At the heart of every well-told story is a solid foundation known as story/narrative arc. Most stories are structured with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. The arc the story follows, when done well, grips the reader powerfully.
Traditional/Classical Story Structure
You may remember from grade school learning about Freytag’s pyramid and/or the 3-act plot structure. While they differ in a few ways, in general classical structure involves:
- Inciting Incident: Occurring near the beginning, this event disturbs the protagonist’s world and starts them on a new path or quest.
- Rising Action/Midpoint: A series of actions and reactions the protagonist undertakes against obstacles to reach their goal.
- Climax: The highest point of action where the protagonist reaches their goal.
- Denouement/Resolution: The story’s ending and tying up of loose ends.
Types of Story Arcs
Many varying opinions exist about just how many narrative arcs exist. In 2016, researchers at the University of Vermont and University of Adelaide used computers to break down story arc on about 2,000 novels. They came up with six easy-to-understand formulas:
- Rags to Riches: Follows a protagonist’s rise.
- Riches to Rags: Follows a protagonist’s downfall.
- Man in a Hole: Follows a protagonist’s fall then rise.
- Icarus: Follows a protagonist’s rise then fall.
- Cinderella: Follows a protagonist’s rise then fall then rise.
- Oedipus: Follows a protagonist’s fall then rise then fall.
Others may exist (especially in literary and experimental fiction) but these tend to be the most popular.
Story Arc vs Plot and Character Arc
Two terms frequently confused with story arc are:
- Plot: What “happens” in a story.
- Character arc: The way a protagonist changes in the story.
If plot is what happens, arc is the path the story follows. Readers must follow that path to see what happens. Likewise, the character arc only changes the protagonist, usually emotionally. Here’s more on developing your character’s arc: Deep Dive into Character. The story arc affects the circumstances of many characters in the novel.
Understanding these concepts of structure and arc are the key to writing a novel well. Deciding what type of arc you want your story to follow is just the beginning. All of the scenes in the novel should work together to push the protagonist toward the climax. While it may be tempting to avoid analysis of the structure, do the extra work. If you can nail the structure, you’re already well on your way to being a captivating storyteller.