Do you get stymied while writing your novel by how the plot moves, versus how it’s supposed to? Have you read novels that bog down, or go off in directions that lead nowhere? Do you have this problem with your own? The solution to all of this is grasping the arc of the storyline in fiction.
I’ve talked before about why this arc is important, and how it keeps your book on track. But now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the arc of the storyline in fiction writing.
The arc is really the outline of the hero’s journey, developed by mythologist Joseph Campbell, who studied and taught myths his entire life. From delving into the mythology spanning all cultures, he found that the characters journeyed through well-established acts.
In other words, the stories that have come down from millennia (i.e., which have stood the test of time) traveled a path that kept the reader engaged.
And since that’s our point as authors of fiction, it well behooves us all to understand those steps.
What I see most often as a book editor is rather than following that successful road, most writers get lost in a sprawling plot that loses readers right and left. And this happens when the characters don’t change the plot, and the plot doesn’t drive the characters. In essence, the entwining of the two isn’t seamless.
So, how do you navigate that arc of the storyline in fiction writing?
Let’s just break it down.
So we’re looking at three acts or movements in the story. The “thesis” if you will, comes in the first quarter. The vast majority of the book–the middle two quarters–holds all the movement that we call antithesis. Then the final quarter holds the synthesis–where it all comes together and change in the characters is solidified.
Realistic characters don’t make whole-scale changes but stay in the middle zones. Though they sometimes go to the opposite poles, they come back a bit. But they’ve tasted the experience and don’t go all the way back—they’ve learned and grown.
Throughout the three acts, turning points–called plot points–occur. I.e., something happens that turns the story in a different direction. This brings conflict and forces the characters to choose, going in one direction or another, and taking the story with them.
And as in a stage play, this occurs in Three Acts:
Stage 1: The entrance. This is “real life” for the character, as it is now.
This is also very brief. And often, is weaved in after something happens to open chapter one.
Stage 2: The call to the quest (both internal and external, mirroring each other).
This is what the book is about, the main story question, the whole raison d’etre.
Stage 3: The refusal. Your character will give a laundry list of excuses as to why he can’t accept. This brings up the polarity, the duality, of the character, and raises the question of whether the hero can actually master this test. You want to leave doubt in the reader’s mind at this point.
Stage 4: Meeting the mentor. Here some wise voice comes in–the wise old woman archetype, etc., although we can also learn from fools, and it can even be the intuition. This speaks clearly, with no ego in the way. It gets the hero’s own ego out of the way so that God’s voice (or however you perceive a higher power) can speak to him.
Stage 5: Crossing the Portal. Here is a major plot point. The commitment to the journey–whatever that journey is–has been made.
This is the end of Act 1. It makes the transition from one world to another. In myth and metaphor, the character would go through an actual gate, often with a guardian in front of it (the troll on the bridge), and have to pass some test to do so. The hero is stepping into the brink of the unknown, and some have to be kicked through it!
Stage 6: Tests, allies, and enemies. Here the hero faces little tests, which train her in specific skills. Many have to do with the formation of a group, or allies. The polarity/duality again rises as the hero aligns with one side or another. This is the place where the hero learns about the other world. She’s a freshman here and learns the idea of grace under pressure.
Stage 7: Approaching the Secret Cave. Somehow the hero must penetrate this. It will test her defenses. The masks of everyone also shift at this stage. It’s a shifting of power. Sometimes people rise and fall here. It’s also about preparation, reconnaissance, rehearsal, planning. Many doubts and fears arise. The hero braces herself and calls all the resources together.
Stage 8: Going into the depths–the secret internal cave. Here the character faces all of the stuff she’s been denying. Her greatest fear. This is the heart of the story and the most important piece. It’s the borderline between life and death (literally or figuratively–for example, when an addict truly decides to become sober), and puts a different focus on life. The character may even experience a metaphorical death. It’s empowering. The hero is painted into a corner and has to face what she doesn’t want to see about herself—which is also that thing holding her back, both in ‘real life,’ and from achieving the goals of this story.
I cannot stress strongly enough how important this stage is! And, as a book editor, how often I find it missing entirely. But this is the heart and soul of the character and the story.
Stage 9: Rebirth. This is the reward stage. Metaphorically, the hero finds the sword, and it’s usually broken and only he can fix it. The sword is symbolic of true power. After confronting the most fearful thing though, the hero can now pick up the sword and use it effectively. The story comes to a point–this recalls the purpose of the story! When the hero gets through the preceding ordeal, many possibilities present themselves. He can turn back, go sideways, forward, etc. But it’s a pause for celebration, and remembering what he’s been through. It’s a feeling of reprising the story just a bit, so your reader can catch up, along with the character. This is often an opportunity for a love scene. He gleans his reward–new insight, intuition, new self-realization, etc.
This is the end of Act II and sets us up for the climax and finale.
Stage 10: The Homestretch. The character may straddle the threshold of the two worlds, but we have the commitment to finish. Which is finishing energy. This can come from inside, internal, or outer, external. Sometimes a counter-attack comes from the villain at this point, which propels the story to its conclusion. The pace increases here. In an action/adventure film, here is where you’d get a major chase scene 🙂
Stage 11: Resurrection. This is the supreme ordeal. To go home, you have to be purified. This is the last test. It’s a test of every skill, mask, archetype, threshold guardian, etc., which the hero has absorbed. Another death and rebirth occurs in order to purify the hero. Time to readjust. At the threshold of the home, the hero is confronted by the Supreme Test–whether mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual. This dramatizes that the hero got it; changed. You can show this by appearance, verbally (the weakest, this is telling), but best by her behavior. We get a sense of climax. And the outcome could go either way. But through this ordeal comes true transformation.
Stage 12: Return with the Boon. This is the time of denouement. Untying the knot. The last little threads are tied off, cut off, put into place. We have closure here. We have a final sense of bringing him back to rest.
My authors often ask if they have to follow this to a T. Of course, as with all rules of writing, the answer is, No! You can blur many of the lines. But the shape of your book will thank you for following it as a whole.
The arc of the storyline in fiction provides an outline, a blueprint, a way of circumnavigating the main character through the plot.
And since we know it works every time, why not let this blueprint make your writing life easier?