What is a story arc? Does it mean the same thing as narrative arc or plot arc? These are questions many budding and professional writers often ask. And they are very important questions too. Storytelling arcs help to make great stories memorable and outstanding.
In this article, Charles Opara will give apt narrative arc definitions. Then, he’ll dissect a sample story that has a clear story arc. What’s more, he’ll explain the difference between a character arc and a narrative arc. You’ll also get bonus tips on how to create the arc of a story in a narrative
Ready to learn about arcs in stories? Read on.
The Story Arc Also Known As The Narrative Arc.
When many writers get a story idea, the last thing they think about is the narrative arc. But the story arc is one out of many techniques that keeps the reader hooked.
Before we learn how to create a story arc, let’s define a narrative arc.
What is a narrative arc?
The story arc or narrative arc or dramatic arc is the path a story follows. It gives a story a definite form, one with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
The concept of narrative arc as we know it today was created by Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright who closely analyzed ancient Greek writing, along with William Shakespeare’s five-act plays.
As the term suggests, when plotted on paper, a typical narrative arc forms the shape of a hill or pyramid.
Creative writing experts suggest that a typical story arc has five elements.. Understanding these elements will help you know what to focus on when trying to create a narrative arc in your story.
Here they are, arranged in the order in which they appear:
The Five Elements of a Story Arc
This is the reader’s introduction to the story. The exposition offers background information to prime the audience for the rest of the story, including introducing the main character(s) (the “who”), setting (the “where”), and circumstances or time period (the “when”).
This is when conflict begins to ramp up. The rising action usually begins with what’s called an “inciting incident”—the triggering event that puts the main events of the story in motion. This is when the audience starts to see what your story is really about.
This element forces you to answer questions like, what visual representation describes the structural elements of your plot?
This is the highest point of tension in your storyline, and often the point at which all the different subplots and characters converge. Typically, the climax requires the main character to face the truth or make an important choice.
This is what happens as a result of the protagonist’s decision. During the falling action, the conflict gives way to resolution. Loose ends are tied up, and tension begins to dissipate.
Also known as a denouement, this is how your story ends. The resolution of a narrative arc isn’t always happy, but it does close the loop and show how the events of the story have changed the characters and the world around them.
How To Create A Narrative Arc (Examples and Tips).
I will demonstrate these 5 elements using excerpts from my horror short story piece: It Happened.
A Demonstration of the Five Elements of a Story Arc using the horror short story piece
‘It Happened’ by Charles Opara
It is official. My son is missing — if you believe the statement I made back at the station. I am in the backseat of a squad car, on a manhunt for the prime suspect in my son’s abduction, and we have just gone past the orphanage at Aladinma. Chuma, my first child, left home for Church to rehearse for a play his youth group plan to stage on Sunday and has not returned since. Look at the time. It is past nine. The police chief and I have spent the last forty-five minutes visiting some of Chuma’s friends in their homes and interrogating them. They all said the same thing: they last saw him at the rehearsal and do not know where he went after that.
The police chief is constantly on his phone, constantly talking to his boys, asking if they have made any progress. Every negative response he gets threatens to turn me into a nervous wreck.
Help me, Lord, before I lose my mind. I am a poor widow whose mite comes from her earnings as a nurse at a state-run clinic, one of the outstations for the proper reference hospitals in the city. I have no one else but you, Lord, and I thank you for revealing to me who my son’s abductor is. I speak of Ihemee, the destitute on our street. Would I even know his name if it were not for my son, whom he chose to befriend?
Chuma has been acting strange ever since we moved to Ikoku Avenue, almost three months ago. He has a knack for expressing ideas that could not possibly come from a nine-year-old. Like the time he asked me a riddle: “Grass eats dirt, cow eats grass, and man eats cow. What eats man?” I answered ‘nothing’, and he said, “Maggots. Maggots eat man. They turn him into dirt so the grass can eat.”
When Chuma became fascinated with setting traps for house rats — when I noticed he was a little too eager to take out the rubbish, every evening — I asked Uchendu, my second child, to follow him and see where he would take the trash. Uchendu came home to report that he had seen Chuma speaking with Ihemee at the dumpsite.
What? My son? Talking to that mad man? After I specifically warned him to steer clear of him? What sort of mind-control medicine is that homeless herbalist using on him? Ihemee, of all people! How can Chuma want to be friends with that disgusting thing? A tramp who could be carrying skin diseases yet unknown to man? Who might even be a runaway from a mental institution, and potentially dangerous?
Analysis Of The Opening (Exposition).
Notice the background information. I’m referring to the incidents that happened before we joined the story:
- Chuma’s relationship with Ihemee.
- Chuma not returning home after a rehearsal at church.
- The narrator calling the police.
- The narrator and the police chief making house calls to inquire about the whereabouts of Chuma.
- The narrator going to the police station to give a report.
- The manhunt. The narrator and the police chief boarding a squad car that’s part of a convoy of two police vehicles on a search for the suspect.
We also learn a bit about the narrator.
She’s a nurse.
And two other characters, who are at the heart of the conflict: Chuma and Ihemee.
The police chief gets off the phone and says to me, “My men have apprehended the suspect.”
“Praise God,” I chant. “Is my son with him? Have they found him?”
”Calm down, Madam. Your son is not with him, but we will find him. I assure you.”
He tells the driver to turn the car around and our convoy of two makes a U-turn. At one point, the other car’s headlight strikes me with a blinding haze of white that catches the tears welling up in my eyes.
If my premonition misses, my son is not in a black cellophane bag and Ihemee is not a ritualist looking for a human head while pretending to be shelter-challenged.
I keep my head turned towards my window, away from the police chief, and watch the dark shapes of trees as they fly by. A quick flash of light from a working streetlight ambushes me with my sad reflection.
Analysis Of The Rising Action.
The inciting incident is the phone call the police chief receives. It informs him that the suspect has been apprehended.
At this point, we start to get a sense of what the story is about.
At the shoulder of the hill, a putrid smell filled my lungs. But I was like a moth drawn to the strong light on the other side, I could not be denied. I crawled up the slope, taking my time. At the summit, I fell on my chest and slithered up and poked my head over the hill. The first thing that caught my eye was a bright furnace. And then a man. He was naked, stark naked. He looked like the driver of our bus. There was another man by the fire. He was tending to the flames with a long stick. I knew I had seen him somewhere before, on the bus, perhaps. Wasn’t he the one who sat closest to the door?
The first man dragged an equally unclothed body by the ankles—dead from all indications—out of a pile of human remains and laid it flat on its back. The corpse he had pulled out belonged to the woman who had offered me ukwa while we were waiting for the bus to fill up with passengers. The first man—who, in the glaze of firelight, I could now confirm was our driver—lowered himself on top of the woman’s corpse and assumed the missionary position. It was a sickening sight. I could not think of anything more depraved. I could not think at all. He belched. He puked all over her face. His vomitus poured and poured (bucket-loads of it) and as it did, his head lurched forward and he gurgled, “Bleeegh!”
His oral discharge seemed alive, the way it swirled over the woman’s face and then over the rest of her, soiling and unsoiling her body parts. Jesus! It was a swarm—of maggots. The driver coughed out the last ones. And then came… a long worm—no, a leech, the longest I had ever seen in my life. Maggots, leeches (and God knows what other vermin) turned the woman’s face into a hive. The last thing I saw, before slinking away, was of the driver licking the woman’s skull, slurping back the maggots, and exposing her soggy half-eaten face.
Analysis Of The Climax.
In this scene, the narrator faces a shocking truth: the men, she initially thought were rescuers, are scavengers, decay-feeding supernatural creatures.
Where am I?” I ask.
“In hospital,” Chuma says.
“How do you feel?” Ngozi asks, her eyes the pale red of someone who has been crying.
“Excuse me. That’s my job,” the strange face in the room says. She raises her stethoscope and slips it into her ears. “Now, if the rest of you will give me a moment, I will be done here.”
I feel the cold dab of her stethoscope on my chest and jerk back a little.
“So it was all a dream,” I say. “Thank goodness. But what happened? Why am I here? Doctor, did you give me a hallucinogen? You can tell me. I’m a nurse.”
“Hold still.” She pulls down my lower eyelid and shines her retinoscope in my eye. She does the same with my other eye. “I did not,” she says. “Your bus had an accident and, for all we know, you are the only survivor.”
No. She can’t be serious. “Noooo,” I scream, alarming the young woman leaning over me.
Ada, whom Chuma is trying to prevent from clambering up into my bed, stops struggling and gapes at me for a brief moment before she opens her mouth wide and releases a bawl.
“Mummy, what is it?” Uchendu asks.
“She is still in shock,” the woman in white overall says to Uchendu. “Now, I want everyone to leave so that she can get some rest. She will feel much better after she sleeps it off.”
Analysis of the Falling Action.
Here, we see how the protagonist reacts to her realization in the climax. This action, which starts in the ‘Falling Action’ will lead to the resolution.
“Confused, I watch the woman lift Ada into her arms, and shepherd my family out of the room.
Chukwunna, lekwa nu mo, Father, see me-o, I repeat to myself each time I recall the accident, and the driver scavenging that passenger’s face.
Before the woman can shut the door behind her, an impulse makes me say, “Chuma. I want to speak with Chuma.”
“Of course,” the doctor says and allows my son back into the room.
Chuma bounds over to me and the woman pulls the door shut. He stands by my bed, waiting. He doesn’t know what to say. And for a while, neither do I.
“That thing Ihemee said to the police, the night Obasi went missing, did you understand it?” I ask, finally.
I blink to clear the tear-clouds from my eyes, my lips shuddering slightly.
“Mummy, what is it? Don’t cry. You’ll be okay. The doctor says you will,” Chuma says, switching to Igbo.
“How does Ihemee know what he knows?”
I reach out and touch his arm. “You can tell me. I won’t get angry. I promise.”
“He is one of them. He is like Pastor Ikenna, but he is not bad like him. He doesn’t kill and bury children so he can eat them later. He only eats dead rats and the things he finds in the garbage. Mummy, Ihemee is my friend, and he can be your friend too, if you like.”
End Of Story.
How Story Arcs Work.
Story arcs in contemporary drama often follow the pattern of bringing a character to a low point, removing the structures the character depends upon, and then forcing the character to find new strength without those structures.
In a story arc, the character undergoes substantial growth or change, which culminates in the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story.
What’s The Difference Between The Narrative Arc and The Plot Of A Story?
Plot refers to the individual events that make up your story. In other words, the plot is what happens.
Narrative arc, on the other hand, refers to the path or sequence of your plot, and how that series of events creates a flow and progression that keeps the reader engaged at each stage in the story.
What Is the Difference Between a Narrative Arc and a Character Arc?
If a narrative arc is the path of the overall story, a character arc is the path a specific character takes during that story.
The story arc is external, and happens to all of the characters, while a character arc is internal, and happens to one person.
A character arc usually involves a character overcoming an obstacle and changing the way they see the world. (Undergoes an internal change, if nothing else.)
When the narrative arc begins its descent down the pyramid into the falling action and resolution, the character arc has its moment to shine.
This is when a character experiences a turning point by:
- asking for help,
- learning a new skill,
- making a critical choice,
- and/or becoming more self-aware.
Typically, only major characters have character arcs, though minor characters can undergo this type of character development as well.
The character arc of the narrator in our sample story
From the story “It Happened”, the narrator’s character arc is her realization that Ihemee is not what she thinks, but something much worse, something hard to believe.
She now knows that Ihemee is not insane and was speaking the truth when he accused the general overseer of the church she attends of being a cannibal. We don’t know how she’ll respond to this. But it can be inferred that a change has occurred within her, a change in the way she sees the world.
And this change results from her acceptance of the fact that men who feed by digesting their prey extracellularly exist.
Wrap On Narrative Arcs, Story Arcs, Character Arcs and Plot Arcs.
The story arc can be seen as a pyramid that shows the different changes that take place in a story. There are five elements of a narrative arc. And each element plays an important role in defining the clear arc of the story.
The narrative arc is different from a plot. A character arc differs from a narrative arc. With our aforementioned example, you can decipher what the differences are. And hopefully, you can write classic short stories the everyone will love.
Have you ever tried to decipher the narrative arc of your story? What did you learn from the process?
Got more tips on creating a story arc? Please share in the comments section. We look forward to learning from you.
About the Author:
Charles Opara is a Nigerian-born author who writes suspense, speculative fiction, literary fiction and short stories. He is a programmer with a passion for groundbreaking technologies. His creative mind enjoys the logic involved in writing stories and programs, puzzles and problem-solving, basically. In 2015, his horror short “It Happened” was shortlisted for the Awele Creative Trust Prize and in 2017, another story ‘Baby-girl’ was long-listed for the Quramo National Prize in his country. His stories have appeared in Ambit, Flash Fiction Press, and Zoetic Press. He is about to publish a collection of short stories with Fomite Press called ‘How Hamisu Survived Bad Kidneys and a Bad Son-in-law’.
Twitter handle: Charles Opara@OparaCc
- Fake It, Flash Fiction Press http://www.theflashfictionpress.org/2016/06/24/fake-it/
- Fermenting, Zoetic Press, Non-Binary Review #7 The Woman in White
- Broken Sleep, Ambit Magazine, Ambit 229 (19th July 2017) ISSN: 0002-6972 http://ambitmagazine.co.uk/issues/229
- ‘It Happened’ shortlisted for Awele Creative Writers’ Prize 2014
- ‘The Dream’ longlisted for Fiction Desk’s Best Newcomer’s Prize 2015
- ‘Fermenting’ nominated for the Best of the Net (Zoetic Press 2016)
- ‘Baby-girl’ longlisted for the Quramo National Short Story Prize 2017