Story Arcs: Rags-to-Riches, Riches-to-Rags, and Roundtrips

story arcs

Two of the classic story shapes are “the fall” or “the rise.” In these story arcs, the main character climbs to a peak of happiness, falls from one, or does a round-trip for maximum emotional impact.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

It’s the agony of the “can you imagine?” slide from the top down or whoosh from the bottom up. It’s a fun tale to tell.

In a rags-to-riches story, it is often the literal case of money flowing into hands that makes the story. Yet, many other variations exist.

Examples of rags-to-riches tales

In love stories, the riches are love. Twilight is a rags-to-riches tale. Bella wins love. Edward too. And after a century of waiting, that feels especially satisfying.

It’s going from nothing to more than you ever dreamed possible. Harry Potter is a rags-to-riches story, emotionally. He goes from sleeping under the stairs to being an extraordinary wizard with true friends.

Most hero stories actually include a rags-to-riches element. You go from a nobody, a loser, the unredeemed, the failed, to having the adventure that everyone knows and loves you for for the rest of your life. You saved the galaxy, after all.

The emotional rags

Sometimes a protagonist can live in overflowing, material luxury while wearing emotional rags. The new emotional suit of health that protects against loneliness is cut from the fabric of love, redemption, or reunion.

How many stories are based on the arc of workaholic parents who are finally forced to step off the jet to take care of their child just in time to reconnect with their own inner child?

Sometimes the peak can be a moral one, as in the story of a king abdicating the throne in favor of the love of a commoner. Marrying down for love is an endlessly rich stream of story gold.

Other common story arc “rags”

Sometimes money itself can be the rags – when money corrupts and poisons the mind and soul. Giving it up then brings redemption and moral justice.

Falls are usually roundtrips, as readers like happy endings. Falls can be from monetary heights, positions of power or the loss of a loved one – whether your Romeo or a family member.

While stories of protagonists who lose and win and lose fortunes abound, a book usually has room enough for one full cycle.

You start on a peak, get knocked off, then rise up like a phoenix. Readers like characters to end on a new peak. There is nothing so stunning as the view from top of the world. This is the classic ending.

The roundtrip story arc – or, the protagonist’s comeback

Thrillers often take their leads on roundtrips. Plots often document falls from grace that see characters attain much higher heights by the denouement. The wildly successful billionaire, or the respectfully quiet doctor, or other situation-rich character is methodically, maliciously, or randomly stripped of everything.

How many times have you seen a hero starting his journey in a state of complete confusion without a wallet in his pocket? You could lose your status because of anything from a psycho to a jealous ex, a tropical storm that sweeps away your town to a shipwreck that leaves you stranded on a tropical isle.

The point of the story is to show your character’s mettle as he makes the extraordinary climb back up. How often is the prince, magnate, or socialite knocked off a perch so he can prove himself, take revenge, and win back his birth right?

The undiscovered riches

Another classic roundtrip is the journey in which a character realizes she had riches she didn’t know about – a case of not knowing what you have until it’s gone. It could be love, family – something you already have but take for granted.

Dorothy gets sucked away in the tornado to the Land of Oz to unintentionally squash the Witch of the West and save the day. That sounds like a rags-to-riches trajectory, but she’s wildly happy when she finds herself back in Kansas, sans red slippers and celebrity status.

In such a trajectory you go from rags to riches by actually staying exactly the same – just with an understanding of how things could be far worse.

Scrooge has a mental transition of this type. He owns riches but lives in rags – literally and emotionally. After dreams about past, present, and future, he re-evaluates his waking life and learns to share his wealth to win emotional riches – bettering his own life and the lives of those around him.

Roundtrips from the bottom are rarer, yet they exist and make for absolute tearjerkers. In the book Flowers for Algernon, the riches are smarts. We touchingly see Algernon go from low to genius-level IQ, but heartbreakingly, the gain is only temporary.

Any romance in which one of the pair dies is also a roundtrip. The only silver lining of the loss of this incredible love is what remains. What has been gained is a life-changing experience. They are still riches, you just can’t spend them.




  1. Not sure what the ‘moral’ of my kids’ book is, but the title is Professor Pepperhouse and the Magic Mustard Sauce. It’s been written and a few copies printed, but continues to bubble up in my mind, where I feel I need to fill out the origins of the main character in order to give more substance to the plot.
    PS:Story not related to my websites, which are about music.


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