Sunday, November 25, 2012

Story Arcs

Aristotle is credited with analyzing the art of story-telling. He defined a story as having a specific beginning, middle and end. When beginning is tied intimately to the end, the story takes on life--a complete being that "lives" because it is written that way.

Since Aristotle, many adaptations of his three-act story structure have been posited.  Shakespeare's plays had six or seven acts because candle wicks needed to be trimmed during performances. Modern filmmakers think in terms of four acts: Act 2 has two parts divided by a midpoint incident.
Novelists, consciously or unconsciously, write in acts punctuated by story events like "plot points," "inciting incident" and "black moment."

A romance's Act 1 sets up the heroine's present situation, defines her current life, her ordinary world. At the inciting incident, something presents a problem or challenge --the loss of a job, return of abusive husband, opportunity to grasp a prize heretofore unobtainable. This propels her directly in the path of her future lover.

At the First Plot Point, about 1/4 into the story, she has to make a major choice. She crosses the Threshold. It is a point of no return. She can't go back to her old life.  Act 2 begins.

During the first half of Act 2, she struggles and fails. Everything she does trying to fix her problems only makes things worse. At the Act 2 midpoint, she realizes she will have to take an ultimate risk, do things she heretofore never dared. She tries harder and harder, and the antagonistic person or force counters her every move. She wins skirmishes and still loses ground.

At Plot Point Two, she faces the reality that she needs to risk everything, even if it means her friends forsake her. Put her life on the line. She sees the potential reward on the opposite bank of the raging river in front of her. She may fail, but not trying to cross is no longer an option. Bruised but wiser, she jumps into Act 3.

In Act 3 things come to a climax. She resolves the issues that have arisen on her journey, first for others, then for herself. The biggest, baddest, hardest problem is resolved last. At the black moment, it appears she has failed. Then she triumphs. She is resurrected. And the story ends with her HEA.

All stories need some version of this story arc to be satisfying. (Think marketable.) Authors often write a first draft then go back and layer in conflict. Other authors pre-plot the main turning points, then write with these intermediate goalposts already in mind. Either way--and there are many permutations in between--is right and good.

The end result is what matters. A story that satisfies our boundless need to share the experience of being human.


  1. An interesting analysis, even though I'm finding it difficult to slot my current WIP into the different 'sections'.
    I tend to see a story arc in terms of conflicts - either internal (the characters battling within themselves), or between the characters (caused either by their intenal emotions or by some external event/person). Some conflicts may be resolved, or partially resolved, but others take their place or grow more important, until it seems impossible for the characters ever to resolve them. But of course they do - eventually!

  2. Thanks, Ana for this timely post. I am struggling with (aka ignoring) the revisions needing to be done for "This Feels Like Home". I'm kind of all over the place with things. I'm going to print this out and see if I can make things fit your outline here to make them make more sense.

    Maybe if I have a plan I won't want to put the whole darn thing in the shredder. Arghhhh.


  3. Debra, if it's any consolation, I
    feel like putting my current WIP into the shredder too! I'm on my third re-write and still feel it's not working properly, even though I've added a lot and taken some things out. I can't seem to find my way through the jungle at the moment!

  4. It is hard, but the effort is worth it, IMO. Readers are "hotwired" to this story structure. If essential elements are not in a reasonable spot in the story, the story will drag.
    Seen a bad movie? Been disappointed by a book?
    It was lacking something essential. Aside from bad grammar skills, this probably was a plot element.

  5. I think this is an interesting framework to consider, although like most writing rules, I don't want to be completely bound by it. Even if your story doesn't fit neatly into this framework, you can use it to make sure you have enough conflict and that your story arc is progressing. Thanks for the information, Ana.