Writers frequently talk about the story arc. In fact, it’s one of the first things we learn about story structure. Every plot must contain:
- Inciting Incident/Conflict
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
How many times have you seen a diagram that looks like this one?
These elements make up the backbone of any story. But did you know that a chapter also needs an arc? A chapter needs to move the story along toward your overall story goal, or your plot will stall. If you are sensing that nothing is happening in your chapter, or your beta readers tell you that the chapter is slow or lacking in conflict, a lack of a chapter arc may be your problem.
Think through the structure of your chapter. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does my chapter have a conflict and an inciting incident?
- Is there a sense of rising action or increased tension?
- Does the end of one chapter draw me into the next?
I typically end my chapter on the inciting incident (ie. a cliff hanger), and pick up the next chapter with rising action. The idea is to get people to turn the page in order to read the next chapter. To that end, my chapter arcs look more like this:
- Ends on Inciting Incident
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
- Inciting Incident
Nothing kills your pacing faster than a big block of exposition, so I sprinkle it throughout a chapter as needed. Let’s break this down using a chapter from a book a lot of us know and love.
From HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling:
In this chapter, the Dursleys have taken Harry to a remote island in order to hide from letters that the owls keep delivering. The chapter ends on an inciting incident.
- Inciting Incident – Ominous knocking on the door while a storm rages outside – the Dursleys have been discovered on the island!
- Rising Action – a giant man shows up and breaks down the door; he is angered at the Dursleys keeping Harry in the dark about who he is
- Climax – Harry gets his invite from Hogwarts and discovers he is a wizard
- (Exposition) – Hagrid explains who he is, how Harry’s parents really died, and who Voldemort is
- Falling Action – Harry confronts his aunt about keeping the past from him; Hagrid gives Dudley a pig’s tale
- Resolution – Harry decides to go with Hagrid to Hogwarts
- Inciting Incident – Hagrid and Harry take their leave of the Dursleys
As you can see, that cliffhanger ending on Chapter Three “incites” a reader’s interest in the next chapter. There is a sense of rising tension and a climax when Harry makes the discovery about who he is. Then we have a bit of exposition as Hagrid fills in the gaps about Harry’s past. The fallout from the climax is that Harry and Hagrid are angered by how the Dursleys have kept things from Harry. At the end of all this, Harry resolves to go with Hagrid. Then, to get us reading on to the next chapter, we’re left on another cliffhanger – Hagrid and Harry leaving the Dursleys to go off to a world of magic.
There’s a definite pattern here and an ebb and flow of tension with calmer moments. You need this to keep your story moving toward its end goal. Try to break your chapters down and see if you have a definite arc for your chapters. You may find that you need more conflict or that you could be ending your chapters on more pivotal moments.
Another way of planning your chapter arc is to use the Scene and Sequel Method. This method helps you figure out the heart of your scene and see how it works in coordination with other scenes. This process also touts helping you stay in touch with your character’s motivation/desires throughout your work. How it works:
- Examine your scene to figure out a) what your character wants in scene, b) what is in their way, c) what conflict pops up to stop them, and d) how is the conflict resolved.
- After the scene (steps a-d), you have a sequel (which is really a scene that doesn’t have a climax). The sequel asks you a) how does your character feel about what happened?, b) What do they think about what happened?, and c) what will they decide to do moving forward?
For more information on this method, check out the text below.
TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain
This book breaks down the Scene and Sequel Method.
WANT MORE TIPS?
Tuesday Writing Tips are a recurring feature on this blog. Every Tuesday I will be offering up a different editing or writing tip.
Have a topic you want to see here? Let me know in the comments!