Story Arc Definition – The Beginning, Middle & End

Story Arc DefinitionIn the beginning of story there was normal life.

Before we get to the meat and potatoes of outlining our novel structure, you need to be sure of the purpose of each part of the story line. Successful storytelling should have a beginning, middle and end, where the author presents the natural flow of the plot.

In the broadest terms, story arc definition can be represented as 3 acts, an idea first postulated by Aristotle and the same principles apply to plays, novels or movies.

Beginning The Story

This is where the scene is set and the foundation laid for the novel. The main characters are introduced in enough detail so the reader understands something about their life-styles, social standing, relationships and what their normal day-to-day life is like.

The setting and time period are stated and described. If these are well-known to the average reader, then this could be minimal – most American city suburbs in the present day are very similar, so a novel set in a modern day commercial center wouldn’t need a lot of description.

However, if the setting is on another planet, far back in the past or in a fantasy world, a considerable amount of time needs to spent of making sure your words paint an accurate picture of the main characters lives if the story is going to engage their interest and emotions.

The main character’s faults are outlined, together with any deep desires or needs that are not being satisfied. This is important, because he will succeed by following these desires while facing events that will address and change his personality faults. This process of change is known as The Character Arc.

The Middle

Just after the scene setting and character introductions, the middle section begins to introduce conflict and tension. It starts with a catalytic event that happens to or around the protagonist and prompts them to embark on some kind of quest. This event could be a letter received, an inheritance, a death of someone close, a war or any number of things that changes the status quo.

Hero Beating The Odds - Story ArcThe protagonist has to go on a mission, preferably physically, in order to solve a problem, rescue someone or correct a situation. The stakes, which is the result of not succeeding on the mission, must be very high – really bad things happen if they fail.

Conflict and tension becomes more intense throughout the Story Arc as the hero encounters challenges along the way, mostly presented by the antagonist, or villain, whose goals are exactly the opposite of the hero’s.

Various conflictual events are described, each one worse than the next, until the hero appears to be defeated – he is constantly drawing on his resources to overcome the next barrier. A popular writer from the 1930s, outlined exactly what need to happen to a hero during a short story of about 4500 words. Incredibly, it is still relevant for modern works of fiction – read it below:

The Story Arc According To Lester Dent PDF

The Story Climax

The chain of events become progressively harder to overcome until the story reaches its climax. The is the main conflictual event where the dark forces are overcome and everything changes completely. The main character has beaten all the odds and the villain is vanquished, and preferably completely destroyed.

Story Climax - Villain DestroyedEverything is different now and nothing like the hero’s setting at the beginning. He prevailed because he had to change inside (the Character Arc) and realize certain things about himself in order to win, drawing on huge reserves he didn’t realize he had.

The main character has undergone massive growth during this middle section the villain is defeated and we move into the relatively short resolution phase of the novel.

This crisis-based description reaches its peak when you reach what is referred to as the ‘climax,’ the isolated event that changes things around completely. This may be a great war or even just a disagreement of some kind but refers to the moment where the most amount of growth is seen, leading to the establishment of the idea of resolution – the end.

Writer John York talks about story structure in the video below:

Video Transcript

Into the woods is a book about how stories work and why we tell them. John, this started off as a book about screenwriting didn’t it? How is it different to all the other books out there

What happened was I worked in television and I started to read loads of books about screenwriting and I read hundreds of them and the more. I read them, although I found interesting things within them what I started to upset me and annoy me slightly was they all said how like there has been inciting incidents on page 12 whatever but none of them said why and that just seemed to me a fundamental error.

If you can’t say why then actually the how is meaningless. You have to be able to justify it you know, so they seem to lack any kind of academic rigor and so I thought, oh there must be something in this. Let’s find out why dramatic shape is the way it is, why stories from the beginning of time rise up to the present day fundamentally have the same shape.

There has to be an underlying reason for it. What is the reason? You can you explain why this sort of underlying shape seems to be the same whether it’s in a press release, a funding bid – well in a nutshell, the argument of the book is it’s based on the process of perception.

So for example, I exist. I see in the outside world I change. Ah it’s a three-act structure. So a child sees a fire, he touches the fire; he learns never to touch the fire again. It’s the process of perception and drama and, in fact all shape, all narrative shape, all narrative structure from journalism to a press release mimics and echoes that process.

So cuz it’s built around the fundamental process of human perception and by echoing that process does it mean that the stories that are being told in whatever form will resonate with audiences? I think there’s no no doubt that if something is well structured it’s easier for audiences to follow it and also for it audience to interpret it.

I mean, I argue very strongly that things don’t have to be perfectly structured but it’s useful to understand and know what is perfect structure. More importantly, also where it comes from and does that mean that recognition of this structure and your approach to telling stories is sort of fairly easy for people to grasp?

You aren’t experienced in screenwriting or I think fundamentally the answer is quite simple and what’s amazing about it is people who don’t study structure do it actually anyway. A nine-year-old can tell stories that are perfectly structured. A five-year-old can tell stories that are perfectly structured.

They don’t realize they’re doing it because it’s the way we’re hardwired to tell stories but there’s no doubt, I think, that if you study it, and practice it as a craft skill, you hone that instinct to make it sharper and better and a more useful tool for expression.

I mean, my book is not a how-to manual but what it is I hope, if you read it, I mean from the feedback I’ve had so far, if you read it you start to understand where your stories might not be working and also where you can take them and what you can do. I mean, it’s like the more you learn about the craft the better you become.”

The End Of The Story

End Of The Story

As you might imagine, it is a ‘falling action’ that comes after the climax point. Things settle back into a safer, stable situation but may not be like before. The main character has changed much, after all, so it stands to reason he will live differently.

He wiser, more capable and basically a solid character. On top of that, if the author has structured the novel well, the hero will also have picked up a strong love interest along the way, who incidentally will have been vital to the overall success of the quest.

Closure is thus achieved and all question are answered. Of course, the formula will vary depending on your genre and storytelling style, but the basics remain the same.

It’s important to understand that this broad structure is a planning tool and it shouldn’t be apparent to a reader that these divisions between beginning, middle and end exist at all – the story should just flow seamlessly between them and provide a satisfying read.


What is the story arc?


A Simple Story Arc Definition

Many stories follow a simple, basic plot pattern. This pattern is called the Story Arc. Let’s look at how story arc works in Romeo and Juliet.

The Montagues and Capulets are enemies. But one person from each family, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, fall in love. This is the exposition. The exposition introduces setting, characters, and the problems they face.

The plot moves forward by showing Romeo and Juliet falling deeper in love and secretly getting married. This is part of the rising action. The rising action moves the plot forward by showing characters fighting against their problems.

Romeo and Juliet reaches a crisis when Romeo kills Tybalt, Juilet’s cousin. Romeo is expelled from the city, and Juliet is forced to become engaged to marry another man. This is the climax of the story. The climax is the tensest moment of a story. It is the moment when the characters face a crisis that controls the rest of the plot.

And Juliet takes a sleeping potion to fake her death. But Romeo mistakenly thinks she is dead. This is part of the falling action. The falling action moves the plot from the climax toward an ending.

At the end of the story, the two families reconcile with each other. This is the resolution. The resolution returns the story to stability by showing the final results of the climax. This is the most basic story arc. Any story arc organizes the events of the story to make readers curious about how the story will end.

17 Replies to “Story Arc Definition – The Beginning, Middle & End”

  1. I have been attempting to learn the basics of storytelling and I understand the story arc. These definitions go with everything I have been taught up til now.

    What is still confusing is how you get from one scene to the next and how to actually plan where the characters are at when writing each scene. I imagine things like a slideshow where you may not have mentioned something about a certain character but how do you create the “I wonder what this character is up to?” type of feeling early on.

    Planning for a surprise interruption or a surprise meeting between two characters.

    1. Hi Eric – thanks for your thoughtful comment. For me, it was a great help to explore other forms of creative writing. I love movies, so had a go at screenplay writing, of course researching the planning process before starting. As a newbie, I followed the standard pattern of hero in his normal life (setup) which involved interactions with friends, relations, work colleagues, etc, which filled out some minor support character roles.

      After the trigger event, my hero seeks out a guru for advice before deciding to go on the quest, so another main character appears. About a third of the way in a love interest appears, and during that third, the parallel story of the villain’s activities and goals are outlined. Gradually, the parallel stories come closer together and their goals are opposite to each other’s.

      I’m not sure if that’s helped at all – there are so many variations on this creative ‘formula’ that it might only be valid in the very broadest sense.

  2. Even with more conceptual pieces, differing from the traditional storyline must always be approached with extreme caution and consideration of the rhetorical effects of such a decision on both the novel and individual characters.

    1. Yes, it all comes back to knowing your story from the ground up. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel , a play or a movie – going back to the true story arc definition will always keep you on the right track. Many diagrams of the story arc present a rather simplistic view, with statis, rising action, falling action and resolution. It seems a bit restraining, but the structure within these guidelines can be very complex. When a great story arc, complete with ever-increasing conflict and tension, is combined with the character arc of a well-constructed three-dimensional character that readers love, then the magic happens.

  3. Simon Watson says:

    Wow, a great article on the story arc definition. It also makes complete sense to me. Even though I was aware of it, it never hurts to be reminded of it. I think that this will help people who have a great story to tell. However, lack the knowledge of how to structure it correctly. Good job and a lesson well taught.


    1. Yes, it was like a revelation to me, when I first came across the story arc definition. I wrote a whole book without realizing or understanding the basic of novel structure, and it suffered from it, believe me! The story arc is absolutely crucial to the appeal for the yarn. Using it as the basis for a novel outline and expanding on the basic ideas of the three act structure is what makes a great novel tick. Add an interesting character arc for the protagonist and you’re on to a winner. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I think that the story “climax” is the hardest for me to think of when writing a story.
    The beginning is all fine and dandy with all the many descriptions and establishing the characters and the scenery.
    But as I write the story in a way…to find out what will happen next myself, it leaves me a little in the dark as to the end of it!!
    I know this is NOT how to write a novel, but I can’t seem to be able to structure anything until I have the meat of the story at least out on paper! Does this make sense?

    1. I understand what you mean, writing in a ‘stream of consciousness’ kind of spirit, and I suppose this can work for some very gifted people. If you are one of those people, then brilliant! As for me, I need to plan it out right from the beginning, but I agree this approach can suffer from being too formulaic. I guess that the innovation comes from delivering the planned story arc in appealing ways by surprising the reader if I can.

  5. Terry Campbell says:

    I’ve never liked the idea of ‘cookie-cutter’ approaches to creative writing, but I can see how the story arc does serve to put things in order. As Aristotle said, readers love a story with a firm beginning and an end, plus juicy events in the middle to keep the hero hopping. Not sure how or where the character arc fits in though? What about plot driven stories?

    1. Hi Terry

      Strictly speaking, a character driven plot focuses on the internal changes that drive the main character to overcome obstacle and get to where he wants to go. A plot driven novel focuses on the events in the plot as purely physical challenges, and the hero doesn’t really change at all. Think of any James Bond novel – Bond is Bond, he doesn’t undergo any significant changes in his approach or attitudes. He just uses his unique skills to overcome physical dangers, therefore every Bond story is plot driven.

  6. General Peacemaker says:

    Don’t even think about writing that novel without planning a fantastic story arc. this is a really good article about putting together and essential part of any novel – ask any pro (He’ll probably say ‘Huh’?)

    1. No, I’m sure you’re right. i’ve tried both ways and i know what works for me.

  7. Pers Anderson says:

    Many times I have looked for a simple definition of the story arc – thanks. The 8 point story arc is particularly interesting and the idea of realistic subplots is essential to this I think, as described in the post ‘What are subplots?’ on this site.

    Planning the story arc, plot and subplots is obviously the way to go for a relatively new writer. The 8 point arc gives some structure, like a compass direction, but of course it’s up to the writer to make it fresh and interesting.

    1. You just can’t beat good planning. I know there are writers who just wing it, to fly by the seat of their pants, but I need a road map to see where I’m going. ‘Course, it’s not like a real map, set in stone. The beauty of it is that it’s a map you can change whenever, and as often, as you like.

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