What is a Story Arc?
A story arc is the traditional arc that builds the structure of a story. You may also find it called a story curve or simply, the story structure. While genres will vary to some degree or another, almost all stories follow the curve to some extent and so it has become a wildly popular topic among those who teach creative writing.
The traditional arc is broken up into five stages which are in turn often broken into smaller components. If you think about your favorite book or movie, it's likely that you will recognize each stage. The stages are: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution.
The Five Stages of the Story Arc
The exposition is the beginning of the story leading up to the curve and it's where we get grounded in the story. It's when we carry our book as we're reading to the kitchen, make a cup of tea, and then go burrow into a blanket to snuggle in. (Or put the book away if we aren't hooked, but more about that later.) We learn who is the main character, where and when the story is taking place, and what the character wants. That "want" is going to be a powerful motivation to moving the story forward.
The rising action is the where the story starts moving forward. It makes up the bulk of the story with conflicts and challenges and it can be broken down further into four distinct components. A [trigger] provides some sort of insight to the main character that what is wanted can be obtained despite any doubt or fears they have. The [quest] is how the character gets past those doubts to go after the wanted thing. But then, [surprise]! - there's something more that raises a true fear and understanding of what failure could cost. And finally, the character makes a [critical choice] and decides getting the wanted thing will be worth every risk.
All of this rising action and turmoil (whether it's internal or external) is ramping up for a big battle in the end and that big battle is the climax. This is when we find out, usually along with the main character, what that character (and us as extensions of that character as the reader), needs. Not wants! -- Needs.
Finally, we have resolution and a return to order or a normal world. We see the main character returning home and taking his place once more in the world, albeit, changed in some way. There's often some sort of celebration or recognition of the main character having gone after what was wanted and achieving what was ultimately needed.
Several authors and writing professionals have created story arcs for the different genres. Search the Internet for "story arc" and the genre of your manuscript to see if one has been made for your genre. These are meant to help you understand from the unique perspective of your genre what each of these components reflect. This may be more helpful that the short description I've provided above and give more guidance in completing the exercise below.
When you do your search, you may run across beat sheets. "Beat sheets" are another way of presenting a story arc in a less graphical way. Beat sheets are often set up as spreadsheets that list the "beats" in one column, a description of the beat/component in the next, and calculations of page or word count where each beat should be falling. If you are trying to shoot for a specific word count, you usually can recalculate the beats based on the total word count. Some of the beat sheets are set up to do the calculation for you.
If you can't find a story map specific for your genre, visit Ingrid Sundberg's blog and see her Archplot Story Structure download. It demonstrates each of the pot points in several different ways.
Why Map a Completed Story to the Story Arc?
Mapping your completed story to a story arc is one more step to rooting out plot holes and fixing them. It will also make sure you have all the elements of a story that a reader expects to find in a story and that all those elements are in the right places.
Exercise: Map Your Chapter Summary to the Story Arc
Before you get started creating your OneNote page, take your Chapter Summary outline from Day 5 and highlight all the items in your Chapter Outline that create tension and lead up to the climax. We can use this highlighted text for two exercises, including this one.
DOWNLOAD: Story Arc Worksheet
Tips for working by hand
If you'd like to work on notepaper or set up your own table in your favorite application, include the columns listed above. The percentage listed is approximately the size you should make each column. If you are going to work by hand, give yourself plenty of space to complete the descriptions and notes for each component.
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