Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Arc of a Story

The arc of a story points in one of two directions: upward, lifting your spirits as the characters struggle toward a particular goal, or downward, your spirits drawn into an abyss with the characters as they try to keep their footing while falling ever closer toward disaster.

In Francine Prose’s After, a dark harbinger of the future, you can see this downward arc play out in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at Pleasant Valley High School as the main character, Tom, and his friends at nearby Central High School begin to lose their freedom, one liberty after another.

At first, they lose the freedom to walk into school without having to suffer the torment of invasive searches and metal detectors.

Then, they lose the freedom to wear the color red and use cell phones and act or speak freely on their school bus after new video cameras are installed to monitor their behavior.

The grief and crisis counselor who takes over Central High after the shooting removes more and more of the students' freedom, curtailing their ability to act in ways that he deems threatening to others and themselves.

Little by little, with the loss of yet another liberty, the characters begin to feel as if they're locked in an air-tight room, and the room keeps shrinking as the arc of the story plunges downward.

What's interesting is how this downward arc creates its own momentum, compelling readers to turn page after page to find out what happens next to Tom and his friends.

How will the characters respond to the increasingly stressful obstacles placed in front of them? That's the question which Prose plants in her reader's mind to sustain the story's suspense and carry the reader forward.

Until the very end of the story, Prose keeps the reader wondering if these characters will come to their senses and attempt to escape from the downward plunge before they hit bottom.

If you're looking for ways to create suspense in your story, push your characters off a cliff... and watch as they cling for any handhold that they can find as they plummet toward disaster.

For more on plotting and raising the stakes, read:

For more on After, read:

And for more on Prose, read:


laurasalas said...

Interesting distinction on up and down arcs. I've never thought of it that way before. Now that I have, though, I realize I tend to prefer books where the character is struggling up the cliff, starting at the bottom with everything gone wrong. I tend to like those better than books with a downward arc, where I often find myself frustrated with the character's lack of action, of control. Not that there aren't great books both ways, of course. But this made me realize how much I prefer the upward arcs.

Bruce Black said...


Here's another distinction to think about in terms of upward vs downward arcs:

in upward arcs (as you point out) the characters are responsible for the upward movement, and that's because their actions determine the direction of the arc.

But in downward arcs--at least in After--the story's downward spin (and the characters' descent into the abyss) results from events imposed on the characters.

It's not so much that the characters are passive but that their actions seem insignificant and the characters themselves powerless to alter the course of the downward spiral.

Your comment made me wonder if readers of After might have found themselves frustrated that the characters hadn't acted sooner or more deliberately to take control of the situation.

But to allow that to happen, Prose would have had to write a far different book... altering the arc's direction entirely... from downward to upward.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

laurasalas said...

Hi Bruce, Interesting distinction. And probably in the excellent books that employ downward arc, you're right about the characters not being passive! Passive characters are really my biggest pet peeve. I'm afraid I just want to slap them. They do not bring out my good side:>/

P.S. I haven't read After yet, so none of this is a comment on that book!

Bruce Black said...

Passive characters... they're a little like reluctant swimmers, don't you think?
They'll stand on the side of the pool, never getting into the water. Or, if they make it into the pool, then they'll just stand there or tread water, never swimming anywhere.
You're right. They're enough to make a reader close a book and jump into another one.