Writing tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Image by mohamed_hassan from Pixabay, modified using GIMP and DeepDreamGenerator

The story arc is a crucial feature of a great story, whether you’re writing a short story or a novel. When you hear about this important fiction framework, it is most often in conjunction with guidelines for novel writing, but in fact all fiction should contain an arc on some level.

The arc gives a story its structure, and compels the reader forward. It builds the story toward its conclusion, and fills the reader with anticipation.

“How is it all going to end?”

The reader should be asking this question at some level, or the story is missing the critical element of the story arc. As a result, the story will not compel the reader to continue reading, and it will not feel fulfilling or satisfying. If readers are not asking this question, they will most likely set the story down, having lost interest.

The Story Arc: A Walkthrough

Here are the basic elements to include in your story to build the story arc:

Step 1

Write a compelling opening. Introduce your main character and the setting. Who are we dealing with here? Share some interesting traits and a problem the character is encountering or a quest - something the character is seeking and desperately wants. This gives us someone to care about.

Step 2

Add bumps in the road. So, we know the character has a problem or a deep desire. What is preventing the character from resolving the problem or achieving the goal? These challenges give the reader more reason to care, and to be involved. They help to build the arc.

Step 3

In a longer story, add additional tension and sub-plots. In short stories, especially flash fiction, you won’t have the space to develop the tension on a deeper level, but in a longer story or novel, it is a must. The challenges must build further, and you will need to weave in more drama, and escalate the tension.

Step 4

Write the climactic scene. The challenges and all of the tension must build toward this scene. This is where the reader may fear the worst. Some dramatic examples:

  • It appears the pilot cannot possibly pull out of the nose dive.

  • The river flood has risen to the rooftop and the last survivors have no place to go.

  • The love of his life has walked out the door and is about to board the train and yet he remains sitting there in the restaurant, staring at her unfinished dinner.

Step 5

Bring the story to conclusion, resolving the conflict and releasing the story’s tension. This is the pay-off for the reader, having taken this time to read your story. Wind down to a conclusion where all is resolved - whether happily or not. Some stories have happy endings, and some do not. Shakespeare, as we all know, wrote comedies and tragedies. It is up to you, but either way, the story must reach finality with all of the elements you have built coming to conclusion.

How these elements build and how the narrative, action and dialog carry the reader through the tale can occur in an infinite number of ways.

This framework - the story arc - in which we introduce and build conflict toward the story’s climax and then bring it to conclusion, is an age-old framework, tried and true, that makes stories interesting, readable and satisfying.

A Story Dissected

I’m going to use my own recent story as an example. It is a flash fiction story, meaning it is very short. I hope that this will provide insight into the story arc at its most basic level. The story is called The Spot. Click that link to read the story, then return here to see the deconstruction, based on the above description of a story arc.

Opening. The story opens and is told by a woman in first person. We learn that she has been revisiting a place in the woods where there was a suicide. She is troubled by it and seems to need to return to the spot to try to process this sad and unfortunate event.

Bumps in the road. We learn that she was told of the suicide by her friend Rick, who is coping with the event in a bizarre and awkward way, himself. We also learn that Rick has a good marriage, and a wife who knew what to do when he heard the gunshot and found the man in the woods.

Subplot. We also learn that the narrator is troubled by her own marriage. She contrasts how Rick has dealt with the suicide and the support of his wife against how her husband Jonathan would deal with it. If he had been in Rick’s place, he would have bragged about it. If she had been in Rick’s place and turned to him, he would not have been supportive or helpful. She and her husband have drifted apart.

Climax. The narrator returns several times to the spot, first terrified, then unable to believe someone would do what the man did. Each time it is like she is moving through a different emotion and level of acceptance. At the climactic scene, she steps off the path, goes to the spot where the man took his life. She steps into that space, then kneels, then lies down right there. What is she going to do?

Conclusion. She whispers an apology to the man who took his life. Then she chooses life, herself. She chooses to move toward a better life, where she can find love and joy and become.

This is just an illustration to help you see the mechanics of a story, and how the elements can all be present even in a very short piece. Good luck with your writing endeavors!

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing tip #7: Put It On the Page

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