Every story has more than one thread running through it. Threads can represent characters, settings, objects, or other tangible / physical items that are part of a story. When threads intersect, there will be changes, usually in the form of character decisions or reactions. It’s important to plot out a story with an eye on both the threads themselves and the places where they intersect.
The narrative arc of a story is the linear chronology of the threads and the points where they intersect. Before B happens, A happens, and after B comes C. It’s an impartial cause and effect.
The emotional arc is all about the reasons why your protagonist either decides, does, or doesn’t do, a certain thing. It is about internal and external forces effecting the ultimate outcome. Internal forces can include doubts, fears, and personal experience. External ones would include threats, pressure to act, or emotions originating from interactions with other characters.
Taken together, the chronology of the narrative is paired with the map of the protagonist’s emotional state to form the plot.
There are several points where the narrative and the emotional arc will have complimentary details. The beginning of stories always have an inciting incident to kick things off. The beginning of the conflict is what fuels the narrative for the first half of the story. It is common for the protagonist to be fully reactionary at this stage, but by the midpoint that will change. A solid emotional arc will offer the protagonist opportunities to be more passive in their role in early sections, whereas after the midpoint, the protagonist themselves will be initiating intersections of threads.
Characters, even the protagonist, can certainly change their mind and reverse a decision, but doing so must be mapped out to be certain there was enough change over time to accommodate the new position. Some of the protagonist’s choices are directly dependent on their emotional state, which makes it important to note everything that is contributing to any given moment. Those details won’t always – and in fact, there are times when they shouldn’t – make it into the prose for the audience to read.
Things to keep in mind when plotting / tracking an emotional arc…
- Try to put yourself in the character’s shoes, or in the shoes of someone like them, as much as possible.
- Emotional arcs are both big picture and scene by scene.
- Don’t switch between two big emotions over the course of a single scene, it will give the audience whiplash.
- At the midpoint, there must be an interlinking piece between the narrative arc and the emotional arc – something tangible to give audience context for why the protagonist is ready to switch from being reactive to active in the story.
Important plot points for both the narrative arc and emotional arc include…
- Inciting Incident is when the protagonist is purely reactionary. They go with their gut and make decisions as though their world will go back to normal tomorrow.
- Midpoint is when they can’t fool themselves any longer. They’re in the thick of the story, and now they are personally invested. Going home now would mean walking away from everything they’ve learned and knowing what’s left undone.
- Second pinch, they gain conviction. They’re doing the right thing, this is the right path, this is who they are supposed to be.
- Dark Moment. Shatters the foundation of that conviction. The cost of their change is real, and they aren’t done paying.
- Climax. Costs come due and tests if they can be steadfast in the face of (more) personal loss.
Emotional arcs are what connect your readers to a story. Rooting for the protagonist to succeed, to win, is all about building them to be relatable. Watching them struggle, being alongside them while they do, is part of what makes readers want to get to the end of a book.
Have you ever plotted out the emotional arc of your stories? Do you do it for both the protagonist and the antagonist? If the Dark Moment is the protagonist’s weakest moment, what would that mean for the antagonist? How does the antagonist effect the threads in the first half of a story? The comments are always open.