The idea of a story arc is a concept you’re probably familiar with. We talk about it a lot in our Workshop Workshop because we’ve found it a versatile tool. The Workshop Crew uses it to think about and reason through our stories. It’s a way of mapping tension inside of the three act structure. If you have a good understanding of story arcs, what they look like, why you’d use them to map your stories out, you’ll find it helps make your stories more engaging and compelling too!
The idea of a story arc is one way in which we can talk about stories in general. In broad terms, we can divide stories into three phases that correspond roughly to the beginning, the middle, and the end. (The three act structure.) The introduction is all about setting the scene. In the opening we are doing just that, introducing our audience to the people, places, and motivations that are going to figure into our story!
Once we have an introduction out of the way, we find ourselves in the middle of our story. What kind of things happen in the middle of a story? Well, usually we have some conflict. It’s been building off that motivation moment. As soon as you reveal a protagonist’s motivation, the audience is keyed to ask, “What’s going to get in the way of the protagonist getting what they want?” Motivation provides hook. It provides a reason to flip forward to the next page, or in our case, to keep listening. So in the middle section of the story, you explicitly introduce that complication and you start making the plan on how you’d get the characters out of it. Here the story, it’s going to reach a climax or crescendo right about here.
This middle section is sometimes referred to as the conflict. We talk about rising action or tension that reaches a peak at the climax. The rising tension comes from the motivation, “Oh no! What’s going to get in the way!? Oh look! They’ve introduced the complication? What’s the plan to resolve it?” Does the audience think it’s a good plan? Do they think, “This is never going to work, is it?!” Those sorts of questions spur the audience to keep pushing through to find out what happens next. Writing it out like that you can sort of feel the tension. If you’re using a story arc, as your structure, you’re trying to create this rising tension in your readers. It should be a tension in their chests, as they continually get presented with the question, “What’s going to happen next?”
Settle in for the Landing
Then, when we have reached our climax, it’s all about releasing that tension in a satisfying way. Resolve your conflict, tie up those loose ends (if that’s the sort of thing we’re into) and let your audience off some distance from the start. This can be a literal journey or an emotional one. This resolution of the story is known as falling action.
Hopefully you’re saying, “Aha, I see why it’s called an arc!” You can visualize it. We use all these words and sayings that go along with arcs. Rising and falling action etc.
And you’re right! The reason an arc, is used to describe this structure is because it mirrors the tension or suspense your audience will experience as the story progresses.
Of course this is a simplification and longer stories may have a series or cycle of these story arcs. In fact longer stories can afford you the space to have much more complex structures. (Que Meander Spiral Explode.)
If you have questions, throw them in the comments. In the end, story arc is pretty simple stuff. But no matter how experienced and practiced you get at storytelling, taking the time to carefully and explicitly trace the narrative arc of your story will help you tell more interesting and engaging stories. Get a piece of paper out, draw the arc. Write what beats happen along the way.
Keeping your audience’s attention via story arc, is a key to engaging stories. Mapping it out, and visualizing the story arc is a good way to make sure that your story is doing what you want. Mapping it out helps you pinpoint places where things can – or should – be changed.
These posts adapted from the 20 minute lessons on story telling presented by Dan at the beginning of our Workshop! Workshop! show. All links are affiliate links.