In writing there are generally two different types of story arcs – plot arcs and character arcs. In any one story you can have several different arcs, and as a writer it is vital understand how they work, because they make planning your writing a great deal easier.
To understand how I am going to explain them, I’m going imagine that your story is a piece of fabric being woven. That a single plot line in a story is known as a narrative thread. Fabric of course is woven from more than one thread. Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is a great example of several threads; the first book in particular is very closely connected, especially in King’s Landing. The interest come from the different interactions in threads as the book progresses.
Plot arcs relate directly to the narrative itself and in complex stories that have more than one narrative thread, a plot arc is a term to describe one of these threads. What is crucial in the planning, writing and editing stages of a piece of work, is understanding how these different threads relate to each other. Where do the different threads interlink? What effects do the different threads have on each other? It is also important to understand them yourself to make sure that you don’t leave any loose ends.
Complications with plot arcs interacting with each other is more likely to occur in longer prices of work and stories told over several books or television episodes. It’s vital to understand as best as possible how something is going to work out, just because it makes life a great deal easier.
Life isn’t that simple though, and I know from experience of writing a series of books, that if you change your mind about something, it can have a knock on effect. I once changed a character slightly to be less of a villain, and it had a massive knock-on effect right back to the beginning of the previous book which thankfully I was still editing.
One of the greatest examples of a plot arc I’ve ever come across isn’t actually from a book for once, but from the first series of Doctor Who after it was rebooted in 2005. ‘Bad Wolf’ started as a little hint and gradually became the resolution to the entire series. However, if you read Russell T. Davies’ account of writing the first series (in The Writer’s Tale with Benjamin Cook) the ‘Bad Wolf’ it was not the plan that he set out with, but as many writers occasionally discover the initial plan sometimes just doesn’t work.
However you can’t really tell, as ‘Bad Wolf’ was and still is brilliant. It starts as a plot arc, that just simmers away underneath the other stories, and them becomes a vital cog in the character arc for Rose Tyler.
Character arcs are related to the journeys that the characters themselves go on. Not all characters change as the story is told, but generally, protagonists go through a journey and develop (for better or worse) as a character in the story. For Rose she finds something to believe in so strongly that she is willing to sacrifice everything to try and protect it.
You do also have to remember your minor characters. They are also likely to develop as characters, though that development might come via the sub-plot rather than the main plot, and it might have an effect on the interaction that character then has with other characters, especially the protagonist. That is another factor to take into account when developing your characters, whether major or minor.
If you have a particular end goal in mind then you have to be aware of how a character is going to change and develop as they journey to the end goal. They might turn out to be different from what you had originally intended so you have to have a tight rein over your characters, unless you are happy to be flexible on that account.
The alternative is to have a plot goal in mind; I know where my ‘Phoenix Spell’ books are going to end but I don’t know the minute details of the journey my characters take in order get there. Woking out before I write the books who my characters become isn’t as important to me, because no matter where they are going they are heading where I lead them; at the moment they are hopeful/determined characters. I might have a severely damaged and reluctant protagonist by the end.
I have worked out the plot, not the characters, but I do know how they react to certain situations, because I know them that well. I know how even minute changes in the detail of the plot could effect them. I have the confidence to develop as I go; if you don’t then plan it out.
So story arcs aren’t that difficult to understand, and there are many great examples in literature and in television, but it is a plot device that you do need to plan, but also be prepared to change if it isn’t working. Understanding how each of your arcs work with each other though does make it easier. It doesn’t just stop there though, and there are things you do need to consider further: whether your story is plot driven or character driven, which I will discuss more in the next post.