All plots have arcs.
An arc, in storytelling, is simply a path that a plot or character follows. When it comes to characters, a ‘character arc’ is how that character changes over the course of the story. The better the arc, the better the character.
Plots are similar. Arcs in plots are the changes the plot experiences as the book advances. If the plot never changes, you have a stagnant book. Like that mire-y puddle that always collects outside the back door; it sits there after the rain and does… nothing.
Most books have a “story goal”. This is what drives the plot. Some arcs involve a change in that story goal, as the character finds something new to pursue, or the arc may simply clarify what that goal is.
Other arcs change that goal entirely, or introduce a new one. Subplots are a common example. They introduce a short-term goal, such as the retrieval of a treasure map in a pirate story, or introduce goals which are not the main goal, but other goals that are desirable in addition to said main goal.
Many beginning novelists struggle with the length of their novels. What they hoped would become an average length book turns out to be a 14,000 word novelette. It’s not a bad thing, but there is a simple answer to the question “why?”
Quite simply, the novel contains only one arc, maybe two. The hero is introduced to the conflict, struggles against it, and succeeds in the end. That is one arc. The plot changes in two places: the first incident and the final climax. Again, this is not a bad thing. That is the basis of good story. However, good story doesn’t just stay at the base of what it can do. Good story exceeds its own foundations, rises above.
Many of our favorite books, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Stormlight Archives, and even The Hobbit contain more than one arc per book. In some cases, there can be dozens of arcs running simultaneously, as in the case of The Stormlight Archives. Now, dozens of arcs can be overwhelming. There is a very specific audience which enjoys that sort of book and many of us do not.
However, including two or three arcs in your story can increase your word count in addition to increasing the quality of your story.
Let’s return to Addy’s story so I can show you an example of arcs.
Last week, I edited out clichés and inserted some plot twists. Many of those plot twists turned into entire arcs in and of themselves.
For instance, when the invading army drives Addy and the others into the mountains, an entirely new goal is introduced: survive the harsh conditions. If this story was a book, that single twist could have added anywhere between ten and twenty thousand words easily.
Then, as they search for supplies to last the winter, yet another arc comes into play: a rebellion. There is a new goal: overthrow the invaders. All this time, however, the earlier goals - get away from the invaders and survive the mountains – remain. They all overlap and they transition into the new arcs with near seamlessness (I say near because this obviously is an imperfect story that I’m brainstorming as I go for no reason other than to have an example for this blog series).
When the rebellion fails, an arc comes to a close. The rebellion arc ends, and the first two arcs again take center stage. Survive the invaders, survive the winter. Then comes along a new arc: learning to be assassins. This arc should add plenty of words and more than enough time (months at the very least) to the story.
Arcs are your friend.
They’re easy to develop because they’re very similar to extending conflict. In many ways, arcs are the antithesis of victory. Instead of overcoming the impossible conflicts, the heroine is introduced to new ones. For every victory, she experiences two defeats.
That’s how a good story shines. It lets us watch as the heroine suffers defeat after defeat after defeat while giving us just enough light to never give up hope.
Then, at the very end, when given a choice between two bad things, we don’t want the story to stop. We can’t let the story stop.
When Addy has to choose: her family and friends or the villain’s capture, we don’t know what she’ll choose. We don’t want her to choose. But we can’t let her not.
All the arcs come to a head at the climax. The more arcs there are, the more tension and conflict there will be. The reader won’t be able to stop turning pages because every single scrap of plot and character development is hinging on this final scene.
And that is why I’m stopping here for the day.
After all, mustn’t give it all away at once, must we?
Does your story have multiple arcs? When do they converge? Do you have any tips on multi-arc stories? Leave a comment and share!