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What is a Story Arc in a Novel?

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
— Pablo Picasso

As a novel writer, the last thing you want is to be constrained by rules. After all, one of the great advantages of the self-publishing industry is the fact that authors can be a little more daring in their writing. Knowing the rules, however, gives you a better understanding of how to structure a novel, and that understanding can help you find ways to break the mold.

When asked to name the elements of a story arc, some authors would simply answer, “The beginning, middle, and end.” They would be correct. Within those larger sections, however, are smaller components that are critical to the success of the story arc.

  1. The introduction, or exposition, is the beginning of the story, in which the who, where, and when are introduced, along with the main conflict, or main issue of contention between the characters.
  2. The rising action develops the conflict, explaining why the conflict is important and how it affects the characters.
  3. The climax is the turning point of the story, in which the characters are forced to confront the source of the conflict.
  4. The falling action gives the reader a break from the frenzy of the climax and shows how the characters have changed after their experiences.
  5. The resolution is where the story ends, and though the conclusion doesn’t have to be uplifting, it does need to be satisfying to most readers.

For a visual illustration of the steps above, let’s examine a plot diagram, which shows that the rise and fall of action mirrors the shape of a mountain or roller coaster:

story arc definition

To look at the plot arc diagram in action, let’s map out Aesop’s fable “The Lion and the Mouse.

  1. Introduction: A lion cub is sleeping in the shade of a tree. A mouse runs across the lion, waking it. The mouse is afraid of being eaten. He promises that if the lion lets him go, he will one day help the lion. The lion laughs—what could a small mouse possibly do for him?—but agrees.
  2. Rising action: Some time later, the lion is hunting in the forest and gets caught in a hunter’s trap. He cannot free himself and begins to roar. The mouse hears the roars and comes to save the lion as promised.
  3. Climax: By gnawing on the ropes that hold the net, the mouse frees the lion.
  4. Falling action: The mouse says, “You laughed when I said I would repay you. Now you see that even a mouse can help a lion.”
  5. Resolution: The moral is given: “A kindness is never wasted.”

Aesop’s fable is a scant 193 words and uses every word to advance the story, but imagine a book with 90,000 words—the average length of an adult fiction novel. Without a carefully structured plot, would the book be able to achieve its goal? Would it capture the reader’s attention from the beginning and never let go? Would it have strong characters, a compelling plot, and a satisfactory resolution? Or would it ramble, sag, and gape, leaving readers feeling like they wasted their time or money, and complaining about the book to others?

Whether you’re at the beginning of the writing process or at the end, it’s never too late to map out your story arc. Create a diagram and search out what’s missing in your story arc. Look for descriptions leading nowhere, pointless dialogue, sluggish or rushed action, and a hasty ending. Then revise, revise, and revise again until you can give readers something to really sink their teeth into.

Angela Wade
Angela Wade

I have one goal: to create and shape cohesive, fluid, accessible copy that shifts perspective and makes a connection. With more than twelve years of experience in the writing and editing industry, I accomplish that goal through a passion for brainstorming, researching, planning, writing, and editing everything from grants to novels to marketing materials to websites. My articles, interviews, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in various print and online publications, including Calyx Journal, Inkwell Magazine, Mindful Homeschooler, and Home Education Magazine.