Traditional Fiction Writing Story Arc

I’ve seen dozens of variations on story plot arcs through the years (and I’ll be posting at least 3). I read writing books and went to classes and workshops to avoid facing the muddle that was my middle, but somehow Janice MacDonald’s version clicked. I then joined NaNoWriMo in 2007 followed by a friend asking me to review her first draft. At that point, the mist parted and I decided to compile my notes into a storyboard format à la Apple Pages template. My template can be found here: Traditional Plot Development Storyboard

The basic structure is as follows:

  • Chapter 1: We view the normal world of our protagonist
  • Chapter 2: An Inciting Incident occurs forcing the protagonist from his/her/its normal world
  • Chapter 3: The important Secondary characters are introduced and the tone and style are fully established
  • Chapter 4: The protagonist must make a life-changing (although he/she/it might not know it at the time) decision or choice
  • Chapter 5: The protagonist’s journey begins because of the decision or choice made. This is the 1st Plot Point.
  • Chapters 6—9: Complications and obstacles occur as the journey begins and continues.
  • Chapter 10: A crisis forces the protagonist to make another decision or choice that forces the story into a new direction. This is the Mid-Point.
  • Chapters 11—14: The obstacles and complications become more complex.
  • Chapter 15: New events derived from the increased complexities for a new choice or decision on the protagonist. This is Plot Point 2.
  • Chapter 16: The new decision or choice makes the situation appear bleak.
  • Chapter 17: The situation worsens.
  • Chapter 18: The situation appears hopeless; this is the darkest moment.
  • Chapter 19: The resolution where the character learns a life lesson and is changed.
  • Chapter 20: The wrap-up where the reader sees the evidence of the change in the protagonist.

The actual number of chapters is not carved in stone, but the overall technique works. Take a look at The Lord of the Rings.

Initially, we are introduced to Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and the world of the hobbits. Frodo is essentially happy and wishes for everything to remain static. He especially wishes his relative Bilbo wouldn’t go away, but Bilbo does go leaving everything, including his magic ring, to Frodo. This the Normal World. Gandalf warns that the ring should be kept a secret and not used because he suspects it has more powers than Bilbo knew about. (While it initially appears that Bilbo’s disappearance and Frodo’s inheritance is the Inciting Incident, it isn’t. Read on.)

Next, we learn of Frodo’s small problems with people trying to get ahold of his fortune, petty jealousies of his neighbors, meet more of Sam and discover that Frodo is yearning for travel and adventure. This is Frodo’s desire or goal at the beginning of plot; emulating Bilbo by going on a trip beyond the Shire and meeting different species and having a bit of adventure. Gandalf returns to confirm that Frodo has inherited the Ring of Power, the most powerful and magical ring ever. And then the evil Sauron becomes aware of the ring’s location and sends his agents to retrieve it. This is the Inciting Incident that forces Frodo from his normal world.

Frodo sets out to take the ring to the Elves accompanied by Sam, and then collecting Merry and Pippin in passing. On route they meet Aragorn, Frodo’s wounded in an attack by the Ringwraiths and barely makes it to the Elf stronghold of Rivendell. Note we have met 5-6 (depending upon your count) of the most important secondary characters. He recovers to find himself in the middle of a quarrel among the counsel assembled to decide the fate of the Ring, and hence, the world. Since none of the other beings trusts anyone else to take the Ring, Frodo volunteers to take it to Mordor to be destroyed. This is, of course, his life changing decision. And we have met the rest of the most important secondary characters, the Fellowship of the Ring.

Frodo and companions set out on their journey. We’ve reached plot point 1 in the first book.

Now I’m not going to do the entire trilogy because what Tolkien did was ingenious; each of the three books follows the traditional fiction story arc while the entire series also follows the traditional story arc overall. And in the end of the series, Frodo has learned a very hard life lesson, and is in fact dying, and his desire has changed to wanting The Shire to return to the simple, uncomplicated normal world at the start of the book. A goal that Frodo, nor we the readers, can ever achieve after his eye-opening adventures.

Try breaking down some of your favorite classics like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or even contemporary genre authors like Elmore Leonard.

And if this method of plotting your story arc, doesn’t work for you, try one of the other techniques I’ll be posting over the next few weeks.

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10 thoughts on “Traditional Fiction Writing Story Arc

  1. Anonymous writer

    Thank you Carolyn. I received more help from you in a few minutes than I got out of several books, workshops and private paid sessions with an editor. You are great!

    Reply
  2. Sarah

    I am so thankful to find your website! I’m struggling with organizing my thoughts and chapters for an epic I’m working on and this is just an answer to prayer! Thank you for sharing it. I tweeted the page.

    Reply
    1. Carolyn Post author

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m almost caught up from the Year from Hell (contractor says I’ll have a kitchen again by Friday!), so I hope to get a lot more useful tools and tips for everyone posted soon. I should have a new storyboard sheet summarizing Blake Snyder’s plotting technique for scriptwriting that a novelist friend finds brilliant (Snyder’s technique, not my worksheet — although she likes and uses the worksheet).

      I’ll keep an eye out for your work!

      Reply
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  4. Lynn Ellyn

    Thank you so much for this outline. I am a nonfiction writer about to embark on my second NaNoWriMo Madness. Last year I realized I didn’t know squat about story arc, so your outline is my constant companion as I prepare for November 1.

    Reply
    1. Carolyn Cooper

      Lois, thank you for the information. Alas, we had a server crash a couple of weeks ago and thought we’d gotten everything back together. I’m checking them all again. This one seems to work. To download on a Windows system, it’s Control-Click (or Right-Click). For Mac users, it’s Command-Click.

      Reply
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  6. Mandy

    Wow… I have been struggling through a quagmire of story-boarding techniques and workshops over the last few months, and your notes and templates are the most helpful thing I have come across in over a year. I sincerely thank you for posting these amazing techniques to help newbie (and probably established!) writers.

    Reply

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