Don’t Bore the Explorer   7 comments

What is story arc to you?

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Discovery Versus Plotting

As a discovery writer, I could probably joke that it is meaningless. I start writing a story and I add events, dialogue and setting until I get to the end. And, actually a lot of my source material for Daermad Cycle (The Willow Branch and Mirklin Wood) and What If Wasn’t (Red Kryptonite Curve and subsequent books) is of that sort of meandering material. Even some of my drafts for Transformation Project (See new release Winter’s Reckoning here) start out just feeling along, looking for what excites my characters to grab the plot and run with it.

No, discovery writers don’t outline — much — but truthfully, I do usually have a plan for where I’m going and I’ll get to it — eventually.

Story arc refers to the structure and shape of a story. Wow, that sounds boring already. I don’t really “do” plots. I’m all about the characters. But, yeah, I’m answering the topic, so ….

What is Story Arc?

The arc consists of the events in your story — the sequences of occurrences — the plot’s peaks, plateaus and valleys that set the pace. Still kind of boring.

“A good arc is vital if you want to engage your readers from start to finish, and deliver a satisfying conclusion.”

I don’t know who wrote that, but I’m thinking they weren’t a discovery writer. I also think whoever wrote that sentence is a bore at dinner parties.

Narrative or story arc describes a story’s full progression. According to several articles I’ve read, every story has a relatively calm beginning, a middle where tension, character conflict, and narrative momentum builds to a peak, and then an end where the conflict is resolved.

Excuse me. I need to yawn.

You already know this classic example of the story arc:

  • Boy meets girl, boy fails girl, boy gets girl again.

Writers vary that simple trope by adding complexity to the basic arc.

  • Boy meets girl, boy fails girl, boy ends up on an island with girl, boy saves girl’s life, boy gets girl again, boy falls into a volcano, and girl saves boy’s life. Happily ever after here we come.

That sounds a lot like plot and it really is related. Plot is comprised of the individual events that make up your story. The story arc is the sequence of those events. But I don’t “do” plot. My stories are character-driven. Or are they?

A Discovery Approach to Plotting

When I let my characters tell me their stories, they don’t always give me the stories in sequential order. Which is handy for me because I can, usually, get away with ordering the story however I want. I often don’t bother with that until the editing starts. I’m a discovery writer. I want to unwrap all my presents before arranging them in my house.

Yes, I know outline writers whose heads are exploding as they read this article.

Go With Your Strengths

Part of the reason I can do this is that my characters dictate the story to me and I let them run with the plot, knowing I’ll have to do a continuity cleanup later. If you’re prepared for it, it’s really not as bad as it sounds and, frankly, I don’t know another way to do it. If I try to boss my characters around, they’re likely to stop talking to me. Their character arc(s) drive the story arc. Whatever inner demons they have are going to cause them to make decisions that will drive the story arc. It’s a symbiotic relationship. While my characters struggle to reach their goals and often fail, the story arc is created. The way my characters meet challenges spawned by the story arc also bend the character arcs.

According to the 19th-century German novelist, Gustav Freytag, story arcs are pyramidal, comprised of five dramatic stages: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. That would be useful if I wrote stories in the same way people build houses — but I don’t.

Exposition – In the Beginning (Maybe)

Take exposition, for example, It’s the defacto introduction to the book — setting the table — introducing the characters, scattering the seeds of conflict, imparting a bit of background knowledge so the reader isn’t totally confused by what happens along the way.

In The Willow Branch, I introduced readers to Prince Maryn and the Kingdom of Celdrya … and then killed him, so everything readers knew about Prince Maryn sort of didn’t matter (actually it does, because his death is a historic pivotal event that effects life a century later), but it was a much stronger beginning than my original one of Padraig riding down out of the mountains, which tells you a great deal about Padraig and the kingdom, but absolutely nothing really happens in that scene. It’s like watching an episode of 30-Something.

In Transformation Project, I started Life As We Knew It (Book 1) with Shane’s gun in his mouth and his finger just outside the trigger guard. Clearly, I don’t know how to start a story. I’m not alone. P.G. Wodehouse gallops right past the exposition. If it’s good enough for him….

I tried to write exposition for the story, but the truth was, the starting point for Transformation Project needed to be the central tension of Shane’s character. He’s suicidal because he suffers from PTSD. Only when things are banging and blowing up can he care about living and so, every time the plot slows down, Shane’s got to fly too close to a flame. Otherwise, that gun is going to go back into his mouth and, well, he’s still capable of pulling the trigger … as readers might find out when they read Winter’s Reckoning. Somebody might be dead at the end of the book. Would I kill Shane? I’m not telling.

Rising Action/Triggering Event

Some people call it the “inciting incident”. I do make use of that. Before Shane can pull the gun’s trigger, something causes him to get distracted from killing himself. Romeo sees Juliet. Prim is selected during the Reaping. Some circumstance triggers a roll of the plot dice and causes a series of escalating events that set the rest of the story into motion.

In Red Kryptonite Curve, Peter’s triggering event is when he meets Cheyenne. Up to that point, he was a free agent. The character could have gone in any direction (and probably not been worth writing about) until he met the girl and then his other issues came into play.

This is the point in the story where character development takes place and relationships between characters deepen. Tension rises and conflict escalates.

Probably THE classic example of this is in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Everything that occurs after Hercule Poirot steps foot onto the train — up until the murder of R — constitutes the story’s rising action. It strengthens the suspense on the train and reveals the suspects relationships and motives to the reader. How my characters respond to the changing situations during a period of rising action speaks volumes about them.


According to more than one article I’ve read on the subject, a good climax will build upon everything earlier — the story lines, motives, character arcs — and package it all together. It’s the moment of truth for the protagonist (the peak of the character arc) and the event to which the plot’s built up (the peak of the arc). When the outer and inner journeys come together and click, you know you’ve got the beginnings of a winning climax.

On the flip side, a bad climax is the easiest way for a reader to feel cheated and chuck your book at the wall. I don’t recommend you do that with your e-reader. They’re frightfully fragile and a lot more expensive than a paperback book. So the climax is one of the most important parts of your story arc. While it’s the beginning that sells this novel, it’s the climax that sells the next novel.  

Discovery writers don’t always follow rules. I’m writing series with an ensemble cast. Sometimes there’s more than one climax and I also throw in a cliffhanger at the end. Not always, though. In Winter’s Reckoning, there’s resolution after a mid-point climax, but I also start a new event right at the end of the book. It’s not a cliffhanger per se, but it should make the readers want to come back for Book 7 (tentatively entitled “A Death in Jericho” which will focus on the familiar characters, but with a murder mystery woven in). Okay, I wanted to write a murder mystery, but I struggle to create characters to fill such a plot-driven book. My solution was to find already existing characters with a dead body. Yeah, I know, I’m breaking the rules again.

Falling Action

You’ve just blown up the dam and fixed all your characters’ problems. Good for you. I write series with ensemble casts, so it is possible I’ve done the same — in one thread — but you can bet there’s a cliffhanger fomenting in at least one thread. Why? Because if I resolved everything, I’d probably not get a lot of reads for the later books.

Yes, I know cliffhangers supposedly cause readers to pull their hair out. That’s not been my experience in analyzing KENP reads. They typically read the entire series and nobody has complained about the cliffhangers yet. I’ve got one guy who is mad at me for making military guys act like military guys and a woman who thinks I defamed God by having non-Christians act like non-Christians. Nobody’s mentioned the cliffhangers as a problem yet.. Enough said about that squirrel.

What goes up must come down. This bridge between the climax and resolution is where you show the reader the fruits of the protagonist’s toils. It’s how they get from the thrills and chills to happily ever after.

Often, my books have several climaxes and a cliffhanger at the end, which means the next book might start with a climax in the first few pages. A Threatening Fragility ends with a cliffhanging climax as Shane is thrown off a bridge with a rope around his neck. That required Day’s End to begin with a climax showing how Shane survived that event. It’s then followed by a period of movement that is no less productive to the plot than the climax, but isn’t as all-consuming. There is at least one other climax later in the book.

If I were writing stand-alones with a traditional climax in the middle or toward the end, I would have couples start pairing off and I would tie up dangling ends. Yes, I know how to do it, I just don’t think it’s always the best way to go. Sometimes it is. In Red Kryptonite Curve, which has a more traditional climax, it’s in the falling action where Peter meets Rick, who will save his life, if he’ll let him in the next book.


Well, in stories not written by me, you’ve made it to the denouement. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are engaged. Bilbo returns to Bag End. Huck Finn settles down with Aunt Sally to be “sivilized.” Ishmael is rescued from the sea. Readers breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The book is wrapping up. In an old-fashioned detective novel, the investigator would gather everyone in a room and reveal whodunnit. All questions would be resolved, all ends wrapped up. The reader would then close the book with peace of mind.


Does Freytag’s Pyramid work with every story?

History is dotted with novels that bucked the trend. On the Road possesses virtually no narrative arc while To Kill a Mockingbird arguably possesses two arcs (one each for Tom Robinson and Boo Radley). The Trial builds up to a complete anti-climax in the place of a climax; meanwhile, Catcher in the Rye casually drops a sentence in the denouement about Holden going to a mental institution before the book ends, abruptly.

Writing is about exploration and discovery and there’s plenty of room within the art to try something different. Disrupting reader expectations can be risky, but isn’t always a bad thing. A strong story arc gives a story shape, but subplots can provide a measure of variety to a story. There’s no reason not to experiment. It’s not like a tattoo. You’re not stuck with it forever. You can always delete attempts at variety.

Discovery Writer Discovers Plotting

I don’t much care about the story arc until I’ve finished the first draft. The draft is the time for my characters to do whatever they want to do. I know the general destination of my characters, but I let them decide how to get there. When I come back to the story, I read it as if I’ve never seen it before and I’m a beta reader trying to make the story better. When I read it yet again, I start to make notes. I know where I want the story to end up. Does the whole of the novel aim in that direction? Why did I send Cai to a culvert in Wichita and then to a concentration camp in Hutchinson? To make him a better person. To help him to understand his brother a bit better. To make him appreciate his wife more. To make his faith real to him. To bring in characters who will be key to resolving a future conflict. They didn’t live in Emmaus and I had to find a way to get them there. Did the events I described in A Threatening Fragility and Day’s End do for Cai what I wanted to accomplish? I had to do some rewriting to make it happen, but how I depicted Cai in Gathering In could not have been possible if he’d not gone through those earlier events.

Someone gave an apt metaphor for understanding the story arc. Think of plot as the disconnected bones of a skeleton. You could arrange them in a myriad of ways, but there’s really only one right way to arrange them. The story arc is the spine of the story. It provides the framework for the plot and prevents it from being a formless blob. Amoebic formations don’t make good stories. Experimenting with the story arc or letting your characters dictate their own actions can be a delightful experience in experimentation … so long as your whole picture aims in a direction that the story needs to go.

Posted August 17, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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7 responses to “Don’t Bore the Explorer

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  1. I like your description of the story arc being the spine of the story. That is it exactly. You need to spine to get the whole body to stand up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s fascinating to read your post. I regret not taking more notice in school or even bothering to find all this stuff out before I ever struck the keys on my first novel. It all makes perfect sense and I can see the logic and the reason for it. My work, which is written on the fly, somehow seems to follow an arc without any planning.


  3. “Disrupting reader expectations can be risky, but isn’t always a bad thing.” I would argue it’s a good thing for readers who are looking for more than an easy read that doesn’t make them think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely. I think smart readers like to have their expectations tweaked at times. I know I do. It’s why I don’t read some genres much because I know how the story is going to end before I even start. I don’t mind that so much as when I also know how the “tension” will be resolved because some genres have very narrow expectations.


  4. I really can get bored as a reader with books that stick to traditional plot lines. There is something familiar to them, and there’s a time and place for that, but I like books that feel less cookie cutter.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I bailed this week. One man army hanging kitchen cabinets. I let the characters tell it until we all end up in the weeds and they need to reconvene, or a character comes out of nowhere and we back up a hundred pages or so. Checkout said there are 2 stories. Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Which is why I always say Star Trek is Bonanza in space. Which leaves out the whodunnit. How would you have yours? Cozy, trite, cutesy, lengthy and soapy, short and deft, and when does a whodunnit become literature? Or is it?

    Liked by 1 person

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