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Using a Story Arc to Structure Your Plot

By: Catherine Burrows - Updated: 13 Apr 2011 | comments*Discuss
Using A Story Arc To Structure Your Plot

Writing would be so easy if it was a structured science. If only we could tap a few details into a story generator and churn out a perfectly formed plot.

There aren’t any formulas to follow but there are a few good guidelines we can adhere to that will benefit our plots enormously.

The story arc maps the main structure of a good plotline and can be used in any genre or length of writing we are working on.

What is a Plot?

A plot is a thread that runs through a story describing a journey. This doesn’t have to be a literal journey; it can also refer to a character’s emotional adventure which then forms the backbone of the story. The plot carries characters, readers and the writer from one starting point to another point altogether.

In the course of a plot, characters move through the clouds of a problem or a conflict in their lives towards a resolution at the end of the plot.

If there is no journey or problem to solve, a story simply becomes an account of a situation. There is no plot. The reader and the characters have to experience or witness a set of struggles, changes and transformations.

For example, Bill goes on a camping trip. He finds somewhere to pitch his tent, sets up a campsite, passes a pleasant evening and returns home the following day. This is an account of Bill's camping trip.

Or, Bill finds his pitch; a strong wind blows his tent away onto the beach. He follows the tent and in doing so stumbles across some mysterious men on the beach who are unloading a small boat and don’t look too pleased to see Bill arrive on the scene.

The difference is that Bill has a problem to overcome. He has to retrieve his tent and possibly evade capture. Once he has done this we arrive at the end of the journey and a few changes have occurred.

The Simplest Story Arc

As soon as small children start to create their own stories, they learn that every story has to have:
  • a beginning- the reader needs to know the character and setting or plot basics.
  • a middle- something happens.
  • an end- everything is tied up and leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction.

Plotting the Changes

The simple arc of the beginning, middle and end is an effective guide for the writer to follow but a more elaborate story arc is useful.
  • The Set Up- the beginning of a story should be used to introduce the scene, familiarise readers with characters and their motives and create a mood or atmosphere. It should provide a hook that snares the reader. A good narrative technique includes little pointers or clues that hint that something is in the offing. In Bill's case, he could be watching the storm clouds gather as he sets his tent up and wonders whether the guy lines will keep his old tent tethered to its spot.
  • The Moment of Change- this is the point at which the journey begins. Something needs to happen that upsets the normal course of events and triggers the sequence of events. This is the moment in which a large gust of wind buffets Bill’s tent and blows it away.
  • The Complication- this is a part of the plot that deepens the struggle of the main character. This is when Bill retrieves his tent and comes face to face with a gang of very dubious characters on the beach.
  • The Climax- describes circumstances at their trickiest or most dire. How on earth can the character get out of this one? The men spot Bill on the beach and realise they have been discovered; now he’s in trouble.
  • The Resolution - is the moment that the main character overcomes the conflict or finds a solution to their troubles. Bill manages to escape the situation and returns to his pitch unscathed. The reader breathes a sigh of relief at this point; everything is going to be OK.
  • The end of the plot is reached when all the loose ends are tied up. Bill discovers that the men on the beach have been arrested and the mystery is solved. This part of the plot should be short and concise as the suspense has dropped away sharply since Bill managed to wriggle his way out of danger.
The story arc isn’t a foolproof way to create a good plot, it’s another instrument in the writer’s toolkit that helps put together skilful and interesting writing.

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