Know your writing terms: Story arc


Star Wars is a regular topic of discussion in my household. We love the movies and the grand story they tell.

Recently I spoke with my son about my least favorite Star Wars character, Jar Jar Binks. In Jar Jar’s defense, my son said that, while he may be annoying, Jar Jar has a great character arc.

Arc. Once again, I came upon a writing term for which I had only a fuzzy definition.

When he mentioned the story arc, I knew I had some studying to do.

Why an Arc?

The arc is the perfect image for this term. You can’t miss what the story structure should be when you visualize an arc:

  1. Grounded – begin the story
  2. Going up, up, up – build excitement
  3. Peak – create tension
  4. Going down, down, down – move to the desired result
  5. Grounded – resolve the story

That’s my simple description of the story arc. Let’s take it further.

It’s About Movement

In his reference book, The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, author and USC writing professor Shelly Lowenkopf describes the story arc in three interesting ways:

  • momentum informed by volition
  • episode injected with “because” or “as a consequence”
  • the Magic Marker of story

Lowenkopf notes that the question you’ll be asked most often by an editor or agent is “Where is the story going?” That’s when you know they’re talking about the story arc.

Story Arc vs. Plot

The story arc is different from the plot. With plot, you are writing events that relate together and reveal a cause and effect. With the story arc, you’re moving the characters from one state to another — the chronology; the continuing storyline that runs throughout the book.

And what happens brings about change. That change brings conflict. And conflict is one of the most important ingredients found in a good story.

Because of the story arc, your character goes from point A to point B to point C (the arc). Along the way he faces a variety of events (the plot). With the right combination of story arc and plot, you’ll have your reader asking that wonderful question: And then what happens?

Basic Elements of the Story Arc

Here’s a list that captures the basics perfectly:

  1. Exposition: The introduction the story in which characters are introduced, setting is revealed.
  2. Rising Action: A series of events that complicate matters for the protagonist, creating a rise in the story’s suspense or tension.
  3. Climax: The point of greatest tension in the story and the turning point in the narrative arc from rising action to falling action.
  4. Falling Action: After the climax, the unfolding of events in a story’s plot and the release of tension leading toward the resolution.
  5. Resolution: The end of the story, typically, in which the problems of the story and of the protagonists are resolved.
(Source:, Narrative [Story] Arc)

And that’s just for starters. The story arc is one of the many arcs you may want to keep track of while you’re writing your story. You can have plot arcs, character arcs, timeline arcs, and more. Do a study of your own and see what else you find.

There’s much to learn about the craft of writing! There’s also no shortage of resources available to us as we strive to become better writers.

[This post is part of my Know Your Writing Terms series. Visit my Writing Terms page for links to all the posts.]


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