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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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What is a Story Arc?

A story arc is a device used by readers and writers to understand the make-up of a story. To create a story arc, the reader analyzes the parts of a story. Then the story arc is often drawn as a curve or line graph, and various elements of the plot are identified and labelled on the drawing. The arc meaning refers to the rise and fall of the action in the story. It could be considered the shape of the story. A story arc may also be referred to as a narrative arc, since it explains the progression of a narrative.

A story arc begins with an introduction or exposition, such as once upon a time.

The classic story arc includes five story elements.

The classic story arc definition includes five elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. This lesson will examine each part of the classic story arc and how it is applied to reading and writing.

Students of literature can use a story arc to help them identify the parts of a story. Even if the story does not follow the classic pattern, the arc is a useful tool. Writers can use a story arc to map out their story ideas as a pre-writing brainstorming exercise.

Story Arc Components

A plot arc or storytelling arc is an explanation of the literary elements contained in a story. The most common breakdown of the story arc contains five components.

  1. Exposition: The exposition, also referred to as the introduction, is the author’s chosen beginning. Generally, the exposition contains the background or groundwork necessary for the reader to understand the rest of the story, such as the temporal and geographic setting and the identity of the major characters.
  2. Rising Action: The rising action is the sequence of events that move the characters from the beginning of the story to the climax. Authors may include several different phases in the rising action. First is the trigger, an event that signals the story’s beginning. The trigger is often found in the form of a problem the characters need to solve or overcome. The trigger may spark a quest as the characters respond to the trigger. Rising action often includes a surprise or twist in the story as unexpected events unfold. Finally, a critical choice pushes the characters to the point of the story’s climax.
  3. Climax: The climax is the turning point of the story. Events reach a critical moment, often action-packed or tense. The climax may include the solution to the problem or the culmination of the quest.
  4. Falling Action: Falling action is the necessary wrap-up information that the author gives after the climax is reached. Falling action deescalates the tension by easing the story away from stress of the story’s climax as the characters take steps necessary to reach the story’s conclusion.
  5. Resolution: The resolution, sometimes referred to as the denouement, is the final conclusion of the story. The resolution ties up loose ends to leave the reader feeling satisfied with their understanding of the story as a whole.

Story Arc Diagram

The traditional story arc diagram is drawn as either a curve or a mountain peak. See the story arc diagram for an example.

The story arc diagram shows five elements of a story.

The story arc diagram shows five elements of a story.

  • In the diagram, the exposition is shown as a flat line. The information in the exposition is of equal value, and does not move the story toward a climax point.
  • The rising action is shown as a rising diagonal line. The point where the line begins to rise can be considered the trigger, or the introduction of the problem.
  • The point of the diagram is the climax, which is the highest point of the action. The climax is the culmination of all of the prior events.
  • The downward diagonal line stands for falling action. Often, this line is depicted as a shorter line than the rising action, because many stories have only a short period of falling action.
  • The final flat line of the story arc diagram is the resolution or denouement. Once again, the story has reached a stable place where the important action is complete and the reader and characters can rest.

Using a diagram to represent the storytelling arc is a useful way to analyze the plot elements of a story. Sketching a story arc diagram and depicting some of the story’s events (either in pictures or words) for each phase of the diagram can help a reader understand and remember the plot.

Story Arc Examples

What is a story arc in practice? Story arc examples give an idea of how a reader can dissect the plot of a story in terms of key literary elements.

Story Arc One: Charlotte’s Web

The children’s classic Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White can be analyzed using the story arc format:

  • Exposition: The author introduces Fern and her family, their farm, and Fern’s pet pig Wilbur.
  • Rising action: The rising action kicks off with a conflict – Fern’s parents want to sell Wilbur. Wilbur is sold to Fern’s aunt and uncle, and meets the barnyard animals there. The conflict intensifies when Wilbur learns he is to be killed for bacon. His spider friend Charlotte begins to write words in her web in an attempt to save Wilbur. Wilbur is entered in the fair, where he hopes to win a prize and be safe. Charlotte makes an egg sac, but tells Wilbur she is dying. Wilbur learns that another pig has won first prize.
  • Climax: Wilbur is called to the judge’s stand. Before he goes he says goodbye to a dying Charlotte, while promising to take her egg sac back to the farm.
  • Falling action: Wilbur wins a special prize and is saved. Winter passes in the barnyard. Spring arrives and Charlotte’s eggs hatch.
  • Resolution: Wilbur is kept company by one of Charlotte’s daughters. Wilbur lives a long happy life and always remembers his friend Charlotte.

It is possible to list the rising and falling action in greater detail, but this outline gives an idea of the shape of the story arc for Charlotte’s Web.

Story Arc Two: Jane Eyre

A second story arc example is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

  • Exposition: The exposition of this novel introduces the orphaned Jane and describes her unhappy circumstances living with her aunt and cousins.
  • Rising action: Rising action begins when Jane is sent to school and escapes her aunt’s home. The details of Jane’s education and friendships continue the action, and Jane’s eventual move to be the governess at Thornfield for the reclusive Mr. Rochester’s ward. Jane’s developing relationship with Mr. Rochester, their aborted wedding, and her flight to the moors intensify the action. Her time at Moor House and discovery of her cousins there culminates in St. John’s proposal.
  • Climax: The climax of the novel comes when Jane has rushed out onto the moors and hears Rochester’s voice calling to her. This is the turning point where the novel’s ultimate end becomes apparent.
  • Falling action: Jane returns to Thornfield and learns of the fire. She finds Rochester in the garden.
  • Resolution: Jane and Rochester are married and live ”happily ever after.”

The story Jane Eyre is an example of the classic style of story arc.

Story Arc Three: Little Red Riding Hood

The fairytale Little Red Riding Hood has many variations, but common elements of the story arc can be identified.

  • Exposition: The fairy tale begins by introducing Red Riding Hood, her sick grandmother, and her mission to take food to her grandmother by traveling through the dangerous forest.
  • Rising action: As Red Riding Hood moves through the forest, she encounters the wolf. The wolf proceeds to leave Red Riding Hood and go to her grandmother’s house, where it replaces her grandmother and waits for Red Riding Hood.
  • Climax: The story’s climax comes when Red Riding Hood is interacting with the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) and is about to be eaten.
  • Falling action: The woodcutter rescues Red Riding Hood, and in some versions of the story, is also able to rescue her grandmother.
  • Resolution: Red Riding Hood is reunited with her family and reflects on the lesson she has learned: be careful of strangers.

While other versions of the tale may differ in details, the story maintains the classic story arc elements.

Lesson Summary

A story arc, also known as a narrative arc, is a device for plot analysis. The story arc represents each part of the plot in the order it occurs. Classic story arc elements are:

  • Exposition or introduction, which gives the background, setting, and characters.
  • Rising action can include a trigger or conflict, a quest, a surprise twist, and a critical choice. Each step of the rising action adds to the story and pushes toward the climax.
  • Climax is the turning point of the story. Usually it is also the point of highest tension or action.
  • Falling action follows the climax, reduces the tension, and points toward the final resolution.
  • Resolution or denouement brings the story to an end by presenting a conclusion that completes the story.

The traditional story arc is often represented by a diagram shaped like a horizontal curve or a mountain peak. The diagram begins with a flat line for the exposition, then an upward slant for rising action, a peak for the climax, a downward slant for the falling action, and a final flat line for the resolution.

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