Writing

What are the Elements of a Narrative Arc and How Do You Create One in Writing?

Written by MasterClass

Mar 6, 2019 • 5 min read

Behind every good story—whether it’s a novel, play, movie, or TV show—is a solid narrative arc. Before you begin writing, it can be helpful to draw one up to get a sense of what story you’re trying to tell.

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What Is a Narrative Arc?

A narrative arc, also called a “story arc,” a “dramatic arc,” or just an “arc,” is the path the story follows. It gives a story a backbone by providing a clear beginning, middle, and end.

The narrative arc as we know it today was created by Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright who closely analyzed ancient Greek writing and William Shakespeare’s five-act plays. As its name suggests, when plotted on paper, a typical narrative arc forms the shape of a pyramid or a hill. Learn more about Freytag and his five-act structure in our comprehensive guide on writing plot.

The 5 Classic Elements of a Narrative Arc

A traditional narrative arc has five elements. They are, in order:

  • Exposition: the introduction to the story. The exposition offers background information to prime the audience for the rest of the story, including outlining the main character(s) (the “who”), setting (the “where”), and time period (the “when”).
  • Rising action: when conflict begins to ramp up. The rising action usually begins with what’s called an “inciting incident,” a.k.a. the trigger that puts the tension in motion. This is when the audience starts to see what the story is really about.
  • Climax: the height of tension. Typically, the climax requires the main character to face the truth and make a choice.
  • Falling action: the result of that choice. During the falling action, the conflict gives way to resolution. Loose ends are tied up and tension dissipates.
  • Resolution: the conclusion of the story. The ending isn’t always happy, but it does close the loop and show how the tension affected the characters and the world around them.

What Is the Difference Between a Narrative Arc and a Character Arc?

If a narrative arc is the path of the overall story, a character arc is the path a specific character takes during that story. The story arc is external and happens to all of the characters, while a character arc is internal and happens to one person.

A character arc usually involves a character overcoming an obstacle and changing the way they see the world. When the narrative arc begins the descent down the pyramid into the falling action and the resolution, the character arc has its moment to shine; this is when a character asks for help, learns a new skill, makes a critical choice, and/or becomes more self-aware. Typically, only major characters have character arcs, though occasionally, minor characters can undergo this type of character development as well.

7 Archetypal Narrative Arcs and Literary Examples

In Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plot Points, he outlines the seven main archetypal narrative arcs. They are:

  • Overcoming the monster: the main character must stop the person or force threatening them. Example: Dracula by Bram Stoker.
  • Rags to riches: The main character begins poor, comes into money (and/or fame, power, and love), loses it, and becomes a better person because of it. Example: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
  • The quest: The main character takes an epic journey to find something, someone, or some place, running into obstacles on the way. Example: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
  • Voyage and return: The main character visits a new world and returns home with a new perspective. Example: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Comedy: The main character experiences an escalating sequence of confusing but comedic events, which are ultimately resolved into a happy ending. Example: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare.
  • Tragedy: The main character has a flaw or makes a mistake that results in their downfall. Example: Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare.
  • Rebirth: The main character experiences an event that makes them a better person. Example: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Further Examination of the Narrative Arc With Literary Example

Review the narrative arc in the classic Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol:

  • Exposition: We meet Ebenezer Scrooge in Victorian England. We see his cold character traits in action as he shuts out poor men seeking money for food and turns down an invitation to have dinner with his nephew. He’s visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his late business partner, who warns him he’ll be visited by three spirits and that he should take their advice.
  • Rising action: The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his unhappy childhood and shows him that his former fiancée, Belle, ended their relationship because he was too obsessed with money. Then, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes him to his employee Bob Cratchit’s bleak Christmas dinner where Scrooge learns his son, Tiny Tim, is gravely ill and in danger of dying unless his family’s circumstances change.
  • Climax: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge a future where he dies, and nobody mourns his loss. Scrooge breaks down and promises to become a better person if given the chance to go back to Earth.
  • Falling action: Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man. To make amends for his previous bad behavior, he donates money to charity, provides Christmas dinner for the Cratchit family, and gives Bob a generous raise.
  • Resolution: Scrooge vows to embody the Christmas spirit year-round in all things he does.

Step-by-Step Guide: How to Create a Narrative Arc in 4 Easy Steps

Here’s how to construct a narrative arc in your own writing:

  1. Choose an archetypal narrative arc. Think about the story you want to tell. Is the main character overcoming something? Going on a quest? Experiencing a rebirth? You don’t have to follow any one example to the letter but writing with an archetypal narrative arc in mind can be a huge help.
  2. Identify your beginning, middle, and end. Who are the main characters? What are they doing? When are they doing it? Where are they doing it? Why are they doing it? And, most importantly: What is all of that building toward?
  3. Plot them onto a narrative arc. Get a better sense of your narrative arc by creating a visual diagram of the story. Seeing a quick overview of it written on a page makes it easier to identify and fill in any gaps.
  4. Adjust as needed. Of course, there’s no hard and fast rule that you have to stick to Freytag’s traditional narrative arc. Every story is different; some are heavy on exposition while others draw out the rising action. Give yourself the freedom to be flexible and see where your unique story goes.

The next time you sit down to write, consider drawing up a quick narrative arc. It’s a useful tool that can help you stay on track if you’re ever unsure of what comes next in your story.