How do you write a novel that has satisfying structure? The story arc or narrative arc of a novel is something you can consciously develop in your outline or as you draft to create cohesive structure. Read 5 steps to make your novel’s arcs work:
First, a story arc definition
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a story arc as ‘(in a novel, play, or movie) the development or resolution of the narrative or principal theme’.
Story arcs are the overall shape of rising and falling tension or emotion in a story. This rise and fall is created via plot and character development.
The Ancient Greek thinker Aristotle (367 BC – 347 BC) wrote in his Poetics about effective dramatic structure:
‘A whole should have a beginning, middle and an end… A well constructed plot … must neither begin nor end at haphazard.’
A strong storytelling arc follows this principle. It shows rise and fall, cause and effect, in a way that makes sense.
How do you create novel arcs that satisfy? Try these steps:
1. Borrow from classic, archetypal plot arcs
Adrienne Lafrance describes archetypal plot arcs as ‘core types of narratives (based on what happens to the protagonist).’ The six core types are:
1. Rags to Riches [a complete rise]
2. Riches to Rags [a fall]
3. Man in a Hole [fall then rise]
4. Icarus [rise then fall]
5. Cinderella [rise then fall then rise]
6. Oedipus [fall then rise then fall]
These narrative arcs are called ‘archetypal’ because they are the common patterns that countless stories follow, albeit with variation.
Here is an example of the first type of arc:
Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations follows the protagonist Pip, an orphan, from boyhood into adulthood. In the course of this rags to riches story, Pip gains wealth and status due to a mystery benefactor.
This example could also fit the ‘Icarus’ story arc, however. Even though Pip gains wealth and status, he’s spurned by his love interest, Estella. He also discovers a shocking truth about the identity of his mystery benefactor. Thus Great Expectations shows how a good story often will combine multiple plot archetypes to create complex structure.
In a multi-character novel, one character’s arc might follow a ‘rags to riches’ structure, while another’s could be the reverse, ‘riches to rags’. Even for a single character (as with Pip), part of your character’s arc can follow one structure (i.e. Pip’s increasing fortune) while another part does the opposite (Pip’s romantic disappointment).
To create a satisfying arc for your story, borrow structure from famous stories. Give each central character their own complex story arc. A character’s ‘rags to riches’ could be metaphorical – they might simply gain knowledge or wisdom. Create contrasts by making your characters’ paths follow different story arc templates.
2: Use the ‘5 W’s’ to plan each plot arc
The ‘5 W’s’ (‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’) are the basic building blocks of stories. Because a story is essentially the 5 w’s plus change, think about how each might change and impact your story arc in the process. When planning how your plot arc will develop and change, ask:
- How will the cast of my story (the ‘who’) grow or diminish? In what ways will new central or secondary characters create extra tension, plot complications or emotional impact?
- What new character motivations (the ‘why’) or external forces will affect the course of the the narrative arc? Could a misguided motivation, for example, lead to a fall for a character, followed by enlightenment and change?
- How will the setting of your story change (the ‘when’ and ‘where’) and what could this add to story arcs? For example, relocating to a more tense setting as drama increases (e.g. shifting to a courtroom setting in a crime thriller)
- The ‘what’ of your story should remain fairly constant. The themes and subject matter of your novel need to have some relation to each other for your story to feel cohesive.
It’s easier to pay equal attention to each of the 5 w’s when you have a blueprint, a summary of each aspect of your novel. Use Now Novel’s idea finder to flesh out the 5 W’s, and brainstorm the themes, characters, settings and other details of your story.
3. Make visual diagrams of your dramatic structure
To truly build a strong sense of the shape of your novel’s action, it helps to create a visual representation of your story’s structure. Derek Sivers says this is what Kurt Vonnegut did at a talk he gave in New York to illustrate why the children’s story ‘Cinderella’ has successful dramatic structure:
Once you have your novel’s core events and themes worked out, plot these on a timeline similarly. Your vertical axis doesn’t have to be ‘misery’ to ‘ecstasy’. For a fantasy novel, for example, where your hero must defeat a tyrant, your story could move from ‘oppression’ to ‘freedom’.
Visualizing your story this way will help you find ways to add reversals and turns of events (like when Cinderella has to leave the prince’s ball) that sustain narrative tension and keep readers guessing.
4: Create lesser arcs within your primary narrative arc
In successful novels, dramatic structure often doesn’t unfold in one single, grand arc. Several smaller sequences of rising and falling action within the larger story develop themes and secondary characters. Series in particular combine multiple arcs in order to sustain interest and tension within a larger, overarching plot arc.
To take an example, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry’s conflict with Voldemort is the major story conflict. It sustains the series’ tension across all 7 books. Yet in individual books there are lesser villains and story arcs (such as the arrival of the vicious Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Dolores Umbridge and her abusive behaviour towards the students). These lesser conflicts and their trajectories give each novel a self-contained quality and satisfying story arc of its own.
Creating smaller arcs within your main dramatic arc (even if you’re not writing a series) has multiple benefits:
- You have other sources of tension and narrative interest during stretches of your story where primary conflicts move to the background. This maintains story momentum
- Your smaller arcs give you means to develop your characters and tease out central themes. For example, Umbridge’s abuse of her power further shows power’s corrupting potential. This is a central theme of the series, emphasised in Harry’s primary conflict with the main villain, Voldemort.
- Smaller arcs supply additional stakes, adding tension. For example, the secondary relationships characters form over the course of Harry Potter give them more to lose as the threatening villain grows more powerful
5: Make your story’s middle fluctuate more to sustain interest
If you scroll up to Vonnegut’s Cinderella example, you’ll notice that the reversal where Cinderella has to leave the ball (before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin) occurs around the midway mark. If your novel is a tragedy following a ‘riches to rags’ path, the middle could be where your character seems to have a change of luck before the shocking denouement.
The structure of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle provides a good example of keeping the middle strong.
Book one of the cycle, The Fellowship of the Ring, introduces the powerful yet dangerous One Ring and Frodo and his fellow travellers’ quest to destroy it. There are complications aplenty in the first book, such as when the wizard Gandalf is attacked and possibly killed by the Balrog, an ancient demon.
In the second book, however, The Two Towers, there are even more complications. Some of the original members of Frodo’s quest party are kidnapped (raising stakes). We also learn the fate of Gandalf, and Frodo and Sam gain an unreliable guide, Gollum – the former finder and keeper of the ring who was corrupted by its power.
Tolkien thus increases complications and uncertainties in the middle of his cycle, making the rising and falling of the middle volatile and unpredictable. This accelerated pace of change keeps the story arc intriguing.
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