02 June 2018

Writing tip & task 5/7: Plotting a strong story arc

by Anna Davis Events, Writing Tips

Day 5: The next CBC tutor to take up the baton in our 7 days of writing tips and tasks is bestselling children’s-author Catherine Johnson, who teaches our 3-month online course on Writing YA and Children’s Fiction. Catherine’s a massively popular tutor, who has now taught more courses for CBC than anyone else, and who also writes for television. So as you can imagine, she knows a thing or two about story structure and the importance of having a strong narrative underpinning your writing …

Here’s her tip:

It’s great to have a strong story arc to hang your work on. I find 5-Act structure useful (John Yorke explains this well in Into the Woods) – but in any case, make sure your story has character, an inciting incident, jeopardy, conflict & resolution

There are different ways of approaching story structure. The 5-Act structure, which Catherine mentions here, is pretty much the same as the more well-known 3-act structure (beloved of screen-writers). It just has a few additional bells and whistles. The book she mentions, by John Yorke, is one that lots of our students find very helpful in coming to understand story and plot.

Here’s her task:

All stories should have a strong narrative arc to them, no matter how long or short they are. Write a mini-story that’s fully developed (NOT just a character sketch, NOT just description) – with a beginning, middle and end – and tweet it

Catherine’s point about the importance of a strong story arc applies equally whether you’re writing a big literary novel, a page-turning thriller, a short story – or even a little mini-story, as in the task. You can plan your plot in detail before you write, you can interrogate your material after you’ve written a full draft to make sure the story is working well – or possibly a hybrid of the two. Either way, it isn’t enough to have only stylish prose. Readers want to be gripped by your story, and compelled to read on to find out what’s going to happen. The task requires you to think properly about the drivers of story as part of writing a tweet-length tale for us. We’d like you to come up with something that has momentum, and that really goes somewhere.

We thought you might find it helpful to have a summary of what are usually considered to be the key points in a dramatic arc for general use in your writing – though you might not be able to get all of this into your tweet-story!

The Dramatic Arc: 

The Set-Up – sets up the protagonist and their story

Inciting Incident and call to action – Something happens which is a challenge to the protagonist, setting them on a particular course (perhaps a goal to be achieved, a mystery to be solved, a situation to be escaped, etc.)

The Confrontation – The protagonist’s attempts to deal with the inciting incident bring about bigger problems/challenges – there’ll be plenty of antagonism/conflict (forces of opposition going on). The protagonist won’t have the skills/ knowledge needed to get out of his/her difficulty.

Midpoint – The protagonist has some kind of realisation about what he/she needs to do to resolve their problem/achieve their goal – without yet being able to do it

Crisis – The Protagonist’s attempts to resolve their situation brings about a dramatic crisis, with the protagonist reaching his/her lowest ebb

Resolution – This will see the protagonist move into the denouement of the story. There may well be a showdown, a facing of demons, etc. The plot is wrapped up into its ending.

But, really, what all this comes down to is that your story needs a beginning, a middle and an end – and lots of conflict.


For more detailed advice on plotting, planning and story structure, apply for one of our three 6-week online courses: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel

Or browse through our full range of creative writing courses here.

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