A Story Arc is a way of feeling how your story develops throughout the work; where a character’s conflicts and challenges lie and where they may succeed and fail in meeting them.
People think in different ways about story arcs but it can be useful to have a consistent set of tools to draw on. Some people like to draw their story out as graphs but I sometimes like to think about parts of the arc as different ways of doing something. An example might be taking a walk along a quiet pavement, strolling through pleasant meadows, coasting through rolling hills, soaring through wild mountains and plunging into deep valleys. Oh and there’s the occasional lunatic with a sledgehammer thrown in for good measure.
Now that we’ve got those aids which we can sense, let’s use them:
Let’s imagine we’re writing a story and so we’re going to take a walk along a quiet pavement. We’re going to keep walking along that quiet pavement. And now we’re going to keep walking along that quiet pavement.
Not much of a story is it? If this was a novel and nothing interesting happened for the entire length, we would probably lose the reader before they knew for certain the story was not going to take them anywhere.
So what we can do is take this story off the beaten track and throw in a few obstacles.
So we’re strolling through a meadow. We move past into the rolling hills. Now there’s a small mountain to climb. We plunge down into the valley on the other side. Climb another mountain, this one’s bigger. And coast quickly down through the rolling hills to the meadow on the other side.
That’s much better. Not perfect but better.
This is our story arc: Our character was doing something quite ordinary and relatively easy, had to overcome some tricky obstacles, had a harder problem to solve, Felt they were winning for a bit, then had the really difficult challenge to face, followed by some slightly tricky issues to tidy up before returning to an ordinary life again.
It’s engaging and has increasing difficulties for the character to overcome without it becoming repetitive.
Let’s set the story up a little differently.
We’re strolling through a meadow. There’s a mountain. It’s a really big mountain. It’s still a big mountain. We don’t seem to be getting any closer to the top. You know what? I’m going to give up actually cause this mountain ain’t getting any smaller and I’m actually quiet tired of climbing it.
And so we’ve lost the reader, something really interesting might have been about to happen where the character has a major success but it just didn’t look like they had a chance of doing it.
If the story only seems to be leading to greater problem that the character doesn’t seem to have any way of solving it, we have a problem. This story feels like this is either not going to end well (or satisfactorily) and it’s not going to give us any kind of emotional reward when it does eventually end or there’s going to be some almighty plunge into a valley that we can’t see and cheats the reader from the experience of seeing the character win (or lose) by their own means.
If the character is struggling to achieve something (climbing a mountain) you can allow them a break (a pavement) where some internal reflection and character development can take place. This gives the reader a rest from the action ready for when the story gears up again (if it’s going to).
If things are going easy for them (meadows), throw some challenges at them (hills) but perhaps not a mountain. Some readers may get lost if something hits the reader completely out of the blue but a challenge that fits in with the terrain is fine.
A change of pace, giving the characters problems to overcome, letting them overcome some of these on their way to some bigger challenges keeps the pages turning as we’re getting variety, something different with every page. The difference in the scale of challenges, victories and defeats keeps us engaged.
With this little collection of tools – pavements, meadows, hills, mountains and valleys – we can begin to look at our work and try and make some judgements as to which category a particular section of story falls into.
Try looking at your own piece of writing and asking yourself: do I really want pavement here next to the hills? Does it feel right having a mountain that takes up the whole work or can I put some restful meadows in it somewhere?
That’s it for the introduction to story arcs. Perhaps next time we’ll have a look at the lunatic with the sledgehammer.