How Story Arcs Can Add Depth to Your Plot

JordanDane
@JordanDane

Close-up of kissing lips

Yesterday, Joe Moore had an excellent post “Tips for Pacing Your Novel.” It made me think of subplots and story arcs that are other tools to punch up a story line with pace while the main plot enjoys a much needed rest for character development.

In a story arc, whether it is the arc of a romantic relationship or the personal journey of your main character, it might help you think of the arc using these key points:

5 Key Movements in a Story Arc:
1. Present State
2. Something Happens
3. Stakes Escalate
4. Moment of Truth
5. Resolve

Present State –  Set the stage with the character or the relationship at the start of the story. This can also include a teaser of the conflict ahead or the characters’ problems that will be tested. If this is a thriller with a faster pace, you can start with a scene that I call a Defining Scene, where you show the reader who your character is in one defining moment of introduction. The reader can see who this character is by what he or she does in that enticing opener. Don’t tell the reader by the character’s introspection (internal monologue). Set the stage by his or her actions. These scenes take thought to pull together but they are worth it. Imagine how Capt. Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean first steps onto the big screen. He wouldn’t simply walk on and deliver a line. He’d make a splash that would give insight into who he is and will be.

Something Happens – An instigating incident forces a change in direction and a point of no return. Your character and/or relationship often will move into uncharted territory that will test their resolve. Sometimes you can set up a series of nudges for the character to reject, but in the end, something must happen to shove him or her over the edge and into the main plot.

Stakes Escalate – in a series of events, test the characters’ problem or the relationship in a way that forces a conflict where a tough choice must be made. Make your character/couple earn the right to play a starring role in your novel. Don’t forget that this is not simply the main action of the plot or a conflict with the bad guys. This can also mean escalating the stakes of the relationship by forcing them into uncomfortable territory.

Moment of Truth – When push comes to shove, give your character or couple a moment of truth. Do they choose redemption or stay the course of their lives? When the stakes are the highest, what will your character do? I often think of this moment as a type of “death.” The character must decide whether to let the past die or a part of their nature die in order to move on. Do they do what’s safe or do they take a leap into something new?

Resolve – Conclude the journey or foreshadow what the future holds to bring the story full circle. I love it when there is a sense of a character coming through a long dark tunnel where they step into the light. A character or couple don’t have to be the same or restored in the end. Make the journey realistic. If a character survives, they are more than likely changed forever. What would than mean for your character? How will they be changed?

Apply this arc structure to individual characters or to a romantic love interest between two characters. These arcs are woven into the tapestry of your overall plot. The plot can be full of action and have its own arc, but don’t forget to add depth and layering to your story by making the characters have their own personal journeys.

Characters have external plot involvements (ie the action of the story), but they can also have their internal conflicts that often make the story more memorable. As an example of this, in the Die Hard movies, we may forget the similar plots to the individual movies, but what make the films more memorable is the personal stories of John McClain and his family. These personal arcs are important and need a structured journey through the story line. They can ebb and flow to affect pace. Escalate a personal relationship during a time when the main plot is slowing down. Make readers turn the pages because they care what happens to your characters.

For Discussion:
Share your current WIP, TKZers. How do you integrate your main character’s personal journey into the overall plot? Share a bit of your character and how his or her “issues” play into your story line.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

23 thoughts on “How Story Arcs Can Add Depth to Your Plot

  1. Okay, I’ll go first. My hero is an FBI profiler who is haunted by nightmares stemming from the last horrific images captured in the retinas of the dead. His ability is his biggest secret that isolates him from the FBI and any personal relationships, including his estranged sister who shares guilt over how their parents died. I have story arcs, with a longer arc over the 3-book series.

    In book #1, his secret nearly gets him killed when he pursues a serial killer on his own. He eventually shares his secret, but his Unit Chief has been asking too many questions that could ruin his career. Things escalate with greater risks. He’s driven to save others because he couldn’t save his parents. If he doesn’t have his career, he’s afraid of what he’d become.

  2. Great discussion topic, Jordan! I have arcs that wrap up within each book, and others that span books. The on-again, off-again romantic relationship of Kate and her uptight British cop is one. One series-length arc, is the story of Kate learning who killed her mother when Kate was 13. It was nothing like the story she’s been told all her life. The killer has now targeted Kate.

    • It’s a bigger canvas to work with when you write a series. You can escalate stakes over the series or you can keep throwing challenges at your protag to test their resolve. It sounds like Kate has many layers to explore, like a Russian nesting doll, within each book’s plot. Well done.

    • I just binged on Michael Connelly’s Mick Haller series, defense attorney. His personal life is as much addictive as the plot of each book. His side story arcs are page turners and so deftly woven into the plot that Haller feels like a real guy. Great stuff.

  3. Hi Jordan. Fantastic post! And very timely. I’m working on my third book in a series, and the story is stalling. I think it might be because I don’t have the arc figured out. I’m going to try applying your steps and see if I can jump start this baby. 🙂 Your latest sounds fabulous! I’ll have to check out the Mick Haller series. I love the Bosch books, but haven’t read these.

    • https://killzoneblog.com/2012/03/authors-bucket-list-on-plot-structure.html

      Hey Alicia.
      Excited to hear about your series. The overall plot structure must hold the book together, but the character story arc (or romance) needs a subplot too. Try the above link on a “W” plot structure. It could help jumpstart you too.

      I’m not usually a fan of lawyer books, but the writing is addictive because it’s fun to be in Haller’s head. Amazing writing that seems effortless, but is anything BUT easy to write.

      • Yay! Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out. Also, great advice on the series thing. I hadn’t approached it like that, but I need to. Sounds helpful. I’ve never been much on lawyer novels either, but now I work for attorneys, so I’m a bit more interested. And, if Michael Connelly is writing it, I’ll read a series where a drunk circus clown is the lead. 🙂

  4. My primary WIP, the Ice Hammer series, follows a family (father, mother, 2 teen sons) as they experience the onset and continuation of war on US soil. The father is certain he saw his wife’s dead body, but believes his sons are alive and have escaped with their scout troop into the mountains. The sons are not sure, but keeping hope their parents are live and trying to survive to be reunited with either or both. The wife on the other hand finds herself captive as the nominal mistress of the invading army’s general and learns that both her sons and her husband are alive and fighting. Throughout the story there is an arc of tragedy, then recovery, then revenge/resolution. The last action of the individual book arc brings on the next tragedy to start the next book. For instance the realization his wife is dead, leads Brad Stone to attempt to find his sons only to meet the enemy between him and them, and when the fight to distract the enemy is caught on drone camera he becomes the most wanted man in Alaska. Which draws more attention to him and those he comes to lead, and more and harsher confrontions snowballing as it goes.

    The same type of arc covers the trilogy as a whole as well, as illustrated by the title sequences for the series: Invasion, Insurgent, and Invincible in that order.

    • Sounds exciting, Basil. I can see how the family dynamic can be its own arc woven into the main plot of survival during war time. You’re making the battle relatable by telling the story through one brave family. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your series.

  5. Mr. Basil is also working a series about us Leprechauns, titled “The Brothers Four”. The first book is a novella length masterpiece. A heart warming tale of loss, redemption, and heroic deeds. The hero’s life is a shambles, but me and my brothers arrival on the scene both gives him renewed purpose and makes room in his heart for new love. And puppies are saved too. Well, at least the ones that didn’t already get eaten by Harold the troll and his pet giant birdy, Margaret, that is.

    Here’s an excerpt if you like:

    The knock on the door roused Colin from his afternoon nap with a jolt, the sound of the television in the background still mostly indiscernible as he slowly attained consciousness. He quickly realized that the TV was muted because Heimdall was lying across his ear. He gently slid the tiny dog off his head waking him up and earning a What is your problem? Stare.
    One of the primary benefits of being a full time writer was the naps, which Colin and Heimdall took every afternoon from three to five o’clock. This also happens to be a major benefit of being a recently divorced, childless thirty-four year old man with nothing to live for but writing corny science fiction novels, sharing his dinner with a pint sized dog, and playing Fantasy Underworld Cards. He rubbed his eyes to push himself out of the half-dream state where he was hearing Anna Pauline talk about yet another small dog being snatched by the dreaded giant eagle. He stared at her plastic smile trying to verify if she was real or CGI, but it was hard to tell, even on a seventy inch super high definition screen. Heimdall cocked his head, ears perked and eyes wide, as the image on the screen showed a fuzzy image of a giant bird carrying away a tiny dog, not much larger than him.
    At the second, much louder, knock Colin practically flew from the couch to the door, clicking off the TV as he passed it, to greet what had to be the UPS guy with his precious new packs of cards. He snatched aside the curtain that covered the small window in the upper fourth of the door to glance outside before unlocking it, but saw no one. Heimdall joined him, standing between his feet and looking up, waiting for something to happen.
    “Did I dream the knock?”
    The knocking came again, followed by the doorbell being pushed several times in rapid succession. The dog let out a growl in response to the assault of noise.
    Ding-Dong Ding-Dong Ding-Dong Ding-Dong Ding-Dong Ding…….Dong.
    Colin twisted the lock on the door, and pulled it open. It was not the UPS man. At least not the normal UPS man. Which is to say, it was not the UPS man unless Corporate had switched out individual UPS drivers with teams of four very short men and his cards were being delivered in wheeled brown-leather suitcases. They were neatly dressed, albeit it in a style that could only be described in his immediate thoughts as “Half-Scale Timetraveleresque”.
    The four men looked up at him with large smiles and bright eyes, took off their hats and bowed quickly. The nearest one spoke first.
    “Good evening Mr. Colin Farnsworth,” he spoke in an accent that was reminiscent of Colin’s Irish grandparents who had raised him, but regionally undefinable. “My name is Fillii and these are my brothers, Gnilli, Boffin, and Berthold.”
    Each of the others reached out and proffered a hand in greeting, which Colin shook. They continued the shake with the dog in the same order. Heimdall glanced up at Colin, then back to the little men.
    “We’re here about the room for rent.”
    Colin’s brow furrowed. Heimdall’s ears perked.
    “Room for rent?”
    “Yes the room for rent you offered on the internet.”
    “I didn’t offer a room for rent. You’re mistaken.”
    “No sir,” Fillii replied, he and his brothers continued to look up to Colin with disarming smiles that seemed to stretch even wider, “You most certainly did, and you requested $350 per month rent from each of us for room and board.”
    “And since we like to make our own food mostly the board is minimal,” the second brother Gnillii added.
    “And we do our own laundry,” the third brother Boffin said.
    “And we make our own lager,” Berthold said, “which we love to share.”
    “Wait a minute here,” Colin was interrupted by a low thud that rumbled like a distant earthquake coming from the mountains.
    Fillii glanced that direction and said, “Oh, it certainly would be nice if you could let us move in immediately.”
    “But…I…” Colin stammered.
    Several more thumps sounded from the same distant place, seeming to draw nearer. Heimdall ran back to his safe place under the sofa, and stared back toward the door.
    “Indeed,” Gnillii’s eyes rolled that direction then back, the smile frozen on his face starting to look more like a grimace, “right away coming in sounds quite acceptable to me.”
    The thuds were definitely drawing closer.
    “Indeed,” Boffin agreed, “even right this moment sounds quite good.”
    The sound was now almost certainly at the end of his street. Colin could feel each rhythmic thump in his feet. The pictures on his wall jittered with the shock. A faux-crystal statue of a unicorn with a flaming mane he’d won at last year’s Fantasy Underworld Cards National Tournament danced across a shelf with each pounding jolt. Heimdall backed further under the sofa.
    “But,” he could not get more than that out before several increasingly massive seismic events froze his powers of speech.
    “Gina and Tina said you would help us,” Berthold smiled up at him with childlike innocence.
    “Who?”
    “Your Muses,” Berthold continued, “Gina and Tina. They said you’d help.”
    The houses across the street were suddenly darkened by a giant shadow. A massive grey fleshed creature, well over ten feet tall stepped partially into sight and Colin was immediately glad he’d emptied his bladder prior to his nap.
    “So,” Fillii spoke urgently, “we can come in? Once we’re in we can put up a blocking charm.”
    “Uh,” Colin stared, eyes as round as children’s league soccer balls, “uh…”
    “The blocking charm won’t work till we’re behind the closed door,” Gnillii said.
    “Uh…uh.”
    “He said uh huh!” Berthold said, “That’s the local vernacular for yes!”
    “Good thing you took those language classes little brother,’ Boffin said as they all rushed past Colin.
    Berthold slammed the door behind them slapping the deadbolt shut and joining his brothers in a small circle in Colin’s foyer. Colin barely heard their grunted incantations as, through the window in the top portion of the door, he saw the form of a giant humanoid beast step into full view at the end of his yard and turn its huge ugly head his direction. Surprisingly dull looking eyes glared back at him from within a face that seemed to be made of grey clay.
    Suddenly Colin caught the chant of the four little men working a tuneless song that sounded as though they were performing it by rote but at double its intended speed.
    “…Gael foalei, et fin toalai, et gongoway est tona!”
    The creature tentatively moved toward his house. In three slow steps it crossed the fifty foot depth of his front yard and stood at the end of the porch, thirty feet away. It stopped, sniffed the air in front of it, turned its head to one side and sniffed again, then repeated the snifflage in the other direction. Its face drew back in a rage filled grimace and its body postured as if it were going to charge the front door, which Colin was certain would shatter upon impact and he be killed, as his feet seemed to be cemented to the floor on account of the unreasonable fear that coursed through his veins.
    “…Gael foalei, et fin toalai, et gongoway est tona!”
    The beast stomped and his front porch instantly splintered, wooden planks flying skyward exploding into shards that could never be repaired. Two of his precious pots of purple velvet pansies, his favourite with the bright yellow flares inside the petals, exploded into the air. He swore he heard a tiny scream from his flowery friends as they met their demise. The giant creature raised his fist to smash through the front door. Colin stared and readied himself to die, remembering his Nana’s constant injunction to always have clean underpants, he prayed he would not soil his upon expiring.
    ‘…et gongoway est tonahay, et dooblevay est DUNNIT!!”
    The giant vanished. The pounding stopped. No more earthquake. No door imploding. No massive hand reaching in and tearing his heart out.
    Colin let out a whimper, followed by a high pitched flatulence. Heimdall came out from the couch and cautiously joined him.
    Boffin stepped over, opened the front door and looked outside.
    “Troll’s gone.”
    “Excellent,” said Fillii. He turned back to Colin, “Now, about that room for rent.”
    “That….that….that thing!” Colin stammered, still staring out the door. “It smashed my porch.”
    “Don’t worry,” said Gnillii. “We have glue.”
    “Oh,” Colin said. Heimdall poked his head between his house mate’s feet then watched as the human fainted.

  6. I’m thinking in terms of a series arc at present. My character, hairstylist Marla Shore, has been against having children of her own due to a past tragedy. It took her a while to forgive herself and move on. Finally, after ten books, she got married. Now she is in a stable relationship. Will she change her mind about expanding her family? In each story, she comes to a realization about herself. But there’s this overall arc that shows her progression. And in my current WIP, she’s beginning to soften a bit in regard to the above issue.

    • Sounds like a well thought out series of arcs, Nancy. Compelling. I can see how she might evolve her perspective once someone else’s needs come into play. Interesting character.growth and a great example for our discussion. Thank you.

  7. Got two WIP on the go as started new novel while beta readers were devouring a short collection. However, the shorts are linked by a catastrophic solar storm. So characters in each story have their own personal arc, which often involves them facing something about themselves -e.g: just edited one about a Scottish army medic resolving differences with her estranged brother. His farm is ideal for the survival of her group of refugees.

  8. This is a great exercise! (Because I haven’t written it down before.)

    The protag in my WIP (working title: A MILLION CLOSED EYES) is a grandmother when the story starts. 38 years ago, her second husband, a pedophile, absconded with her 8-year-old son. She’s spent her life savings trying to find him (Spoiler: she never finds him, even during this story) and suffers from a profound guilt that she didn’t notice the signs of pedophilia and didn’t protect her son. It made her a control freak and caused her to alienate her daughter.

    I want her to learn to forgive herself and to learn to “let go.” I know the beginning event (a preliminary hearing) and I know the ending (the granddaughter’s trial on charges of attempted murder, followed by an ironic ending), but I don’t know the middle, although I have some plot points in mind.

    So far, however, the proposed plot points aren’t yet connected to her character arc, although they’re definitely connected to the overall arc of the story.

    Your post is a great reminder that I should definitely connect the character arc to the story arc before I write too much and end up with tons of scenes on the cutting room floor.

    • What a gut wrenching character story. Wow. Her past would definitely crop up in many aspects, from personal habits, anger, grief, obsessive behaviors. Good job, Sheryl. Thanks for sharing your excellent example.

  9. My first book and its sequel involve a secret in the wood of a farm held for generations in the family. Family members have disappeared in the wood. Two returned, one was never seen again. The first to return told a strange story of furry warriors and giants and the family called her loony. The second to return, came back badly injured and never spoke of his experience. The area of the wood across the creek was now off-limits to everyone. Jonathon is the son of the second to disappear. His mother and father had a huge fight three days before and she left without further word. Jonathon’s world is torn. Then he sees his father enter the woods, his face distraught. Jon follows and finds the answer to the secret in the woods and danger he could never have imagined. Along the way, he finds his family, saves a kingdom and brings his parents back together.
    At the moment, the sequel is only a couple of chapters long, but Jonathon comes to the aid of a woman from the other side. All I know at the moment is that Jonathon, accompanied reluctantly by his grandfather and best friend, find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the wood, in a world of danger and on the run from someone who wants to kill the woman they tried to help. They hide, they are discovered, they fight, they escape, they discover new allies, the attempted coup from the first book escalates to civil war. Jonathon’s parents are unaware of the danger of the battles heading their way and he must save them – again.
    That is the bones…now I just need some meat!

    • Maybe the characters who enter the wood are affected or tortured by their own imperfections or traits. Sounds like a compelling plot, rife with ways to weave in personal stories, especially for your main character.

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