"What is a Narrative Arc?": A Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is a Narrative Arc? Transcript (English Subtitles Available in Video)

By David Turkel, Oregon State Lecturer in Playwriting

19 December 2019

In his book Into the Woods, author John Yorke discusses his theory of fractals as they relate to dramatic structure. A fractal is a small geometric structure that's repeated multiple times to create a larger formation. Crystals are formed this way and so, Yorke argues, are stories. In both cases, a great deal of beauty and complexity is possible simply by repeatedly interlocking units of the same basic shape. For stories, this shape is the dramatic arc:

As Yorke argues, a dramatic arc is often a five-act structure extending over the length of a complete story. In Act I, the protagonist is thrust into the story's events. At the beginning of Star Wars, for example, Luke Skywalker's aunt and uncle are killed by Imperial Stormtroopers, prompting his decision to leave with Obi-wan to rescue Princess Leia. 

In Act II, the protagonists finds themselves in a new environment (going "into the woods," as York writes), becoming more engaged and committing further to the journey. Sticking with the same example, Luke travels from his home to outer space, fights alongside Han Solo against the Imperial fighters, and begins studying the force with Obi-wan.

In Act III, yet another world unfolds. A major discovery is made and the results of that discovery have instant consequences for our hero's journey. We witness the destructive power of the Death Star and are sucked in by its tractor beam only to find the princess on board, forcing Luke to assume the role of hero, swinging her safely across the chasm toward their escape.

In Act IV, the result of the midpoint discovery creates a major crisis (often represented in the form of a loss or even death). To ensure their successful escape, Obi Wan Kenobi stays behind to fight Darth Vader and is ultimately killed in Star Wars fourth act. 

Finally, in Act V, the protagonist confronts the forces of opposition and some resolution is effected. Luke flies the decisive bombing run against the Death Star and with Han Solo's help destroys it. Later, Luke Han, and Chewie are all given medals of valor by the princess.

Hopefully by now this basic setup is clear, but zooming in on it, something interesting happens. Take a look at just our first act, for instance. One: after  Princess Leia's transport vessel is overtaken by the Empire, she sends two droids to the planet Tatooine with a secret message for a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke, a farm boy on the planet, purchases the droids from the local traders and cleaning them that night discovers the princess's message. That's an inciting incident.

Two: then after that night R2D2, the droid carrying the message, runs away into the desert and Luke must pursue him, heading into the woods as it were (or in this case the desert the unfamiliar and hostile territory where he's attacked by the sand people and eventually rescued by an old hermit).

Three: the hermit takes Luke to a cave which as Yorke has told us is the classic site of third-act drama. There he reveals that he is in fact Obi-Wan Kenobi and that Luke's father didn't die the way he'd been told by his aunt and uncle but was actually a great Jedi warrior. This is a major midpoint discovery! Obi-Wan then gives Luke his father's old lightsaber and asks him to fulfill his destiny.

Four: Luke initially rejects Obi Wan's request, telling him he's needed back at the farm by his aunt and uncle only to discover that the Imperial Stormtroopers have followed the sale of the two droids to his uncle's farm, burned it to the ground, and killed Luke's family members. Thus, what was the inciting incident of the whole story now translates as Act one's fourth act crisis moment.

Five: to conclude Luke now knows that his destiny lies with Obi-Wan and that together they must find a way off the planet to rescue the princess. This sends them to the cantina to find a pilot and sets up their climactic escape from Tatooine.

In other words, just as Yorke also predicts, an entire five-act structure is present in the film's first act. But that's not all! Zoom in a little further, say, to the moment when Luke first gets his droids and we find once again this same familiar pattern.

One: Luke tells his aunt that he needs to purchase new droids for the farm (the inciting incident).

Two: Luke makes a journey into the woods (or in this case to the Jawa sandcrawler) and begins haggling with the Jawa traders.

Three: Luke chooses the C-3PO unit but not R2D2. This is the scene's midpoint. 

Four: R2D2 sabotages the second droid Luke chooses, destroying it. 

Five: Luke confronts the Jawa traders; he assumes to have tried to cheat him (the climax) and settles on the R2D2 unit to take back to his uncle's farm. with the resolution.

The moves are obviously smaller, but they're all still present and accounted for. In fact, we will find the same structure that we expect to see in a completely developed story repeated in each of its acts and even the dramatic scenes which compose those acts. Not only that, but as stories continue to grow beyond the limits of a single installment, we can expect to see this pattern repeated on the macro level as well.

Consider Harry Potter, for example. Seven books and movies make up that franchise' s complete story, placing Harry Potter IV right smack in the center or the midpoint of the series. Do you think it's any coincidence, then, that the fourth installment tells the story of Voldemort's return?

Or look at Game of Thrones. For all of its many adventures, conflicts, surprising turns, and unexpected developments; we are told from the very first episode of that series that the overarching concern--the series' largest dramatic mark--will be "Winter is coming." 67 episodes comprise the full run of the Game of Thrones television series, making episode 34 its exact midpoint. What happens there? The Night King, the face of the ultimate war to come, is introduced for the very first time.

 It's important to note that these features don't need to be part of any writer's conscious design. Neither Yorke nor I are suggesting that the creators of these stories counted the number of episodes on their fingers in order to determine where to place their key discovery. Rather, the dramatic arc of story--where an inciting incident leads to a journey, that journey to a discovery, that discovery to a crisis, and that crisis to some sort of confrontation--is a natural formation, which repeats in sometimes dazzling combinations.

When a quarterback throws a pass to a receiver downfield, they may not realize it, but some part of them is aiming the ball not at the receiver but at the highest point in the trajectory, which that pass will have to follow in order to meet the receiver downfield. They're aiming, in other words, much as a storyteller does, at the trajectory's midpoint, the moment when rising action ends and momentum takes over.

Recognizing the 5 parts of this general narrative arc can help us to see how writers manipulate this same basic structure to build whole worlds for stories.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Turkel, David. "What is a Narrative Arc?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 19 Dec. 2019, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-narrative-arc-oregon-state-guide-literary-terms. Accessed [insert date].

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