The narrative arc is the movement of the story. It may be confused with the plot, and indeed it is closely connected to it. But while the plot is the way events happen and connect, the arc is the dramatic forward movement of those events.
While the plot regards the logical movement of the story more closely connected with causes and effects, the arc concerns itself with the story movement more closely related to the conflict. They do move together, but they have different goals. The plot wants to give us a coherent story. The arc wants to give us a dramatic story.
While the plot regards the logical movement of the story more closely connected with causes and effects, the arc concerns itself with the story movement more closely related to the conflict.
All arcs start with a stable situation, escalate from crisis to crisis to a climax, resolve in consequence of decision-making and end in a new stable situation.
The movement does have the form of an arc with the two stable situations grounding it to the ground and the climax as the apex of crises.
Crises are narrative actions, and that’s where the arc and the plot intersects. The plot provides the action. The arc provides the drama.
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The story as the intersection of narrative arcs
The plot is the main arc of the story, but there are many arcs in a story:
- Characters arcs
They all work in the same way. They have two grounding points — one that starts the arc, one that closes it — and an apex. They all have a goal and, but their goals all differ.
In general, the protagonist’s character arc follows the main plot arc. A supporting character arc may have a totally different movement instead. Subplots also have their own arc and their own goals.
It’s something to watch out for because careful management of the different arcs helps to create an engaging story where something is always happening.
Climax: The Story’s Point of No Return
The Climax is the main character’s darkest moment, but also the place of their rebirth
If different arcs begin and end at different stages, the reader will feel that something is always moving. For example, a character arc may start at the beginning of Act II and end right before the climax on the main plot. In this way, while the main plot might be taking a breath before the storm, the subplot may take its arc to a conclusion, giving movement and variety to the story.
All arcs exist together and intersect with the main plot arc. But they don’t move together.
While some arcs that exist within the story, parts of other arcs may exist outside the story.
Backstory is a classic example. These events have an impact inside the story but originated outside of it, in the past. So their stable situation and the first crisis will happen before (even far before) the story begins, but their climax and their new stable situation happen inside the story.
Or there may be events that the story generates, but will have a resolution outside of it, once the story is over. These arcs are the best to create satisfying open endings. The story won’t provide the conclusion of that arc, but because it is an arc, the reader has a chance at an educated guess.
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Character arcs may also begin or end outside the story. Character arcs that start before the beginning and often conceal secrets are excellent material for flashbacks, for example.
Arcs are extremely useful narrative elements because they help define what is pertinent to the story and what’s not. They can also extend the spectrum of the story beyond its boundaries, giving it more breath.
Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Fourteen years ago, when she started her job in a bookshop, she discovered books that address the structure of a story and she became addicted to them. Today, she’s a dieselpunk author who writes fantasy stories historically set in the 1920s. Her life-long interest in Tolkien has turned quite nerdy recently.
She writes about all her passions on her blog https://theoldshelter.com/