How to define the arc in writing? In one sense it is the journey of your story, but because there are stories within stories, there are arcs within arcs. You might have the impression that using the arc in your writing is a bit complicated, but that’s not true.
There are four basic types of arcs.
Series Arc: This is a term from television and movies, but it applies to multi-volume books as well. The series arc refers to the over-arching story behind a series. In Breaking Bad, the series arc is Walter White’s quest to gather enough money to support his wife and children after he dies of cancer. The individual episodes of the series have him trying to stay one step ahead of the police while he uses his knowledge as a chemistry teacher to make illegal drugs for some very dangerous people.
Story Arc: The story arc generally means the journey of the story within the novel or episode in the series. Typically, it will set up an issue, develop this convincingly, then reach a resolution. You can have story arcs within story arcs. Your characters may have just escaped the Dark Lord, and fled into the desert. A few days later they have eaten the horse – or some of each other – and they are thirsty and starving. Now desert nomads capture them to sell as slaves. Here we have an arc resolved (escape), an arc started, developed and resolved (crossing the desert), and an arc begun (convincing the nomads to free them). Over this there is another story arc (defeating the Dark Lord). Four chapters of my novel Souls in the Great Machine were published as short stories, yet Souls was the first volume of the Greatwinter trilogy.
Narrative Arc: This is the chronological structure of the plot, and some authors say that it actually is the plot. Is it different from the story arc? Yes, but you have to look closely. It is what really happens in the novel. For example, the novel may not have much of a resolution, but it will still have a structure. Ever read a novel which stops suddenly with the words See Book 2? This is a narrative arc without a complete story arc. You will always have a narrative arc, even if it leads nowhere. If your narrative arc looks like your story arc, open the champagne, you are getting somewhere.
Character Arc: This is also known as the character’s journey. In The Lord of the Rings, the journey of Frodo is indeed from Bag End to Mount Doom and back again, but it is also from being a dreamy hobbit reading about heroes to being a hero himself. Why is this not the same as the story arc? Unless your story has only one character, then all the characters will have their own journey. Frodo, Sam and Gollum have quite distinct character arcs in The Lord of the Rings, and none of them matches the story arc – which was the team effort to get the One Ring from Bag End to Mount Doom … even though nobody told Gollum he was on the team.
Do you have to have these arcs? Of course not. The arc is a principle, not a rule. You can write a story that goes nowhere, and it can still work. In a Cup of Tea, the fourth story in the movie anthology Kwaidan, has no resolution, yet Kwaiden won a special prize at Cannes. The books of The Lord of the Rings are not standalone stories, which means the arcs are incomplete, yet I started with Book 2, and was so intrigued that I then read Book 1 and finally Book 3. All the same, unless you think that your work is in the same class as Kwaiden or The Lord of the Rings, you had better make sure that it has a proper arc.
Arcs are often presented as a three act structure, even if the story has five or six distinct sections. There will always be a beginning and a resolution, but there may be three or four arcs in the middle. For a change, let us use a character arc as an example.
Starting the Journey: In George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, Arya is introduced as the tomboy daughter of a nobleman. She does not fit the role society has allocated to her, and she rebelliously takes fencing lessons and explores parts of the castle where children are not supposed to go. The start of her arc is rather brutally terminated with the execution of her father.
In Transit: In the middle of Arya’s character arc she survives life on the run because her rebellious and independent nature is perfectly suited to this lifestyle. She disguises herself as a boy, learns about making allies, becomes a killer, meets two potential mentors, and is given the choice of returning to her former life as a nobleman’s daughter. She decides that life as a trained assassin is more her style. This is the part in which the reader or viewer learns to love (or hate) the character. The tension and stakes are (or should be) raised continually in this part of the arc.
Coming back – changed: Yes, that is a quote from Well’s The Time Machine. The resolution of Arya’s arc is still in George’s head and working notes … but let us speculate. Perhaps she completes her assassin training, knocks some key players off the perch, and finds herself next in line for the Iron Throne. She decides it’s not her style, so she puts some stooge on the throne but remains the invisible hand that guides the destinies of the seven kingdoms.
Notice that George could have just let Arya be a well-behaved pawn, to whom a lot of horrible things happen, and which leave her traumatised and inward looking. This is an arc without a resolution. He could also have had her vanish in the first book and reappear as an assassin in the last book. This would be an arc without a middle.
Characters often appear in stories, do something critical (like shooting the hero’s best friend) then vanish (perhaps by being shot by the hero). In this case, there is no beginning or middle to some unknown guard’s character arc, yet he must have been in some sort of guard academy, become a good shot, have a family who will mourn him, have a girlfriend who is proud of him, and so on. Give every character a complete character arc, and you have no room for your story. You can only afford to provide complete arcs for characters you want people to care about one way or another.
Arcs are very much like hooks: you can get along without them, but you have to be exceedingly sure of what you are doing. Otherwise you risk annoying your reader, and an annoyed reader may never bother with your work again.