Today’s fiction writing exercise is an excerpt from my book, Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises. This one focuses on story structure and examines narrative arcs within stories and across multiple scenes and installments of a story. Enjoy!
An arc has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The events within an arc result in some kind of change for the story world, characters, or direction of the plot.
In serial or episodic storytelling, a story arc is an ongoing story line that spans multiple installments. An arc might last through several episodes of a television show or several issues of a comic book. In literature, an arc might stretch across multiple books in a series.
A narrative arc (or dramatic arc) is similar to a story arc, except it doesn’t have to occur across multiple installments of episodic storytelling. A narrative arc is any arc within a story, including the central plot and any subplots. Narrative arcs can occur within a single scene or span across a sequence of scenes.
Characters also experience arcs when they undergo a progression of transformation.
That’s a lot of different types of arcs. To make matters more confusing, the terms for story arcs, narrative arcs, and dramatic arcs are often used interchangeably.
You can use any type of story for this exercise: books, comics, TV shows, or films. Find a series that you’ve enjoyed, and examine a small sample of installments. For example, you can look at five episodes from a TV show or three novels from a series. Make sure you’re using serials, which use ongoing stories across multiple installments, rather than episodic installments, which are separate but loosely connected.
Make a list of three to five story arcs found across the installments you examined. Do the arcs intertwine? Are they occurring simultaneously, or are they consecutive? How does each arc relate to the central plot?
Create a set of three story arcs that would span multiple novels in a series. If you’re already working on a series, feel free to create arcs within your project.
For example, start by writing quick summaries of at least five novels in a series (about one paragraph each, highlighting the central plot of each installment). Then come up with the three arcs, each of which would span multiple novels.
As an alternative, you can develop ideas for a television or comic book series.
What is the difference between a story arc and a dramatic arc? Why are story arcs effective in serial storytelling? How is a character arc different from a narrative arc? What types of arcs are most important in storytelling?