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The Narrative Arc

The narrative arc is sort of a story in and of itself. Basically it defines the elements of a story and their order.  All stories must begin somewhere. Most likely the problem or conflict of a story will be revealed in a section of the story called the exposition. The conflict/problem, the stuff that makes up the content of story, then develops over the time of the telling, accumulating the  series of events or actions that might be called rising action. Rising action has a method, though. That is, action rises or escalates because the hero or heroes of a story confront complications in their lives on their chosen or imposed path, like the family in A Good Man is Hard to Find tricked into driving off course, which is one of the first examples of complication in the story. When Bartleby arrives on the scene in Bartleby, the Scrivener and is asked to share some duties, he refuses. Do you see how this acts as a complication? It adds to the story’s suspense or sense of thrill. We want to know what’s going to happen next.

If you tell a friend that your car stopped on the side of the road in Kansas, your friend will ask, “Well, what happened?” That’s the stuff of story.

In addition, complications add up. When the story reaches near the climax, that moment when the problem for the hero is solved, we call this the moment or period of crisis. It can be long or short. At this point, we are at maximum wonder, waiting to see what comes through the door, watching as the hero fights the dragon, and then we hit climax, and the dragon falls, or the rescuers appear with the baby from the burning building. The hero wins. The hero loses. The monster enters the room and eats the children. This is why we think of a narrative arc. So we have these elements: exposition, complication, crisis, and climax. Typically, though, something follows the climax. We call this moment or these moments the element of resolution, when the psychological or experiential demands of the story ease off and the character reveals their changed persona or maybe there’s a wedding.

Let’s consider again Flannery O’Connor’s story A Good Man is Hard to Find. This is a pretty brutal story. We can claim that it is a story because it meets all the Arc requirements, though it meets them in different ways than Melville’s story. It has a long exposition, with hints of bad stuff to come. We don’t necessarily know in the story whether the cat will play a role for Bailey and his mother. We don’t even know what role the Misfit will play. But we know, after the wreck of the vehicle, that the diversion by the grandmother, the subsequent attack by the cat, complicates the story. Then the Misfit shows up. That can’t be good; this must complicate the lives of the principle characters, right? Where is the story’s crisis point? Is it during a point where the grandmother is pleading for her life? When the Misfit shoots the grandmother, isn’t this the moment of climax, and then we have a very brief resolution and the famous quote by the Misfit who lets go with his “wisdom” on Bobby Lee.

Do you see the elements at work?

One final note, the arc is typically drawn as an “arc” with the climax of the story at the top of the curve. Do a google search for narrative arc and you’ll find plenty of strange examples.