Story Arcs #amwriting

At the critique group meeting the other day, we were talking about story arcs. In case you haven’t heard of them, they’re pretty much what they sound like: the arcs of stories.

Story arcs are traditionally shown like this:

Not very helpful. Better ones break that up into sections, like First major conflict, Decision to act, Frustration of hopes, Change in direction, and so on. That can be helpful, although I find it more helpful in shaping the story after I’ve written the first messy blob of it. Most stories aren’t really like that, though. Most stories are more like this.

Yes, here I go again. Although the story, itself, has an arc, each character in the story has a story arc.

Connie Willis is a mistress of this. Mom and I just finished reading the Black Out / All Clear set, and it illustrates the point perfectly.

Each character has a goal, then a revised goal, then another revised goal, constantly changing as circumstances change, plans are frustrated, and/or understanding of the situation alters. EACH ONE has a different story arc. Sometimes their arcs intersect; sometimes they run parallel, in cooperation or opposition.

“There are all sorts of things going on behind the scenes,” one of them says, speaking of people they can’t directly interact with who are aware of their difficulties and are doing everything they can to send help. Those people have story arcs. The reader may not be privy to them, but they have arcs, and they need to make sense.

As the book(s) progress(es), the arcs interweave until THE END, when it’s clear that all that mish-mash was one big story arc, after all.

(By “dead guys,” I mean backstory: sometimes, something that happened before the story begins has a presence in the story. Marley, as Dan puts it so well, was dead, to begin with.)

All those arcs could also represent the main plot, the secondary plot, the minor plot, the running gag, some of which may belong to the main character, some may belong to secondary or minor characters, some may belong to an animal.

You know what I’m talking about: On any given episode of Boston Legal, for instance, there were always two trials going, each with its own story arc, usually at least one relationship story, and one or two running gags that had some kind of closure by the end of the episode, as well as a piece of at least one arc that continued over several episodes.

But how do you track that, when you’re writing?

yWriter5 has a character timelines function, like index cards, but index cards work just fine. I love index cards, me. You can write each character in a different color, or get different colors of index cards, or just put a distinctive mark on the corner for each character.

Write out the elements of that character’s arc on cards (one for A meets Q, one for A gets job at L’s firm, one for A overhears L and B discuss murder). Write out the elements of each character’s arc. Then you can arrange them in the context of the overall story arc, to see where it makes sense for each element to take place in relation to everybody else’s elements.

Word to the wise: vacuum the floor first; you’re gonna needa lotta room, for the cards and for dancing in frustration as you work it all out.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Trace the story arc of a minor character in a book, story, or television episode you like.




I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

You may also like...

One thought on “Story Arcs #amwriting

  1. Jane

    January 16, 2017 at 8:17am

    Super suggestions.
    I did cards for a massive rewrite and wound up putting them into an empty photo album after I’d fixed up the new order. With blank spaces as needed (planned to be temporary). ETC. It was a good way to check out sequences without buying one of those senior citizen playing cards holders. 😉

    Great article!

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 16, 2017 at 10:04am

      Great comment! I love the photo album idea! That’s the kind of visual/tactile thing that works best with me. THANK YOU!

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  2. Dan Antion

    January 16, 2017 at 9:02am

    We once used a system design technique that relied on note cards. It was messy, but it allowed a certain speed and agility that other design methods lacked.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 16, 2017 at 10:07am

      They’re easy to move around and reorder, and they don’t disappear into the netheraether if you touch them in the wrong place.

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  3. Joey

    January 16, 2017 at 2:37pm

    Index cards and post-it notes. I am convinced I won’t finish a book until I have an entire room dedicated to index cards and post-it notes. I know Scrivener does some of it, but I am a visual person.
    This, by the by, is an EXCELLENT post.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 17, 2017 at 3:54pm

      Thanks, Joey! I’ve been having a lot of luck lately with yWriter 5, and I have friends who swear by Scrivener, but sometimes I just have to shuffle paper.

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply

Leave a Reply, If You Ple-az

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.