Monday, February 7, 2011

Three points make a story arc

If you've been around this writing thing for very long, surely you've heard of the "story arc." People talk about character arcs, and plot arcs, and how one should build and sustain them. I talk about them myself, because I can feel them in my work as I write - but I know of a number of people who have difficulty with the idea of the arc, in part because they say they don't know what an arc is and how to detect one.

I have a very simple definition for you. A story arc is created when something in your writing gets repeated three times. In geometry, you use three points to plot (and confirm) a line; in a story, three points create an arc. In geometry, if you only plot two points, you can't be certain you haven't made an error, so the third point confirms that you've plotted the line correctly. In a story, if you've put in two points, then people will sense an arc forming and be looking for a third point.

Here's an example. I have an unnamed character appear in a concert scene chapter 1 of my book; the protagonist notices him as a person out of place. I then have this same character appear at a concert in chapter 3; the protagonist isn't sure this is the same guy, but approaches and speaks to him. Then in chapter 10 he goes to another concert. This is "strange guy appears at concerts" arc, and I expect that when my protagonist gets to the concert, he'll be unconsciously looking for this guy - as will my readers. He won't be there, but he'll show up in another place. This very minor character therefore has an arc in my story. His first appearance sets him up, his second appearance (and the fact that more happens in it) establishes that readers should be looking for an arc, and that way when you want to put in the next piece, you know people will be looking for it.

That's a very minor arc. A major arc can have many more points contributing to it. Each of my characters in For Love, For Power has two major arcs: a love arc, and a power arc. It makes sense! What this means to my writing is that in every chapter, I need to make sure I put in something to advance the point of view character's love arc, and his power arc. If I don't contribute to each in some way, then readers will have the sense that I'm dropping balls and I am not helping them to keep track of things properly. However, because these are large-scale thematic arcs, I can contribute to them in all kinds of different ways. Tagret's love arc can involve his friends, or his mother, or his girlfriend - and each of those can be considered as its own arc, but because they all contribute to the larger thematic arc, I can take turns developing them. Tagret's power arc can involve his father, or his brother, or other politicians.

So to define arcs, we need three points of repetition. This repetition is flexible. It can be a single object. It can be a single character. Or it can be a type of behavior on the part of a character (such as risk-taking). It can be a kind of thought or worry that the character has. But so long as we can be detected as returning to whatever this thing is, we can be construed as creating an arc. Arcs can also have subordinate arcs inside them, such as when instances of Tagret seeing his girlfriend contribute to his larger thematic love-arc.

You might be asking, "Do readers really know we're doing this?"

Well, they may not know it consciously, but humans are very good at detecting patterns of repetition on a subconscious level. It's one of our language-learning skills, and we do it all the time without thinking. In fact, as writers we are usually creating arcs subconsciously rather than deliberately. However, it helps for us to put a label on them and deal with them consciously, because if we do this, it's much easier to keep them under control.

Take a look at your draft. Try to identify the repetitions. Similar situations, or characters, or behaviors, or imagery. That's where you're creating your arcs. Here are some things to look for.

1. Am I only putting in two points of the arc? If so, chances are your readers are looking for a third, and will miss it if it's not there. Either complete the arc, or break it by removing the second point.
2. Am I precisely duplicating the first point with my second point? If so, the repetition may feel strange or uncanny. In an arc, usually the second point develops on the first (if only slightly).
3. Can I put a name on the larger thematic arcs? If you can, it will really help you move your outline and your book forward. If you can't, you might be wandering off the core point of your story.
4. Am I regularly contributing to the larger arcs? There are a lot of ways of doing this, but if you can identify the larger arcs, it will become easier to contribute to them and keep all those balls in the air.
5. Do I have a lot of similar small arcs? If you're struggling with the question of larger arcs, see if you can find patterns in the smaller arcs that you're using. That can help you detect larger patterns and get a better orientation on the overall trajectory of your project.

I hope I've given you some ideas that will help you articulate with the issue of the story arc. Arcs are a very important conceptual tool, and extremely useful, so good luck with them!


  1. Minor nitpick: In geometry, you use TWO points to define a line. Three points are, however, the minimum bound for a circle.

    So while in a story three points form an arc, in mathematics three points forms a circle.

    It's all curves!

  2. Lxndr, hi! Thanks for the comment. I was thinking of the way we used to do our graphing problems: plot two points to define the line, and a third to confirm it (as I mentioned). For me, this parallels the way that people suspect an arc if they see two points, but have it confirmed when they see the third. I appreciate you clarifying for those who may wonder about the mathematical side of things. And I like your point about all those curves!

  3. Great tips.

    I should start thinking of this, because my beast of an epic might become confusing otherwise.

    Thank you yet again.


  4. Thanks, Misha! I'm glad to be of help.

  5. I think this is a beginning at trying to define what an arc is. Repetition is a little to simple for it.

    For instance you can create an arc without using repetition but by tying together similar concepts. Many character arcs work because of similarities between the character's personality, actions, career, etc.

    I think that an arc is a difficult thing to explain and admire that you're trying to do it at all.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Elliot! I recognize that arcs appear at varying levels of complexity; this post is trying to get at the underlying phenomena that get those arcs started. When I say "repetition" I'm not trying to use it restrictively, but more generally. In this way I think it does at least point toward the kinds of larger similarities you mention. It's when our minds recognize the reappearance (repetition) of something that we start to feel an arc...but it doesn't have to be as simple as an object or person. It also works at the conceptual level, as you've so rightly pointed out. If I tried to make the post exhaustive, I'd probably have months of work cut out for me!

  7. This is a killer article, Juliette! I love it. I don't think I've read a better explanation of the story arc before, at least not one that clarifies what the heck it is and how to build one, without being rhetorical about it.

    Thanks so much for the crisp definition. It's a great addition to my outlining checklist.

  8. Thanks, Vero! I'm so glad you found this helpful.

  9. A comment on the "Here's an example . . . " paragraph. As I read this example, I was reminded of the television show "Fringe" in which these "out-of-time" observers kept popping up. Infrequent, but on an increasingly regular and important basis. It's things like this that will keep viewers coming back to see the next week's episode, and it's things like this that will keep readers coming back to series fictions, and to keep reading a stand-alone story. However, it can be abused also. Not so much in a stand-alone work, but in series works, because, if a reader/viewer cannot enter into a series work at any given point, then the "arc" is being over-used by a writer.

    By-the-way, "arcs" can be used in non-fiction too.

  10. I enjoyed this post! I am working on a project where a story arc is easy to see in retrospect but difficult to manipulate intentionally during the process (which is what I need to be able to do). This concept will be very helpful for me!