different person from the person she is at the beginning.
- A shy governess who never puts herself forward becomes capable of fierceness in the service of love (Jane Eyre).
- A runaway on a raft becomes capable of overturning society’s expectations and bonding with a man of a different race (Huckleberry Finn).
- A feisty Southern belle, intent on winning one man’s affection, becomes capable of standing up to the Union Army and alienating the one man who loves her, all for the sake of saving her family’s land (Gone With The Wind).
The Starting Point
For characters to change, authors must show them at the starting points of their journeys. These must be journeys of emotional growth and journeys through time and space. It will help you keep the story arc front and center if you can reduce the character’s journey to two or three sentences.
Let’s start with one sentence that deals with the character and situation at the beginning of the novel.
_______(character), a ___________________(role in ordinary life + trauma), hopes to _________________(provisional plan for happiness).
Here’s my stab at this, based on my forthcoming novel, The Vermillion Sea.
Sentence 1: Noël, an art student traumatized by the deaths of his parents, hopes to avoid poverty by doing well in school.
To get readers rooting for your character, hold back on showing his or her flaws. You have plenty of time to show the “dark side.”
Story Arc in the Middle Chapters
Early in the novel, the character’s normal life needs to change. A new situation (called the “inciting incident”) thrusts a problem or opportunity into the character’s lap. The character must decide what to do.
Let’s expand the sentence about character and situation to include the new objective.
When _____________________________(new situation), _____________ (character) ,_______________ (role in ordinary life + trauma), decides to __________________________(how character will deal with the challenge).
Here’s my example.
Sentence 1: When a 1769 astronomy expedition needs a draftsman, Noël, an art student and orphan, decides to drop out of school and seek a shortcut to fame and fortune.
Here’s another example.
Sentence 1: When a giant shark attacks beach-goers on Amity Island, Police Chief Martin Brody, shamed by the mayor, decides he must hunt the shark.
The “when” clause is the inciting incident. The clause about the new objective is how the character initially responds.
New Coping Mechanisms
The inciting incident will soon force your character to develop new coping mechanisms. She will not be in her comfort zone anymore. But like we all do, for a while, the character will cling to the old ways of acting and making decisions.
Our “characters” are no different that we are. Most of us resist change. Most of us get things wrong—at first. Maybe we misjudge our allies or don’t think things through. A shy person will try to blend into the woodwork. A follower will look for a leader.
But if the goal is truly important, fear of failure increases. Desperation grows. All the while, the character tries to cope with the hand she has been dealt. If you show moments of self-doubt, fear, desperation, stabs at her trying to find a way through the morass, and despair at utter failure, your reader will stay with you.
Make Sure Actions Are Followed by Emotions
What you don’t want to do is get so caught up with the car chases, dragons, divorces and whatnot, that you forget to put emotion on the page. For each bad thing that happens, the character must have a feeling about it. That feeling must influence what the character does next.
Oops! I woke the dragon by coming in the front door. That was stupid, and I won’t try that again. Aha! There’s a secret back door. Maybe I can tiptoe in and steal the treasure. Uh oh! That didn’t go so well. The dragon saw my shoe beneath my invisible cloak. Now, it’s really angry and it’s flying over the city where my family lives. I’m super scared that I’ve not just endangered my life, but theirs. What on earth can I do? I’ve made things worse, and I’m running out of options.
Or, how about this?
Maybe I should have told my husband about the old boyfriend who “friended” me on Facebook. I don’t want to “unfriend” Mark because of what we once were to each other. Of course, I was thirty pounds lighter and didn’t have stretchmarks. Maybe I’ll just meet him at Starbucks and tell him in person we can’t see each other. What can my husband say, right? It’s a public place. It’s not like we’re going to a Motel 6. I wonder if he still has his dad’s old Ford truck? (This character is lying to herself, and though she might be funny and self-deprecating and a good mom, her journey will be about developing depth, integrity and self-awareness.)
The point I’m trying to make with these hokey examples is that you want to show the character’s thought processes: their fears, memories, and blind spots.
Obstacles Force Emotional Change
Each of us has developed beliefs about how life should be lived, and these beliefs are formed early in life. Some of us seek safety; others crave risk. Some place a priority on family; others want to save the world. Some feel we’ve been dealt a bad hand; others believe life has blessed us. Early in the novel, imbue your characters with attitudes and deficits. Some or all of these are going to change.
The new situation is something the character hasn’t coped with before. Neither are the new obstacles you keep placing in her path. Emotional growth in a character occurs when she tries to understand what has gone wrong. Only then will she be open to trying a new way of coping.
Think about this in your own life. When you look back, aren’t you a stronger and better person because of bad things that happened? Didn’t these bad things make you resilient? Without obstacles, characters can’t grow. (The need for obstacles is also the reason protagonists need antagonists. Though all of us have self-defeating behavior, in fiction, it’s easier to enlist readers’ sympathies if the threats come from an outside source.)
The Climax of the Novel
At the climax of the novel, characters find themselves totally out of options. They’re experiencing primitive emotions. The “flight or fight” response kicks in. The character must turn and face the enemy.
By this time, the protagonist’s coping skills have been honed by what has gone before. At the climax your hero or heroine can’t go back to the old way. She must fight through her fears.
Another way to say this is that, at the climax, the character is tested as never before. By this time she has become capable of making good decisions. Rather than run away, she takes a stand. Maybe she doesn’t get everything she wants, but she gets what she needs for life to go on and a new normal to begin.
The Story Arc’s Middle and End
A good way to get a grip on the character’s emotional journey through the middle and end is to boil the essence of the story down to another sentence. What we’re looking for is a sentence that hints at what the character will become capable of doing. How far will she go to conquer the dragon or see her old lover?
In his book Techniques of the Selling Writer, the genre writer Dwight V. Swain recommends framing a second sentence to go along with Sentence 1. This second sentence is all about the “test.” The test is the moment of reckoning. At the climax, the character will be tested as never before.
But can _______________________ (character) , ____________ (role in ordinary life + trauma), defeat/conquer/win/earn (use an active verb) ________________________ (the objective, this time shown with the challenges added by what happens in the middle and at the climax).
Here’s an example of this second sentence with the plot of Jaws in mind.
Sentence 1: When a giant shark attacks beach-goers on Amity Island, Police Chief Martin Brody decides to ignore the mayor, enlist two friends, and hunt the shark.
Sentence 2: But can Brody, adrift on a sinking boat, kill the Great White before it kills him?
Here’s an example from my novel, The Vermillion Sea.
Sentence 1: When a 1769 French astronomy expedition needs a draftsman, Noël, an art student and orphan, decides to drop out of school and seek a shortcut to fame and fortune.
Sentence 2: But can Noël, only sixteen and a dwarf, survive the rigors of the trip and the yellow fever that greets the travelers when they make land in far off California?
A story arc is primarily about feelings, namely mounting fear, confusion, self-doubt, terror, lust, depression, or romance. No matter what else happens in the way of action sequences, the author must make sure the reader doesn’t lose track of what’s happening on the emotional level.
Some folks say that the climax of a novel ought to create a catharsis for the main character and the reader. This idea of catharsis at the climax is often attributed to Aristotle. In Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce, Joseph Campbell calls this moment of release “the breakthrough of either terror or of pity.”
At the end of the novel, let your character seize opportunities for emotional release. These moments can be actions or images, and they must resonate with both the protagonist and the reader. Maybe you’ll even write a denouement or epilogue to wrap up loose ends.
After the novel’s last line, the protagonist is ready to begin on a new journey, incorporating lessons learned. She is now equipped for the challenges ahead. A new arc in the story of her life will begin. This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily write a sequel, only that you and your reader will understand that she is ready to move on.
Thanks for the informative post, Marylee. The easy-to-understand descriptions, and examples, are great. I write based on the emotional landscape. Usually, I need to experience the emotions of the previous scene to write the next.
Did you plot the emotional arc of Montpelier tomorrow?
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I wrote it and then imposed a plot on it. Once I had written all the way to the end, I knew what scenes had to be there. I’m glad to hear you’re connecting with your feelings. To me, that’s the easiest way to ensure that your writing will affect readers’ feelings, too.