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.
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.
The 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 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.
Everything 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:
“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
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.
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.