Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2022

How to Create a Compelling Narrative Arc

Editing-Queen

Fiction writing and storytelling have been around since the beginning of mankind. From stories to explain natural phenomena to simple campfire tales, humans enjoy the dramatic arc of all kinds of stories. After thousands of years of verbal storytelling and then written language, a novelist named Gustav Freytag outlined the narrative arc in a simple pyramid structure. Freytag's Pyramid consists of five key stages of a story:

  • Exposition
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution.

Understanding these stages and building on them can help you develop a very compelling narrative arc for your own writing.

What is a narrative arc?

A narrative arc describes the parabolic nature of storytelling. It applies to fiction and nonfiction alike, adding structure and shape to any story. With varying degrees of curvature, your story will take a reader from a foundation, through some action, to a pinnacle of events, then walks them through the effects of those events, and into a resolution. Think of a narrative arc like a wave. It starts with a foundation that hits some obstacles and builds into engaging action. The crest of the wave is the climax – the biggest action of the story that is supported by the setup provided in the rising action. The falling wave is where the reader "surfs" the results of the events that happened in the climax. Then, once the events are over, there is a resolution on the shore, bringing a finality to your narrative.

Narrative Arc
A great first step is to make an outline of key points of your story that fit within the stages we describe, then use that outline to grow the story and shape it how you want readers to experience your characters and plot.

When working through the elements of the narrative arc, consider the following scenario to narrow down what will be compelling throughout your story. If you were to plan a road trip, there are certain steps you would take to identify key points along the way, such as where to sleep, how far to drive, what tourist destinations you want to see, etc. When you're deciding the tourist destinations, there are bound to be some places you are very eager to see, while others fall into a category that's "could be fun, but if we don't get to it, then that's ok." As you think about your story, there will inevitably be events and characters that you feel more excited about. Those will end up being the situations and people highlighted in your story arc. Chances are, if you are excited about them, then your readers will be too!

Now, let's get into the details.

Exposition

The exposition is the beginning of the story. When you are describing the first scene or describing the characters and their style, this is part of the exposition. Throughout this stage, you will essentially be building your fictional world. The complexity of this phase depends on your story. It could be that you need a lot of description about the world the characters live in or the situation that they find themselves in when the story begins.

Take, for example, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien. He had created an entire world – multiple worlds, in fact – for his characters to find adventure in and explore. In truth, he had created a whole language before anything else became real. His exposition extends through many chapters, providing those patient enough to read it with a great view of a very magical world. On the other end of the spectrum, C.S. Lewis, in the Chronicles of Narnia, jumps right in and chose to combine the story and leaves the details to emerge as the story unfolds. There are merits to both, and you will be able to decide what works best for your story depending on what you feel the important parts of your story are. What do you need your reader to understand about your world and characters before they engage with the unfolding story?

Rising action

The rising action is the meat and "po-tay-toes" (a little Lord of the Rings influence there) of the story. Your characters will interact in this part of the narrative, and new characters will be introduced and interact with your initial characters. New places or scenery will be introduced as well. All of the conflict, complications, dialogue, and action should develop throughout this stage.

Consider including key aspects of backstory to your characters – whether existing or new – to help your readers connect with these characters. Draw the reader in with excitement and depth. No character should be one-dimensional! Build them a history, give them their own mind and troubles that will either be to their detriment or their benefit as the story goes on. Don't be shy about using the rising action stage to really dig into your characters' motives and reason for being. Many authors decide on a theme or destination for the moral of the story or lessons the characters will learn, and they do this in the early planning stages. If you do that, then including little bits of information that lead to those outcomes in the rising action stage will engage the reader and give them something to anticipate in the climax.

When you look back through the rising action of your story, there should be clear lines connecting the plot to the climax and resolution. After your initial draft, go through and tighten up the action so that it is focused and includes only those pieces of information that are relevant to the climax and aspects of your characters' personalities that affect their decision making.

Climax

The climax is, naturally, a very important part of your narrative arc. Consider a gymnast's run down the vault lane: they get ready, run faster and faster, bounce off the springboard and over the vault, then they flip and land on the spongy mat, then pose for the judges and walk back to the bench to receive hugs of support from their teammates. Out of all that, what's the part you're really waiting for? That's right – did they stick the landing?! The climax of your story is the landing. This is the peak moment when the characters' fate is exposed. Do they get the girl? Did they slay the dragon? The results of the protagonist's journey are revealed in the climax.

When you are deciding on how to write the climax of the story, remember that there is no standard formula for how long or short it should be written. Sometimes the climax is quick and takes up a single scene written out over a few pages. Other times, the climax could be events that span several chapters. The right way is the one that fits your characters and plot lines.

This stage is also where you can include some of the key themes and lessons of the story. A villain's purpose can be revealed, showing an experience that this character hasn't exposed yet. It could be a learning experience for the hero. Take the concept driving your story and evoke an emotional response from your reader. They will love you for it.

Falling action

Once you have built your world (exposition), developed the story, characters and the situation they are in (rising action), reached the exciting or emotional climax of the story, it's time to come down from the top and lead the story through the changes that result from the events in the climax. It could be considered a return to the new normal after things changed due to the events in the rising action and climax.

Here, expand on what results are left after the main conflict has passed, continue exploring what the resolution will be for various characters or even review loose ends left open. This part of the story will be shorter than the rising action. Though they are both event-based stages, this represents a lead-in to the wrap-up of the story. It's the last mile of the journey.

Resolution

How does the story end? After everything that your characters have been through, where do they end up after finishing that "final mile" of the trip? Ending a story can be very difficult. You've created characters and a world that could continue on forever, much as our world does. There's a life that has been breathed into your imagination, and deciding how to finish that story is important to the impact your story will have on the reader. The key is to follow where the story has led to that point. Your protagonist by this point has either succeeded or failed during the climax, and they have reached a resting point – either positive or negative. Do they start a new life, do they die, was there a big lesson they learned? Use that finality to end the story with a lesson learned or a commentary on the success. Give your reader something to think about and ruminate on after they finish reading the last sentence of your story.

While most narratives follow this pathway, it is up to you if the story you want to tell fits in this exact structure. You may be able to change up what order the stages come in, but if you build out these stages for your story, you'll have a great start and finish to building your unique story arc.

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