Someone tells you your story lacks an arc. What do they mean?
The story arc represents the plot of your story—the structure that the characters, world, and action of the story must fit into. Most stories follow a traditional three-act structure. The story begins with action to hook the reader and introduces a problem that must be solved or a question that must be answered. In the second act the tension builds, one stone upon the next, until in the third act, the climax answers the question or solves the problem.
It’s like building a house, but if you lay the foundation and immediately try to put on the roof, you’ll run into a problem. In story arc development, some writers start out well but skip part of the development, the second act structure to hold up the roof. These writers often add fluff that doesn’t contribute to the plot. Then, when they put on the roof in the third act, there’s nothing there to support it, so it caves in.
Readers—and people who buy houses—don’t like that. They want a progression where each piece contributes to a solid structure and justifies the ending. We don’t have to see how it all fits together as it’s being built, but once it’s done, we should be able to think back and say, “Ah, now I understand why A happened, and led to B.”
Where do most writers go wrong? Short stories are tricky. You must start with action, setup, and tension, all in the first paragraphs. Every word and scene must contribute to the completion of your story arc, and usually in less than 5,000 words. In a novel you can slow down the pace, but not so in a short story. It must surge forward, each sentence and paragraph building a complete picture.
Novels typically contain more than one story arc: the extended arc of the full story, and beneath it several smaller arcs, or subplots. Fiction series connect through an overall arc that bridges the entire series, beginning in the first book and concluding in the last book, and each book in the series has its own arc that is self-contained and contributes to the series’ overall arc.
For example, take J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. What is the overall arc of the seven books? Harry must defeat Voldemort. Each book in the series contributes to this, but each book has its own arc. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the book’s arc is that Harry wants to fit in and be accepted by a loving, caring family. In the beginning of the book we meet Harry, hopeless and lonely, living with the Dursleys. Enter Hagrid, and Harry begins to form a picture of his family that his aunt and uncle never shared with him. By the end of the book, he realizes his true home is Hogwarts, where he is a hero with friends who care for him. Close of the story arc.
Everything that happens in-between these two scenes contributes to building this arc. Harry wants someone to care for him, and mysterious letters begin to arrive. The tension begins to mount as Harry learns about his past and begins to place each new piece in the picture of his new life. Most of the arc of the first book allows Harry to learn about the world of wizards and witches, and the reader learns with him. If you re-examine this book—or any book, for that matter—with the end in mind, you will begin to see how each scene contributes to the full arc of the story. When you read a book or story, ask yourself: what is the overarching problem or question in this story? Then examine how each scene contributes to solving that problem or answering that question.
Whether you’re writing short stories, novels, or a series of novels, your arc must be a complete structure by the time you reach the end. Don’t let your roof collapse because you didn’t spend enough time developing the supporting walls.