Home > Editor's Corner Podcast > Editor’s Corner Podcast: What Is a Story Arc?

In this episode of the Editor’s Corner Podcast, we’re digging through all the bits and pieces that make up the story arc, including how to create an outline to help you see what’s missing from your book.


Stephanie: Welcome to Dog Ear Publishing’s Editor’s Corner in which we explore all things editorial. I’m Stephanie Stringham the Managing Editor at Dog Ear Publishing, and here with me is my colleague Angela  .

Angela: Hello all.

Stephanie: Angela and I have been editing collectively for 31 years, and in this podcast we try to take some of the confusion out of writing a book. To do that today, we are going to talk about one of the most popular topics on our blog, which is story arc. And because Angela wrote this article for The Editor’s Corner, we’re going to let her take the lead today.

Angela: Sounds good to me, and we’re going to start with something very simple. And that is the definition of a story arc. And it is the storyline. That’s it. That’s the definition. The story arc is what you’re telling in your novel, fiction or nonfiction.

Stephanie: That’s pretty easy.

Angela: Yes it is, isn’t it? And if anybody was trying to write it down and follow along, I’m sure we have lost none of them so far.

Stephanie: Okay, so how do we go about using a story arc?

Angela: Well the story arc is actually pretty simple. Obviously, no matter fiction or nonfiction, your novel or paper or article or whatever you’re writing is going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning tells you what you’re going to talk about. The middle talks about it, and the end concludes. Within those three sections though, there are a little bit more ways to get deeper into the story. You’ve got an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and the resolution.

Stephanie: All right, and once we’ve got this story arc built, do you think that … Well let’s go back. Do you think that most people should create an outline? Or do you think that it really works better if people just kind of go organically in their writing?

Angela: I think that actually depends upon the author. I would say for a beginning author. I mean I remember being there. It’s pretty intimidating. You’re so gung-ho, and you know you want to write this thing. You’ve got all these ideas, and it’s kind of a scattered feeling. Writing an outline can definitely help. But I think the thing about outlines is you say the word, and everybody remembers school.

Stephanie: Oh yes.

Angela: And rolls their eyes and panics and is like, “No, absolutely not.” But the cool thing about outlines is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it. All an outline is going to tell you is, here’s what I’m doing. Here are the pieces. And here is how it’s going to come together. Even if you wake up one morning with an idea for a piece of dialogue, write it down. You can build your outline around that. If you are out one night at a restaurant, and the very first line of your book comes to you, write it down. You can start from that.

Every time you work on your book, you’re going to have more ideas. I think a lot of people get ideas when they’re not expecting it, in the shower, out on a walk, just driving in the car. Keep your tape recorder with you. Keep your phone with you. Keep a pad and pencil with you. Write it down, and I promise you before you know it, you’re going to have at least the beginnings of an outline.

Stephanie: I think that it’s good to remember too, I’ve been reading a book called Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland. And she talks about, even if you don’t like to outline, and you don’t think you’re an outliner, she says that what you should do is try to identify those major plot points. Just like you said. Just get them down on paper, so that you have at least your hook, your first plot point, your mid-point, third plot point, your climax, and your resolution. Even if you’ve got those bare bones, it helps you fit everything in. And she says that structure should never be about forcing your stories into a box, because what it does is create that framework to support your ideas. And then letting your imagination go.

So then you’ve got that structure, right? All these notes, these ideas that come to you, then you can figure out how to fit them inside that structure, right? Or what do discard if it doesn’t actually fit within the overall picture that you have for your book.

Angela: Exactly. And that’s the thing to remember too. I mean, just because you’re writing a quote/unquote outline, does not mean you can’t go back and erase and change and delete and move and shift things around whenever you need to. I mean even if you start out with this clear idea about what you’re going to write, characters and research and little things you learned along the way have a habit of shifting what you thought you were going to say. And you come out with something that doesn’t really look like you thought it was going to. And that’s perfectly fine. That means you’re learning and growing. That means you’re making progress.

So your outline needs to change as the story changes. Especially, I think, in the case of nonfiction. When you’re out there researching so much, and you’re finding out all these little details. And all those little nuggets are going to lead you on all sorts of different roads that there’s no way you can anticipate that at the very beginning of writing.

Stephanie: Right. And so it’s kind of like going on a vacation, right? You set out your plan for how you’re going to get there, but then occasionally you’re going to detour. And you’re going to decide, maybe this doesn’t sound as great as … It’s not going to be as great as it you thought it was. So let’s change things up for today, instead of doing what we had planned.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: And I think that really helps a lot of authors remember that you aren’t tied into that outline for your story arc. That’s a great thing to remember.

Angela: Exactly. Well it’s really cool too, because if you’re plotting out the pieces of your book. It’s going to tell you instantly if you have enough material for a story.

Stephanie: Oh yes.

Angela: You may have like a great idea, and you start plotting out, and you realize well I have a beginning, and I have an end. But I have no idea what’s going to happen in the middle. And there may just not be enough there for an entire book. The other cool thing about it is that plotting it out is going to tell you if the middle of the book is going to sag and slow down, which I think every reader has run into at some point. That action’s going real good in the beginning. And then you reach the middle, and it’s like the author just goes, “Well I have no idea what to write here but I have to write something. So let’s put some filler in, but don’t worry we’ll get to the good stuff later.”

Stephanie: Right. I think a lot of movie trilogies, sometimes I feel like that in the second movie.

Angela: Yes. Yes. They drag on a little further than they need to.

Stephanie: Yes. So then using an outline, or sorry, you don’t have to use an outline. We’re not trying to force you into this.

Angela: Right. It could help.

Stephanie: But having that idea of your story arc, can absolutely then help you to not fall into that trap.

Angela: Exactly. Well it can help you figure out all those little details too that might be giving you trouble. If you’re sitting there writing down all these ideas you have, you might be surprised if you have a character that you can’t quite figure out what to do with. Those outlines might actually help you find out the development for that character. Or the place that you need to research next. I mean just writing down little words that come into your head, anything, it will help.

Stephanie: Right. And I think that’s kind of where Weiland is too, you know, saying that it creates that framework to support your ideas. So you know, if you find that you are lacking there, you can look at it as an opportunity to go and find more, right? And to develop your character even, because then you could even look into something I’ve discovered that we have. This beautiful thing of character arcs exist as well.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: And so you like to have your characters develop as well. So maybe you find that there’s not a lot of action or something in the middle, and you’re kind of sagging. Maybe you can focus on character development. Maybe that’s where that’s going to lead you.

Angela: Right and it’s so, so critical to have the characters develop over the course of a novel. And let’s talk about that just for a minute. The actual pieces of the story arc from beginning to end, so we can give the listeners an idea of why that development is so important. Is that all right?

Stephanie: I think that’s a great idea.

Angela: Okay. We have decided to use the film of The Wizard of Oz as our outline, because everybody has probably either watched it or heard of it. You basically know the story right? The girl gets transported to this strange world, and she tries to find her way home again. That’s it. There’s a lot that happens in between that and the end, but that’s the basic plot of it, right?

So within the plot, we’ve got the introduction, right? Rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The introduction, Dorothy is at her aunt and uncle’s farm when a cyclone hits. Her dog runs out into the storm, and Dorothy chases after him. Later, when she can’t get the door to the storm cellar open, she and the dog go into the house. She hits her head. And when she wakes up, she and the dog are in the land of Oz. And this is the interesting part of the introduction. We’re introducing the main conflict.

Oops, her house fell on a witch. And that witch has a sister. And that sister is very upset with Dorothy, and says, “Dorothy, I’m going to chase you all around Oz, and I’m going to make you pay.” And that’s what’s going to drive Dorothy’s character on her journey, and the rest of the characters she meets on their journey as well.

So rising action. The rising action is where we get to explain why that conflict is going to be important, and how it affects the characters. Dorothy gets sent by the Good Witch to find The Wizard. And the promise is that The Wizard is going to help her get back home again, which she so desperately wants. So off she goes on The Yellow Brick Road. She meets the Tin Woodsman, The Scarecrow, and The Cowardly Lion.

Then we get to the climax, which is the turning point of the story. The characters have to confront the source of their conflict. So the group of friends goes to The Emerald City. They meet The Wizard, and he’s like, “Yeah, sure. We can totally help you get home, and what you want. But oh yeah, you guys have to go kill this witch.” Why he’s sending a little girl and her dog to go do this, we don’t know. But let’s just go with that.

So Dorothy and her friends travel to The Wicked Witch’s castle. They do battle with her and her minions. And spoiler alert, Dorothy throws water on the witch, and the witch dies.

Stephanie: I’m melting.

Angela: I’m melting. But here’s the bad part. She goes back to The Wizard and says, “Hey guess what? We did what you wanted us to do.” And The Wizard says, “Oh crap. I don’t actually have powers,” you know? So then we start getting into the falling action. The falling action is where The Wizard says, “But don’t worry. You guys have had all of the things you thought you needed all along.”

Stephanie: It’s a nice way to cover his butt.

Angela: Yeah, exactly right? Yeah. It doesn’t have to be realistic. It’s a fiction story for children, but go with it. So The Cowardly Lion, turns out he’s not really cowardly at all. He’s got courage aplenty. And The Scarecrow, he’s been so smart throughout this journey, so he’s got his brains. And The Tin Woodsman has been so helpful and cares for his friends, so he has his heart. And lo and behold, Dorothy has been wearing these beautiful ruby slippers. The Wizard says, “Hey, knock your heels together three times.” And guess what? There’s the resolution. She gets to leave her friends. She goes back home to her aunt and uncle’s farm. And the reader’s cheering and saying, yes we had this wonderful story. And everybody gets their happy ending, because nobody likes the witch anyway so it’s okay that’s she’s gone.

Stephanie: Right.

Angela: Right. So simple plot, very complex story arc from beginning to end. Tons of character development, which I absolutely love. Especially in the book, which is very violent, didn’t really read like a children’s book. But that’s okay too. So yeah, that’s the basic I guess way to construct a story.

Stephanie: And this kind of leads us into a discussion that we had had earlier as well. You know how you talk about how it’s not really what we think of as a children’s story. But you kind of got into, as we discussed earlier, the fact that a lot of authors are now starting to create series for kids in which you see a lot of development across a series.

Angela: Yes. Yeah, actually you’re exactly right. I think you and I have talked about this before, just how different the character development and the seriousness of the books and such are from when we were growing up. Authors and publishers are treating kids like they actually have a brain, and they cam handle this development. And they can handle the complex story. And I love this. I love to see how much it’s changing.

Stephanie: Yeah. And I think, I really love too, is seeing that character development. I think a lot of people, a lot of first-time authors I think, think that they don’t need to resolve a story arc in a book that is going to be part of a series.

Angela: That’s true. Right.

Stephanie: And we’ve talked about this before too. In that, sometimes you get to the end … I’ve edited several books in which I get to the end, and I’m left wondering. And I ask the author, “What happened? Did you accidentally delete some text here? Or did you send the wrong file?”

Angela: Exactly. Right.

Stephanie: Because author’s have this idea that you can just stop, oh it’s a cliffhanger. And there we are. But you still have to have some sort of falling action/resolution, right?

Angela: Exactly. I mean you have spent pages building up this … It’s bigger than the story. I mean people get really invested in a good novel. It transports you to a place, completely away from where you are and your problems. And you’re so invested in these characters. And a book will just end in the middle of a line. And the author’s sitting back going, “Yep, that was a great idea. These people are going to beg to buy the second book in the series.” That is not what’s going to happen. That Kindle is going to be hitting the wall. It’s going to smash, and they’re going to be moving on to the next book.

Because it’s so frustrating, you’ve got this kind of inherent promise between the author and the reader. The author is saying, “Hey, you stick with this story, you’re going to have some kind of resolution. And it’s going to be a fulfilling resolution.” And if that doesn’t happen, you lose your reader’s trust, and it is next to impossible to get that back.

Stephanie: Right, and you know you don’t want your reader, short of throwing a temper tantrum and throwing something across the room. You may actually end up leaving them with that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach. Or like a little kid who’s been promised, “Okay if you can behave all day,” they’ve been promised by their parent, “We’re going to go out and we’re going to do all these things in a day. And if you can behave you’re going to get candy.” So the kid behaves, and they hold up their end of the bargain.

That’s like your readers. Sticking through the story, you know sometimes. That they’re suspending their disbelief, or they’re hanging in there going, okay this is kind of sticky and okay, but I’m going to go with this. I don’t like this character, but I like this character. I’m going to go with this, because I’m going to get my candy. And then you get to the end, and you get home. And the kid gets out of the car and goes, “Wait, wait. We’re home. Where’s my candy?” Right? And there’s just this sobbing mess. Because I’m not at all familiar with that [crosstalk 00:16:13].

Angela: And you’re the worst mom in the whole world.

Stephanie: Absolutely. And you destroyed that trust.

Angela: That’s right.

Stephanie: And that’s where your reader’s going to go. So remember even if you are writing a series, then you do have to have some falling action and resolution in every book. And it has to stand alone. You don’t have to resolve everything. For example, in the Harry Potter Series. Harry has some run-in with Voldemort or his followers in every book, and he never defeats him totally until the final book. But every book has its own neat resolution.

Angela: Exactly, and I think one thing that authors I think tend to forget is that it can take a year or more for that next book to be published. Your readers are waiting, and I mean especially in the case of the Harry Potter Series. You’re waiting like outside the bookstore a week before it’s even in stores, you know? So it may seem like a good idea to you to put it on a cliffhanger, but no reader is going to wait a full year for something like that.

It’s like, I remember watching The Sopranos. Then you get to the finale. Do you remember when the screen goes black, and everybody around America’s going, “Oh my gosh, my power went out. Something happened.” Because there’s no resolution. You have no idea what to do with yourself after that. You know, you have to give your readers something to take away.

Stephanie: Right. You can also think of in a TV series, where they end them. And they were certain that they were going to come back the next season, and then they never did. And you hate that, right?

Angela: That’s right.

Stephanie: You just have that ache in you, that’s going what happened? You came to identify with these people and the characters so much, and you want to know what happened to them. So if you’re writing your story well, you’re going to have the story arc. You’re going to have the character development. But you’re going to have the story arc, your reader, even if they aren’t aware of what story arc is, they know it. They know it when they read it.

Angela: Right, exactly.

Stephanie: And they know if you’ve betrayed them, they’re not going to come back.

Angela: They don’t.

Stephanie: So you definitely want to make sure to follow through.

Angela: I can’t imagine if God forbid, I’ll get hate-mail for this, but something had happened to J.K. Rowling in between writing all the Harry Potters. Or the publishing how she was publishing through went out of business or something, and we didn’t get those last books. People would have rioted. So you have to have every book, at least give you some kind of a satisfactory ending.

And it’s interesting, I was thinking about with story arc development, I know some … Actually quite a few books and even movies like Memento, they have a different kind of arc. They’ll start at the end, or they’ll start at some point way in the future. And then throughout the film or book, it’s like the time isn’t linear. It’s not real-time. It kind of happens in little scattered shots and pieces. And it’s important to remember that even in that kind of scenario, the story arc is still the same structure. You still have the beginning, still rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. It doesn’t matter what timeframe or those little pieces are linear and happen in order. It just has to have those pieces in the book.

Stephanie: Right.

Angela: Does that makes sense?

Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely, because sometimes you like to have your reader … You want to have your reader actively engaged. And that’s a good way to do it. You always have to walk that fine line of not completely confusing them, but you do want to have them engaged. And sometimes, getting their brains teased and keeping them there, trying to figure things out, really does that well. I loved the first couple of seasons of LOST, because of that.

Angela: Oh yes.

Stephanie: Always having me thinking, and I love that. And I know some people don’t. But I loved sitting there trying to figure out just what in the world was going on.

Angela: Exactly. And it’s interesting actually though, did you notice like at the end of each episode, you didn’t really get any answers. So you’re kind of like always perpetually frustrated. Yet you’re going, “Crap. Now I have to watch next week.” But it’s because it’s just next week. You don’t have to wait a year for the next episode to come on.

Stephanie: Yes, exactly. Because you know there’s that contract though again, that you know that it’s going to carry on in the next episode. And that it is going to be just a week, and you know that you’ve only got … I think it was an hour long show, that hour to get that resolution. So people are willing to wait a little bit for that. It’s kind of like a chapter, right? Waiting for the next chapter.

Angela: That’s true. And your book better be really good if you’re expecting that of your readers of a book. So I wanted to say one other thing. I mean we’re talking … Like the first couple of podcasts were talking about commas and how to use commas. And now we’re talking about, okay, this is how you do your outline and your story arc. We’re not proponents of it has to be written a specific way, or it’s not good. We love challenging books. We love books that are kind of out of the box. The author went to a different place and really tried something new. We think those are awesome. So when we say try an outline, we’re not trying to stick everybody in a specific hole and try to get you guys all writing the same. We want you to write how you write with your voice, your story.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Angela: We just want to help you get there a little easier.

Stephanie: Absolutely. And I think that is an excellent way to wrap up this discussion.

Angela: All right.

Stephanie: I think we’ve really covered a lot of material here, and a lot for the readers to think about.

Angela: We have.

Stephanie: And it’s clear that we can talk about just about any aspect of writing for a long time.

Angela: Yes, we’re nerds like that.

Stephanie: So that’s it for this week folks, and we hope that you will join us next time when we will be discussing another topic that has been very popular on Editor’s Corner, which is actually using track changes in Word. So we’re going to have yet another fun aspect to try to talk about the practicality of those on a podcast. That’s going to be fun, because we’re always up for a challenge here.

Angela: Yes we are. And if you guys want to start voting easier topics, please feel free. You’ll have no complaints out of me whatsoever.