The emotional arc is the heart of the story while the narrative arc is the plot. Both are equally important and should always interplay throughout a tale.
Scenes can have emotional arcs, just like they can move the plot forward. The basic rule for scenes is simply that something must happen – they must end somewhere different than where they began. If emotional, a character could begin the scene with apprehension and end in outright fear, or if narrative, they could begin searching for a a solution to a problem and find one by the end. Scenes can have both emotional and narrative change in them, but one will always have the spotlight a little more than the other. Every change should have a beginning, middle, and end.
When evaluating scenes, it can be helpful to use an index card that represents narrative on one side and emotional on the opposite side. Filling out the cards can show where a scene might be weak, just like it can show where a change went wrong. Specifically for emotional change, starting off with a single character experiencing despair and ending in elation would be too jarring of a change in emotional state – it would strain believability and likely cause a reader to struggle to suspend their disbelief. Changes need to have a direct cause and effect, but also need to be logical. Failures in narrative arcs would be forward change that wasn’t earned or that wasn’t foreshadowed correctly. For instance, the eagles at the end of Lord of the Rings are just barely foreshadowed enough before they appear, and mostly it is the struggles of Sam and Frodo that allow it to feel like a (mostly) satisfying and logical resolution to their ordeal.
Emotional arcs and narrative arcs both support the tension of a story. Both should be able to be outlined at a story level.
For narrative arcs, a story outline will likely contain eight key points.
- Exposition / Stasis
- the status quo
- life as the protagonist knows it
- the thing that kicks off the plot
- often an unexpected event or sudden change in the protagonist’s life
- Rising Action / Complications / The Quest
- the meat of the story
- the protagonist’s struggles to accept and deal with the Story Goal
- unexpected additional complication
- usually comes just after the protagonist has accepted the Story Goal as their own personal goal
- Critical Choice
- will define the climax of the story
- does not have to be positive – for instance, Romeo drinking poison when he thinks Juliet is truly dead
- everything has built to this
- it’s the highest point of tension in the entire story
- Falling Action / Reversal
- consequence of the climax
- establishes the new stasis in the protagonist’s life
Every story needs a resolution to give the reader a full sense of completion. In stories with successful structures, both the falling action and the resolution will feel inevitable after the climax – the reader knows the characters and the world so well that once the climax is finished, there seems to be only one way for the story to end. Writing a successful resolution is the time when a writer fulfills their story’s promise to the reader. Endings that live up to the promises made throughout the story will inspire readers to come back for more, either in a series, or in other standalone works, because they can trust the writer to see a story through to the end.
Have you ever used an eight point narrative arc? What sorts of stories focus more on the emotional arcs than narrative ones, and do you prefer them? Where would an emotional arc parallel the eight point narrative arc? The comments are always open.