The Story Arc Makes Your Stories Powerful

stone bridge in fantasy setting depicting a story arc

Adding structure to your stories shouldn’t stifle imagination or creativity. The story arc exists to help you tell a satisfying story.

Estimated reading time: 1 minute

Whatever your genre or goals for your book, chances are you want to write a story your readers will love. You don’t have to know everything about story theory to be an awesome storyteller, but knowing how to structure a satisfying story is essential.

One way to structure your story for success is to understand and employ a tried-and-true story arc. Fictionary, a software program for creative writers, breaks the story arc into five plot points that you outline to keep your story on track.

Before we get into the specific elements of the story arc, let’s address what it is and why having one is so important.

What is a story arc?

You’d be forgiven for feeling confused about what exactly a story arc is, and that’s because there are so many names for it, including:

  • Dramatic arc
  • Plot arc
  • Narrative arc
  • Just plain old “arc”

But mostly, story arcs follow a similar five-step pattern:

  1. The inciting incident. After the writer introduces the main character, their flaw, the setting, and their “normal life,” there’s an incident that truly kicks off the story.
  2. Plot point one (increasing action). After an inciting incident, the levels of tension and conflict in the story steadily increase, leading your protagonist to the point of no return.
  3. The middle event. Your protagonist goes from reactive to proactive.
  4. Plot point two (a new low). Things are looking bad for our hero.
  5. The climax. It all leads up to this.

Let’s take some time to explore each of these plot points and the role they play in your story.

Fictionary Story Arc
Example of The story arc from Fictionary StoryTeller Software

1. The inciting incident

The inciting incident is a dramatic event that happens to your protagonist (recommended to occur in the first 15 percent of your story). The unexpected nature of this event disrupts the protagonist’s everyday life and introduces the central conflict in the story. You’ll need to spend some time setting up the main character’s “normal life” before the inciting incident hits.

How quickly you introduce the inciting incident will differ depending on which genre you write in. Readers of slower-paced genres like historical fiction will tolerate a longer setup, whereas readers of faster-paced genres like action-thrillers expect the inciting incident to happen as soon as possible.

Examples of inciting incidents include:

  • The protagonist discovers they have magical powers (fantasy)
  • An innocent bystander finds a dead body (crime/mystery/thriller)
  • The protagonist meets someone they’re attracted to (romance/romantic comedy)

The crucial thing about the inciting incident is it gives your main character a goal or motive they simply can’t ignore (which is where the conflict arises).

Your inciting incident should be a dramatic (active) scene, not backstory or narrative summary. Let the reader experience the event alongside the protagonist; this will help get the reader emotionally involved.

2. Plot point one

Following the inciting incident, there will be a period of soul-searching where your main character struggles with the decision to engage in the central conflict of the story.

  • Will your protagonist go to the magical academy, even if it means agreeing to fight an evil mage in the coming supernatural war?
  • Will your detective come out of retirement to solve the case, even though they swore they were out of the cop game for good?
  • Will your protagonist give this romantic relationship a try, even though they’re terrified of getting their heart broken again?

Hint: The answer is always yes!

There’s a reason plot point one (which should occur around the 25 percent mark of your story) is also called the “point of no return.” Your main character doesn’t really have a choice. They must reach the logical conclusion to engage in the story’s central conflict. Otherwise, there’s no story.

You can’t give your protagonist an out. They need to accept the challenge of the story’s goal and engage in the story’s central conflict. If Frodo had refused to take the one ring to Mordor, we wouldn’t have The Lord of the Rings. If Robert Langdon hadn’t followed the clues from various paintings, we wouldn’t have The DaVinci Code. If Bridget Jones hadn’t embarked on a relationship with Daniel Cleaver, we wouldn’t have Bridget Jones’s Diary.

3. The middle event

The middle event should occur (you guessed it) about 50 percent of the way through your story.

Up until this point, your protagonist has been making reactive decisions based on the events of the plot. This is because everything that’s happened to them after the inciting incident is new and unfamiliar terrain.

The purpose of the middle event is to force your protagonist to stop reacting to events as they happen. After this, they actively influence plot events by instigating the action in the second half of the story.

How do you shift the protagonist from reactive to active?

You could make something unexpected, terrible, or life-changing happen to your protagonist. Whatever it is, they have to find the strength to deal with this event and finally take the reins.

Examples of a middle event:

  • If your protagonist doesn’t pass the mid-year exams at the magical academy, they’ll be expelled, and will have to actively study hard to keep their place.
  • The bad guys kidnap your detective’s daughter, and they’ll have to actively work hard to get her back.
  • A close friend warns your protagonist if they don’t change their ways, they’ll always be alone, and they have to actively work to keep their relationship going.

4. Plot point two

Plot point two (which should occur around the 75 percent mark of your story) is your protagonist’s lowest moment.

Although they’ve been active in influencing the plot since the middle event, every action they’ve taken has made things worse and worse until… the protagonist reaches their lowest moment. And that’s exactly what Plot point two is: the worst moment for your protagonist so far.

Other names for plot point two include:

  • The tragedy
  • Hitting rock bottom
  • The dark night of the soul

Something happens that puts everything the protagonist has done to work towards their story goal at risk, and they’re in danger of losing everything.

Examples of a plot point two:

  • Your protagonist’s magical mentor dies.
  • The protagonist detective gets taken off the case.
  • Your protagonist’s love interest says they need to take a break from their relationship.

5. The climax

You’ve built your story up to the climax with rising action, and now the climactic scene (or scenes) will have the highest level of conflict, the greatest tension, and/or the most devastating emotional upheaval.

Several things vital to your climax include:

  • Your protagonist needs to be in the scene(s).
  • Your protagonist needs to resolve the conflict (no other character can do this).
  • The conflict and tension need to be highest at this point in the story.
  • You need to avoid deus ex machina (an unexpected power or event resolving the conflict, rather than your protagonist).
  • The central conflict of the story must be resolved.

The protagonist should face the biggest obstacle in the story and determine their own fate.

Story arc in practice: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl book coverGone Girl is a fantastic psychological thriller to use as an example of how the story arc works. WARNING! Spoilers ahead.

1. The inciting incident: Nick discovers Amy is missing. This works as an inciting incident because the moment Nick discovers his wife is missing is the moment his “normal life” changes in a dramatic way. Nick has no idea where Amy is, or how to get her back.

2. Plot point one: Nick is implicated as a suspect in Amy’s disappearance and needs to investigate to prove his innocence. Remember, the purpose of plot point one is the point of no return. Nick can’t go back to the way things were because he’s a suspect in Amy’s disappearance. The only way things can return to normal is if he finds out what’s happened to Amy and proves he wasn’t behind her disappearance.

3. The middle event: Nick takes control at the press conference. Nick takes control of the press conference, which marks his behavioral shift from reactive to active. Gone Girl also has one of the best midpoint plot twists in memory: Not only is Amy alive, but she faked her disappearance and is setting Nick up to take the fall for it. It doesn’t get much more unexpected than that!

4. Plot point two: Amy forces Nick to live with her again or she’ll frame him for her attempted murder. Now that he knows the truth about Amy and her Machiavellian misdemeanors, Nick has lost everything he thought he had with her. This is a great “all is lost” moment.

5. The climax: Nick plans to reveal Amy was behind it all. Remember, the climax is where your protagonist either succeeds or fails at achieving their story goal. If they succeed, the story has a positive arc. If they fail, the story has a negative arc and is known as a tragedy.

I won’t ruin the entire story if you haven’t yet read the novel — you’ll have to determine if this is a tragedy or not after reading the book! Needless to say, it’s a riveting story, thanks to its expert application of the story arc.

— — —

Adding structure to your stories isn’t about stifling your imagination or creativity. It’s about making sure you tell a satisfying story. Writers have used this structure for thousands of years to tell captivating stories. The crucial point to note is that great story structure is about form, not formula.

Want to see how your story’s structure compares with successful commercial fiction? Take a free trial with the Fictionary software today and put the Fictionary Story Arc to work for your next book!

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