Monday, April 03, 2023

3 Steps to Crafting a Story Arc that Sucks

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sucks readers in…of course.

A novel is a series of smaller story arcs all leading toward “an exciting conclusion,” whatever that may be. These smaller arcs fit together like puzzle pieces and make up the larger plot and story of the novel.

At its most basic, a story arc is the trajectory that a story takes from its beginning to its end. But a well-crafted story arc is much more than that. It's the engine that drives a story forward, the structure that gives it shape, and the journey that takes readers on an emotional roller coaster.

Let's explore the three essential components of a story arc: the beginning, the rising action, and the climax.

Step One: Write Down How It Starts (AKA: The Beginning)

Every story needs a strong beginning to capture readers' attention and set the stage for what's to come. The beginning of your story should introduce the main character and their world, and give readers a sense of what's at stake. It's when readers realizes that something is about to happen, and they buckle up for the ride.

Ask yourself: What sets the story arc in motion?

This could be anything from a character receiving a mysterious letter, to a natural disaster that shakes their world. Whatever it is, make sure it's something that grabs readers' attention and leaves them eager to find out what happens next.

Your beginning should also establish the tone and mood of your story. Is it a lighthearted romance, or a dark and gritty thriller? Make sure the opening scene sets the appropriate tone for your story, and gives readers a taste of what's to come.

For example, let’s look at the beginning of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The story starts with Harry living with his neglectful relatives, feeling isolated and unhappy. But there are hints that something extraordinary is about to happen. He receives a mysterious letter, and his uncle tries to prevent him from reading it. Then more and more letters arrive, until finally Hagrid shows up to take Harry to Hogwarts.

The beginning of the story sets up the conflict between Harry's ordinary life and the magical world he's about to enter, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation in the reader.

When crafting the beginning of your story arc, think about what your main character wants, what's standing in their way, and what's at stake. This will help you create a sense of tension and conflict right from the start, which will keep readers engaged and eager to see what happens next.

A strong story arc takes the story somewhere interesting. It’s a promise of a journey readers want to go one.

(Here’s more with 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

Step Two: Write Down the Problem(s) it Creates (AKA: The Rising Action)

Once you've established your beginning, it's time to dive into the meat of your story: the rising action. This is where you introduce the main conflict, and set up the obstacles your character will need to overcome. The problems start piling up, the stakes get higher, and the tension mounts.

Ask yourself: What is the main problem my character needs to solve?

Is it a physical obstacle, like a monster they need to defeat, or a psychological one, like overcoming their own self-doubt? Whatever it is, make sure it's a problem that feels urgent and compelling, and will keep readers invested in the story.

The rising action is where the reader becomes invested in the outcome. This is where you’ll introduce subplots, deepen character relationships, and explore the themes of your story.

As your story progresses, the obstacles your character faces should become increasingly difficult to overcome. These can take many forms, from external conflicts like a villain or a natural disaster, to internal conflicts like self-doubt or addiction.

Each challenge should build upon the last, until your character is facing their biggest challenge yet. This is the point where the tension should be at its highest, and readers should be on the edge of their seats, wondering how your character will ever make it out alive.

For example, let’s look at the rising action in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. After Katniss volunteers as tribute to save her sister, she's whisked away to the Capitol to prepare for the Games. She faces obstacles at every turn, from training sessions with her fellow tributes to the machinations of the Gamekeepers. But she also forms alliances, learns more about the history of Panem, and starts to question the brutality of the Games.

The rising action builds steadily towards the climax of the story, where Katniss is faced with the ultimate challenge of survival in the arena.

When crafting the rising action of your story arc, think about how the problems you introduce will challenge your main character's beliefs, values, and abilities. Every obstacle your main character faces should be leading towards the ultimate resolution of the story.

A strong story arc has a point—usually to cause trouble. Forcing your characters to deal with that trouble is the reason the arc is there.

(Here’s more with Is Your Novel Stuck in the Mud? What Makes a Good Middle)

Step Three: Write Down How It Resolves (AKA: The Climax)

Now we come to the moment readers have been waiting for: the climax. This is where your character faces their biggest challenge yet, and either succeeds or fails. It’s the payoff for everything that has come before it, and where the problems of the story are resolved, the main character's arc is completed, and the themes of the story are brought to the forefront.

The climax of a story arc is the moment of maximum tension and conflict, and where the reader is holding their breath, waiting to see how the story will end.

Ask yourself: How does my character overcome the main problem they've been facing?

Do they use their wits, their strength, or something else entirely? Whatever it is, make sure it feels satisfying and believable, and that it's consistent with the character you've established throughout the story.

The climax should be both satisfying and surprising. The reader should feel like the resolution is inevitable, but they should also be surprised by the specific way that it plays out. This can be achieved through plot twists, unexpected character choices, or surprising revelations.

For example, let’s look at the climax of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Dantès chooses to let go of his hatred and start a new life. He reconciles with those he has wronged and forgives those who have wronged him, including his former friend and betrayer, who has become a broken and remorseful man. Dantès ultimately chooses to leave his past behind and sail away with his new love, Haydée, ready to start a new chapter in his life.

The resolution of your story should also tie up any loose ends and provide closure for readers. If there are any subplots or side characters that haven't been fully resolved, make sure to address them here.

Finally, make sure the ending of your story is consistent with the tone and mood you've established throughout. If your story is a romance, for example, make sure the ending is satisfying and romantic. If it's a thriller, make sure the ending leaves readers feeling satisfied, but still a little bit on edge.

A strong story arc ends in a way that affects something in the story. It might be the plot, the character arc, a subplot, or the motivations of the characters. Resolving it causes a change somehow and somewhere.

(Here’s more with It’s Over: Getting Readers to the End and Making Them Glad They Came)

Story arcs are the backbone of any great story, providing structure and momentum to keep readers engaged from beginning to end.

A strong story arc is essential for keeping readers engaged and invested in your story. By following these three steps, you can create a compelling narrative that will keep readers coming back for more.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the story arcs in your novel. Do they include all three steps? Are all three steps fleshed out to best show your story and take advantage of the conflict and tension you’ve created?

Do you plan your story arcs or do they just happen as you write?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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