The Narrative Arc

Whether you’re writing a memoir or a novel, you need a narrative arc.  You might think you’ve got the narrative arc covered just because you have a beginning, middle, and ending, but it’s not really that simple.  A narrative arc is a double-whammy of character and plot.  When you make use of a narrative arc, your protagonist’s character development drives the plot.

You start your story with a character living in a situation.  You need to show, at least to some degree, who the character was and how the character lived before the story.  Then, after you’ve established the character, the setting, and the situation, you need to shake things up by presenting the character with a problem.

It can’t just be any old problem either.  It has to be a problem the character cannot solve.  See, if the character could solve the problem as he was when the problem was first introduced, then the need to solve the problem wouldn’t drive the character into the story.  He’d just solve the problem and be done with it.  Thus, the story would end and there would be no middle.

So, you introduce a problem the character cannot solve without change.  This problem causes the character to react.  The character might react to the problem by running away (think Frodo in Lord of the Rings).  The character might react to the problem by fighting back only to be swatted down like an annoying fly.  It doesn’t matter.  The character reacts, but the reaction doesn’t solve the problem.  This creates the need to change—get stronger, faster, smarter, more informed, better equipped, something.  This pursuit of change becomes the middle of the story.

At some point, change is achieved.  The last piece of the puzzle is in place, whether the character realizes it or not, and the character is ready to tackle the problem.  This kicks off the ending of the story.  The character must then confront the problem, and through the changes the character has undergone the character succeeds—or not.

This development process is a narrative arc.  The character has a starting point, a changing process (or several), and an ending point.  This is the backbone of your story.

Now, granted, there’s a lot of flesh to add to the backbone, and a lot of structural bones to put in place, too, but the narrative arc is the thing that holds the story upright.  If you don’t have one, then your story is just going slither down into a puddle of words at your feet.

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
This entry was posted in Storytelling and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Narrative Arc

  1. acflory says:

    Another great post. I sometimes think that finding that bit in the middle is the hardest part of the whole process because it requires some kind of context outside of the character him/herself. And that context has to be every bit as believable as the character.

    • Have you checked out “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks yet? He does a pretty great job providing a structure for that muddling middle part. I can’t describe it as well as he can, but I’ll hit the highlights:
      Part 1 establishes the character.
      Plot Point 1 kicks sets the problem in motion 1/4 of the way through the book.
      Part 2 shows the character’s reaction to the first plot point.
      The Midpoint shifts things for the reader and/or the character.
      Part 3 shows the character fighting back.
      Plot Point 2 provides the character with the final piece of necessary information.
      Part 4 resolves the problem, for better or worse, through the character’s actions.

      The detailed version presented in the book does a great job of presenting what goes where without being formulaic. With this knowledge you could plan out your book or pants in, but thinking ahead to what you’ll be needing to accomplish.

      Strongly recommended!

      • acflory says:

        Mmm… I’m too much of a pantster for that. With tech writing I had to be highly organized. My fiction writing is a bit of a reaction against that style of working.

  2. I understand, but there is a structure to a story and if you know the structure–whether you plan it out on paper or plan it out in your head–then you can be more sure of hitting the necessary points to tell a good one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s