Look at That Arc!

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis
Posted by Michelle Griep but written by Misty Beller

If you spend much time around a group of writers talking story, there’s a good chance you’ll hear somebody mention an arc. No, not the kind Noah loaded the animals in. And not the kind you measured in your high school math class.

In writing, an arc describes how an element in the story changes from the beginning of your manuscript to the end. Every story must have good arcs or it will leave the reader frustrated— or at the very least, dissatisfied.

First, let’s talk about a few of the most important arcs, then we’ll discuss how to make sure yours are good.

Character Arc
This is one of my favorites! All of your main characters (whether protagonist or antagonist) should have a character arc. In other words, he or she starts the story with a particular mindset or way of viewing the world. Through the story, their thinking begins to change. Maybe because of all the challenges they’ve overcome, or through the mentoring of a close friend. Wherever your muse takes the story, by the time you reach The End, the character should have a different perspective on life. If he or she is your protagonist, the perspective at the end should be better! For your antagonist, you get to decide whether the character arc is positive or negative (insert evil laugh here).

Plot Arc

Also called the Story Arc. Many books have been written on the plot arc (James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure is a great one), and there’s no way I can do it justice in a single blog post. But let’s do a quick overview!

A plot arc begins with the character’s ordinary world, then something happens to shove him or her through a doorway of no return. In other words, the character can never go back to life as they knew it. In a romance, this could be the heroine’s life being saved by a hero who loses his arm during the rescue. Or in a thriller, it could be an atomic bomb that blows up all of New England. The ideas are yours, but it has to be something that the character has no choice but to face.

During the middle section, the challenges and plot twists should grow progressively worse or stronger. To stick with the romance example above, say you’re planning hero is going to lose his home to foreclosure, the woman he’s been casually seeing breaks things off with him, and he finds himself in the hospital with blood poisoning from the amputation of his arm. You would start with the loss of the casual relationship. It was nice to have a date on Saturday night, but he tells himself the chemistry was never there, besides he can’t get the woman he saved out of his mind. Then he loses his home, which is a much tougher pill to swallow. How much worse can things get? 

Author Misty Beller

He soon finds out, when he’s hospitalized for blood poisoning and his only hope is multiple transfusions of his rare blood type. The heroine is by his side, and would do anything to save him the way he rescued her. This, my friends, is the climax of the plot arc.

The heroine overcomes her fear of public attention to appear on the local TV news to plead for blood donations (bringing her character arc to resolution as she overcomes her fear). The hero’s life is saved, they live happily ever after, and we all release a satisfied sigh. Another successful plot arc saves the day!

Spiritual Arc

Because the stories I writing are truly God’s stories, I’m very intentional about the Spiritual Arc for each of my main characters. This is similar to the Character Arc, and sometimes the two can be deeply entwined. For some, the Spiritual Arc is the story of a lost soul who comes to salvation. Other characters may already be strong Christians, but must learn to rely on God’s strength in the midst of tragedy.

So how do you make sure your arcs are good? Be intentional.

Whether you’re a plotter, panster or tweener, make sure you write out each of your arcs at some point before your final draft.

Plotters and Tweeners, you’ll probably want to write a few sentences describing each of the arcs before you begin your first draft.

Pansters, you may want to do this after you finish your first draft.

And what do you do after you’ve written a blurb for each arc and each character? Run those by your critique partners or writer friends you can trust. They’re usually a great litmus test for whether each arc is strong enough.

Now I’d love to hear how you handle your character, plot and spiritual arcs! Have you found a trick to help you stay on target with each one?

Or maybe you struggle with something we’ve talked about today? The Novel Rocket community is an amazing group of writers who love to share strategies to help you succeed!

Misty Beller writes Christian historical romance, and is the author of the best-selling novel, The Lady and the Mountain Man. She was raised on a farm in South Carolina, so her Southern roots run deep. Growing up, her family was close, and they continue to keep that priority today. Her husband and two daughters now add another dimension to her life, keeping her both grounded and crazy.

God has placed a desire in Misty’s heart to combine her love for Christian fiction and the simpler ranch life, writing historical novels that display God’s abundant love through the twists and turns in the lives of her characters.

You can find Misty on her website, blog, Goodreads, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest.