One of the most valuable things I learned through studying Creative Writing at university was the ‘Story Arc’.
Like most things, the Story Arc (or, tSA from here) begins at the beginning and carries on through to the end. It is so named because it shows the curve of a plotted storyline in any written piece of fiction.
The Story Arc highlights five distinct stages that make up a story:
- The Inciting Incident
- Obstacle (to overcome)
- Obstacle (to overcome)
The sections between these five stages help to bridge the story, engage the reader, and aid with building the drama. These sections are:
This first step – to establish routine – is basically an introduction to your story. It is the very start, the insight into the daily life (or, routine) of your main character before he/she embarks on their adventure.
In JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, it’s the part before Frodo receives the ring of power. It’s the part before Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider in Spiderman. In short, it is the precursor to your adventure, the calm before the storm. It is your chance to set up the ‘world’ your story is set in and introduce your leading characters.
Try to keep this section short. Maybe just a few pages. Or paragraphs. This section introduces the story, the characters, the world – and sets the parameters that the rest of the story will operate by – no more than that. Keep it brief.
This is the point when everything changes for your main character (MC). It’s something that happens to send their life in a completely different direction than it would otherwise have taken. It’s where the MC’s normal routine ends, and their (unknown) adventure begins.
It’s Frodo receiving the ring of the power. It’s Peter Parker getting bitten by the radioactive spider.
The Inciting Incident can be something very minor, or something very dramatic – whatever is best in keeping with your story. All that matters is that something creates a new path for your MC.
Now that your MC’s course has been altered, they no longer have their routine to fall back on. New situations, conditions, opportunities are arising for them. Things are different. Their life, their circumstances, their actions have all changed as a result of the Inciting Incident.
Imagine your MC’s path as a gentle flow of water. It’s trickling along as usual (routine), and then a fallen rock suddenly blocks the flow (Inciting Incident). The water can’t stop flowing just because the rock is blocking it, nor can it continue on it’s usual route. Instead, it finds a new path around the rock (everything changes). Or it doesn’t, and the water begins to pool (everything changes). In the same way, your character cannot simply stop or ignore what has happened. They must adapt to the new situation they now face. Naturally, this change – however small or great – leads on to other changes in the same way. Everything spirals, snowballs away from ordinary life. Everything changes.
This is where we see that the Inciting Incident has had an impact on your MC. It’s Frodo leaving the Shire to escape the Nazgul. It’s Peter Parker’s body changing in reaction to the bite – his powers and ‘spidey senses’ develop for the first time.
Do also note that the line on tSA for this section is curving downward. This shows that your MC is outside of their comfort zone, that they are facing unknown situations, that their life is maybe beginning to spiral out of control.
Obstacle to Overcome
With your MC facing the unknown, not in control, not comfortable – this is where they come to their first real challenge: the first real obstacle to their goal. At this point, while your character is feeling low and powerless, you raise the stakes.
For poor Frodo, it’s being cornered and stabbed by the Nazgul while Aragorn leads him and his hobbit friends to Rivendell. For Peter Parker, it’s the murder of his uncle by a criminal he had earlier on decided not to pursue. These challenges, though in different ways, threaten both the characters and the actual stories. Something so serious might scare your character away – make them quit, or give up on their goal. This also will alter their path. Maybe even kill them. Or change the way they think, or face the world. But it is the severity of the situation the character faces at this point, or is left with, that often drives them on. More than that, it often motivates them to achieve something great in doing so.
At this point, you are roughly a third of the way into your story.
Now that your MC has successfully navigated the obstacle that hindered them (Frodo survived the Nazgul blade with some help from the Elves, etc), they are more determined and more motivated to succeed than ever before. Committing themselves fully to the task, and so to the risk (eg. Frodo begins his journey to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, Peter Parker ‘becomes’ Spiderman). The tension in your story begins to rise.
I often think it’s worth turning tSA upside down at this point and looking at it a little differently. Instead of the tension building and growing with every page and action, it gathers speed and power and energy as it rolls down the curve – like a car rolling freely down a hill, or that trickle of water bleeding uninterrupted down a slope. The further along you get, the more momentum and urgency it has gathered. Now turn tSA the right way up again. Reflect that urgency, that risk, in the tension you create.
Somewhat self-explanatory: the Midpoint is the middle or the halfway point of your story. It is also the height of tension. Here your MC faces a much greater challenge than anything they have faced previously. You might treat this section as a very large ‘Obstacle’ (to overcome), or something equally dramatic that results in your character being set along a different route once again.
For example: Frodo and the Fellowship – in Moria, under The Misty Mountain – are not only surrounded by Orcs, but are revealed and face battling a large Cave Troll. Frodo is almost killed in the encounter. Gandalf – their steady, wise and powerful companion – is apparently slain combating the ancient Balrog as they escape. Gollum pursues them, following closely behind all the while.
All of the tension – the urgency and risk – that built in the earlier stages led to this section. Make your Midpoint action-filled, important.
Following the Midpoint, your character once again is facing change. tSA curve drops as – once again – your character loses momentum and control. The momentum that you built, that your character built, leading up to the Midpoint was strong – but impossible to maintain.
Here your MC is unsure at the changes and new circumstances they face. The Midpoint was a turning point – it had an impact on how (or whether) your MC would, could, or even wanted to continue to attain their goal (motivation).
Just as everything changed for your MC after the Inciting Incident, everything now changes again after the Midpoint. Only, having built to the Midpoint, this time your character has further to fall.
Obstacle to Overcome/Tension Rises
This comes at roughly two thirds of the way through your story.
As before: just as your MC feels they can sink no lower, they are faced with another Obstacle. Not as great as the Midpoint, this will again change things for your MC. Overcoming this obstacle puts them closer to the end of their story – and the only way out for them really is to continue on. As they press ahead, the tension once again begins to build …
And then your story reaches the Climax, where everything in your story comes to a head. It’s the big finish (before the actual ending). The Climax isn’t a particularly long section of your story, but it is one of the most important. It is the pay-off, the reward for your reader for having read up to that point. It’s the battle of Hogwarts and defeat of Lord Voldemort after seven Harry Potter books. It’s the destruction of the ring of power in The Return of the King. It’s Spiderman defeating the Green Goblin.
Simply: this is where your MC reaches the end of their story. Either they accomplish their goal, or are stopped short of reaching it. This ‘chapter’ of their life has come to an end.
This part of the story comes after the Climax, right at the end, and is basically the final resolution of your storyline(s). It’s where you tie up any loose ends, wrap up, finish off, and clarify any outstanding narrative threads or plot twists. It doesn’t have to be long. In fact, the shorter the better. Keep it brief. It’s a bit like the ‘Establish Routine’ section at the beginning, only on the other end. The tension falls dramatically after the Climax, so it is best to get this part done quickly. A lot of your loose threads will have been resolved already as part of the Climax, so make sure to use this section to close any that are left open otherwise your reader will be left feeling that your story is incomplete.