Understanding how plot arcs do and do not work is essential to creating a well-crafted story with a strong sense of forwards movement. Each plot thread has its own arc, as does each novel, and each series. In this post, I outline the basics, then discuss common problems with plot arc implementation.
Elements of a Plot Arc
Something interesting happens that gets the plot moving. The inciting incident may not be directly involved with the plot thread, but it should lead into it. It may be subtle or obvious. For the main plot, you want the inciting incident to happen as close to the beginning of the story as possible.
Tension builds, the stakes are set, and things become increasingly dangerous. There may be periods of down-time in your story (ie. characters catching their breath between fight scenes) but in general, the stakes are rising. Likewise, when answers to driving questions are revealed, they should open up more questions.
This is where the tension that you have built up earlier in the story is released. The central mystery is revealed. The heroes take on the big bad. The political schemes come to a head and the plot twists are executed. During the climax, all or almost all of the cards are on the table. Everything that you have set up is allowed to play out.
Resolution and Denouement
The outcome is determined. The heroes win or lose, and everything begins to wrap up. The remaining mysteries and intricacies of the plot are unraveled. If the book is part of a series, the resolution of the main plot usually involves a few bits of information being held back, and possibly a hook for the next installment.
This is when the story just doesn’t have an arc. It leaves readers with the impression that nothing is happening, and that the story has stalled, if it ever started at all.
Some examples of what it looks like when a story does not have an arc:
- The story is all action all the time, but without much variation or connective tissue to make it interesting. Alice slays one monster. Then she slays another monster.
- The events of the story do not build on each other. Lucy goes about her daily life. Occasionally, interesting things happen to her, but they’re unrelated and she deals with them as they come up.
- Nothing is resolved. Alice starts the story tying to solve Bob’s murder. At the end, she is still trying to solve Bob’s murder. The nature of the central conflict hasn’t changed—she just hasn’t made any progress.
- The characters spend most of their time doing things that are only tangentially related to the plot, or most of their work is revealed to be irrelevant.
Simply writing with an awareness of how plot arcs work it useful when avoiding the arcless story. So does knowing where the story is supposed to end up, and writing with a clear goal in mind.
Another thing worth noting is that a story arc relies on events that build off of each other. Each event and each decision should have wider repercussions—nothing happens in isolation. This will give the story a sense of momentum and will speed up the pacing. It also helps to have the events be a result of character decisions, so that it doesn’t read like they’re just along for the ride. If an event doesn’t reveal something meaningful about a character and doesn’t advance the plot, it probably doesn’t need to be included in the story.
The Inverted Arc
This is the story that’s exciting at the beginning, gets progressively less interesting in the middle, and then becomes exciting again in the last fifty pages.
A good example (or perhaps a very bad example) is Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. One of the main characters travels to a far off city to marry an intimidating, reclusive king she’s never met before. But the king isn’t a bad guy. In fact, he’s a pretty nice guy. They actually end up getting along pretty well. She’s also afraid that some of his staff may be interested in hurting them. But as time goes on it also comes out that they’re nice people who are just looking out for her. Each time that something is revealed, it becomes clear that she is actually in less danger than initially anticipated.
To keep the tension high, it’s important to cultivate a sense of danger, and to keep the characters in the line of fire. If you answer a question or remove a threat, replace it with a more urgent one.
The action begins to rise, then tapers off for a while. Sometimes this happens because the events of the plot don’t actually build off one another, so the characters move from one event to the next, but the tension doesn’t accumulate. Another reason this happens is because there simply isn’t enough plot to carry the story. This means that either there’s a lot of filler, or that the author has to hoard information to keep the reader from guessing the ending, which means that the characters learn very little. It also happens when things are too easy for the characters, and when they aren’t allowed to fail.
To keep the plot from stalling, first make sure that there’s enough plot to begin with. It may be a sign that the story needs more development. Adding road-blocks and increasing the difficulty may help. So does considering what each event accomplishes to figure out where the points of weakness are.
The Crunched Climax
This is when the story progresses smoothly towards the end, then crunches the climax into the last fifteen pages. It also isn’t uncommon for such stories to leave off resolutions. This usually leaves the ending of the story feeling abrupt. It often happens because the writer isn’t sure how to pace the ending, or gets to a certain point in the story and realizes that they need to wrap things up, but aren’t sure how.
This can often be fixed by going back in and expanding on the last few chapters to give events time to unfold, and by adding a conclusion to allow the story to fully wind down. It’s okay for the first half of the book to unfold over weeks and the second to happen over the course of a few hours. Worry about finishing the story properly and giving each event the space it deserves, then focus on word count and cutting when it’s finished.