I present the following information to my high school students. As you’ll see from the information below, this is a completely generic account of a story arc — for example, we don’t get into Vonnegut’s story arcs. However, this is an effective way to get student’s minds around the concept.
The Purpose of the Story Arc
A story arc (as visualized below) is a quick way to summarize a story, allowing an audience or reader to get a decent understanding of what’s important in a particular story. As a student, it’s a great way to indicate to your teacher that you understand a story. As a writer, story arc details are important to make a story that’s interesting for a reader.
Something that’s not indicated on the below infographic are “stakes.” Essentially, stakes are what’s on the line (usually for a particular character) if the goals are or aren’t reached. In an action story “the stakes” usually revolve around someone’s survival. In a romance, the stakes are generally a successful or new relationship.
When describing the stakes be sure to refer to the goal. For example, character A’s goal is to dismantle a bomb on a bus. If character A fails to do so, the people on the bus will be injured or die. An obstacle preventing character A from doing so was that the bomb on the bus was wired to blow up if the bus slows down to under 50 miles per hour. Another obstacle is that the bomb can also be triggered by the bomb maker, who has emphatically stated that he will blow the bus up if anyone attempts to get off the bus. And for those unaware, that’s the basic setup for the 90s action film Speed.
A note on Exposition
I usually tell students that to include the setting and main characters when they describe the exposition. However, generally you want to include the things that the goal, obstacles, stakes, climax, and resolution don’t cover, or items that need explaining before those other story arc elements are covered.
The below infographic is a general story arc. It could be used as a character arc and plot arc. Other arcs exist, some that look like roller coasters, and some with peaks in peculiar places. You may encounter names for other types of arcs in your research.