The Story Arc: A Guide To Structuring A Smooth Story

story arcWhen you hear the word “smooth,” chances are you don’t associate it with “structure.” Silk, free-flowing and shapeless, is smooth. Hard-angled buildings made of brick and stone are structured. But when it comes to a good story, a smooth, effortlessly-flowing plot that keeps the reader engaged relies entirely on—you guessed it!— structure.

Taylor wrote a wonderful post recently about breaking rules with your writing. She’s spot on, and while I agree that most (writing!) rules are meant to be broken, some are best followed—and one of those is following the structure of the story arc, or the structure for a convincing story. Much like character arcs, story arcs require a bit of planning. Pantsers beware!

There are two popular ways to look at the story arc: the Narrative Arc often discussed in literature (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), and the eight-point story arc originally introduced by Nigel Watts’ Writing A Novel and Getting Published (trigger, the quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal, resolution). Both are great ways to ensure your story is on the right track, but the latter obviously goes into more detail than the former, so I thought I’d combine the two here to explore the structure of the story arc in detail.

Exposition
Stasis

This is the set-up. The scene(s) in which your character is introduced, often in his or her natural habitat. This is also where to introduce your character’s desires and/or goals; basically, you’re setting the stage for the story to take place and the characters to get moving. However, don’t let the word “stasis” fool you—there should be some kind of action involved from the very beginning to pique a reader’s interest. Your character’s setting might be his or her house or neighborhood, for example, but unless their morning routine of making breakfast and greeting the paper boy is significant to the story, try to avoid beginning there.

Rising Action
Trigger, The Quest

While readers should be invested from the beginning, this is the part of the story where suspense and mystery really begin to build. A key trigger should be introduced that likely complicates things for the protagonist(s) (Romeo and Juliet discover they are from rival families) and a quest should begin to obtain the character’s goals (the star-crossed lovers pursue a secret life together). This is also where sub-plots start to get introduced. More on that in a future post!

Climax
Surprise, Critical Choice, Climax

No one wants to read a linear story; readers want ups and downs. In every good story, there is one extreme moment of such tension, emotion, and/or shock, it has the potential to change the direction of the characters and plot altogether. This is the climax, and since most good stories have more than one brief, major event holding the reader captive, it’s broken into three parts.

The climax begins with a surprise—something the characters and, oftentimes, the reader haven’t expected. This is a surprise that likely throws a huge wrench in the character’s plans: Katniss and Peeta are suddenly informed that a special exception in the Hunger Games arena has been revoked, for example. Then, the characters are presented with a critical choice that ultimately influences the final climax of the story.

Falling Action
Reversal

Finally, things begin to cool down. For better or worse, the climax is over and most characters have met their fates and made their choices. As the proverbial dust settles, it’s important to use this transitional period ease into the final stage, taking your time to address any further questions the reader may have and ensuring there are no menacing plot holes threatening that sturdy structure of your story. Ultimately, this stage is here to show the results of the climax and set the story up for the resolution.

Resolution
Resolution

There’s not much to say about this one—it’s the part all writers await and dread at the same time! Every story should have a strong finish, whether that means an ending happy, sad, or outright chaotic. Whatever route you take, be sure to address the major point of the resolution: how the character’s goal or desires panned out and what state the story leaves its character(s) in.

And those are the basics of any story! Of course, this doesn’t mean that those who hate outlines and write best without one should suddenly change their routines. Write in whichever way works best for you; just simply keep this arc in mind while doing so.

How do you plan your stories out? Are you a pantser or an outliner? Do you keep story arc in mind, or does it happen naturally for you? Stay tuned for a post later on this month on sub-plots and their importance to your story!

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10 thoughts on “The Story Arc: A Guide To Structuring A Smooth Story

    • That’s an interesting thought! I think that largely depends on what the writer is doing–I once read a blog post by a now-bestselling author (Sarah J. Maas) in which she advised writers to NOT plan out a whole series before getting an actual book deal, as literary agents/publishers/etc. may and often do suggest major changes to the plot. Of course, you have to have a general idea of where the story is going, but I think each installation of the series has to have a story arc within itself–nobody wants to read a novel that’s just “series filler!”

      • Definitely, each book needs to have its own beginning, middle, and end. Each book also needs to propel the overall series arc forward. But I think there are a lot of writers who do series and don’t have any idea when it will end our how it will end. I’m planning a series now, and I think five books for the series arc is going to be it. I know of some writers who say that they have no idea how many books they’ll end up writing.

        • Agreed on all of the above! I’m aiming to turn my current fantasy WIP into a series and it’s completely open-ended. I definitely think looking into an overall series arc and fitting each individual novel into a place in that arc is something that requires a lot of thought.

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