Writing

Learn About Narrative Arcs: Definition, Examples, and How to Create a Narrative Arc in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Mar 6, 2019 • 6 min read

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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?

Narrative arc, also called a “story arc,” a “dramatic arc,” or just an “arc,” is a literary term for the path a story follows. It provides a backbone by providing a clear beginning, middle, and end of the story.

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

5 Classic Elements of a Narrative Arc

A traditional narrative arc has five elements, in the following order:

  1. Exposition. This is the reader’s introduction to the story. The exposition offers background information to prime the audience for the rest of the story, including introducing the main character(s) (the “who”), setting (the “where”), and circumstances or time period (the “when”).
  2. Rising action. This is when conflict begins to ramp up. The rising action usually begins with what’s called an “inciting incident”—the triggering event that puts the main events of the story in motion. This is when the audience starts to see what your story is really about.
  3. Climax. This is the highest point of tension in your storyline, and often the point at which all the different subplots and characters converge. Typically, the climax requires the main character to face the truth or make an important choice.
  4. Falling action. This is what happens as a result of the protagonist’s decision. During the falling action, the conflict gives way to resolution. Loose ends are tied up, and tension begins to dissipate.
  5. Resolution. Also known as a denouement, this is how your story ends. The resolution of a narrative arc isn’t always happy, but it does close the loop and show how the events of the story have changed the characters and the world around them.
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What Is the Difference Between Narrative Arc and Plot?

Plot refers to the individual events that make up your story. In other words, the plot is what happens. Narrative arc, on the other hand, refers to the path or sequence of your plot, and how that series of events creates a flow and progression that keeps the reader engaged at each stage in the story.

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 its descent down the pyramid into the falling action and resolution, the character arc has its moment to shine. This is when a character experiences a turning point by asking for help, learning a new skill, making a critical choice, and/or becoming more self-aware. Typically, only major characters have character arcs, though minor characters can undergo this type of character development as well.

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7 Archetypal Narrative Arcs and Literary Examples

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

  1. Overcoming the monster. The main character must stop the person or force threatening them. Example: Dracula by Bram Stoker.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Voyage and return. The main character visits a new world and returns home with a new perspective. Example: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  5. 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.
  6. Tragedy. The main character has a flaw or makes a mistake that results in their downfall. Example: Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare.
  7. Rebirth. The main character experiences an event that makes them a better person. Example: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

A Narrative Arc Literary Case Study: A Christmas Carol

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Let’s review the narrative arc of the classic Charles 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. In the inciting incident, Scrooge is 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 the present.
  • 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: In the end, Scrooge vows to embody the Christmas spirit year-round in all things he does.

How to Create a Narrative Arc in 4 Easy Steps

Here are some writing tips for building 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 an obstacle? 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. Plug your events into a narrative arc. Creating a visual diagram of your chosen narrative arc, then add the events of your story along that arc. Seeing a quick overview of your story on a page makes it easier to identify problems and fill any gaps. For instance, if you have a lot of events clustered in your “exposition” stage, you may want to cut some of them out or reimagine them as new developments in the rising action.
  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 heavier 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.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to correctly use literary devices is essential to good writing. Award-winning author Judy Blume has spent decades honing her craft. In Judy Blume’s MasterClass on writing, she provides insight into how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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