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What is a story ARC?

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

Story ARCs
Which way is right?
Are you confused by the various methods of how to write an ARC? Do you know what an ARC is? Many beginning writers have no idea. And, that’s perfectly fine, since we have all been there.

I would venture a guess that if you’re an avid reader, you understand more than you know. After all, ARC’s are what ‘makes the world go round’ in a successful story.

Before moving forward, let me note there are many novels, articles, videos, and papers written on this exact subject. This topic, as many in writing, has opposing views. But, know that each writer forms a method that works for them. So, don’t be afraid to peruse the material out there and decide what works best for YOU.

Feel free to mix and match, if need be. Who knows, you may find a way to improve on the entire process. Moving on!

Nigel Watts’ writes a beginner level book called, Teach Yourself Writing a Novel His Eight-Point Story Arc carries a great deal of merit. Now, let’s get to it.

Here’s the list:
The quest
Critical choice

I agree with Watt’s concept that every successful plot passes through these stages. And Then there Were None, Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings, just to mention a few.
With that said, do not use this method to plan your story—save it for the actual writing process. Use it as a measurement against your WIP. (Work In Progress)

‘Planning Your Story’ will be an entirely different blog post on our site:

This is the “every day life” in which the story is set. Think of Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit) sitting watching the clouds drift by as he puffs happily in his pipe weed.

Something beyond the control of the protagonist is the trigger which sparks off the story. In this case, the dwarves arrive at Bilbo’s quiet little house unannounced and nearly drive him mad with their manners and antics.

The quest
This always follows a trigger and generally brings about a quest, which is definitely the case in The Hobbit. (Poor Bilbo, heading off to face danger and a dragon. I shudder at the thought.) This would be classified an unpleasant trigger—our hero being placed in danger. Be aware, there are also pleasant triggers—like if Bilbo had discovered a pile of gold at his front door as compensation for his troubles after the dwarves left.

This is comprised of several elements, and takes up the story’s middle. In many ways, it’s the ‘meat and potatoes’ section for the book. Here you may find pleasant events, but usually it’s filled with obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble. (Again, poor Bilbo! What’s a hobbit to do!)

In Watts’ book, he emphasizes that surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable. That may sound very simple, but proves to be an outstanding point. Surprise needs to be unexpected, but plausible.

Critical choice
At some stage, and it can happen more than once, your protagonist needs to make a crucial decision; a critical choice. Keep in mind not to overdo this stage. In other words, the MC (main character) shouldn’t really be making critical decisions on every other page. That wouldn’t mirror real life.

Here’s your chance, as the author, to make your character come to life, as it were. We get to discover who he/she is. Readers want you to make them feel the MC has a real personalities and feelings. Ones that are revealed at moments of high stress.

(Okay, more Tolkien references here. Does your MC handle pressure like Legolas the elf, calm and cool, or is he more like Wormtongue that connives, sneaks about in shadow and cowers from threats.)

Watts stresses this decision needs to be made by the character to take a particular path – not just something that happens by chance.

This can be any path. Perhaps your MC turns evil after making a terrible choice which throws their world into a complete spiral Or, do they choose wisely and find their brand new love at the end of it all.

An example of critical choice involves making your MC choose between a good, but hard, path and a bad, but easy, one. What ever will they do? (If I’m asking that question in my head, or biting my nails as I read your book, then you’re doing a great job with your writing.

The same exact choices your protagonist just made on the previous pages now should result in the stories climax.

For some stories, this could be a knight facing off against the dragon that has been terrorizing his city, a fierce battle between armies, or a MC needing to rescue their love interest as they dangle precariously from a cliff’s edge by their fingers, and the ideas go on. Obviously, the scenarios could be endless, but they absolutely have power. (No one wants to read a flat ending as the book winds down.)

The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and climax. Your characters, especially the MC, should change because of it.

Think of the knight and dragon. Maybe, the dragon can speak. And, as the knight prepares to kill the creature, it tells the him/her that their city has been stealing her eggs for years and she only wants them back. She had no option but to seek revenge on the trespassers and thieves.

Brave Sir Knight now spares the dragon and joins her side to stop the atrocity and win back her eggs.

The best reversals are inevitable and probable. Remember this—nothing happens for no reason. Use that philosophy and you’ll go far. Besides, logically, changes should not fall out of the sky. Like life itself, the story must unfold in layers. Very realistic and plausible layers.


This stage brings us to a new outlook and change. The characters should be better off. Not necessarily financially, but perhaps much more wise or wary.

Watts mentions that longer stories should include minor arcs-within-arcs. (Think Game of Thrones type stories, or many romance and mystery novels have excellent sub plots, as well.)

This method is a great idea, but to be honest, some beginning writers may struggle with it at first. It can be complicated.

But, once you get the hang of it, or get some coaching, you’ll move the idea right along.
Now, a shorter version for comparison:

This formula contains only five steps but is just as effective. There are some who theorize the longer method is better and has more creative avenues than the shorter version. Only because, the 5 step method seems like a rush, in their mind and misses critical phases when you lump several steps together.

Again, I will say, no matter what others do, find what works for you. Before settling in with your favorite version, be sure to explore both options. Onward, my friends!
Another school of thought is as follows:
Rising action
Falling action
-Exposition, also referred to as stasis, which, as you know by now, occurs at the stories beginning. It’s your solid foundation of the entire project.

The aspects of Exposition are nearly identical in every way to Stasis, so I will not repeat the procedure here. (This goes for the remaining stages, as well. Though I will note differences or important information.)

View this as an introduction, helping the reader settle into the story before things start to pick up.

-As the name implies, Rising Action, quickly moves the story forward.

* Note* The italicized section to follow should look very familiar since we just covered it on the previous pages. It lumps several steps into one.

That can have advantages (saving time and confusion as you write) and disadvantages (rushing the story or overlooking critical pieces of the longer process.)
Some authors break this component into four separate elements:
The trigger—the event that sets the plot into motion
The quest—how the characters respond to the trigger
The surprise— twists, turns, or unexpected events
The critical choice—decisions the MC makes leading to the climax
-The Climax of the story is reaching the plot’s peak. It's where tension, excitement and thrills are at their maximum.

-Conversely, Falling Action, follows. After all, you do need to come down after reaching the highest point, right? Here’s where we head for the ending in a calmer, more subdued fashion. It feels like you can breathe again after the previous chapters,

-Finally, Resolution finishes off the entire adventure. All major problems and dangling sub stories can be tied up neatly here.

There you have it. Which method will you choose? Only you know that. Drop us a line with questions and we can give more guidance if needed.

Peace, everyone!

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