Writing

Plotting & Story Arcs

We’ve all been told how important the plot is to a story. Who? What? Where? When? Why? A successful writer uses these elements and more to draw in their reader with the plot, but does so artistically and systematically. Outside of character development and setting, a captivating plot consists of the following elements: conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. While a narrative does consist of these items, successful writers have learned over the years how to craft these elements into one cohesive product, and at the same time, maintain each as identifiable story elements that can be analyzed and discussed on their own. Let’s investigate these components and see how they fit into the overall narrative, while breaking down their usage and looking at some classic examples.

Conflict

Every story worth telling has some form of conflict, which can also be referred to as an inciting incident. The protagonist encounters some form of struggle. These conflicts can be seen in the following themes: character vs. self, character vs. character, character, vs. nature, character vs. machine, and character vs. society. These themes are fairly self-explanatory, but the ability to develop these plots into well written stories, takes years of practice. Some notable examples of these would be Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (character vs. nature), which highlights a man’s the perilous encounters on Mount Everest, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (character vs. self), which is a woman’s tale of self-discovery.

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Rising Action

The rising action is where the story gains momentum. Much of the exposition has already taken place, the conflict has been established, and the character is now on course for the highly anticipated climax. The author’s goal here is to build suspense and keep the reader interested, while not rushing into anything obvious. This is typically where most of the story takes place. There should not be any set length or limit to the rising action, as it serves to build into the climax. In Star Wars, we see Luke’s family killed, followed by Luke meeting Ben Kenobi, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, and eventually ending up on the Death Star to save Princess Leah. All these events are slowly, but captivatingly built with detail and intrigue, and lead to the climax.

Climax

The climax is where the conflict has reached its peak and the action or event is the most intense. Compared to the rising action, the climax is short-lived and generally comes toward the end of the story. This is a significant turning point and what the author’s audience has been eagerly anticipating. The characters have been developed, the conflict has been established, and the action and suspense has been building. The fight between Scar and Simba in Disney’s The Lion King, is a fairly obvious example of a climax. We all saw it coming, but now it’s here. They must battle and there must be a winner, there can be no ties.

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Falling Action

Our protagonist has defeated his enemy, hit the game winning home run, or kissed his true love after a series of sad or comical debacles. Now that the climax has taken place and the action has peaked, the story will naturally lose momentum. This portion of the story is quite sensibly called the falling action. Of course, this does not mean the story should lose interest or significance. The author can’t simply quit here. “What happens next?” is what the audience is now wondering. Once that home run has been hit, the author has a responsibility to tell us about the team’s celebration, or the upcoming wedding, depending on which story line you’re following here. In contrast to the rising action, significantly less time is spent in this part of the story, but it is still a critical component to the overall narrative.

Resolution

Now that the majority of the story has been told, the author must find a way to tie up the loose ends. This is called the resolution, or what your literature professor may have referred to as the denouement. The reader’s questions are answered, the characters’ secrets are revealed, and the reader is (hopefully) satisfied with their choice to stay the course and finish the story. This is decidedly different than the outcome of the climax. The resolution can be a natural part of the narrative, or can come in the form of an epilogue, as seen in many different novels. It’s the pay off for all of your work and for the reader, who gets to enjoy the fruits of the character’s labor.

Story Arcs:

A story arc is is the path the story takes from beginning to end, and typically features the character’s change in good fiction. But to craft a truly great story, your novel should feature multiple arcs. In fact, every character in your novel should have their own story arc, as each character should be pliable and change throughout your story in some way.

Some planning must take place to interweave these story arcs together, and critical scenes where you have multiple characters which include either alliances or conflicts will be crucial to getting that done. What may be of little importance to character A may have an extreme impact on the arc of character B, or the trajectory of each character can be thrown astray in a high-conflict scene in major ways to weave two or more arcs together.

While each scene should develop your story’s plot, use them to also advance your arcs together in unexpected ways.

Takeaway:

Authors spend their life crafting these skills with help from editors and publishers. It should be noted that including these five elements in not the entire formula for telling a story, and each element should stand on its own merit. Successful authors develop subplots, metaphors for their stories or characters, and other types of advanced literary devices. Knowing these building block elements will help put you on the right path for your narratives. Regardless, any story worth reading should contain these essential elements and they should always be well-developed and intentional.

Later articles will go into greater depth for each element to help you refine your craft and get the most from your story. For now, which of these elements is your strong suit and which needs work? Tell us below (and sign up here for free Master Lists for Novelists to help you flesh out your piece).

Writing

Creating Believable Worlds Through Setting and World-Building: 6 Things To Include

Writers across the board know that great fiction is character driven. But something most writers don’t know is that amazing fiction treats setting like a character. Your world building is just as important as your character development because it literally sets the scene for everything that transpires in your story. For some of your stories, the setting will be a factual place or a place that could be factual. For others, the setting is going to be wholly made up and fictional, with it’s own “rules” and feel.

They key to doing this is to be clear about how much your readers can intuit, and making everything else vivid enough to place them there. Here’s how you do that.

 

Macro-locations

This will likely be the overarching and least specific part of your novel’s setting. If you think of your novel as scenes revolving in different rooms of a house, the house itself is your macro-location. So if your story is about a suburban kid, your macro-location would be the country he’s living in (and gives your reader a general sense of the culture in which he resides, as France has differences from the USA which has differences from the Phillipines). If your novel takes place on a different planet or completely fictional world, that’s your macro. Factual places have predetermined and universal cultural nuances, but for fictional places, you as the writer should spend time thinking about what those nuances are and how to incorporate them into the story without telling the readers outright what they are.

 

Micro-locations

In the story-as-a-house analogy, your micro-locations would be the rooms. These are more vividly drawn and specific. A micro might be your character’s house. Your reader should be able to imagine it by the way you describe it; what color are the curtains? Does it feel like just a house, or like a home? Does it smell like fresh baked cookies or like mildew and neglect? Readers should be able to glean a lot from how your character feels about and reacts to your micro-locations, and a great deal can be foreshadowed by the state of them if you, as a writer, do your job utilizing them in contrasting and comparative ways.

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Demographics

It’s insightful for readers to have a backboard for where your tale takes place. Is it all human? Is there a racial majority, and how does your character fit into that (or not)? Are there aliens or other sentient species? What sort of tension exists between the different demographical sectors and how does it relate back to your characters? Everything from the predominant financial state to education level will be relevant and can be introduced subtly through descriptors like the general look and upkeep of the neighborhood or how your characters and the supporting cast speaks.

Culture

We touched on this in the macro-location section, but the cultural norms in your setting paint a colorful picture of not just how your character fits into their world, but also the world itself around them. Stories that feature magic or non-factual elements will spend a lot of time on this and should take into account how these elements work (readers typically like to know there is some rhyme or reason for why and how things work the way they do and what rules they adhere to). But the culture itself in any story is important. Is it culturally acceptable in your setting for people to dispose of trash in the street, or to recycle? To watch TV all day or spend most of their time at work? To value children or their careers? Create a vivid landscape and activities and landmarks that your characters would easily recognize to anchor the story in that location.

Contrasts in Locations

Because stories should move your character along a path to change, your locations should provide ample contrast to move him or her throughout the story. Not every micro-location should be safe and cozy. Let your world move throughout a range of locations and settings to provide danger or unease. It aids in character progression as they encounter very different locales that push their comfort and incites their fear/pain reactions.

Having contrast allows you to reveal your characters’, well, characters. Are they the type to run from danger? Are they the type to pull together closer with a loved one in an unknown location for safety or protection, or push away from each other in the comfort of the familiar?

Experiment with differing locations. Counter a nature setting with a cityscape. A dark, sinister place with a comforting, playful one. Give your story dimension and space for your characters to move in and explore.

Just as you can’t have all of your characters act the same way or have the exact same personalities, don’t let your settings all evoke the same emotions.

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The Details, Large and Small

A common misstep made my new writers is to create a detailed world in which only the overarching details are evident. Dystopian writers may focus heavily on the disparity of their world and reveal the catastrophic government influences it wreaks upon the poor citizens it rules, but your reader won’t be able to connect with that. Give them finer details, too. In the climate of that dystopian world, what are the personally experiencing? Their clothing, their food, their neighborhood in that dystopian state or country. The things your characters personally feel and see and hear and touch provides a personal entry into that world and gives meaning to the overall details you create. Make sure you have both large scale details about the world and small scale details that expand on them throughout your story.

Takeaway:

Your setting is an integral but often overlooked part of your novel that deserves attention to really make the story pop.

What part of setting development do you find makes the most impact in your favorite novels? Let us know in the comments!

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