Storytelling, Step 1: All About Arcs
Written by
Annie Tucker
June 2016
Written by
Annie Tucker
June 2016

We all know the tale of how Noah saved the world by loading animals onto a big wooden boat, also known as an ark. In book publishing, “arc” with a “c” is an important word, too, but it has nothing to do with boats and everything to do with how a story or a character progresses from point A to point B.

Whenever I start working with an author on a developmental edit, I bring up the concept of narrative arc early on in our process and offer the following scenario to help my clients understand what an integral role a strong arc plays in good storytelling:

Imagine that you decide to go for a hike one day. You get all fired up as you picture the beautiful scenery you’ll see, the challenge of climbing uphill, the exhilaration of reaching the summit and taking in the views, and the satisfying descent. Now imagine that when you actually get to the trail, you discover that the whole thing is flat and surrounded by identical-looking shrubs, so you don’t experience any elevation change or any new sights along the route. Disappointing, right?

The glaring difference between what you expect this hike to be and what it turns out to be is similar to the difference between a book with an arc and a book without one. A narrative arc is what keeps readers’ anticipation mounting, produces tension and suspense, and provides a clear conclusion to the reading experience. Chances are, a book without an arc isn’t even going to hold your attention long enough for you to finish it, just as you might be tempted to cut short a hike with no ups and downs and no vistas.

A classic narrative arc has five distinct stages: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (or dénouement).

Exposition: In the beginning, the author’s job is to set the scene for (or expose) what’s to come, by introducing important locations, characters, and themes.

Rising action: Once the author has provided the basics, he or she can begin building tension—either within or between characters, or between characters and their environment—and adding complexity to the plot so that the reader begins to feel invested in what will happen to the people in the story.

Climax: Here, the story reaches its apex of narrative action and tension, and some pivotal event or realization precipitates a clear turning point in the story line, the characters, or both.

Falling action: Once this shift occurs, the author starts filling in any lingering gaps in the plot, answering any unanswered questions, and guiding the reader toward the book’s conclusion. The pacing in this phase is sometimes more leisurely, the characters more introspective, as they react to the internal and external changes they’re observing.

Resolution: In this phase, the author winds down the story and (ideally) leaves readers trying to envision what will become of the characters they’ve encountered within the manuscript. The best books often get people so emotionally invested in the outcome that they reach the last page and think, Now what am I supposed to do with myself? When I read Hanya Yanagihara’s heart-shattering 2015 novel, A Little Life, I cried when I got to the end, partly because it was so sad and partly because I really didn't want the story to be over. That’s a great narrative arc for you.

If you’re just getting started writing a book of your own, try creating a physical map of your arc. You can draw it by hand or design it on a computer, as long as it contains all five of the above-mentioned stages and lists the key characters, places, incidents, and interactions that you plan to include. As you write, always be thinking about how to use these elements to engage your readers every step of the way. Like a good hike, a narrative arc should always keep people curious and excited about what awaits them at the top. 

Have a storytelling-related question? Leave it in the comments below.

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