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The Story Arc: Why Stories Captivate

Fictionary Story Arc

Story Arc Key Scenes

The story arc, also known as the narrative arc, is made up of 5 key scenes (plot points) and can help you create your story structure in a way that captivates readers.

You may be familiar with the simplest form of a story arc composed of the Inciting IncidentPlot Point 1, the Middle, Plot Point 2, and the Climax.  These key scenes must appear in the right place for the human brain to love the story.

 

Plot Points

 

There are those who think the story arc is a formula to follow and that it will stifle creativity. I don’t believe this. I think the story arc is about form, not formula, and it inspires me to tell powerful stories.


Writing a novel is a personal story arc.

Inciting Incident: You’ve been living your life, but something just isn’t right. AND THEN…your brain tells you that you need to write a story. You don’t know yet how hard this is going to be, but the world has changed, and you’re going to roll with it. So here’s the problem. How are you going to write 80,000 to 100,000 words and get people to like it?

Plot Point 1: You’ve written 20,000 words or so, spent hours doing this, and there is no turning back. You’ve invested emotion, time, brainpower, and you won’t give up.

Midpoint: You’ve made it halfway. Now you really get working. Everything you have is going into the story. This is where you figure how hard it is to write a novel, but you’re determined to solve the problem.

Plot Point 2You can’t possibly go on writing. Your structure is a mess. Everything you’ve written since the middle is making it difficult to bring the story together. You don’t know how to end the story, but you know you must work hard to finish or you’ll lose the whole story — and maybe a little part of yourself, too.

Climax: You are going to overcome your demons and finish the story. Your adrenaline is rushing. You’ve got this. You just have to fight your way through and you can write the resolution. There’s the word count you needed, and you’ve solved your problem.

One of the best ways to improve your novel is to look at how successful authors craft their story arcs.

You evaluate a perfect story arc and use the information to revise your draft novel and tell a better story.

Monsters

Whether you’re a writer or a story editor, you must understand why the story arc is important and how to check if a story is following this time-proven form. I have to confess I love the story arc. It fascinates me that something can work for the human brain since stories were first told. Since before anyone knew what a story arc was.

If the incident comes too late, the reader will get bored.

If plot point 1 is too close to the middle, the story will feel rushed.

If the Climax is too late, the resolution won’t satisfy the reader.

All bad things.

Monsters are also bad. So let’s do some time traveling and look at two monster stories. One ancient. The other modern. One an epic poem. The other a novel.  Both HUGELY successful.

History of the Story Arc

Let’s go way back into the past. All the way to circa 750 to 700 BC when it is believed Beowulf was written. It’s an epic poem with 2669 lines. I used the translation of J. R. R. Tolkien edited by his son Christopher Tolkien and published by Harper Collins (2016) to analyze the poem from a story arc perspective.

Beowulf is the oldest surviving epic in British literature. Normally I write about novels, but novels didn’t exist back then. The long form of a story was a poem, often spoken instead of read.

Beowulf takes place in Denmark, where a monster terrorizes the people. Grendel is his name. Beowulf is the hero of the story and goes on a quest to destroy Grendel.

Beowulf Story Arc Scenes

Beowulf Narrative ArcInciting Incident:

Line 279: 10% into the story.

The inciting incident is the moment the protagonist’s world changes in a dramatic way. Readers expect something to trigger the protagonist to act. If the inciting incident doesn’t occur in the first 15% of your novel, you need a strong reason for delaying it.

I recommend that you write your inciting incident as a dramatic scene and not as backstory or narrative summary. This enables the reader to experience the event at the same time as the protagonist and increases your chances of getting the reader emotionally involved.

Beowulf has heard stories of a monster who walks the night. A watchman allows Beowulf to pass into a kingdom, and Beowulf’s ordinary life is changed. He’s on his way to help King Hrothgar fight the monster.

Plot Point 1:

Line 665: 25% into the story.

Plot Point One is the point of no return — your character can’t back out of the central conflict. Your character may be obligated to take action, they cannot return to the way the world was before, or their desire for something overrules all else. There must be something at stake, because if the character doesn’t care about the outcome, a reader won’t care either.

Plot Point One should occur between 20% and 30% in your novel. If this plot point comes too late, the story will feel like it’s dragging. If it comes too early, the story will feel rushed or lacking in depth.

Beowulf kills the monster, Grendel. This causes Grendel’s mother to seek revenge.

So far, so good. The key scenes are fitting perfectly on the story arc most used today.

Middle:

Line 1315: 50% into the story.

Beowulf Fictionary Story ArcBy now I was getting excited by this point. I wasn’t sure what the results of my analysis would be when I started out on my adventure to study the story arc more deeply.

Often the Midpoint is where an author struggles to keep the story interesting. To keep your story exciting, you’ll need to find some way to raise the stakes of your story with a life-changing, exceptional, or threatening event.

Ideally, this is where you’ll be taking your readers on a journey where the protagonist moves from a reactionary mode to a proactive mode.The Midpoint should occur between 45% and 55% in your novel. If the Midpoint comes too early or too late, the story won’t feel balanced.

At the middle, Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother.

Plot Point 2:

Line 1958: 73% into the story. Right within range!

At Plot Point Two, the protagonist must work hard to get what they want or lose everything. Plot Point Two should occur between 70% and 80% of your novel.

Plot Point Two will be a low point for your protagonist. Their actions since the middle have caused disaster, or they become more determined to reach their goal.

Beowulf learns his home is being ravaged by dragons. He’s at rock bottom. He left his home to help others, and now his home is paying the price.

Climax:

Line 2260: 85% into the story.

The Climax scene is where you get to shine as an author. Every word you’ve written up to this point will pay off. Ideally, the climax scene (or scenes) will have the highest level of conflict, the greatest tension, or the most devastating emotional upheaval.The protagonist must be in your Climax scene, or you risk alienating your reader. The protagonist should face the biggest obstacle in the story and determine their own fate.

The climax should happen somewhere around 90% into your novel. Too early, and the reader may get impatient with a long resolution and skim to the end. Too late, and the resolution may lack depth or satisfaction.

Beowulf fights the dragon, and at the end of the climax, he kills it.

The story starts with a funeral and ends with a funeral. It starts with a monster killing people and ends with a person killing a monster. Perfect symmetry. Beowulf has been around forever for a reason.

The Modern Story Arc – Twilight Story Arc Key Scenes

Now let’s time travel forward 2700 years or so. We come to Twilight. Written by Stephenie Meyer. Published in 2008 by Harper Collins. I analyzed Twilight based on word count, not line count as I did with Beowulf.

Twilight was extremely commercially successful. This may or may not be the genre for you, and whether you liked the story or not isn’t the point. The point is a story has a better shot at being commercially successful if it follows the story arc.

Spoiler alert! We’re about to delve into Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster novel Twilight while paying attention to the plot points that keep the story moving. We’re going to look at Twilight’s story arc key scenes.

Twilight Narrative Arc

 

The Inciting Incident

Twilight’s Inciting Incident: Bella has already met Edward. This leads up to the inciting incident where Edward saves Bella from being killed in a parking lot. She gets her first glimpse of his powers and is set on her path of discovering more about him.

Twilight’s Inciting Incident happens 10% into the story. The percentage is based on the word count.

Plot Point One

Twilight’s Plot Point One: Bella suspects that Edward is a vampire, but she decides to pursue him anyway. Edward has emotional power over Bella.

Twilight’s Plot Point One happens 25% into the story.

The Midpoint

Twilight’s Midpoint: Edward reveals his true powers as a vampire to Bella. He saves her from an attack, and this strengthens how she feels about him.

By now it should be no surprise that Twilight’s midpoint happens at 50% of the story.

Plot Point Two

Twilight’s Plot Point Two: A bad vampire decides to go after Bella, and Bella must leave her home. Bella wants to survive but not if it means risking those she loves.Twilight Story Arc

Twilight’s Plot Point Two happens 75% into the story.

The Climax

Twilight’s Climax: Bella is lured into a trap. She faces down the evil vampire and gets injured.

And you guessed it. Twilight’s Climax happens 90% into the story.

The Resolution

The resolution is everything that happens after the climax. It shouldn’t be longer than 10% of your total story. This is the time to give the reader an emotional resolution as well as tie up any loose ends.

Twilight’s Resolution: Bella and Edward are home, safe, and together, but when Bella tries to persuade Edward to turn her into a vampire, this leaves the reader questioning what happens next.

Twilight’s story arc key scenes all appear exactly where they server the story best.

Can You Still Write a Unique Story?

Following the form of the story arc doesn’t mean the story isn’t unique. Of course it is. You are a unique person, and you wrote it. No one else can write the same story. My goal is to give you the best chance of writing a story people love.

Beowulf and Twilight are both about monsters, but they are very different stories.

And that my is my story of what the story arc is important.

What is a Character Arc?

A story arc shouldn’t be confused with a character arc.  The character arc is the change in the character internally.  It’s about the character’s journey.  The story arc is the character’s outer journey.

For more on the topic check out The Character Arc and Internal Flaws.

Separator

I searched for an interesting way to describe the story arc. And then I found Tomas Pueyo and had to share his video. This entertaining and insightful video on why stories captivate will motivate you!

It’s time to stop struggling to make your story work. The story arc captivates readers for a reason. It’s been around for over 2000 years and the form our brains love.

Why not evaluate your story arc and see if you can make the story better? You’ve got nothing to lose by learning and trying .


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