You may have seen me mention story arcs in my posts, and I realized that I see them as such an integral part of my way of story crafting that I forgot that some may not know what they are or how to create them.
For me, story arcs are an essential part to story writing, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, because it gives you the ability to craft your story into a form that tells an engaging story and keeps all of the threads together neatly, that way no story plot goes undeveloped or ends awkwardly.
Creating your story arcs is like taking a block of clay and molding it so your art takes the beginnings of form, vaguely looking like the finished product, so that when you start writing, all you have to do is add in the details.
Sound good? Then let’s get started with this beginner’s guide to story arcs:
What are story arcs?
Story arcs are the plot points in a story. Notice I said points, as in plural. A story can have several arcs, and not all of them have to start at the same time.
(For the purposes of this explanation on story arcs, I’ve drawn up this diagram to a fictitious story so you can have a visual. I don’t usually draw these because I do it all in my head, but this is a perfectly good method to story planning, if you like to do it!)
Plot points are the little stories that have a beginning and end, and in a moment we’re going to break this down a little further.
Main plot/story arc
Your story should have a main plot point, which is the central conflict. This is the plot point that is basically the entire length of the story, because it IS the story.
Character arcs/story lines
This isn’t always the main character, and since it’s not the main plot point, it doesn’t have to have anything to do with the main story. These arcs can follow anything from character development, to personal quests that only apply to that character (like in Avatar: the Lost Airbender, the story of finding Zuko’s mother).
These plots don’t have to start at the beginning. They can start whenever that character appears in the story, or whenever the plot becomes relevant.
These arcs may not have anything to do with the main plot, but sometimes they can, especially if the achievement of that plot advances the story in any way.
For instance, if a side character has an arc where they learn how to use a sword, that arc will coincide with the main plot if that character’s sword training becomes important to defeating the villain in the final scenes.
These arcs begin and end whenever is fitting, again, not in accordance with the main story arc. Things to keep in mind!
If romance isn’t the main story arc, it can be a side one. Again, these don’t have to coincide with the main story at all, and they start and end whenever seems right.
These are story plots that run mostly in the background. The things the main character does may not even affect these arcs at all, unless the character affects the world around them as part of the story. But these arcs would surround things like developments in a war, changes in a work environment, or things that affect societies that steadily change like improving economies or the progression of a famine.
So now that we understand what these arcs are, let’s talk about how to actually make them arc.
How arcs work
Whatever the arc, and wherever it begins and ends, all arcs must have a peak, called a climax. The climax usually happens just before the arc ends, and everything before the climax should lead up to it.
The way you should structure the arc depends on how it ends. In theater talk, all stories have either one out of two endings: tragedy or comedy. As the name implies, tragedies end sadly. Whereas comedies actually have nothing to do with jokes, it just means the story has a happy ending.
Each arc will have its own ending, and therefore its own direction.
Arcs should have at least three parts:
The beginning should be where the arc starts (not necessarily the story!). This is where the beginning elements of the arc is introduced. If it’s a romance, this is when the love interest is introduced. If it’s a personal arc, this is where the personal interest comes in. If it’s the main story plot, this is where the beginning elements come in!
For example, in this story example, we’ll follow the life of Veronica Grover, who moves to a new town in a house much smaller than the one she came from, following the unfortunate burning of their original home. But the town they move into turns out to be one displaced in time, and Veronica must learn to function in this new life in an out-dated town with her modern way of thinking.
So obviously in this case, the beginning of the story would start with Veronica moving into her new home after her old one is destroyed. Also, although we can very well start with the house on fire, we could also give mention to a mysterious town her father seems interested in before it happens, to give foreshadowing to the time-stopped town ahead of time!
And so the main arc has begun!
After the very beginning is when the story starts to kick up, the Grovers move into this new town, and they discover something seems off about it…
The middle is where the beginning phase should taper off. We should know what the story (or that particular arc) is about, and most importantly, what the goals are.
At this point, Veronica has discovered that this new home was so affordable for her tragedy stricken family because it was priced as the market was in the 1920s! Now Veronica has to figure out how to function in this time-displaced town and fit in with her much more modern way of being.
The readers should be able to tell someone what the story’s about at this point, and they should also have a good enough understanding of the characters and the world around them. This is no longer the introductory stage, so we should know what’s more or less going on.
Remember how we talked about tragedies and comedies? This is where it’s important.
For a tragedy, this is actually where things start to turn up. A cancer patient seems to be doing better. The protagonist of the thriller actually looks like they’re going to escape. The lovely couple look like they’re going to get together.
However, it’s simply a well placed set-up. The end will actually go in the opposite direction, ending up in the accurately named, tragedy.
In comedies, the opposite is true! The climax is where, basically, shit hits the ceiling. It looks like the hero will never succeed. Victory seems impossible. You’re hanging off the edge of your seat. And then! Just when you think they’re down for the count, the hero comes back and swipes up an unexpected victory.
You may ask yourself if this really works every time, but I challenge you to think of any story line and see if you can notice any story that doesn’t use this method.
The hero always almost loses before they win. And tragedies always break your heart by giving you the illusion of false hope.
If you’ve written other stories before, I’m sure you’ve done the same thing, even if it wasn’t on purpose. It’s just good story structuring!
Now, remember what I’ve said, a story can have several arcs, so let’s go more into that, because it’s the way they all weave together that makes a story!
Aaaaall the arcs!
So we’re back to my example!
As you can see, not all arcs begin or ends at the same points, so they also reach beginning, middle, and end at different points as well. And even if your main story arc is a comedy, that doesn’t mean all of the arcs have to be either!
For instance, we have a main story where Veronica and her family has to live like people did in the 1920s, and learn how to keep their lives in the present a secret so they don’t stand out. As a romantic side plot, Veronica meets a local boy working at a candy shop that she forms a crush on. Finally, as a plot going on in the background, the townspeople are slowly becoming more curious about the world outside of town, and the mayor that is struggling to keep his people within their little world where time doesn’t move.
Understanding that these plots have arcs helps us manage them a lot easier, which is the point I’m trying to get to!
I usually don’t draw all this out like I’m doing for you now. In fact, I’m a bit of a pantser-planner mix, so I only have a vague idea where I’m going with a story when I start. But as I write, I keep in mind all the arcs that I’m juggling at a time, and as things occur to me, I make sure they happen in alignment with my imaginary arcs.
And you can also play around with different endings for each arc! In this example, the romance could end in tragedy, while the other arcs all end as comedies.
So, let’s put it all together!
Okay, I did my best to show you guys how the story goes, along with the individual plot threads. Hopefully it’s clear enough so you understand what’s going on. Enjoy this gratuitous little story line!
Beginning – main arc
Veronica Grover’s home was destroyed in a wild fire in California, so her family of her, her parents, and her three brothers are forced to move quickly. Staying with a friend in the country, her father is looking for any opportunities for them to find a new home, picking up rental and sale posters online and on the street. As they’re looking into their options, they find an incredibly low-priced home that seems to have everything they could want. With no time to look into other options or investigate it further, the Grovers purchase the home in the mysterious town none of them had even heard of, Esperando.
However, once the Grovers arrive in Esperando, they realize something about it seems odd. People look at them strange on the street, and the buildings look out of date.
The man selling them his house tells them he’s been trying to sell for years, and that everyone thought he was crazy for trying. When the family gets a visit from the town’s mayor, they realize why.
Middle – main story arc
The mayor warns them to be careful around his townspeople, and forces them to get rid of their modern technologies. Because he wants his town to never know that they’re actually frozen in time, caused by a special magic that only surrounds that area. So Veronica and her family will have to learn how to adapt to life as it was in the 1920s.
Beginning – romance arc
As Veronica has to go out and find work in Esperando, she meets a young man named Bobby working at the local candy store that helps her get a job with the man he works for. Bobby turns out to be very helpful to her and her family getting their bearing in Esperando.
Middle – romance arc
Bobby develops feelings for Veronica, and she isn’t sure what to do about a boy out of time having feelings for her.
Climax – romantic arc
As Veronica gets used to living in Esperando, she concludes that perhaps she can build her life around this time loop, and have a future with Bobby as they’re both getting ahead in their new lives.
Climax – main story arc/town story arc
The Grovers do their best to blend in with the townspeople, but the town becomes increasingly curious about them and where they came from. And it raises more questions about the outside world.
The mayor insists that they try to deter the town from asking more, or it could be their end. However, he refuses to explain how he knows.
The Grovers decide that there’s no way to integrate into this town, and that they have to figure out a way to leave.
Veronica finds herself wandering the town library with Bobby, and she stumbles on an old newspaper hidden between the shelves. She realizes it’s an article about Esperando, dated beyond the town’s time of existence. The article describes the town burning down in a sudden brush fire, and all of the inhabitants drying in the flames. Including Bobby.
After Veronica confronts the mayor about it, the mayor finally reveals that the magic that surrounds the town protects it from its demise, and that the second any of its inhabitants try to leave, they will catch up with the rest of the world’s time and events, and they will die in the fire like they’re supposed to.
Ending – romantic arc – tragedy
Veronica realizes she has to end her relationship with Bobby, or he’ll die trying to follow her.
Ending – main story arc – comedy
Veronica’s father finds a way to escape the town without the mayor knowing where they’ve went, and finds a motel along the highway. He convinces them to give him a job, and once he does, he informs him family. The Grovers then escape in the middle of the night, without warning.
Years pass from that day, and Veronica’s father ends up making a good amount of money as a historical fiction writer, praised for his unmatched accuracy on the 1920s.
But Veronica will never forget the summer she spent with Bobby, wondering how the candy shop is doing.