I am asked, at times, what “arc” means in a story. It is a question typically asked by new writers and, funny thing, they know the answer. Still, sometime they read a story and it just falls off the end of a cliff. No rise, no arc, no suspense, no surprise, and sometimes…no point.
Here are some examples a layman can understand in that we all know, we as writers, sometime speak a different language. I was reminded of “arc” the other night while watching a baseball game at the stadium. Granted Nigel Watts provides a better explanation, but here I will do it using a baseball analogy.
This is the “every day life” in which the story is set. Cinderella sweeping the ashes, Jack (of Beanstalk fame) living in poverty, or Harry Potter living with the Dursley’s.
Something beyond the control of the protagonist is the trigger which sparks off the story.
The trigger results in a quest – an unpleasant trigger might involve a quest to return to the status quo; a pleasant trigger means a quest to maintain or increase the new pleasant state.
This stage involves not one but several elements, and takes up most of the middle part of the story. “Surprise” includes pleasant events, but more often means obstacles, complications, conflict, and trouble for the protagonist.
Watts emphasizes that surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable – they need to be unexpected, but plausible. The reader has to think, “I should have seen that coming!”
At some stage, your protagonist needs to make a crucial decision; a critical choice. This is often reveals the real character personalities. Watts stresses this has to be a decision by the character to take a particular path – not just something that happens by chance.
The critical choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax, the highest peak of tension, in your story.
The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and the climax, and it should change the status of the characters – especially your protagonist.
Your story reversals should be inevitable and probable. Nothing should happen for no reason, changes in status should not fall out of the sky. The story should unfold as life unfolds: relentlessly, implacably, and plausibly.
The resolution is a return to a fresh stasis – one where the characters should be changed, wiser and enlightened, but where the story being told is complete.
In the baseball analogy, it’s short and sweet:
Stasis – the baseball game
Trigger - Standing at bat
The quest – Hit the ball
Surprise – Slams the ball to outfield over outfielders head; runner gets to third base
Critical choice – Stay on third or chance making it home
Climax – Next batter hits a long drive
Reversal – Third base runner heads to home…will he make it?
Resolution - Third base runner slides into home plate and score (happy ending). Third base runner slides into home plate and the catcher tags him out (sad ending).