Stories are full of arcs. Depending on the length of your story, there could be multiple character arcs, all intertwining with each other. There will also be a number of story arcs.
The biggest arc will make up your main plot, and that’s what we’re looking at today.
What is a story arc?
A story arc is basically what happens in the story, from each event that shapes your characters and each scene that moves your plot forward.
No matter what type and length of story you’re writing, your story will have an arc, whether you’re conscious of it or not.
Your main story arc will be made up of your character and subplot story arcs. They’ll all weave together, so it’s worth trying to work on the arcs together as a whole, moving from one to the other.
Depending on how you work, you might want to start with developing your characters and their arcs before moving onto your plot and story arcs, or vice versa.
Different resources will give you different points for your story arc.
Basically, every arc is made up of:
- A beginning or Act One
- A middle or Act Two
- And an end or Act Three.
It’s what’s inside those sections that can differ between authors and stories.
However, there are a couple of consistent elements.
There will usually be a ‘inciting incident’ (an event that changes your character’s life or path in some way and kicks off the story) in the beginning section to actually start the story in motion.
There will usually be a climax and resolution in the end section to finish it off, even if the book is part of a series and the story continues.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of books that don’t use these elements. Books that start so subtly that you’re not even sure where the inciting incident is and books with absolutely no resolution or climax, and even books that end half way through an action scene (I hated that book, just so you know).
So, let’s look at the elements that you could include in your story arc.
What can make up a story arc?
Think of your story arc (and every other arc in your story) like a curved bridge. Your characters are crossing that bridge.
When they start crossing, that’s the beginning with a build-up, often with an event that kicks off the action and sets the characters in the motion of moving forward through the story (across the bridge).
As your character keeps crossing, more events and scenes will happen that push your character forward towards the middle, thereby building not only your main plot but also your character development.
The middle is often the hardest part to write, because it can feel like a bit of a lull between the exciting beginning and climatic end.
This is where a lot of character development can happen though and will usually be the first peak of your character arcs and your story arcs.
Keep the action coming at this stage to try and avoid the lull. Keep ramping up the tension, drama and stakes (depending on your genre) so that your characters are propelled forward.
Most places teach that the story arc moves down at this point towards the end, which has never made much sense to me.
To me, the end is the peak. The climax should be up there with action and high stakes. This is what everything in your story has been leading to.
You’re nearly over the bridge and on the other side when the wind suddenly knocks you sideways. Hold on, keep going, you’re nearly there.
After the climax, you get the resolution of the story and tying up any loose ends (except those ends that you’re leaving for the sequel). Everything’s calmed down, your characters can take possibly take a breather and relax. At least until the next book.
You’re off the bridge, you’ve reached the other side.
Things to remember
If you’re struggling with working out what should happen when, then refocus onto your characters and their own journeys and arcs. Let what needs to happen to them inform your main plot and story arc.
If you’re worrying about your story arc, keep reading books.
Think of the books you love and work out the story arcs for them. What happens in the beginning that kept you reading? What happened in the middle to keep the action going? Where was the climax towards the end?
Try applying the structures you enjoyed to your own stories.
What works for one story or one author or one genre will not necessarily work for another.
Stay open-minded and find what works for you and your particular story.
Don’t keep your story restricted by a particular structure if it wants to break free.