A strong narrative arc is at the heart of every good story, whether it's a novel, play, film, or TV show. It's a good idea to sketch one out before you start writing to get a sense of the story you want to tell.
What is a narrative arc?
A literary phrase for the course a story takes is a narrative arc, which is also known as "story arc," "dramatic arc," or simply "arc." It gives the story a solid foundation by clearly defining the beginning, middle, and end.
Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright who studied ancient Greek writing as well as William Shakespeare's five-act plays, popularized the concept of narrative arc as we know it today. A typical narrative arc has the shape of a hill or pyramid when plotted on paper, as the name suggests. (Read our entire guide to plot writing to learn more about Freytag and his five-act framework.)
A Narrative Arc's Basic Elements
The five aspects of a classic story arc are as follows:
The reader is given an overview of the story in this paragraph. The exposition introduces the primary character(s) (the "who"), the place (the "where"), and the circumstances or period (the "when") to prepare the audience for the rest of the story.
2. The tempo is picking up
This is when things start to become heated. The "inciting incident"—the triggering event that sets the main events of the story in motion—is usually when the rising action begins. This is when the audience begins to grasp the true meaning of your story.
This is your story's biggest point of tension, and it's usually where all of the subplots and characters come together. In most cases, the climax necessitates the main character facing the truth or making a crucial decision.
4. Action on the ground is falling
As a result of the protagonist's choice, this is what happens. Conflict gives way to resolution during the falling action. Tension begins to fade as loose ends are tucked in.
This is the conclusion of your story, often known as a denouement. A narrative arc's conclusion isn't always cheerful, but it does close the loop and demonstrate how the characters and the world around them have changed as a result of the story's events.
What's the Difference Between a Plot and a Narrative Arc?
The plot of your novel is made up of distinct occurrences. The plot, in other terms, is what occurs. The path or sequence of your plot, on the other hand, relates to how that sequence of events generates a flow and progression that keeps the reader involved at each step of the story.
What's the Difference Between a Character Arc and a Narrative Arc?
A character arc is a path an individual character takes during a story, similar to how a narrative arc is the path of the broader story. A tale arc affects all of the characters, whereas a character arc affects only one person.
A character arc usually entails conquering a challenge and changing one's perspective on the world. The character arc has its chance to shine when the narrative arc starts its slide down the pyramid into falling action and resolution. When a character asks for help, learns a new ability, makes a vital decision, or grows more self-aware, he or she has reached a turning point. Character arcs are typically reserved for important characters, however smaller characters can also go through this process.
Literary Examples of 7 Archetypal Narrative Arcs
Christopher Booker analyzes the seven primary archetypal narrative arcs in his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plot Points. It's as follows:
1. The Monster's Defeat
The protagonist must confront and defeat the person or entity who is threatening them. For instance, Bram Stoker's Dracula.
2. From Poverty to Wealth
The main character starts destitute, gains wealth (and/or fame, power, and love), loses everything, and as a result grows into a better person. Consider Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations.
3. The Quest
The protagonist embarks on an epic quest to locate something, someone, or a location, encountering numerous hurdles along the way. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
4. Returning from a trip
The protagonist travels to a different planet and returns home with a new outlook. For instance, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
The protagonist goes through a series of perplexing but amusing situations that culminate in a pleasant ending. For example, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The protagonist has a weakness or makes a blunder that leads to their demise. For instance, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
The protagonist goes through an experience that changes them for the better. For instance, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
In four simple steps, you can build a narrative arc
Here are some writing tips to help you create a narrative arc in your work:
1. Select an archetypal story arc
Consider what you want to say in your story. Is the protagonist confronted with a challenge? Are you interested in an adventure? Do you feel as if you've been given a second chance? You can write your own story without having to follow any particular example to the letter, but writing with an archetypal story arc in mind can be beneficial.
2. Determine where you want to start, where you want to go, and how you want to there
Who are the main characters in the story? What do they intend to do? When do you think they'll start? What are they doing, exactly, and where are they doing it? What is their motivation for doing so? And, most importantly, what is the end goal of all of this?
3. Create a narrative arc for your events
Make a visual layout of the narrative arc you want to use, then add the events of your story to it. It's easier to spot flaws and fill in gaps when you can see a fast overview of your story on a page. If your "exposition" stage has a lot of events, you could choose to leave some of them out or reframe them as new developments in the rising action.
4. As needed, make modifications
Of course, following Freytag's standard narrative arc isn't a hard and fast rule. Every story is unique; some are more exposition-heavy, while others take their time building up to the climax. Allow yourself the flexibility to see where your tale takes you.
Consider drafting up a concise narrative arc the next time you sit down to write. It's a handy tool for staying on track if you're ever unclear of what happens next in your novel.