Critique Technique, Part 46—No Story Arc

By Ross B. Lampert

 Let’s begin by describing what a story arc is, since it’s a good bet new writers in particular won’t know. An arc is a curved line, perhaps a part of a circle, perhaps as part of some other figure, like an ellipse or oval. For our purposes, the best image is part of the outline of an egg, taking in the pointed end and part of the sides leading toward the flatter end. The sides aren’t even and the whole thing is tipped over, something like this (pardon my poor drawing skills).

The story arc, annotated with key pointsThis curve represents the “rising action” of the story. Going from left to right, the story begins with some “inciting incident” as Les Edgerton calls it in Hooked. But then things get worse for the protagonist: she wants to overcome the problem the inciting incident created, so she does something in response to it. Maybe it works—sort of. Or maybe it doesn’t work at all. In any case, things get worse.

So she tries something else.

Things get worse again.

Lather… rinse… repeat.

When it comes right down to it, readers are mean. The love—they want—to see the characters’ lives keep getting worse and worse… until they get better at the end. Or they don’t.

In Scene and Structure, Jack M. Bickham describes this process as the protagonist (and antagonist) trying to reach his goal but continually having obstacles put in his way. That creates more and more problems for the characters, and more and more tension in the reader.

Things get worse and worse as the characters travel from left to right on the arc, and reader tension rises higher and higher, until everyone reaches the climax of the story—the top of the curve—and then things settle to an ending of some kind, maybe happy, maybe not.

Some writers have described this process not as an arc but a W, like this:

The W-shaped version of the story arcThat works too but for this discussion, I’m going to stick with the arc.

The reason is this: not only does the whole story have an arc, so does each chapter and even each scene. The scene arcs combine to create the chapter arc, and the chapter arcs combine to create the story arc, something like this:

Scene arcs overlaid on chapter arcsNow, scene arcs aren’t going to be as large and dramatic as chapter arcs, and chapter arcs won’t be as large and dramatic as the whole story arc, but each scene and chapter needs to have a flow of rising tension, leading to an ending—which then drives the reader to keep going. Even if there is some kind of resolution—a problem solved or an obstacle overcome—that resolution needs to lead to some new problem or obstacle.

So, the entire story arc looks something like this (only chapters and the whole story shown):

Chapter arcs overlaid on the story arcAs a reviewer, then, you’re looking for those arcs. If you have only a chapter to look at, look for the arcs in the scenes and the whole chapter:

  • Do things get worse in some way for each scene’s protagonist? (Note that the scene protagonist may be the story protagonist, the story antagonist, or an important secondary character on another plot line.)
  • Ask the same question for the chapter: do things get worse for all of the characters? Note that with the W-arc shown above, things might actually get better for a while after the first turning point. But even in a case like this, things are actually getting worse… the characters just don’t know it yet and the reader only suspects it.
  • If you’re able to review a series of chapters all at once, you can look for the broader increase in tension and troubles. If you have the whole book, you should be able to see the entire arc.

And what if you don’t find those chapter or scene arcs? Now it’s time to step back from the line-by-line review and think about the entire scene or chapter.

  • What’s happening—or not happening—in the scene or chapter?
  • What goals are the characters trying to achieve? Are there any goals, or are the characters just wandering along?
  • What new obstacles are being put in their way? Are there any obstacles? What could be done to make the characters’ situations worse?
  • If characters overcome obstacles in the scene or chapter, what new ones have been placed in front of them, or need to be?

Of course, it’s not your job to write the story for the author, but you can discuss options and possibilities, whether the writer’s a plotter and has an outline laid out or a pantser or puzzler who is feeling their way through the story.

Story is conflict, and the longer the story, the more conflict there needs to be. Story arcs plot the trajectory of each level and layer of conflict. Just as a map lets you see the layout of the terrain of a place, the story arc concept lets you see the layout of the conflict in the story.

Now it’s your turn: How do you detect whether a story has an arc (or more than one)? And how do you help an author develop story arcs if they seem to be missing?

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