All stories should have a beginning, middle and an end. However, regardless of the size or genre of a novel, you will see there are actually 7 points to a basic story arc.
When followed, these points will give a writer a clear and logical path to follow, whilst helping audiences to easily follow the story.
The 7 parts of a basic story arc are:
- Inciting incident
- Build up
- Falling action
This is often referred to as a ‘Plot Mountain,’ or a ‘Story Peak,’ and sometimes the ‘Dramatic Arc.’ But for those academic types, it’s formally known as ‘Freytag’s Pyramid.’
The easiest visual representation can be found below.
It’s also worth noting that sometimes these 7 elements go by different names.
The introduction is sometimes called the exposition, and the resolution is often referred to as the denouement. But whatever the name, they represent the same elements to the story.
So, without overcomplicating things, let’s move on to explanations of each step.
The introduction is where you set the scene and introduce your main characters. Then, you gently inform the readers of the status-quo.
At this point, it’s easy for a writer to do an “Info Dump,” and completely overwhelm the reader with too many details.
Your aim should be to invite the reader to connect with your characters. The introduction needs to make the reader care, or, at the very least, make the reader curious enough to keep reading.
Remember, the opening pages of your book is a strange new place to a reader. The reader will only be able to retain so much information because they are trying to find their bearing.
When a reader is introduced to two or three characters, they’ll be able to build a picture of each one. However, when you try to name several people and give a background to multiple characters, the reader’s mind will resist. And this makes it harder to connect with the characters.
Another point to mention here is the creative wonder of world-building.
During the introduction phase, you are not aiming to give an all-encompassing description of your world. This should be delivered throughout the story by piquing the reader’s interest through gentle scene setting.
In doing so, your reader will develop a hunger to know more.
A quick example: Harry Potter
We had a very basic prologue where Harry is left at Privet Drive. In doing so, we understood that the world contained magic. Then, in the introduction phase of the first book, Harry’s magic was gently revealed.
All we needed to know was that Harry could make things happen. Nothing more and nothing less. It was enough to make us interested.
Also, we see just enough of the characters in that introduction to know that Harry is treated like a burden and is all alone. This made us care about him. Especially when you add his cousin who instantly causes conflict.
We began cheering for Harry straight away.
The author didn’t dive into the depths of family history or magical hierarchy. No, she simply laid out just enough to intrigue the reader. And everything else was delivered bit by bit throughout the book(s).
The inciting incident moves the story from a day-to-day status quo, to an interesting situation. That situation needs to be something that leaves the protagonist no choice but to address it.
It could be the murder of a friend or family member and our protagonist needs to settle the score. Or, it could be the emergence of a love triangle when a character falls in love with his friend’s partner. Then, the character discovers his friend is a cheat.
Whatever the event, big or small, it has to be something that sets our story in motion.
The build-up is often the longest phase of a story. As such, Freytag’s pyramid should actually look like this:
During the build-up, a writer will reveal more about the characters in order to strengthen the bond with the reader. Also, the main plot will be introduced, explored and built on.
We should see events make the characters evolve; allowing the reader to learn more about each person in the story.
As this happens, the writer will be driving the story forward by revealing more and more about the challenge/threat/goal.
Again, the writer should avoid info dumps.
Readers are clever. They will thread together pieces of information and come to their own conclusion. And it’s your job as the writer, to deliver just enough to ensure they come to the right conclusion (or the conclusion you want them to come to).
Consider this: No-one introduces themselves to you in the real world and gives their backstory in one big info dump. We learn things about them as our relationship develop. Equally, we only discover a person’s character by their actions over time.
Use the build-up phase of the story arc to do this.
During the build-up, it’s common to give the reader more to think about by writing a sub-plot.
This could be an emerging romance between two characters, a lie of omission between two best friends that could shatter their relationship, or it could be a mini mystery that becomes the key to overcoming the antagonist.
Sub-plots can be tricky, and trying to include too many could be the reason why a book becomes too confusing for a reader.
Remember, sub-plots have story arcs of their own. But they should not overshadow the main narrative.
Here, all the elements of the story and the character arcs culminate to create the anticipated climactic event that the readers were waiting for.
If the writer did a good enough job throughout the story, the reader will be left cheering, shocked and awed, emotionally ravaged, or any other emotion you aimed for.
On the other hand, if the climax is weak or poorly delivered, the reader will feel angry and robbed.
Of all the points covered in Freytag’s pyramid, the climax is arguably the most important aspect when it comes to delivery.
Remember, the reader will be invested in the story and expect to be wowed by the moment it all comes together. Make sure it’s as good as you know it should be.
Immediately after the climax, we enter the falling action phase of the story arc. After all, we can’t keep building after we’ve hit the peak.
Usually, this is a short part of the story arc that sees the characters dusting themselves off after the action. But in many ways, the line between falling action and conclusion can be blurred.
This is a perfect place to tie-up our sub-plots and clarify any points that you may have only hinted at during the build-up.
In a mystery, this is where the detective explains how they cracked the case. Or, when the antagonist reveals how they got the upper hand.
The falling action can usually be summed up as the characters experiencing relief or revelation.
The moment between the falling action and resolution is subtle. It shows us where all the pieces fall.
The protagonist is vanquished, true love prevails, or the crime is solved – whichever suits the narrative; we see the results of the journey.
Now we tell the reader what the story achieved.
With everything settled and the goals accomplished, the characters are now free to go about their lives. However, the world is different now and will never be the same again.
Take note of the new position of the resolution on Freytag’s pyramid.
It sits on a different path to the introduction. This is because life will never be the same after the events of the story arc.
Maybe the love triangle is no more and the couple live happily ever after. Or the world is a safer place because the murderer is behind bars. Or maybe its simply because the characters have changed due to the events they experienced.
The resolution can be the happy ever after, or it can be a prelude to a sequel. It’s up to you.
Following the 7 points of a story arc will give you a handrail to follow. This will be particularly helpful if you’re about to write your first novel.
By identifying how each significant element of your story fits into Freytag’s pyramid, you give yourself broad headers to write under. For example: Chapters 1-4 = Introduction. By doing this, you can ensure your chapter subjects stay within scope.
Now, I appreciate that writing is a process that cannot be encompassed under a “one size fits all” guide, but we can use guides to steer us in through the fog. Consequently, using a familiar guide will appreciated by your audience.
That being said there are multiple tools available for an author to use for navigation when planning a story arc. But in my opinion, the 7 points of Freytag’s pyramid are the fundamentals that every new writer should use for their foundations.