Building Good Novel Story ARCs
Get Ready to Edit the First Draft
Last week we learned that we have three basic editing steps-content editing, line editing, and proofreading. We read through our manuscript and determined the various story lines of the story and color coded each of these story lines as they weave throughout the story. To read this post, click here.
Develop Better Story Lines
Stories don’t merely happen simply by throwing a couple of characters into a setting. You must write the story. You must show the reader what’s important, where to focus.
You must create a mood and choose words to elicit an emotional response from the reader.
You create the path for characters to follow, a path that readers will also be willing to follow.
This week we are going to look at the foundation of the story line called the “Story ARC” to determine whether our story is well-structured. If you are a Plotter like I am, you probably worked with story ARCs when outlining and writing your draft, and you may have subconsciously created your ARCs if you’re a Pantzer who writes a book as he goes along, writing by the seat of his pants. However, in either case, it’s imperative you re-evaluate this aspect of your novel again once the first draft is completed.
What is a Story ARC and how do I use this in my editing process to improve my main story line?
A story ARC in a novel is the development or resolution of the narrative or principal theme. Many novels contain four or six-issue ARCs, the primary arc and secondary ones.
Story arcs are the overall shape of rising and falling tension or emotion in a story. This rise and fall occurs through plot and character development.
The term “story arc” was coined in 1988 regarding a television series and quickly adopted for other uses. However, the idea regarding a story ARC is not new (Aristotle (367 BC – 347 BC) wrote 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.’
In other words, a strong story ARC shows rise and fall, cause and effect in a way that makes sense.
The Purpose of the Story ARC
If something seems amiss in the storyline, the first place to look for a problem is often in the story ARCs.
The purpose of a story ARC is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to effect change. This change or transformation often takes the form of either tragic fall from grace or a reversal of that pattern. One common form in which this reversal is found is a character going from a situation of weakness to one of strength. For example, a poor man goes on adventures and in the end makes a fortune.
Story ARCs often follow the pattern of bringing a character to a low point, removing the structures the character depends on, then forcing the character to find new strength without those supports. In a story ARC, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends in the last few chapters of a story.
Every classic plot passes through several stages and should be used as points in the writing process. These stages are statis, trigger, the quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal, and resolution
Stages of the Story ARC
This is the “everyday life” in which the story is set. For instance, a group of teens could be riding in a car talking about one of their friends at school and how he’s such a “nerd”.
Something beyond the control of the protagonist (hero/heroine) is the trigger which sparks off the story. For instance, in our scenario, the car hits a pothole and the car veers into the opposing lane of traffic and the car is struck by a semi-truck.
The trigger results in a quest – an unpleasant trigger—for instance, the hero/heroine may have to deal with survivor’s guilt and the quest might involve a quest to return to the status quo. A pleasant trigger might be that no one was hurt in the accident, and the hero/heroine has a vision where he/she is to do some quest toward further enlightenment.
In the case of the story above, the protagonist could have to fight back from a debilitating injury and deal with family members of dead friends.
This stage involves not one but several elements and takes up most of the middle part of the story. “Surprise” includes pleasant events, but more often means obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist.
Surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable – they need to be unexpected, but plausible. The reader must be made to think “I should have seen that coming!”
For instance, a surprise could be that the boy that they were talking bad about in the car could bring her flowers while she is still at the hospital.
Another could be overhearing her boyfriend say that he was only still with her because he didn’t want to look like the bad guy. He said that he planned to break up with her after a specific dance that he had asked her to attend.
At some stage, your protagonist needs to make a critical choice. This is often when we find out exactly who a character is, as real personalities are revealed at moments of high stress. The character must decide to take a specific direction – not just something that happens by chance.
In many classic stories, the “critical choice” involves choosing between a good, but hard, path and a bad, but easy, one.
For instance, the girl could have to choose to go to a dance with her boyfriend who was just taking her to the dance out of pity or go with the nerdy boy who really likes her and her friends would make fun of her.
In tragedies, the unhappy ending often stems from a character making the wrong choice at this point – Romeo poisoning himself on seeing Juliet supposedly dead, for example.
In this case, the girl could make the decision to go to the dance with her boyfriend and bring a gun with her shoot him at the dance before he can tell her that he wants to break up with her.
The critical choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax, the highest peak of tension, in your story.
In the case of our story it could be that the girl is standing on the dance floor her hand in her pocket shaking as it touches the cold steel of the gun in her purse ready to shoot the old boyfriend.
The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and the climax, and it should change the status of the characters – especially your protagonist.
Your story reversals should be inevitable and probable. Nothing should happen for no reason, changes in status should not fall out of the sky. The story should unfold as life unfolds: relentlessly, implacably, and plausibly.
In the story line we’ve created, let’s say that she looks over to the corner and sees the nerdy boy has come to the dance and their eyes meet. She decides that the old boyfriend isn’t worth the trouble and removes her hand from the purse and breaks up with him.
The resolution is a return to a fresh stasis – one where the characters should be changed, wiser and enlightened, but where the story being told is complete.
Our heroine goes to the nerdy boy and asks him to dance and he accepts. The story ends with the two of them dancing.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
You can borrow from archetypal plot ARCs which are core types of narratives based on the protagonist (main character involved in the ARC). These are called archetypal because they follow common patterns that countless stories are based upon. 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)
Use the ‘5 W’s’ to plan each Story ARC
‘Who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ are the basic building blocks of any story. When you think about it, stories are basically the 5 w’s plus change. As you’re reviewing your own story ARCs, think about how each might change and impact your story ARC in the process. When reviewing and editing how your plot arc developed, ask:
1. How did the cast of my story (the ‘who’) grow or diminish? In what ways did new central or secondary characters create extra tension, plot complications or emotional impact?
2. What new character motivations (the ‘why’) or external forces affected the course of the primary story ARC? For example: Did a misguided motivation lead to a fall, followed by enlightenment and change?
3. How did the story setting change (the ‘when’ and ‘where’) and what did this add to story ARCs? Could relocating setting increase tense and drama?
4. One thing that shouldn’t change is your story’s ‘what’. To maintain cohesiveness, the subject matter and themes of your novel need to maintain some relation to each other.
Create a Diagram of Your Story ARCs
To get a strong sense of your novel’s action, it helps to create a visual representation of your story’s structure. Use the archetypal plot ARC type you used as your template. Plot your novel’s core events and themes on this timeline. By visualizing your story this way, you can find ways to add reversals and turns of events that sustain narrative tension and keep the readers guessing. The color coding that you did last week should help you develop this diagram.
Update Your Storylines
Once you have created your Story ARCs, it’s time to start your second draft. What I like to do is open a new document and mark it as the second draft of this book. On this document, I fill in the Story ARCs and include any corresponding details from the first draft.
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All solid advice, Donna! Oddly, I have never heard it called ARC…thanks for the education.
Yeah, ARC can also mean advanced reader copy.
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