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.