How to Write a Compelling Story Arc

How to Create a Compelling Story Arc

14 Apr 2020 Fiction

You’ve got a great story idea you’re confident can become a page turner. 

This is the one that won’t leave you alone.

Every time you think or speak of it, you embellish it.

Now what? 

Plan your story like you’d plan a vacation — you wouldn’t leave home without an idea of where you’re headed, what you’ll do when you get there, and how things will end (even we Pantsers need an idea where we’re headed).

So first map out your story arc — a blueprint to guide you as you write. 

How to Write a Compelling Story Arc

What is Story Arc?

It is to your novel what the skeleton is to the body. 

This framework is designed to help grab readers from the start and hold them till the end. 

Structuring Your Story Arc

The good news is that there are many story structures to choose from.

Here are 7 that have worked for many bestselling authors, beginning with the one that revolutionized my career and has informed every novel I’ve written since the 1980s.

(Click on any structure for more info.)

You’ll find that these all have a lot in common, with certain elements labeled slightly differently. 

So regardless which you decide to use, it will contain some version of this Classic Story Structure:

1. The Opener

The beginning of your story should introduce your main character and establishing his* problem, challenge, quest, journey, or dilemma — and the stakes must be dire enough to justify an entire book.

Your singular goal here is to invest your reader in your main character as soon as possible and keep him turning the pages. 

*I use the masculine pronoun inclusively to mean male or female characters and readers. 

2. An Inciting Incident that Changes Everything

It’s not enough to render a character frustrated by the status quo or angry at an annoying opponent.

His dilemma must force him to act or suffer dire consequences.

I’m talking way more than frustration, embarrassment, regret, or even shame. Imagine the worst possible result so your lead character spends the rest of the story battling to prevent it.

3. A Series of Crises that Build Tension

These should be logical, not the result of chance or coincidence, and they should grow progressively worse.

Trying to fix things, your protagonist will build new muscles and gain skills that will serve to make him heroic in the end. 

4. The Climax

Don’t mistake the climax for the end of your story.

Rather, this is the point at which your lead character must appear to have fatally failed and everything appears hopeless.

Some refer to this as the bleakest moment.

5. The End

Everything must be resolved to satisfyingly conclude your story.

Your main character must succeed — or fail, based on what he’s learned from the crises throughout.

Tie all loose ends.

Your reader must be left both satisfied and wanting more. 

Story Arc Examples

1. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

  • Opener: Katniss Everdeen awakens to find that her sister Prim has gone to sleep with their mother, probably because she was having bad dreams about the Hunger Games, in which competitors battle to become the last one standing in an event called “The Day of Reaping.” 
  • The Inciting Incident that Changes Everything: When Prim is chosen to participate in the deadly day of reaping, . Katniss volunteers to take her place. 
  • A Series of Crises that Build Tension: The stakes are raised when she prepares her mother and sister for her death. Katniss does well during the practice games, which makes her a target of the rest and of the totalitarian state behind the competition. The games begin, and she’s in for the fight of her life. Allies die, and she teams with her friend Peeta.
  • Climax: Katniss and Peeta soon become the only two remaining competitors, pitting them against each other. She decides to commit suicide with Peeta, which would make a mockery of the Games. To foil their plan, the state declares them both winners. 
  • Ending: Peeta is injured and Katniss doesn’t see him again until a televised interview during which Katniss learns her actions were recognized as rebellious. She and Peeta return to their district, where they are hailed as heroes despite knowing the state has targeted them as enemies. 

2. The Boy Who Cried Wolf, an Aesop Fable

  • Opener: A mischievous shepherd boy decides to play a trick on the villagers. 
  • Inciting Incident: The shepherd boy screams for help, leading the villagers to believe a wolf is attacking him and the sheep. When villagers arrive, the boy laughs and mocks them, and they angrily return to the village. 
  • Crises: The shepherd boy plays the trick again and again, further angering the villagers. 
  • Climax: A real wolf attacks but the distraught boy’s cries for help go unanswered as villagers refuse to be made fools of yet again. When he finally reaches the village, he admits his lie and assures them that this time it was the truth. 
  • End: The boy learns the hard lesson that one who lies will not be believed, even when he’s telling the truth. 

When you’re unsure how to develop your plot, try creating a story arc that can guide you as you create a novel that’ll have readers coming back for more.