Mar 30 2012

Narrative arc: What the heck is it?

Have you ever had an agent, editor, or a reviewer say something like this about your novel?

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“This story has a weak (or non-existent) narrative arc.”
“While the characters are strong, the narrative arc did not maintain my interest.”
“The writing is solid, but the narrative arc is unclear and inconsistent.”

I have. And on many occasions, I’ve had to be the editor to say something along that line.

It’s easy to say that a story doesn’t have a strong narrative arc. It isn’t so easy to define and describe a narrative arc. It’s even harder to write a story with a strong narrative arc. I know how difficult it can be from my own experience as a writer.

Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Act one, the beginning, introduces the characters and sets the stage—the current situation. Then an inciting event sets the story into motion.

In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.

That decision leads to act three and results in two things: the climax to the story (the peak of the curve), and the character is profoundly changed in some way. The character finds the strength within and a method to overcome the conflict. The story questions are resolved and the character has changed from the person she was at the beginning of the story. Or, the character is defeated, fails to accomplish the goal, dies, or some other tragic ending, but even then, the character has changed is some way, for the better or worse.

A slightly more complex outline is the eight-point narrative arc, described by Nigel Watts in his book, Write a Novel and Get It Published. Merging these eight points with the three-act play formula would look something like this:

ACT ONE
1. Stasis – the current situation and characters in everyday life
2. Trigger – the inciting event that sets the plot in motion

ACT TWO
3. The quest – the trigger results in the character needing to accomplish some goal
4. Surprise – a series of events presents obstacles that make achieving the goal more difficult
5. Critical choice – the character must choose a particular path to confront the obstacles
6. Climax – the critical choice results in the climax of the story, the highest peak of tension

ACT THREE
7. Reversal – the consequences of the critical choice changes the status of the character
8. Resolution – the story ends at a new point of stasis, and the character is changed is some way

Note that the ‘typical’ three-act play structure in a novel does not usually break down neatly into equal sections of one-third each. Act one may be a single chapter or two. It can be longer, of course, but it may be contained in the first few pages. Likewise, act three might be fully contained in one or two chapters at the end.

Act two is the giant middle in which the story takes place. This is the toughest slog for any writer to execute, and this is where the narrative arc can fall apart. Does each scene add to the story: raise the stakes, increase tension, create obstacles, or show the character overcoming (or failing to overcome) an obstacle? Does the scene further a sub-plot that is inextricably tied to the main plot (a love interest, a personal or family issue that the character must deal with while also trying to save the world from aliens or her family farm from the tax collectors)?

Or, are new sub-plot elements created, new obstacles raised, or new characters introduced that have nothing to do with the main storyline? Does the main plot disappear for chapters at a time? Does the character go here and do something, go there and do something else, then go somewhere else and something completely different happens? Do all these events create a disjointed storyline that bounces hither and yon with no coherent narrative arc?

Each scene should lead to the next in a logical, coherent manner that advances the story. This proceeds until the obstacles and the conflict are overwhelming and it appears the character may fail unless she makes the right choice in her critical decision. Instead of ‘this happens, then that happens, then something else happens,’ the narrative arc will look like ‘this happens, which leads to that happening, which causes something else to happen.’

This doesn’t mean every scene has to be more dramatic than the one before it. Pacing in a novel is important. Readers need a slower, more sedate scene periodically to catch their breath. The character needs time between obstacles to review her journey and think about how to proceed, time for romantic interludes, times where things seem to be going right for the character just before BAM the next big thing happens. If you chart the scenes in a novel, it might look like a rising stock market over a period of time with a series of ups and downs, but on an overall rising path until the climax and the slow curve down during resolution and denouement.

If you think (or have been told) that your narrative arc is weak, try writing out a scene-by-scene outline of your current draft. See if the outline makes sense, if each scene advances the story in a logical way, or if there are scenes that veer off course and distract from the main storyline.

Your narrative arc should look like a bell curve, not a map of a suburban neighborhood full of circle drives, cul-de-sacs, and dead end roads.

For more resources:

Nigel Watt’s book, Write a Novel and Get It Published

Alan Rinzler, a renowned book editor, blogs about narrative arc.

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. talks about the shapes of stories here in a wonderful four-minute video.

7 Responses to “Narrative arc: What the heck is it?”

  • Gwen Hankins Says:

    Thank you. I’m working on a story right now; so good check points.

  • Candice Coghill Says:

    All kidding aside, Robb, this is an excellent and very helpful post. I’m printing it out right now!
    Thanks, as always, for your insights.

  • Bill Kirton Says:

    Great summary of the process, Robb (and the Vonnegut video is a gem). I think the arc can have a suppressant effect on writers sometimes, though – especially those new to the game who start with the formula as a rigid imperative and, rather than letting their characters go where their ‘true’ inclinations take them, force them to follow the formal prescriptions. The arc should be liberating rather than repressive.

    • Robb Says:

      Bill, I agree with your comment. The arc isn’t a formula or any rigid imperative that writers must follow to the letter. The story can go any direction the writer and the characters take it. But sometimes, for newer writers and even us ‘old hands,’ that can mean a first draft that meanders all over the place, loses track of where it wants to take the reader, and doesn’t have a ‘story’ with a solid direction that maintains interest. That first draft often includes lots of back story and side tangents that detract from the main story, and would lose readers in the process.

      All the arc means is that a story needs to have a story. It should build tension and conflict over the course of the novel, a narrative that pulls readers in and keeps them engaged until the end to find out how it all comes out. There are endless ways to accomplish that. There can be myriad subplots that contribute to the overall story. The middle, including that element called ‘surprises,’ can be a small handful of escalating developments or a series of complicated twists and turns, but all still furthering the story.

    • Robb Says:

      One added note I forgot to mention. Often, I like to write whatever and wherever the characters take the story. Then, the narrative arc outline becomes a good guide to help me decide which scenes should stay, which scenes aren’t needed and detract from the story, which scenes need to be written still to fill in blank or dull spots, and even if I need to switch the order of some scenes.

  • Helene Young Says:

    Excellent article, Robb, as always.

    I’m very conscious of the story arc and like the three act play structure, but I’m not a plotter. When I write I too let the characters take me on a journey. Once I’ve finished the first draft I then plot it out. That allows me to strengthen the focus in some chapters, change the order, lose the endless waffle of backstory – or at least pare it back so it’s not a distraction – and ramp up the conflict and or tension as required.

    And thanks for the resource links – they’re all new to me!!

    • Robb Says:

      I tend to do a combination of plotster/pantster. I usually start with a general outline of the story, maybe even some scenes listed. I know the story, how it starts, where it goes, and how it ends. But once I start writing, I’ll let it go wherever the characters take it. And when the characters detour, I have to decide whether to bring it back to the outline or change the outline to fit what I’ve written. Finally, in the revision stage, I’ll use the narrative arc as a general guide to see if the whole thing makes sense from a story perspective and would maintain a reader’s interest from start to finish, and see where I need to make adjustments.

      Other times, however, I may sit down to write with absolutely no direction or even an idea of where it might go, and just let it flow. That might or might not ever develop into a story, but it’s fun anyway.