Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, a solid grasp of narrative arc is important for providing structure and coherence to your writing.Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, a solid grasp of narrative arc is important for providing structure and coherence to your writing. Click To Tweet
The human brain has an inherent need for structure.
We have conscious and unconscious expectations for the organization of a story, and if your writing doesn’t meet these expectations, you risk confusing (and losing) your reader.
This is where narrative arc comes in. It provides a structure for your story, helping with pacing, building tension, and bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion.
And fiction isn’t the only genre using narrative arcs.
Non-fiction and memoir writing should also consider structure and pacing to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. In fact, a nonfiction account that follows the classic story structure will provide greater opportunities to hook the reader.
What is a Narrative Arc?
Also known as a story arc, a narrative arc represents the shape of a story.
At its simplest, this means a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, for non-fiction writing, you’ll need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.At its simplest, this means a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, for non-fiction writing, you’ll need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Click To Tweet
Consider the three acts of a play:
Act 1 | The Beginning: This where you set the scene, introduce your characters, and build the foundation for the action that will follow.
Act 2 | The Middle: This is where the story gathers momentum. The characters go on a journey (real or figurative), encounter problems, and experience drama and conflict. The tension builds and reaches a climax point.
Act 3 | The End: The conclusion facilitates resolution; the characters come to terms with the big issues of the climax, either overcoming or succumbing to these struggles. The tension releases, and you wrap things up, demonstrating how the characters and their lives change due to the opposing forces in the story.
It’s easy to see why it is referred to as an arc–with action and tension rising toward the middle and falling as the end approaches.
Of course, you don’t have to give equal weight to each act. In fact, most stories won’t. Some set the scene and introduce the characters in a page or two. Others take whole chapters. Some build tension slowly, and others reach the climax more quickly.
The overall shape of the story, however, will usually follow this pattern.
If your book is part of a series, the story may have more than one narrative arc–one for the book itself, and another for the whole series. And your story may also include several sub-plots, each with its own narrative arc.
In each case, be aware of both the central arc and the minor arcs as you plan the story.
Why Your Story Arc Matters
Have you ever come to what you thought was the end of a story, only to find it goes on for several more chapters? Have you suddenly found yourself launched into the middle of a complex plot with no understanding of how you got there (or the identities of the characters)?
In both cases, the story hasn’t given proper consideration to the narrative arc. The reader’s expectations of how the story will be paced and structured haven’t been met, and the reader never achieves immersion in the plot.
Even if your writing is engaging and your plot is compelling, the lack of a strong narrative arc means your reader can’t relax and allow the story to unfold naturally.
How to Write a Great Story
We’ve established that your narrative arc provides the structure for your writing. Essentially, it is the bird’s-eye view of your story.
But it isn’t the only element to consider when planning your narrative. Plot and character development are also key parts of a great story. Understanding how these fit within your arc helps you decide on the sequence of events and how your characters react to them.
It almost goes without saying that your plot is an integral part of your story. To understand how your plot fits within your narrative arc, it helps to think of it as a series of events, or scenes in a play. The plot is what happens, but the order of events depends on your story arc.
When you’re planning your story, you might think of your narrative arc as a line graph and your plot as a series of post-it notes. Try using this method to visualize how the pieces fit together.
First, you’d draw out the arc of your story. Then you’d position each of your post-it notes along the arc, showing how the plot will build and shape the narrative arc.
2. Character Arc
While your narrative arc is the shape of your story as a whole, the character arc is how your individual characters develop throughout the story.
Some stories don’t have much of a character arc and are driven predominately by action and events. In other cases, the character arc and the narrative arc are almost indistinguishable, with the story hanging on the character’s own development.
If more than one of your characters goes through this process of change and development, you may have more than one character arc within the same story. Each of these character arcs fit within the narrative arc but relate to the individual characters, not the wider story.
Going back to our visual example, where your narrative arc is a line graph and your plot is a series of post-it notes, your character arcs are secondary line graphs beneath your narrative arc.
Visualizing Narrative Arcs: Freytag’s Pyramid
Seeing your narrative arc as the acts in a play is one way to understand how it works to build the structure for your story; however, better models exist. In the 19th century, German novelist Gustav Freytag constructed a perfect method for visualizing a narrative arc.
Now known as Freytag’s Pyramid, it is a useful model for planning your stories. It looks like this:
This roughly corresponds to Act 1 in a play. It sets the scene, introduces the characters, and describes the current situation. It also explains the setting for the story–such as the time period, the location, and whether it is set in the real world or in fantasy. And it lays out the mood, too, so readers know whether to expect a romance, an adventure, or a murder mystery.
Remember that the exposition still has to be an engaging piece of storytelling. It isn’t an information dump, but it should include scenes providing your readers with a context for the rest of the story.
2. Inciting Incident
This is the event that kickstarts the action in a story, marking the end of the exposition and the beginning of the action stage.
Keep in mind, the exposition and inciting incident can happen almost simultaneously, especially in shorter stories where the action is high. In longer, more descriptive stories, it might take several chapters to get to the inciting incident.
3. Rising Action
This is the core part of the story. Tension grows, conflicts arise, and the characters go through a set of misfortunes or challenges. Shaken out of their everyday routine, they must take action and develop in response.
This phase also reveals more information about the characters’ backstories and motives. You may have subplots developing, each with its own narrative arc. It is all building towards the climax.
4. The Climax
The climax is at the apex of a story, the point of highest tension. The characters reach a turning point, and they or their world are changed irrevocably because of how they react to it.
5. Falling Action
In this phase, characters deal with the fallout from the climax. Loose ends come together, and relationships change and evolve. Characters reach the peaks of their own character arcs.
Also called the denouement, this is the conclusion to your story. It brings together all the strands, showing how your characters’ lives have changed (or not) as a result of the events of the story.
The resolution doesn’t have to be a happy one. Characters can fail, die, or find themselves in a worse situation than when they started. You might leave some threads untied to keep readers wondering long after they finish the story. Consider the pros and cons of a happy ending, whether tying up the loose ends will provide the most satisfying conclusion for the reader.
Examples of Freytag’s Pyramid in Action
To illustrate, let’s look at two examples from well-known stories and how they conform to Freytag’s pyramid.
Example 1: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
For our first example, we’ll take the classic children’s story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
In the beginning, we meet Charlie and his family. The competition for the golden tickets presents the supporting cast of characters, providing insight into the scene for most of the story: the mysterious chocolate factory. This is the exposition.
After a false start, Charlie finds the last golden ticket. This is the inciting incident.
As they tour the factory and misfortune befalls child after child, the world-building continues, and the tension increases. This is the rising action.
The climax comes when Charlie is the only child left. Willy Wonka announces that Charlie has won, pushes the button on the glass lift, and launches them out of the factory.
As they watch the other children return home in their newly altered shapes, the tension begins to fall. The end is now in sight. This is the falling action.
Finally, the resolution – Charlie and Grandpa Joe arrive home in the glass lift, and Willy Wonka announces the whole family will be moving to the factory. They never need to go hungry again.
Example 2: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
From a classic children’s tale to a well-known romance, Pride and Prejudice is different from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s aimed at a different audience. You’ll find, however, that Freytag’s Pyramid applies here, too.
Again, we find the exposition at the start of the story. Austen introduces the Bennett family, along with their situation and core characteristics. Elizabeth emerges as the primary character, and we learn that marriage and relationships will be the theme of the story.
The ball where the sisters meet Mr. Darcy for the first time sets the scene for the inciting incident: Darcy’s rudeness toward Elizabeth when told to dance with her.
The tension builds as Elizabeth’s sisters and friends marry, and she and Mr. Darcy continue to encounter one another. Misunderstandings develop, and we see dramatic changes in relationships. Mr Wickham becomes a love interest for Elizabeth. The action rises.
The climax comes when Mr. Darcy reveals his feelings and proposes to Elizabeth, which is soon followed by the revelation of Mr. Wickham’s true character and his elopement with Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia. In this story, the climax spreads out over several chapters.
With Lydia’s future secured, Elizabeth finally accepts Mr. Darcy’s proposal, allowing the story to wind down. The action falls.
Finally, Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy, and they settle into married life. The other important characters’ stories reach their conclusions. We’ve reached the resolution and the end of the story.
Understanding narrative arcs and how they shape your writing is a key part of planning both fiction and non-fiction pieces.
Whether you prefer to think of it as acts in a play, or using Freytag’s Pyramid, keeping your narrative arc in mind as you write will ensure your story has the right structure and pacing to keep your readers engaged to the last word.
What do you think? What story provides the best example of a thrilling narrative arc?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.