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Wednesday, July 6

Arc Enemy: Defining Story Arcs

Do your story arcs end in gold?
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are all kinds of story arcs to keep track of during a revision. Plot arcs, character arcs, theme arcs, time line arcs. Keeping track of them can drive us nuts, but if we don't, they could all unravel and leave us with a huge mess.

I've found that taking them one at a time helps me keep them in order. I like to create a new file (or use a new sheet of paper if you prefer) and make lists, so it's easy to see the progression and when things happen.

Here's what I look for:

1. Plot Arcs

These are probably the easiest to keep track of because odds are they're written down somewhere. You had to figure them out to write the book in the first place, right? Start with your core conflict. Then look at all the events that have to happen between your inciting event, and the resolution. Put the chronological list in one column, and the chapter in another (do this with all the lists). If you break things down by scene number, use that. Whatever makes it easy to see when and where things happen. In multiple POV stories, this can get a little messy, so look carefully at what points move the core plot and what points are part of that POV's subplot or character arc.

Don't forget to list the why on these lists as well. Why someone is doing something is critical to tying all these events together. Same with the stakes. Each event should have a goal that needs to be accomplished, a reason why it has to be accomplished and why that particular character needs to do it (inner and outer goals), and what will happen if it isn't accomplished.

2. Subplot Arcs

Now look at your subplots and do the same thing. This can be tricky because there are probably overlaps where something affects both the plot and a subplot. Take a minute to see how the same event affects both core plot and subplot. Those subtle difference are often the places you can deepen later, or cut if you need to. In multiple POVs, each POV will have their own arc that ties into both the core plot and the subplots. This is a good spot to list the full plot arc of the POV characters (if it's not a single POV).

3. Character Arcs

The plot and subplot arcs will show you what happens to these characters and how that affects the story, but now you want to look at the inner journey and growth of the characters. Start with your protagonist and list all the events/revelations/failures that happen to cause their character to grow or change. Sometimes this list will be long, others short, depending on the type of book. A protagonist in a recurring series might not change much, but a character in a literary novel about inner growth will change a lot. Then move down to your antagonist (if they play an active role) and secondary characters. If your antagonist is off screen, but still strongly influencing the protagonist, sometimes it's helpful to list what they're doing, even if we never see it in the book. It's a good way to keep track of what's going on overall.

4. Theme Arcs

You don't have to show a theme arc if you don't want to, but it's a great way to tie everything in your story together. If your theme is linked to your character growth, then it's helpful to see the turning points of it in a story. Look for situations in which your theme was represented, especially if it caused a change or influenced a character. Sometimes you'll find examples of the theme, but the protagonist isn't involved. Those could be good spots to deepen by bringing the protagonist or another major character into it.

5. Time Line Arcs

Most of us won't have to worry too much about time lines, but certain genres, like mysteries and thrillers, keep very close tabs on when things happen. It's highly likely this is already developed, but if not, list when major events happen to make sure there's enough time for things to occur, and things aren't happening out of order. If you have a story that takes place over a short period of time, this cam also be helpful to make sure it's clear when things are happening. (I had to do this with The Shifter, because my agent asked if all the events took place in one day because there were so many. Nya had a super long day, so I went back and made it clear she really was pushing herself to the limit and everything happened in one day)

Once you have all your lists, you can either keep them separate, or combine them in one giant list to see how the whole novel unfolds. (Save the single lists too if you do this). Not only is this a good way to see the novel, it lets you see where you might have slow spots or chapters that have too much going on. If you don't like lists, you can also do this using index cards (so you can shuffle and reorder things) or put it all into a spreadsheet.

You'll be able to do a lot of reorganizing at this stage (if you need to), and make notes on things you want to change, flesh out, or cut. Using a different color ink or index card is handy to keep track of those. It's like brainstorming on the page.

One of the things I like about making arc lists, it that it forces me to pinpoint and summarize the key moments in the novel. When I find I can't do that, I know I have a major hole that needs plugging, and I can fix it before I spend a lot of time on the polishing. It's much easier to hack and slash a first draft than a third or fourth. I have less emotional attachment to what's there.

What are some of your plotting tricks? How do you stay organized?

More on arcs and plotting:
Character arcs and plot
How to develop your theme
Plotting with layers
Using theme during world building
Plotting your novel


  1. I had to keep a timeline for my first book because I had two Saturdays almost in a row. :-s

  2. Wow, such great tips here! I used an old calendar to plug in events, keeping track of my time line. And I keep a notebook w/ dividers to help me keep track of all the main issues of the book.

  3. Great post, Janice! Thanks for sharing. Once again, you've offered handy ways to navigate through complex layers.

  4. Scrivener is a great tool for writers to keep track of characters, story arcs, plot details, and all kinds of other things. I cannot imagine trying to write a novel without it. Very reasonably priced and you can download a 30 day free trial. If you're on Windows, they are in beta now so it's free until it comes out of beta.

  5. Paul: LOL that's awesome.

    Julie: I like the old calendar idea. What a great use for them.

    Robyn: Most welcome :)

    Liz: I've been hearing good thing about Scrivener for years. I'm on Windows (even though it's a Mac, yeah I'm weird) but when it comes out I'll have to give it a try.

  6. Great thoughts, Janice! I prescribe to Cheryl Klein's editorial method for novels--I plot the emotional, action, and mystery arcs separately, making sure that key turning points overlap in interact appropriately.

    This is something I do once I've written several chapters of a new project, to make sure I know the story I wish to tell, and to confirm I'm starting it in the right place.

  7. Melanie, very cool. I'll have to go look and her blog for more info on that. That sounds like something that would be very handy pre- and post- draft.