Friday, February 11, 2011

Story Arcs Again: Repetition and Development

I was fascinated by the response to my post the other day, "Three points makes a story arc." One of the things I noticed was that people in various contexts took issue with my simplification of the arc into a series of three "repetitions." Yes, indeed, repetition makes it seem simple. On the other hand, what I was trying to do was take a look down through all the layers of complexity and try to figure out what the absolutely most basic form of an arc would be. I've seen a lot of fantastic discussions (including this one) of story arcs that look at the arc in terms of its intuitive form, but one of the things I like to try to do here on the blog is tie things down as concretely as possible.

I'm still convinced it is the sense of repetition that sensitizes us to arcs when we read - however, repetition should not be defined in its most simplistic sense. We see something occur. Then we recognize it the second time it occurs, but something gets added. This sets up an expectation for further progress, or progress of a particular type, going forward. The next time we see the repeated element, the development that happened between point 1 and point 2 may be turned in a different direction. What takes a simple repetition and turns it into an intuitively recognizable arc is this development over the course of the story - but in terms of the writing, it's not a smooth progression. There are discrete events that contribute to it.

For the purposes of being specific, I thought I'd lay out a few of the arcs that I'm putting into my current novel. There are lots of arcs in this one, and they do very different things - and many of the smaller arcs also participate in larger arcs.

Arc 1 repeating element: Stranger (I mentioned this arc in my last arc post)
  • Character 1 glimpses a stranger at a concert
  • Character 1 sees a stranger at a second concert, approaches and speaks briefly to him
  • Character 1 goes to a private concert and is vaguely surprised when he doesn't see the stranger
  • Character 1 meets the soloist from the private concert and is personally introduced to the stranger
So with the stranger, we have repetition that appears pretty simple at first. He comes out of nowhere and doesn't have any development in his first appearance; that's because there would be no plausible reason for him to interact with Character 1 in this context. However, it becomes an arc because he reappears, and when he does, something new happens: they speak together. Repetition+development is what gives the arc its trajectory. The third instance, in which Character 1 doesn't see the stranger, helps to develop the arc because it lets readers know that Character 1 has developed a curiosity about this person he wouldn't otherwise have. That curiosity will actually have its own arc as the story goes on. It also sets Character 1 up to be receptive to the opportunity that happens at the next point, when he's introduced to the stranger personally. There are actually more points on this arc, but I haven't written them yet and don't want to give them away!

Arc 2 repeating element: Della
  • Character 1 goes to a concert, is caught in a riot and ends up having to stick with a stranger for his own protection. He never learns her name.
  • Character 1 goes to a second concert and Della is at this one as well. He sees her at intermission and offers her servant a drink but doesn't speak to her.
  • Character 1 sees Della again after the second concert finishes; this time she speaks to him. Someone else sees him speaking with her.
  • Character 1 is coerced into going to an event by the person who saw him speaking with Della (another arc branches off here)
  • Character 1 is told not to see Della again
  • Character 1 gets an opportunity to see Della's servant again and turns it into an opportunity to see her in spite of this advice. Della implies she may invite him to her home.
You can see this one is a major arc, but only for Character 1. Other arcs branch off of it, as when there are consequences for Character 1 being seen with this girl. The repeating element is always the girl, but the things that happen occur in an order of development that increases Character 1's involvement with her, and also raises the risk of him continuing to see her. Just as I mentioned above, it is this kind of continued development and increase of risk at each point which creates the sensation that we have an arc moving upward. Thus as the arc progresses we could imagine a point where Character 1's chances with her are diminished by events, and this point would be perceived as a change in the arc's trajectory, downward for a period of time instead of uniformly upward.

Arc 3 repeating element: Kinders Fever
  • Character 1 sees the Speaker of the Cabinet drop dead of Kinders Fever
  • Character 2 hears that all people present at the event where the death occurred are having their health checked; also an investigation has begun into the source of infection
  • Character 1 learns that the source of the fever has been localized and that news of the source is spreading.
  • Character 3 learns that his father is angry at the people who caused the infection
  • Character 3 goes to the source location and takes revenge on the people there
  • Character 3 learns that another very important person has visited the source location and concludes that another outbreak is about to start.
You might notice that in this arc, the Kinders Fever element repeats across point of view characters and situations. This is an arc that is perceivable by the reader of the story, but not by any of the individual characters (at least not in the same way). As with the first two arcs, at each point new developments, effects, and implications are added. Because this is an arc that goes across characters, it counts as one of the highest-level arcs in the story. The last point listed above for this arc actually then starts a second Kinders Fever arc that is going to take me much further into the novel, with consequences that will reach all the way through.

I hope this discussion deepens and clarifies some of what I had discussed in my last post. I'm happy to talk about arcs in more detail with anyone who is interested.


  1. Another great post, Juliette. Your point about, "The next time we see the repeated element, the development that happened between point 1 and point 2 may be turned in a different direction," made me think about inflection points. If you want to carry the geometric analogy further, an arc is a curve, made up of at least three points, but when the curve changes direction (from up to down or down to up) that is known as an inflection point. It had valuable mathematical properties but I think it is equally valuable here by analogy because, as you point out, as these repetitions progress, there is some expectation of change or evolution. Those key changes in the story line might be called inflection points: points in the story where the evolving arc takes on a new direction or meaning. Looking at some of my own stories, I can see that I have done this unconsciously.

  2. Thanks, Jamie! I think you're right about extending the analogy. And as your friend remarked, a totally flat repetition "arc" is really not much of an "arc." This is why it's worth noting points of repetition and making sure to think about how they develop as we go.