The narrative arc is like a mathematical formula offering the instructional components to sound writing. One can even construct a representational graph depicting the flow of a story, from beginning to middle to end. Following a narrative arc in fiction — particularly screenwriting — is commonplace, but it is also used in academic and journalistic formats, where it helps to set and solve the thesis or investigatory problems at hand.
Shape of the Arc
In a simply plotted line graph, the narrative arc resembles an incomplete bell curve. The line begins at the base, where the story starts and then rises as the characters, plot and conflict are developed. At the peak of the graph is the story’s climax. The line’s descent represents the resolution to the story, a wrap-up of details and loose ends.
Before we care about what happens to Dorothy, we’ve got to know a bit about her and her little dog. We need an introduction. The first piece of the narrative arc is that intro, the set-up of what’s to come. Dorothy is from Kansas, and she dreams of getting out, going somewhere over the rainbow. In journalism, the first piece of the narrative arc is the lead; it’s what grabs the reader’s attention and convinces him to move on. The Columbia School of Journalism advises its writers: “sweat the lead.” And in academic writing, the first dot on the graph of a narrative arc is often a thesis statement.
Romeo meets Juliet at a ball in the first act; Tony spots Maria across the crowded gym floor at the high school dance –in the first act. Those chance encounters are only the very beginning of all that is to come. The second part of a narrative arc develops the characters and the storyline. It tells the reader or viewer who belongs to whom and hints at impending complications. In non-fiction writing, the arc is built with supporting evidence, interviews and anecdotes. In October 1972, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t just rock the nation with an explosive lead about Watergate; they sought out the right people and asked the right questions to fill in the blanks of the still-developing story.
In its advice to its students, Sandhills Community College notes that a story’s conflict or “rising action” often overlaps with the story’s development until “there is a gradual merging of the two.” The conflict occurs at the peak of the arc; it is where theatre viewers are at the edge of their seats, where readers are rapidly turning pages. It is the climax of the story.
The downward movement of the arc occurs as a resolution begins to form and the characters find a solution to their problem, an answer to their prayers, or a lover with whom they can chisel out happily-ever-after. Or as is often the case with Shakespeare, when everyone the audience has grown to care about dies.
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