The Narrative Arc

Essentials of Writing to Inspire from Writer’s Online Workshops

Life and nature offer us variations by the score. Can you provide readers today with anything less? Look at the natural world around you and you can see dark and light, waves cresting and dipping back into troughs. The mountains, overall, present peaks and valleys, and along the cliffs you will observe patterns that present similarly on a smaller scale, inclines dropping to areas that descend, only to build to an incline once more.

These are appropriate models to take for your writing. In line with the innate rhythm of the natural world, you will want to provide your readers with climaxes and plateaus. That’s what readers understand innately and will respond to.

Just as people aren’t drawn to speakers who recite in a monotone and don’t typically seek out art that is painted from a single hue, they aren’t looking for writing that offers no differing levels of experience.
The concept of the narrative arc is employed in both fiction and journalistic writing and can apply to many (though not all) book-length nonfiction works as well. The arc gives a viewer the kind of virtual silhouette a single hill seen in the distance does. The shape is also called a "bell curve," such as can be represented on a graph.

The idea here is that you will narrate how the goals of characters and real-life people are met with opposition, either situational or from others, raising the stakes for the subject of the piece or the protagonist. This is the upward climbing incline of the arc. The struggle builds to the high point—the top of the hill/arc/bell curve—which goes on for a not insignificant duration. The high point at which the opposing forces meet in the greatest intensity results in a resolution. This resolution allows the tension to begin to subside. The relaxation of the struggle then permits the downward slope of the arc to start.

That’s the narrative arc in which most stories, including true ones, are told.

Just as you see internal, smaller arcs within the major arc of the mountain or the hill, you might also present smaller movements of tension and resolution within the larger arc of your story, novel, or coverage of events or inspirational figures.

Let’s take as an example the story of Moses. Here we have a mighty figure who, instead of choosing the life of advantage that fate has handed him, follows a path that is divinely inspired. The promptings of God or his inner spirit lead him to oppose the absolute ruler of the land—and overcome in a series of incremental, then monumental, events. The forty years in the wilderness might, in considering narrative structure, be called the denouement, or the period in the story of wrapping up, the descent of the arc.

The more closely your work approximates this type of structure, the conflict and resolution form mirror what some call "the hero’s journey." That "hero’s journey" is your journey and the journey each human being is on while alive, whether internally or visibly, and so represents a form with which every reader can identify with.

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