Plot Clinic: The Narrative Arc

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Have you ever written a story – either short or full length novel – and something’s not working? You might not even be sure what but you know something’s not right. Maybe it’s your narrative arc.

“What is the narrative arc?” I hear you ask.

The narrative arc is an extension of the dramatic structure as defined by analysis conducted by Gustav Freytag of Ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama. Both Freytag’s dramatic pyramid and the narrative arc that followed define the structure of plot. How closely it’s followed is entirely down the author or playwright, but it can be useful to understand it.

There are many varied definitions of the narrative arc – it you google it you’ll see a plethora of different images and numerous pages about it. The definition I prefer, and the one that I was introduced to in my degree is this one:

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If you consider almost any novel, movie of play you can see the something similar to the above graphic representation of the structure. Let’s break it down.

Most stories follow a three act structure. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. And this structure is not really any different, it’s just a little more developed. In this structure we begin by defining the character’s normal situation. Think about The Hunger Games, or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: We are introduced to Katniss hunting in her district and we find Harry in Privet Drive in the cupboard under the stairs. This is their reality. Why is this important? Fundamentally when we tell a story in whatever medium we choose, we want our audience to empathise with our main character and travel with them on their emotional journey. Beginning with the normality of before allows the audience to understand the impact of the story on your character. To understand how the character is changed by your story, it’s important to know who they were before the start.

Sooner or later, however, the dramatic action has to begin. Harry receives his letter from Hogwarts and Katniss volunteers as tribute. This is the inciting incident. It’s the turn of events that means that your character is moving away from their established routine and beginning their adventure.

Thus ends act 1. The beginning is over and you’re progressing towards the middle. Incidentally, this should be about 20% of your story, or one fifth. If you’re expecting to write a 65,000 word novel, you would spend around 13,000 words getting past the inciting incident.

The middle part of your story should occupy around 70% of the drama. This is the most important section where you’ll cover most of your character development, all of your major plot points and set up for your climax. You can see on the graph above that there are peaks and troughs in the action. This is representation of rising and falling tension. The inciting incident will be the peak of the tension in act 1 so the early part of act 2, your middle section, should be falling tension. In essence, your main character will spend some time adjusting to their new situation before they begin to overcome (or not) the challenges ahead.

As you can see from the graph, the midpoint of your story (around the 32,000 word mark) should be the peak of your action. preceding this is a period of rising tension. Following this the tension falls away, but not for long. You can think of your rising and falling tension as a series of challenges with a win, lose or draw outcome. The higher the stakes of success or failure, the greater the tension so the stakes should be ever-increasing. Your first obstacle, the one that occurs nearest the beginning of the middle section can be something as simple as achieving acceptance in the new environment or social construct, or it can be coming to terms with a skill, ability or birthright.

Of course, for the stakes to be high there always has to be the possibility of failure. Whatever challenges you put in your character’s way, they should win some, lose some and draw some. I personally like to think of the rising tension section as a series of wins and draws so that the audience has in the back of their mind that the run of good fortune can’t last forever. The failure, when it comes, should be big and should have impactful and emotional consequences. This should be your character’s lowest point when the situation seems hopeless. You then work towards the climax, bringing the tension back up again.

Have you seen the movie Armageddon? This has the best middle section of any dramatic work I’ve seen because it so effectively manipulates the emotions of the audience. From the point that the team first comes together to prepare for their mission right up to the point when they return to Earth afterwards is covered by the middle section of the arc. Think about that mid-point, think about the point when it seems all hope is lost: It’s the point when Harry Stamper thinks his back up team is dead, when they’ve lost their drill (and a friend in the process). It seems like they’ve failed. And then AJ and what’s left of the back up team come over the Horizon and we know they’re going to make it.The climax that follows – actually destroying the asteroid – isn’t nearly so powerful. There’s build up to it but we know we’ve hit the turning point, after that it’s just a matter of what the team will have to sacrifice in order to succeed.

I always find this incredibly useful to think about and remember when I’m working on the middle section of a novel because it such a good demonstration of the principles of the narrative arc.

So we’ve made it through the beginning, we’ve battled through the middle, and now we come to the end.

When I was younger I used to think that the ending was the most dramatic part of a story but if you look at the graph above that doesn’t seem to be the case. The ending should be around 10% of your story and it’s the time to draw together and loose ends, finish up your character development by having your character take stock. If you’re working on a series of some sort, this can also be the point to set-up and foreshadow the threat of your next part. This should be a relatively relaxed time for your audience. We know we’re through the worst of it so now we can relax. That doesn’t mean it can’t emotional but it should, perhaps be emotional in a different way. It should be less exciting and less like being on a rollercoaster. Instead, maybe go for touching and contemplative.

Of course, not all stories follow this structure and ultimately go with whatever works. However, I have found knowing structures like this can really help to resolve plot problems and can also help to keep your story on track. It’s like Pablo Picasso said: “Know the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

Have you encountered this structure before? Is it something you refer? Try breaking down a movie, novel or play to see how it fits (or otherwise) this structure.

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2 thoughts on “Plot Clinic: The Narrative Arc

  1. I’ve had many debates about structure with my fellow writers. I’m a big believer in the basic outline you give here, but I have a lot of friends who say sticking too closely to it can make our work feel formulaic. Over time, I’ve fallen somewhere between the two perspectives. I do believe we need structure, and I think, especially in literary fiction, you can let things stretch in places, just so long as you have a climax near the end and try to build toward it steadily. Great post. Thanks.

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    1. KJMiddleton

      Thanks, April. I find the structure useful at various stages of the writing process but ultimately I think variation is very wise. Often as I’m writing the plot dictates its own structure. ☺️

      Like

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