The Crucial Story Arc

I’ve said it before: it is easy to write a great chapter, it’s hard to write a complete novel.

Good writing can get you through a chapter that shows interesting characters, local tension and a nice writing voice. But to write a great novel, you must envision the character across a wider canvas than a single chapter.

To do that, you can use several approaches.

The Crucial Story Arc


Plot. First, you might want to look at the 29 options for plots and the 9 ways of plotting to see if your story falls into one of them. There are hero’s quests, friendship stories and more. You care about these different plot paradigms because one of them will allow you to structure your story so that individual events add up to something more than just one incident. It prevents you from an episodic story, which adds up to nothing more than one episode after another. You could say that this is the outer plot.

Character. Second, character arcs are the inner plot, or the development and change a character undergoes because of the story’s events. Here, you care about the progression that happens to a character. They start out lonely, but find friends; they start out shy, but find a bit of daring; they start out__________ but become _____________.

One thing I have noticed about dealing with the larger issues in a novel is that you must think in general terms. A scene demonstrating that a character is lonely can take place in a million different ways–that’s good, of course, you want your story to be unique. But on the level of outlining, it must be general, no way around it, it’s the only way to discuss it. But it demands that you be able to generalize about the events, a logic ability that is difficult for some. And it matters how you generalize: does this event mean the character is lonely or does it mean they are scared of crowds?

Why does the interpretation of the scene matter? Strong plots match up the beginning and ending. What you set up in the opening scene is solved by the climax. If you are fuzzy about the opening and how you want it interpreted, then you can’t hit bull’s eye with the climax. It also means a more difficult time in developing a believable character arc, a series of scenes which inexorably force change in a character.

On this continuum of stories which we call novels, there is room for lots of variation for outer and inner story arcs. Some will be strong in one and not the other; some will be weak in both or strong in both. But writing a novel demands that you look at this structure. Anyone can write a great chapter.

5 Comments
  1. Thanks, Darcy, for the reminder. I have written a few children’s stories, a MG novel and working on a YA novel. One of my biggest challenges is making sure my characters stay consistent and are allowed to grow during the course of the story. Thanks for all you do for the writing community!

  2. Oh, this is incredibly helpful. I love these posts where I feel like I can pop my head up above the ocean of my writing and get some guidance to make sure everything is working the way it should.

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