When you hear critics discussing any kind of narrative art, be that a movie, T.V. show, or a book, you may have heard them use the phrase ‘story arc.’
Sometimes they describe a particularly compelling story arc, or they mention that the story arc fell flat.
Maybe you’ve come across this term in how-to content for writers.
Everyone talks about how important it is to make sure your story arcs are compelling, but how does one go about writing a good story arc?
We’re here to break down what a story arc is, give you some examples of story arcs you can find in pretty much any book (seriously!), and show you how to make your own stories pop.
Let’s get started!
What’s a story arc?
A story arc (also called a narrative arc) is just a term for the plot of your story. The line that the story follows, from beginning to end, is called an “arc” because of the rising, peak, and falling action.
It runs from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of a story.
Any given book or movie probably has more than one arc running through it. Let’s take your standard superhero movie, for example. You’ll have the main arc, which is what the story is about—-somebody becomes a superhero and saves the world. Then you’ll have the subplots, which each have their own arc. Usually, the superhero also has a love interest, and maybe an arc with a side character that gets resolved.
Let’s take a closer look at each component of a story arc, so you can pick them out the next time you grab a book (also, spoilers ahead for Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan).
The Elements of a Story Arc
Usually, when we talk about exposition, we’re referring to background information about the character or setting. We’ll say things like ‘avoid exposition dumps’ and point to a particularly dense paragraph as exposition-heavy, and we generally try to avoid it on our writing.
When we’re talking about story arcs, though, we’re using the word exposition differently. Here, it means the story’s setup. This is where we start out in our story! For Girls of Paper and Fire, this is the part where we meet Lei while she’s working in her family shop.
We hear about her home life, and we get a brief catch-up on this world’s culture and caste system.
Coming out of exposition, there’s going to be some kind of inciting incident that kicks off the story. Something happens to our character that changes things forever, and they have to go do the rest of the story because of it. In a romance, this is the meet-cute.
The rising action is everything surrounding that inciting incident and leading to the climax. In Girls of Paper and Fire, the inciting incident happens when General Yu comes to Lei’s village to take her to the palace. This is where she’ll live as a Paper Girl. Lei is taken from her home and thrust into palace life, an unfamiliar world where she has to develop new skills and cope with new struggles.
At the climax, all of your rising action comes to a head in the most exciting moment in your book! This is the final superhero fight, the proposal, the last showdown. Usually, this takes place toward the end of the book, since your climax should be the thing which solves your central conflict.
In Girls of Paper and Fire, the climax is New Years Day, when Lei has to kill the king. Not only does she kill the king, but Wren comes back for her and is reunited. This ties up the romance subplot, and she now finds out what’s written on her birth pendant.
This is the fallout from the climax. In a superhero movie, this is the bad guys turning tail and going back to wherever they came from. The love interests get married, et cetera. Lei escapes the palace and starts on her new adventure, which we’ll explore in the next book.
This is where all of that tension we built in the rising action starts to ease up. We’ve solved our biggest problems by now.
This is the end! Just like we got a snapshot of your character’s life in the beginning, before the plot came and messed everything up, we should also get a sense of how things are at the end of it. Here, we get a sense of your story’s message and what sort of impact you’re imparting to the reader.
Different types of story arcs
Now that we know the different parts of story arcs, we need some examples. This isn’t a comprehensive list of story arcs, but it’ll give you a good idea of what to look for and what to replicate in your own writing. You may have seen a few of these before already!
Rags to Riches
Rags to riches is just like it sounds. A character starts off living in the slums and finds themselves in the lap of luxury! How this happens is up to the story—maybe they won the lottery, or maybe they caught the eye of a prince who wants to shower them in riches.
Examples of this include The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier, and Ever After: A Cinderalla Story by Wendy Loggia.
The voyage features a character traveling to an unknown land and then returning when the evil has been defeated. Sometimes this voyage is an alternate dimension that characters enter into from the real world (think The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe), or just a frightening place (Like Orpheus and Eurydice).
Comedy makes up a huge portion of our media, and there are lots of different kinds of comedy – including romantic comedy, comedy of errors, and comedy of manners. But the basic idea is this: comedy should make the audience feel good, and it should have a feel-good ending. There might be some drama along the way, but the drama shouldn’t get in the way of the story being, ultimately, positive and triumphant.
Examples of this include: almost every superhero movie and rom-com, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.
If comedies are meant to be triumphant feel-good romps, tragedies are the opposite. In a tragedy, you’re watching a hero’s downfall. These are more intensely dramatic, and generally take a darker, more somber tone compared to comedies.
If you’re looking for examples of a good tragedy, look no further than Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear are all great examples of classic tragedies.
Tips for writing strong story arcs
With some definitions and examples under our belt, we’re ready to start talking about how to write our own story arcs.
You can use these tools for whichever type of story you’re writing. Whether it’s a romantic comedy, a tragic rags-to-riches, or a comedic voyage.
Know the Rules, then Break Them
Read widely in your genre and check out what sorts of tropes and story arcs people generally expect. In romance, for example, it’s very important that an author hit the regular beats that audiences come to that genre for.
Figure out what the regular, expected beats are for your genre and your story type. If you’re writing a voyage, see and understand the different steps characters generally take.
Usually, there’s a step on the voyage plot where a character meets a wizened mentor, for example, who is generally an old wizard in fantasy.
Once you know the rules and expectations, you can start to break and twist them. And that’s what will make your story unique.
Maybe in your fantasy world, the wizened mentor isn’t an old wizard, but instead a child vampire. Maybe your characters have a meet-cute, but instead of falling in love, they hate each other.
It’s important to remember, though, that subversion isn’t everything. And that leads us to…
Setup and Payoff
Even while you’re subverting story arc expectations, it’s important to remember that your readers want a satisfying story. The Avengers would be a much less satisfying watch if, at the climax, Thanos just decided to go away and leave them all alone. It would be subversive–we wouldn’t be expecting it—-but it also wouldn’t make sense, and it would leave all of the rising action sort of hanging there, unresolved.
When you’re tinkering with story arcs, all the regular rules of storytelling still apply. You still want setup and payoff. Things you introduced should be resolved. If they aren’t resolved, there needs to be a really good, satisfying reason for it.
If you were writing a romance, for example, maybe the characters hate each other at the start. This is a story arc called enemies-to-lovers. In this story arc, they have to grow to love each other over the course of the novel.
In a satisfying story arc, these characters would find common interests, bond, and eventually overcome their initial hatred for each other. Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example of this! Elizabeth and Darcy hate one another at the start, but they work their differences out. It’s subversive because they’re ribbing each other the entire time and making these little digs that aren’t generally considered romantic, but all the while, they’re growing closer and we can tell that they’re growing to like one another.
And that’s what you want—-set up your characters and story, with all its quirks and subversions, and then make sure it pays off in a compelling, motivated way.
And that’s all there is to it!
You’re ready to write a one-of-a-kind, satisfying story arc.
Want a little help getting started?
What are some of your favorite examples of subversive stories?
Got any tips for how to make a story pay off in a satisfying way?
Let us know in the comments!
Disclosure: Some of the links above may contain affiliate partnerships, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Self-Publishing School may earn a comission if you click through to make a purchase.