What is a Story Arc? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Story Arc?
  • 0:35 The Formula
  • 2:29 The Diagram
  • 2:57 The Story Arc in Practice
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Learning how to map a story is an important part of studying literature. An excellent tool to teach this skill is the story arc. This lesson explores what story arcs are, how they work, and examples.

What is a Story Arc?

For many students, analyzing or writing a story can be tricky business. Obviously, a good story includes key elements like dynamic characters, engaging settings, and wild plot twists. But how do all of these things come together?

This is where the ever-so-handy story arc comes into play. A story arc is a tool to help students map a story, or create a story of their own. Depending on how you use it, a story arc can be viewed as both a formula and a diagram. Let's look at the details.

The Formula

Writing is not only an art, it's also a science that can be boiled down to a simple formula. Story arcs can contain five key components (eight if you're feeling fancy!):

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling action
  5. Resolution

Let's go into these in more detail.

The exposition, also referred to as stasis, occurs at the beginning of a story. This is where the author lays the groundwork for the readers. Who are the characters? Where do they live? What's happening? Think of it as an introduction that helps the reader settle into the story before things start to pick up.

The rising action happens after the stage has been set for the readers, and begins to move the story in a forward direction. The rising action is generally characterized by conflict, usually problems and challenges that the characters must overcome. Some authors break this component into four separate elements:

  1. The trigger, or the event that sets the plot into motion
  2. The quest, which is how the characters respond to the trigger
  3. The surprise, or any twist, turn, or unexpected event that arises
  4. The critical choice, which is the decisions that the main character or characters make that lead to the climax of the story

The climax of the story is where the plot reaches its critical mass. It's the tipping point where tensions are at their highest and the reader is most engaged by what's happening. The climax is usually where the most exciting or important actions occur.

The falling action occurs on the other side of the climax. Think of it like mountain climbing. Once you've reached the peak of the mountain, you have to come back down from the top. While the rising action helps build towards the climax, the falling action helps deescalate the tension and ease readers into the conclusion of the story.

Last, but not least, the resolution of the story is where the plot comes to an end. This is where major problems are solved and loose ends are tied up.

The Diagram

The story arc acts like both a formula and a diagram. You can picture the story arc using a line starting out low and flat during the exposition. Then rising action creates a rise in the line, followed by the height of the story, or the climax, after which the line dramatically drops, representing the falling action. This is an excellent visual to show students to help them get a sense for how a story moves. It's also the basis for a very helpful graphic organizer to map a story.

Story arc diagram
Story Arc

The Story Arc in Practice

Let's take a look at a simple example that most everyone is familiar with, the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

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