Discovering the Arc
During my creative writing degree, we were taught about Nigel Watts‘s 8-point story arc. As a writer of literary fiction, I was hesitant to consider a formal structure when planning my own novel. I didn’t want it to be formulaic or obvious. But when my tutor told every student to think of a published novel and decide whether it followed the arc, every book we considered met these eight points, even the less conventional ones. My question became: should we plot our novels around this arc or write freely and expect the curve to occur naturally?
Let’s look at the story arc. I’ve described Nigel’s frame in my own words and used Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an example. Bear in mind that you can have multiple protagonists, each with interrelating story arcs.
First, a novel should share what the protagonist’s life looks like before everything changes, establishing a context for the story. At the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, the five Bennett sisters are living with their parents in an English village, in the early 19th century. Their mother is desperate to see them married to wealthy men, especially the two eldest, Jane and Elizabeth.
Trigger (or Inciting Incident)
Something happens to upset the balance in the protagonist’s life. This incident leaves an issue or brings an opportunity. When wealthy Mr. Bingley arrives to the area with his haughty friend Mr. Darcy, Jane is attracted to Bingley and Elizabeth quickly dislikes Darcy. Neither can carry on as they were before.
The Quest (or Story Goal)
The protagonist now has a goal – something they have to achieve because of the trigger. They set a course of action. Jane hopes to get to know Bingley. Elizabeth wants to aid this effort whilst avoiding Darcy and keeping an eye open for a match for herself.
Multiple events or occurrences get in the way of the goal – they can be good or bad, but they have to surprise the reader. Pride and Prejudice has tons of surprises: Officer Wickham is friendly towards Elizabeth and turns her against Darcy; heir to the Bennett estate Mr. Collins proposes; Jane doubts Bingley’s feelings; Elizabeth and Darcy start to like each other, etc.
After journeying through many obstacles, your protagonist will have to make a significant choice about where to go from here. This moment will call into question their own identity. This happens when Elizabeth visits the Darcy estate and sees the affection his sister and the staff have for him. She warms to him and confronts her own prejudice.
The highest point of tension in the novel. Having made the critical choice, the protagonist will be ready to face this ultimate challenge, for better or worse. The climax of Pride and Prejudice is when youngest sister Lydia runs off with Wickham and Elizabeth worries the family will be disgraced. Darcy saves the day by offering Wickham an income to marry her. Elizabeth sees clearly which man is most honourable.
Following the climax, the protagonist will experience a reversal in their life. This change could only have happened after this specific journey they’ve taken. Jane accepts Bingley’s proposal. Elizabeth accepts Darcy’s.
The story completes with a new stasis: the balance has been restored, but not in the way the protagonist expected; their life looks different now and they themselves have grown. Finally, Elizabeth marries Darcy. She has overcome her prejudice and he has overcome his pride.
Implementing the Arc
My stories have often lacked a strong quest or goal. If there isn’t a clear quest, the resolution won’t satisfy the reader. It’s easy to stuff your work with surprises and choices, surprises and choices, without connecting them to a specific journey, but the story arc falls apart without causality. Each event must be caused by a previous event, then cause the next. If an event feels random, the reader loses interest. When a resolution feels random, there is no satisfaction.
I still believe that a first draft must be free and fleshy. You shouldn’t think about ticking boxes or meeting points on the arc at this stage. But we all know the first draft is only the very beginning. The rewrite identifies present structural points and fits missing points into the skeleton. Often the points will all be there, but some will be weak or in the wrong place. For example, the climax might occur before the critical choice rather than after it and therefore lack emotional pull.
There has to be some leniency using the arc. In an age when many agents don’t read past the first page of each submission, you need an attention-grabbing opening. It may make sense to reveal the trigger and stasis simultaneously. We can meet the protagonist as the trigger occurs so long as an understanding of their regular life is fed into the narrative.
Every story needs a purpose that exists within a protagonist, a question and some not knowing and an answer. A writer may have purpose, something they really want to say, but if this purpose isn’t translated into a tangible and logical character journey, it won’t come through in the story. Look back at your drafts and see if any of these core narrative turning points need strengthening. Consider where they are placed in the timeline of your book. For a debut, it’s a good idea to introduce the quest in the first 15,000 words, then release increasingly dramatic surprises and responses until the final third, when the critical-choice – climax – reversal – resolution chain of excitement plays out.
You can read more about Nigel Watts’s 8-point story arc in his book, Write a Novel – And Get it Published: Teach Yourself. You may also like to consider other story arc templates, such as The Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat.