How to Use a Story Arc to Structure Your Story
by Samantha Stone

Although the term became popular during the craze of serialized television shows, in which an extended story line was told over a number of episodes, a story arc is very relevant to any kind of creative writing. The story arc is the structure of the story. It functions to create forward movement, taking the main character from an ordinary beginning, through a series of choices, and on to the desired conclusion.

The Elements of a Story Arc

While story arcs vary based on the storytelling medium (novel, short story, television show, etc.), I will summarize a basic story arc in five parts. These parts include:

1. The author creates a status quo. This is the framework in which the story occurs. What is normal life like for the characters before the story begins? This gives the reader background and helps the author develop the character.

2. There is a "trigger." An event that is external to the main character's existence gives him or her a reason to break the status quo. For example, in the classic fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel," the birds eating the children's breadcrumbs and causing them to be lost in the woods is the trigger for their adventure.

3. The trigger causes the main characters to embark on an adventure or a journey. This adventure forms the main part of the story. The adventure may be metaphorical, as it may consist of the protagonist exploring a part of himself or herself or coming to terms with a past injury. During the adventure, one or several plot twists or surprise events will help to give the story substance. They should surprise the reader while remaining plausible.

4. The protagonist makes a decision that steers the course of the story. The kind of decision that the protagonist makes will determine his or her character and how the audience perceives this character. The consequences of this choice result in the climax, which is the point in the story where the tension reaches its peak. This is the turning point and the most exciting part.

5. The tension is resolved. This is done by examining the full consequences of the protagonist's choice and the fallout of the climax. The author explores the new roles of the characters and how the climax has changed the status quo.

Why use story arcs in fiction?

Using a story arc in your writing can help you organize your story and keep the action moving. It can help condense a disorganized collection of small plot twists into a narrative that flows seamlessly and keeps the reader engaged within a broader tale. This is especially useful in long works, like novels, films, and episodic stories like tv episodes and comics. While the downside of the story arc is that it is difficult for readers or viewers who start in the middle of the work to become engaged and understand what is going on, using a story arc can help you develop a loyal following of readers or viewers who want to know what happens next.

Making story arcs work for you

If you are considering using a story arc in your writing, you can either use it as a framework to build your plot or you can use it as a checklist to edit your work. Both ways are useful and which way you choose depends on personal preference and the way you write. You may find it useful to use the components of the story arc as an outline before you begin writing, as it can form a skeleton that you can flesh out with details and prose. Conversely, you can write your story, then fit it into the story arc guidelines and add and remove parts as needed. For instance, you may have an excellent climax but need to develop your status quo and trigger more.

Whether or not it was the initial intention of the author to do so, most stories do follow the story arc guideline. Use this pattern to help you get started, to edit a story in process, or simply to provide forward momentum in your work. The uses of this literary tool are limited only by your imagination.

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