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.

1. 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!

2. 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, Susan, is a tall, beautiful woman in her early thirties. She’s crazy in love with her husband, intelligent and humorous but can also be vulnerable, even ruthless at times. She’s well-liked as a fitness trainer in Vancouver. She and her husband, Tom, a police detective, are on holiday on Vancouver Island when Tom has a call from his boss. They need him to come back to the city.


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:

Tom is going to partake in an insurance fraud investigation. A well-known top businessman is accused of fraud as he attempts to collect the insurance money soon after his office building burns. Susan is disappointed to have their trip cut short but goes on with the day. Tom goes to interview the businessman.

Then Tom doesn’t return from the interview. Susan tries to reach him for hours and finally calls his co-worker, Jim. She is extremely distraught. Tom would have called her if something was wrong. She suspects his disappearance might be foul play.

When Susan and Jim find Tom’s car in a park near the businessman’s home, they call for police reinforcement. The police question the businessman. His wife and the maid swear he has not met with anyone in the house or left his home for the past two days. There are no visible cameras installed on the property. The police search the car but don’t come up with any leads.

Susan can’t possibly accept that she might have lost the most important person in her life. So she tells everyone she will stay with a friend on her boat for a week to rest. Then she disguises herself, borrows a small truck from her aunt, and drives around until she catches sight of the businessman.

Following this man, Susan overhears him talking to another man, saying, “Can we trust Peter?” Susan doesn’t know Peter, but she recognizes this other man. Alerted by the aggressive tone the businessman uses, Susan decides to take a closer look at the businessman.

She calls Jim again, describing the man she recognized. Jim says he thinks he knows who the man is and will get back to her. Minutes later, Jim calls with information on how to contact the man.

From this contact, Susan learns the truth about her husband’s disappearance and where she might find him if he’s still alive. In addition, the contact tells her he can prove that the businessman killed his best friend after hiring him to burn down the building – that he has the whole scenario on video. But he is scared – someone is threatening him. Susan and the contact make a deal.


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:

Susan knows that she might find Tom in a condemned building in an unsafe part of the city. She calls and gives the businessman the most intimate details in the killing tape. He wants them to meet to talk business. Susan agrees to meet him there the following evening. Once there, something goes wrong, and the businessman dies.


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:

Overjoyed to be back with her husband, Susan holds him close as they plan to continue their holiday and recover somewhere far away, maybe with their relatives in Norway.

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.

3. 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.

For example:

Meeting with the businessman alone in a condemned building in a seedy part of the city is a high personal stake for Susan. And knowing that her husband might be held somewhere inside that building adds a whole new level of personal stakes, which ups the tension.

4. 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!

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Example stories

-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!


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