What is a good story arc? This is a question that writers often wonder about, sometimes even stress over. But to tackle the question, we must first understand the basics of what a story arc is.
Simply put, a story arc is the pathway through which a reader navigates your story. It is the exposition, the rising action, the climax, and the resolution, and it is the ups and downs that happen to the protagonist along the way.
An article called Story Arcs: Definitions and Examples of the 6 Shapes of Stories by Joe Bunting gives this definition:
A story arc, or narrative arc, describes the shape of the change in value, whether the rise or fall, over the course of the story.
What is a good story arc?
A good story arc is one that guides the reader through this change in value, past all the important points in the journey, in a way that strengthens the story’s impact on the reader.
It is important for us as writers and editors to understand the power of a good story arc and to use the story arc effectively. As Lisa Cron says in her book Wired for Story, “we think in story.” (Chapter 1) Stories help us make sense of the world.
But, as Cron also says, “…What happens when you can’t anticipate what might happen next? When you can’t even make sense of what’s happening now? Usually, you find something else to read, pronto.” (Chapter 1) Therefore, while we do not want to be formulaic, we do want to make sure we are meeting readers’ expectations so they can experience the story in a satisfying way.
This is where creating a good story arc comes in.
How To Create a Good Story Arc
How can an author create a good story arc for their story, and how can editors help ensure their clients’ story arcs are strong? Here is my list of a few things to do, followed by a few things not to do:
Things to Do:
- Chose a plot structure that is known to include the key scenes (see my Cinderella example below) to meet reader expectations. In a previous article called, Plot of a Story: Definitions and Examples, I talk in some detail about four of the more well-known plot structures—Three-Act Structure, Four-Act Structure, The Hero’s Journey, and Romancing the Beat—but there are more out there.
- Think of the key scenes as guideposts, not as a formula you must follow, and let your creativity shine.
- As suggested in the article How to create a satisfying story arc: 5 steps by Bridget McNulty, you can borrow from classic, archetypal story arcs. Visual representations of these are given in the article Story Arc: Definitions and Examples of the 6 Shapes of Stories by Joe Bunting.Many of these are based on Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories graphic, and even those that weren’t mentioned in his lectures use the same type of graph.
In this graph, the B-E axis represents the plot events as they happen from the beginning to the end (the word ‘Electricity’ at the end was a joke that Vonnegut made in one of his lectures). The vertical axis, G-I, is good fortune, ill fortune. This axis essentially shows what Story Grid creator Shawn Coyne calls the value shift, and what is referred to in the Fictionary Story Elements as the ‘scene impact on protagonist.’
In simple terms, then, the lines that represent the Shapes of Stories on the graph above are a combination of the plot events (referred to as story arc in the Fictionary Storyteller software) and the impact of those events on the protagonist (referred to as the Character Arc in Storyteller).
Things Not to Do
- If you are a newer writer or you tend to be a pantser, do not map out every single scene to start. Begin with the five key scenes. If you’re feeling enthusiastic during the self-editing process, then you can map out each scene.
I do know of authors who outline every scene before they write, but I suggest keeping to the key scenes at the beginning because mapping every scene before writing can be overwhelming, even stifling, especially for new authors.
Fictionary’s StoryTeller editing software for writers will automatically map out the story arc and the character arc for you as you work through your edits and fill in the ‘Impact on Protagonist’ for each scene. This will decrease editing overwhelm and make the editing process faster and smoother.
2. Do not think of the story arc, including the key scenes and their impact on the protagonist, as a formula. Even if you are a pantser, mapping out your key scenes and their impact is not meant to stifle your creativity. You can still express yourself and write in new and innovate ways within those scenes, and in every other scene that happens along the journey to your finished novel.
Example of a Good Story Arc
To show an example of a good story arc, I will give the key scenes of a story and describe the impact of those scenes. Because Kurt Vonnegut used Cinderella as an example for the green line in his Shapes of Stories graph, and because Cinderella is well known—and is my favorite fairy tale from childhood—this is the story I will use.
Remember, the plot is the progression of events in the story, as represented on the B-E axis. The impact of those events on the protagonist is what gives the shape of the story, as seen on the G-I axis.
Key Scenes of a Story Arc + Their Impact in Cinderella
1. The exposition / the set-up – We see Cinderella in her everyday life with her evil stepmother and step sisters, who essentially treat her as their slave and not a member of the family. The main characters are introduced.
Cinderella starts out pretty far down on the ‘ill-fortune’ section of the graph because of her situation and her mistreatment.
2. The inciting incident (before the 15% mark) – Cinderella’s stepmother receives an invitation for the ball at the castle that all single women are expected to attend. Her stepmother agrees that she can go if she finishes all of her housework first. Her stepmother and stepsisters then pile as much work on her as they can to keep her from going.
This is still in the flat section at the beginning of the green Shape of Story line, but as it begins to move to the section that looks like stairs.
3. Plot point 1 (around the 25% mark)– The Fairy Godmother appears and gives Cinderella everything she needs so she can go to the ball.
This is the section that looks like stairs on the green Shapes of Stories line. Each step represents something the Fairy Godmother gives Cinderella that she needs in order to go: the ball gown, the glass slippers, the pumpkin coach, the mice transformed into the footmen.
4. Midpoint (around the 50% mark)– Cinderella arrives at the ball, captures the attention of the handsome prince, and dances the night away.
This is the rising curve of the green line near the center of the B-E axis. It is the happiest she has been up until now and is the second to highest point.
5. Plot point 2 (around the 75% mark) – The ‘all is lost’ moment for Cinderella is when the clock strikes twelve. She has to run away before the final chime, when all of the gifts the Fairy Godmother provided for her will disappear. It is here that she loses her glass slipper as she runs away.
This is the very steep, declining area of the green line on the Shapes of Stories graph. It is this steep because it starts when the clock starts to chime and ends when the clock strikes the twelfth chime. It brings Cinderella almost, but not quite, down to the low point she started at—she is back in her ordinary world, doing all the work and being mistreated by her stepmother and step sisters, but she still has her memories of her experiences at the ball.
6. The Climax (around the 85-95% mark)– Things start to move in a positive direction again—the start of the final, increasing section of the green line—when Prince Charming begins his search for the mystery woman he met at the ball. The climax happens when he places the slipper on Cinderella’s foot and discovers she is the woman he has been searching for.
7. The resolution – The resolution is often referred to as the falling action, but many people disagree with that term, as stories can continue to move in a positive direction after the climax. On the graph, Vonnegut’s green line does not fall. In the resolution, Cinderella goes off to the castle with Prince Charming, gets married, and lives happily ever after. Vonnegut represents this happily ever after by drawing a line that continues upward.
Post Written by Sherry Leclerc
Sherry Leclerc is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach editor, Fictionary content creator, Writer’s Digest certified copy editor, and independent author. She is a member of Editor’s Canada, the Canadian Authors Association (CAA), and The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).
Sherry holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature and a B.Ed. She is the sole proprietor of Ternias Publishing, through which she offers various editorial services. She also has a YouTube channel where she has a vlog about writing and editing, titled The Mythic Quill. You can find it on Youtube .
Sherry currently lives in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. You can contact her at [email protected] or [email protected].