Story arcs and character arcs are the foundation for any work of fiction. They determine major plot points throughout the story, guiding your characters to the conclusion of their quests for what they want.
Story arc consists of the main events of your story. It provides the big picture of the world you’ve created. There are countless ways you can choose to plot your work, but here are the main components:
1) Orient your readers into the world.
2) Give your character the call to adventure and see how they answer.
3) Offer a revelation after a false victory or midpoint defeat.
4) Offer a chance for your character to rise or fall at the climax.
5) Wrap up the story and include possible set-up for a sequel if necessary.
When plotting, you can expand on this to include as much detail as you prefer. There are many methods to choose from. Find the one you like and keep these main steps in mind as you go.
Character arc takes the world you create with these plot points and zooms in on one person. You can have multiple character arcs in a story, but try limiting it to as few as possible. Character arc can go one of three ways:
For positive character arcs, think of the hero’s journey. An average person goes through experiences to mold them into an epic hero who saves the day, maybe even the world. Another type of positive arc could be in a romance where the main character works through flaws to become worthy of the love interest. No matter the story you’re going for, your character will come out better in the end.
For negative character arcs, think villain origin stories. An average person starts out similar to a hero, goes on a similar journey, but in the end chooses to act selfishly rather than be concerned with saving anyone else. This arc can also be used for side characters who betray or disrupt things for your hero.
You must plant the seed for what choice, positive or negative, your characters will make when they are forced to choose between what they wanted at the start of the story and what they actually need to complete their journey.
Both types of characters will begin the same, but when the inevitable fall happens, it’ll already be clear whether they choose to rise to the final challenge of the climax or remain lost in the dark as they make one final grasp at what they seek.
Flat character arcs shouldn’t be confused with flat characters. A flat arc means your character doesn’t change for better or worse in the story, if they even change at all. Think mysteries and detective stories like Sherlock Holmes. You don’t really care if Holmes rises or falls as a person. You just want to know who did the crime and how. Holmes is only there to give the information in the end. Flat arcs can also involve mentor characters. They’re already as good or bad as they’re going to get.
Story arcs and character arcs work together to give you a well-rounded story. You can’t have one without the other. Take out story arcs, and you’re left with a plain character sketch. Take out character arcs, and your story is just a history lesson. The plot points of your story arc push your characters toward a rise or fall. The arc your characters follow and the choices made to form that arc cause many of the events in your story to occur. You need both arcs to drive the tension in your story, keeping readers on the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next to the characters and how they react.
Keep these things in mind as you plot your work, and you’ll have all the makings of an excellent story.