How To Create a Compelling Story: The Narrative Arc
What do all stories have? A beginning, middle and an end. This is what we learned in school when learning how to write a good story. However, an arch doesn't just have to apply to the story, characters themselves have arcs. In this blog, I'm going to give you some tips on how to utilise arcs to create a cohesive and compelling story. If you want any more hints and tips, specifically on characters, then check out one of my other blogs here.
WHAT IS THE ARC?
In it's simplest form, the narrative arc is a beginning, middle and an end. What you also need to focus on when creating your story is what gets you to these points. Let's look at 'Back to the Future' as an example and use the example above to break down the story.
Set Up - Marty McFly is a high-schooler who is friends with an inventor named Doc Brown
Inciting Incident - Doc Brown reveals the time machine and after being chased by Lybian terrorists, Marty travels back to 1955
Rising Action - Marty meets his parents and realises he's changed history
Climax - George McFly punches Biff at the 'Enchantment Under the Sea' dance
Success or Failure - Marty travels back to 1985
Falling Action - Marty's present has now changed
Resolution - Doc travels back from 2015 to tell Marty there's something wrong with his children and they travel to 2015.
That is the film at its most basic level. What you might notice is that, you could argue, there are two arcs intertwining in the film. One focuses on Marty's inability to return to 1985 and also the arc of his parents possibly never falling in love. This makes the film so much more interesting and also creates two climaxes. One being the 'Enchantment Under the Sea' dance and the other being Marty trying to get back to 1985 at the exact moment the lightning hits the clock tower. These two plotlines are beautifully woven into each other, creating a complex, yet compelling story.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to plan a script is by creating story arcs before you write anything else down. If you create an arc, then you can split up the story into sections. Usually, when I think of a new idea for a script, that idea will be a scene or an interaction. I then think of where that scene would be placed in the arc of a story. From there I can create the basis of a story by filling in the rest of the arc.
When starting a new project, the actual writing can be daunting. That's why, when I've already planned out a story arc, I will only write in sections and on one day, give myself the challenge of writing the set-up or the rising action. That way I don't feel bogged down by having to write an entire script. If you write in this fashion, you'll be surprised how fast you'll finish it.
Characters themselves have an arc, or at least they should if you want them to be interesting. The characters need to be changed in some way by the end of your piece. Whether that be their characteristics, or their views or their situation. Let's look at Woody from 'Toy Story' as an example:
Woody starts off as a narcissistic, self-entitled, for want of a better word, asshole. This is then amplified over his hatred for the new toy, Buzz, who Andy has now chosen over him. This leads to him 'accidentally' throw Buzz out of the window. Through his love of Andy, he tries to get Buzz back. On their adventure, Woody learns how to work as a team, respect others and most of all, be a good friend. This leads him to become the good-willed, likeable character we all know and love. If you haven't seen it in a long time, watch the first 'Toy Story' again and you'll be surprised as to how different Woody is.
Within scenes, it's a great idea to have an arc. It gives a sense of tension and release. This idea of pushing and pulling the audience through each scene will keep them gripped throughout. One movie, I feel did this brilliantly was Damien Chazelle's 'Whiplash'. It's the story of a drummer called Andrew Neiman in a music college with massive potentially being mentally and physically broken by the demanding orchestra conductor Terence Fletcher. If you haven't seen it, what are you doing? Watch, watch, watch! I'd like to look at this idea of an arc with one of the best scenes in the movie. I call it the 'Not Quite My Tempo' scene.
The scene starts with the band practising the song 'Whiplash'. Rhythmically it's a complicated piece of music and the drummer has one of the hardest parts in the band. It all seems to be going normally, when Fletcher starts to question Neiman on the tempo of his playing. Seemingly just wanting him to be better, Fletcher continues to restart from the same place, telling him his drumming is out of time. This all culminates in Fletcher throwing a chair at Neiman's head, which he avoids. In this case, this would be the 'inciting incident' that changes the scene.
From there, the tension rises when Fletcher slaps the tempo into Neiman's face, questions his music theory knowledge, throws curses and insults at him and his family and starts to laugh at him when he starts to cry. The climax of the scene would be Neiman shouting "I'm upset". That is where the abuse gets too much and he releases his feelings into the world. The falling action is Flecther being disappointed in Neiman, with the scene concluding on Neiman being switched out for another drummer. It's an intense scene that is well worth a watch.
Those are some of the ways arcs can be used to help you with storytelling in your script. If you can think of any other ways, then feel free to start a conversation in the comments below, I'd love to hear from you.
Bye for now.