The Whys, Whats, and Wherefores of Story Arcs
Say you have an awesome book—but it’s long. Too long. So you cut it in half: now you have two books. Easy enough, right? For fixing page count, sure! But when it comes to the enjoyment factor of the book itself, it can have a remarkably harsh effect. See, in a traditional story arc, the climax—or peak of the arc—is pretty close to the end of the book. In between the beginning and that climax, there’s a whole bunch of stuff, like the introduction to the characters and setting, the inciting incident, and a ton of obstacles the characters have to overcome—including usually one spectacular failure--in order to grow and achieve their goals.
So, if you cut the book off half-way that means your stunted plot gets through the introduction, the inciting incident, and maybe a problem. But the tension is only starting to ramp up at the very end of the book, there isn’t a climax, and you’ve not generally hit that critical failure point yet. Meaning, unless you’re really careful, your book is going to feel slug-slow and crazy unbalanced—even if it’s perfect as one huge book.
This isn’t to say that you can’t start at different points in the traditional arc, that you can’t have several arcs going at the same time, or that you can’t have a completely nontraditional arc. You totally can! In fact, those things often make for some of the most popular books and movies. But, that being said, it’s important to know why each of those pieces of the arc pie are there—what purpose they serve, and how they work with the other pieces—before deconstructing the whole pie concept and making crazy substitutions.
So, to those ends, here are some of the basics on the average story structure—what each piece does, and what you need to provide if you’re planning on cutting it out or changing it. You can also use this list as a basis for an outline, making sure you have each piece of this basic puzzle in place before filling out all the juicy details.
Introduction to the Situation & Characters
What It Is: The introduction section has been getting a lot of flak recently because “it’s booooring.” Or at least, it can be. This is the section that gets saddled with every crazy attempt to catch attention ever. And it is also the section most likely to start with a character waking up to look in the mirror, providing a perfect excuse for a long-winded and predictable dissertation on the appearance of the main character, followed by a detailed description of the weather, grass, and local wildlife. However! It is not in itself boring. It simply has the ability to become boring, if you aren’t careful.
What It Does: The point of the introduction is to introduce the main characters’ defining characteristics (including the flaws they’ll be working to overcome), their relationships with each other and their environment, and why you should care. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, this section sets the baseline by which the reader will judge the rest of the book--giving meaning and context to every single interaction.
Why It’s Important: This is super important because a story is all about change. It’s all about the unusual, not the day-to-day. The characters are usually put in a situation that is a huge change from their everyday life, and often the characters themselves have to change in order to overcome an obstacle.
How Can You Mess With It: Introductions are incredibly malleable. There are so many interesting and innovative ways to get across the information contained in an introduction! Think of your favorite introductions to books—the ones that really grab you. You can start with a fight scene, a witty banter, a heist, a poker game, a petty prank, breaking into an ancient tomb . . . pretty much anything. All you have to do is make sure that however you start, it hits those same points.
The Inciting Incident (Or, This Changes Everything!)
What It Is: This is when Katniss (of The Hunger Games) volunteers, taking her sister’s place at the next lethal Hunger Games. It’s Merida (of Brave) being told she’s going to marry. It’s the old dude at the back of the tavern who sends you on a quest, and it’s the dead person who shows up on your doorstep and offers you a muffin. It’s the first whisper of the plot, and the first inkling of the tone.
What It Does: This is the moment that everything changes. It’s the thing that happens that sets the action of the book in motion. And it should happen pretty close to the beginning of the book. Books that delay or bury the inciting incident too deep can feel super slow.
Why It’s Important: The point of an inciting incident is to force the character to take action. I mean, think about it: if nothing changes for the character, if everything stays teeth-brushing, bed-tucking, everyday normal, then generally speaking there is no plot.
How Can You Mess With It: It can be something that happens to the character (passive), or a situation that happens because of some mistake the character makes (active), or even something that happens off-page, that we only get referenced. The timing and the cause of the change are the biggest opportunities for innovation in inciting incidents.
99 Problems (But a Plot Ain’t One)
What It Is: As every character knows, it’s not easy to achieve one’s goals. No, authors, for some reason, throw all kinds of hairy complications, overwhelming obstacles, and just plain awful things at their characters, from having bounty hunters on your tail to running out of fuel in the middle of the desert.
What It Does: What did Calvin’s dad always say about the trials and tribulations of their rainy, cold, miserable camping trips? They build character! And it’s true: while overcoming obstacles might not always lead to enlightenment, they do show us what the character is made of. And by giving the characters a chance to struggle and sometimes fail, you provide them excellent opportunities (not available in everyday life) to see where they can improve and why it is important that they do so. But aside from that, they also serve to increase the tension, give meaning and weight to their goals, and, of course, to advance the plot.
Why It’s Important: If the ultimate goal is achieved quickly and easily, without any problems along the way, then it’s not much of a plot, is it? Whereas if something is difficult to achieve—if it requires sacrifice and hard work, and if even then the outcome is uncertain? Then it means a lot more when the character succeeds. Just so, if everything is shiny for the characters, why in the world would they have the motivation to change, to smooth out the flaws that (without problems) they can’t even see are there?
How Can You Mess With It: There are so many ways to mess with problems! You can layer them—so that while solving one problem, another problem is aggravated or introduced. You can have the character fail to solve a problem but the group succeed despite them—or have the character fail, causing the group to fail as well. And you can have many different kinds of problems as well—personal problems, interpersonal problems, plottastic problems—that layer really well together.
What It Is: This is that dark moment (or moments) where “all is lost.”
What It Does: Usually occurring before the climax, this is another moment that changes everything. This is the moment where the character realizes that, if he doesn’t change something pretty fundamental, he will fail.
Why It’s Important: We all love an underdog, and hitting rock bottom makes your character the underdog of their own personal story arc. I mean think about it: without hitting bottom, the climb to the top is so very less impressive. How much do you appreciate achieving something if there was never any doubt? It also gives a realistic impetus for change—because change, particularly character-oriented change, is super hard and uncomfortable, and few people do it just for funsies.
How Can You Mess With It: “All is lost” is totally relative, for one thing. I mean, it can mean the world will be destroyed—of course, if it were that in every book, it would get damn predictable!--but it can also just mean “man, I’ve totally been a jerk, and now, I might have lost my best friend.” There can be different rock bottoms for different situations, and within each, there can be different levels of rock bottom, as well. Instead of just defeating their demons in one go, characters can come to an incomplete understanding of whatever it is they seek to overcome—and as such, succeed just enough to not fail, without succeeding enough to win. Then, they can fall back into old ways, or improve even more. People are complex creatures and rarely move in just one direction, so there’s a lot of room to play here.
Note: This is the point where everything you set up in the introduction, inciting action, and the problems come calling. From this point forward, the book is less about setting new arcs up, and more about chasing those established arcs into their climaxes, conflicts, and eventual conclusions.
What It Is: Be it in an epic battle or the completion of an intensely personal and life-changing decision, the climax of a book is where the hero’s problem finally comes to a head.
What It Does: Oh, man, what doesn’t it do? Climaxes are the payoff for all the hard work you put in to creating tension and conflict. They tie up your plotlines, show the positive effects of the character’s change since their rock bottom moment, and release all that tension. In a great climax, it’s when everything just falls into place.
Why It’s Important: There’s a reason “anticlimactic” is a negative when referring to books and movies. Without a climax, the story can feel somewhat pointless. I mean, sure, some interesting things happened? But there can’t be any real, meaningful change—of the characters or the world—without a climax.
How Can You Mess With It: Climaxes are as unique as the problems the characters face. A climax might be a quiet decision in the midst of incredible duress—or it might be a slog of a battle, with an epic battle speech to match.
What It Is: If the climax is the moment two stars collide, the denouement is the pieces of stardust falling to earth. The denouement covers the fallout of the climax and character change, showing how their everyday life has been altered because of their experience. Like Harry Potter going home—but this time with a wand his aunt, uncle, and cousin don’t know he can’t use.
What It Does: The denouement can sometimes seem boring. I mean, it certainly lacks the tension and turmoil of the problems, or the excitement and emotional peaks of the climax. But it is a necessary cool down, allowing the reader to again place events in context, and to feel good about what the characters have gained by going through their struggles.
Why It’s Important: Ending without a denouement is like showing a fist hit a face—but not showing what happens to that face, that fist, or either combatant afterward. Showing the effects of the conflict helps the reader understand its importance.
How Can You Mess With It: Denouements are often crystal clear, tying up loose ends and returning everything to the new normal. However, not all characters come out of conflicts squeaky clean and happy. Some characters come out having won the war but lost quite a few meaningful battles, some come out and are so fundamentally changed they have a whole new set of problems in front of them, and others come out and are alive, but aren’t really sure if they won or not, not knowing the outcome of one or another important thread. In fact, characters can even learn “the wrong” lesson from a climax. The degree of happiness and closure you give your characters—and your reader—is extremely variable, and entirely up to you.