The Narrative Arc in Literature

How a Story Is Structured

Sometimes simply called "arc" or "story arc," narrative arc refers to the chronological construction of plot in a novel or story. Typically, a narrative arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the following components: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

A Five-Point Narrative Arc

  • Exposition: The introduction the story in which characters are introduced and the setting is revealed. This sets the stage for the story to play out. It usually includes who, where, and when. You may also be introduced to the main conflict that will propel the story, such as issues between different characters.
  • Rising Action: A series of events that complicate matters for the protagonist, creating a rise in the story's suspense or tension. The rising action may further develop the conflict between the characters or the characters and the environment. It may contain a series of surprises or complications to which the protagonist must react.
  • Climax: The point of greatest tension in the story and the turning point in the narrative arc from rising action to falling action. The characters are deeply involved in the conflict. Often, the protagonist has to make a critical choice, which will guide his or her actions in the climax.
  • Falling Action: After the climax, the unfolding of events in a story's plot and the release of tension leading toward the resolution. It can show how the characters have been changed due to the conflict and their actions or inactions.
  • Resolution: The end of the story, typically, in which the problems of the story and of the protagonists are resolved. The ending doesn't have to be a happy one, but in a complete story, it will be one that feels satisfying.

    Story Arcs

    Within a larger story, there can be smaller arcs. These can flesh out the stories of characters other than the main protagonist and they may follow an opposite course. For example, if the protagonist story is "rags to riches," his evil twin may undergo a "riches to rags" arc. To be satisfying, these arcs should have their own rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

    They should serve the overall theme and subject of the story rather than being superfluous or appearing to simply pad the story.

    Smaller arcs may also be used for maintaining interest and tension by introducing new stakes in the conflict of the main protagonist. These plot complications increase the tension and uncertainty. They can keep the middle of a story from becoming a predictable slog towards a typical resolution.

    Within episodic literature and television, there may be a continuing story arc that plays out over a series or season as well as self-contained episodic story arcs for each episode.

    Example of a Narrative Arc

    Let's use Little Red Riding Hood as an example of a story arc. In the exposition, we learn that she lives in a village near the forest and will be visiting her grandmother with a basket of goodies. She promises not to dawdle or talk to strangers on the way. In the rising action, she nevertheless does dawdle and when the wolf asks where she is going, she tells him her destination. He takes a shortcut, swallows the grandmother, disguises himself, and awaits Red. In the climax, Red discovers the wolf for what he is and calls out for rescue from the woodsman. In the falling action, the grandmother is recovered and the wolf is defeated.

    In the resolution, Red realizes what she did wrong and vows that she has learned her lesson.