The Ups and Downs of a Story Arc

Have you ever heard the term "Story Arc" and wondered what it meant? Now is your opportunity to find out, from the little bit I know. I had to research this term and, unfortunately, found very little discussion about it. Still, I enjoy learning new things and a good challenge. I also realized that I, in fact, use this method when I deal with storylines that involve more than one novel. I just didn't know my method had an actual name.

From what I learned, a Story Arc is most commonly associated with writing for media, such as television, comic books, video games, and movies. Beyond that, it is mainly used for writing dramas and, in particular, writng soap operas. Why, you ask? Because each of those are specific to involving episodic storytelling that continues on in a series of shows, comic books, games, and even movies. An example of movies would be the Star Wars series.

This isn't to say that the Story Arc can't be adapted to novel writing. The Arc structure basically encompasses the whole of a storyline: the beginning, middle, and the end. It can help guide a writer from introducing the main characters to moving him/her from one situation to another in order to affect change in their lives. Use the guideline to move those characters to the low point in their life, the place where you take away whatever life structures he/she has depended on, and then nudge the characters along until they discover a new strength within themselves.

In summary, the Story Arc is simply another structural tool a writer can use. Its purpose is to keep a larger storyline that involves a series of stories under control. By outlining your multi-story project using this method, you can keep the facts, conflicts, and character changes lined up so you don't get lost somewhere in the middle of your stories and make critical errors. Errors where you suddenly change a background fact, something important about the characters, etc.


Roxann Delaney said...

I had no idea about the episodic element of Story Arc, which just goes to show that I knew nothing about it to begin with. Thanks for the explanation, Starla! It makes sense.

I found an explanation concerning novel story arcs that actually made sense to me, too. I think it's true that many writers haven't "learned" about story arc but do it instinctively.

There are other aspects of writing at the link above, but I haven't ventured a look at them. Something new for my To Do list.

Reese Mobley said...

Thanks for the great post, Starla. I've heard the term tossed around a lot and would like to learn more about Story Arc. Mainly I wonder is this for plotting or plot control?

Roxann Delaney said...

As Starla said, it's another structuring tool, so, yes, I'd say it's for plot and plotting.

But I want to throw out a caution about tools. If you currently have a "system" for plotting and it works for you, there's no reason to change. It's that old don't-fix-something-that-isn't-broke theory. However, if you find yourself struggling with the plot of a story, try a different way of looking at it, such as with Story Arc. Which is why it's always good to know about other tools. You may only have to drag out those extra tools once in a while, or you could find something that will enhance the system you usually use.

There's no hard and fast rule as to how to plot. We each have to find what suits us best, even as we continue to grow and write.

Penny Rader said...

I'm saving this part for future reference: "Use the guideline to move those characters to the low point in their life, the place where you take away whatever life structures he/she has depended on, and then nudge the characters along until they discover a new strength within themselves."

I can also see how this could be helpful with a series I'm trying to develop.

Thanks, Starla!

Joan Vincent said...

I don't see why a story arc wouldn't work for a single title as well as for a series. While I never used the term, it describes what I have done for books that have no follow up. I've also used it for the series I'm writing. Any tool that will help keep track of endless detail is useful. I've put my series time line in Excel with a corresponding real history timeline.

Starla Kaye said...

First, Roxann is right. If you already have a plotting system that works for you, don't mess with it. Okay, maybe you tweak it now and then, which I do.

Second, Joan is also right. The idea of a Story Arc was really developed for movies, etc. But I see that it really can work with a single story, since it encompasses all that happens within a story.

Nina Sipes said...

I'm glad you were so clear on story arc. It is something I've left alone because the more I change my writing to suit someone else's idea of what I should be doing the more I have to rewrite to make the story work. But understanding the story arc is pretty interesting. Some soap operas go on forever, imagine not having a story arc for all of their extended family and goings on--someone might end up born before their parents met--oh, no, that was a problem I had. Yup, a story arc might be pretty useful.