A story arc is the sequence of events leading up to and following a climax. You can break it into four parts: setup, conflict, finish, and resolution. Of course, story arcs are essential for nearly every type of fiction or storytelling. Still, they’re especially critical in thrillers because it’s crucial to map out your character’s journey from start to finish.
What is a story arc, and why does it matter?
A story arc is the backbone of your novel, a term for the plot of your story. The line that the story follows, from beginning to end, is called an “arc” because of the rising, peak, and falling action. It sets up the plot, character development, and conflict. A story arc is a series of events that create dramatic tension for characters.
A good example would be The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book follows Nick Carraway’s journey with his neighbor Jay Gatsby, including shenanigans such as bootlegging, affairs, and murder!
The four parts of the story arc are setup, conflict, climax, and resolution
Here you’ll find a breakdown of what each section will entail, helping guide your story arc planning, starting with:
In a thriller novel, your reader will meet the protagonist in their ordinary world, get to know them, and typically follow them for part of their daily routine.
Your story arc should start at the beginning of your novel, but you want to make sure it starts in a way that draws readers into your story. To do this effectively, try starting with action or intrigue related to the main conflict as soon as possible. It could be something as simple as ending on an upsetting line from another character or a scene set up where things are changing unexpectedly for your protagonist.
Maybe something like this:
The protagonist, Liz, is an attractive woman in her thirties, working as a medical technician in Seattle. Her sister Annika has just arrived from Toronto for their driving holiday trip to San Diego, a trip Annika has always wanted to make. Liz plans to sell her car in San Diego and has booked tickets for them to fly back to Seattle. They are excited about the trip and talk about all the things they’re going to do and see.
The only setback for Liz is when Annika tells her she has a problem with her eyes and can’t see well in the dark. She hasn’t said anything about it because she knew Liz wouldn’t mind driving after dusk if they had to. Liz says that it might take them a bit longer to get down there, but she didn’t expect them to do a lot of night driving.
The conflict is where the obstacles in the story arc start popping up, and things go wrong for the protagonist. Problems they’re facing become much more challenging to solve and usually put their lives at risk or get someone else’s life at risk or taken away entirely.
It’s important to note that these conflicts don’t have to be physical or external – they can also stem from the protagonist’s own internal demons.
Maybe something like this would happen:
Liz and Annika had been driving for hours and were getting tired. The sun was setting. Liz took over the driving and noticed they would run out of gas if they didn’t get to a gas station soon.
Annika squinted out the window, hoping to see a light of some kind where they could stop and take a break. Liz felt uptight as she drove on, praying for a gas station.
Suddenly, she saw a sign for a station up ahead. She cheered and pulled into the lot. They walked toward a weak light ahead, but the closer they got, the more uneasy they felt. There was something strange about this gas station…
As they got closer, they could see there were no pumps. There was no building at all! Just an open lot with a large, concrete platform and some trees nearby. They both felt a chill go down their spine as they realized that this must be a trap.
Suddenly, there was a loud noise behind them. Liz and Annika turned around and saw that their car had been stolen. Anxiously looking into the darkness around them, they started to walk back to the highway. They were almost there when a car, their car, came to a sudden stop beside them, spraying loose gravel over them.
A man in a dark hoodie stepped out of the car, pointed a gun at them, and ordered them to get in the front seats of the car. Liz got in behind the wheel and Annika beside her. The man got into the backseat and smashed the overhead lights with the butt of his gun.
Pointing the gun at Liz, he tossed her the car keys told her to drive south. He said people were looking for him. “Look normal. If you make a sign, I’ll kill you and have your friend do the driving.”
Liz drove all night, too scared to be sleepy, waiting for him to tell her when to stop.
The climax is the turning point of your story. It’s when your protagonist and the antagonist have their showdown. In a story arc, the conclusion happens about 75% into the account, and when the protagonist has finally had enough and will do whatever it takes to achieve their goal.
In Susan’s case, it might look something like this:
When State Troopers stopped Liz for a routine check about four hours later, Liz pretended all was well as she put her left palm up-close to her stomach, tucked her thumb in, and closed her fingers over her thumb. The police officer looked down at her papers, raising his left thumb in the air. Liz threw herself over Annika and pushed her down as the policeman yanked the door open and pointed his gun at the man hiding on the floor in the back.
Depending on how well the protagonist did during their confrontation, they will either die or succeed in defeating their antagonist. Here, everything comes together and changes for your protagonist in a big way, either by success or failure.
For Susan, it was a successful turnout that might look like this:
After giving witness statements, Liz was greatly commended. She and Annika were escorted to a motel where they had a few hours of sleep before continuing their holiday.
Examples of success:
Two of the best movie endings of all time:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy’s rebel attitude, sapped due to a lobotomy, transfers to the gentle giant Chief, who finally has the strength to escape the ward. And we like to think the spirit of McMurphy is right there with him.
Gone with the Wind ends grandly. Rhett Butler walks out on Scarlett with the epic line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” which leads to Scarlett pledging to win Rhett back because “tomorrow is another day.”
Examples of failure:
Popular movies where the protagonist fails to succeed:
In City of Angels, the movie where Nicolas Cage is an angel who falls in love with Meg Ryan, who’s a human, he becomes a human for her, then she dies.
The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t end all successfully. There’s an unintentional trade-off for capturing and killing Buffalo Bill, but Hannibal Lecter escapes.
Examples of different types of arcs (low-stakes to high-stakes)
A strong storytelling arc shows rise and fall, cause and effect, in a way that makes sense. Every story must have stakes. Stakes (especially high ones) keep the plot moving, keep the characters growing and changing, and keep your readers engaged. Readers must care about what happens to your characters. Therefore, your story must have some level of personal stakes involved.
Low-stakes vs. high-stakes: You might not want to escalate the stakes too high too fast in your novel. Let your reader feel like there’s a chance the protagonist might get out of this situation. This is known as a low-stakes story arc and will keep your reader hooked on every action until they’re convinced that things couldn’t get worse!
Instead, focus on how vital the last-act stakes are to the characters, which will help the last-act stakes be more important to the readers.
Creating your story arc in your thriller novel
Now that you understand what a story arc means, use these four steps to create your own story that will keep your readers turning the pages!
When creating an arc for your story, remember it should be long enough to give depth but short enough not to lose reader interest!
A good way of adding depth is by exploring the characters’ inner and external thoughts and feelings. Make sure the drama lies in the reaction of your main character!
Common pitfalls when writing an arc
– Not escalating the stakes throughout your story.
– Making it too easy for the protagonist to solve their problems. Your character must work hard and struggle towards their goals for readers to feel invested in them. Struggling makes characters more human, relatable, and engaging.
Why you should use a plot outline before starting to write your story arc
Outlining a novel isn’t for every writer, but there are many benefits to outlining your thriller novel.
-An outline will help you keep the pace or timeline straight, which is especially important if you’re writing a thriller novel.
-Using an outline can be a gentle reminder of where you want the story to go.
-Outlines can remind you to build your character arc.
– You can replace different plot elements with ones that better fit what works for your book.
– Plot outlines save time during the editing process.
-If your protagonist is an ex-marine medically discharged from service due to PTSD, he may struggle with transitioning back into everyday life after working in combat situations for so long. His story arc can begin with him trying to find a position in the civilian world. However, the climax of this story arc could be when he has to face his past and defend himself against someone trying to harm him or even kill him because of what happened while he was on duty.
-The story arc for a historical fiction novel might begin with an inciting incident, starting with the main character trying to find the antidote for a deadly virus. The stakes are raised when he discovers that his family has been exposed as well. He must now work quickly.
Story arcs are a critical part of all good fiction writing. If you want to create a successful novel that keeps your readers’ attention and leaves them wanting more, it’s essential to have an engaging story arc for each character involved.
I hope this blog will help you create a story that will keep your readers turning the pages!
If you’re working on your first novel and are looking for more help with your writing, please check out my other articles at https://ullahakanson.com/blog/