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Steps to Success » The Craft of Writing

Get Started with Story Arcs

In my previous article on writing, I gave an overview of the novel-writing process. Hopefully, that inspired you to start your own work, and you’re creating longer stories than you could before. One area that enthusiastic young writers often struggle with is the story arc, so let’s dive into that topic today and learn to keep our work under control.


The easiest way to think of a story arc is like a rollercoaster. At the start, you’re strapped in safely, and everything feels under control. The characters are moving, and they might even be twisting around some bends, but it’s manageable. Then, there’s a sharp ascent, which brings excitement and maybe some fear. The dramatic action that comes next in a novel is like the sudden drops and twirling loops of the ride, and it may be unclear if the characters will even survive what’s happening. But then the rollercoaster slows down, perhaps with some final twists and turns along the way, but it always comes to a stop in the end. The characters are changed by the time they reach the last chapter of the story, just as a ride might leave us breathless, with our hair a mess and our heart racing, and maybe we’ve lost our glasses along the way. Some new writers struggle with the predictability of story arcs, but many people love to ride rollercoasters, even though they know what’s going to happen. 


Writers often find that thinking at the overall level of the story arc is fine when they’re planning, but they’re not sure how to make that into a piece of writing on the page. If they’re wanting to write a novel, and the mid-point of it is a huge battle, they don’t know how to fill the space before this. It can help to give your characters lots of small struggles along the way. Obstacles create movement in a story, and this keeps the reader turning the page. If a character is going to war, they’re going to have to train, travel to the battle, and maybe even be betrayed by their best friend, who decides to fight for the other side along the way. Think about the cliffhangers at the end of TV episodes, and try to include this sort of exciting problem to the ends of your chapters. You’ll soon find you have plenty of things for your characters to do on the way to the crisis in the middle.


When you’ve got some practice with following a story arc, you’re ready to tie in one more important element: theme. A theme is a type of main idea in the story, one that is connected to emotions and is deeply meaningful. Simple ideas like flowers or beaches can’t usually be themes. We need things that are important to our feelings, like love or hope. If you’re writing a story with a battle in the middle and a friend who betrays the main character, your theme might be loyalty. Your story will feel even more interesting and important if that theme is included throughout your writing. You could include it right at the start, for example, and on the first page show the character who is leaving for war saying goodbye to their dog while they remember how the dog usually sleeps at their feet. The dog could even follow the main character and refuse to be left behind. Adding your theme to all the parts of your story arc will leave your readers with a deep message, and they’ll love your writing.


If you’re ready to take the next step with your writing and put it in print, join our Writing and Publishing course.