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What Is a Story Arc?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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“Story arc” is a literary term referring to a narrative plot or subplot. It may encompass an entire story or merely make up one element in a much longer narrative. Like any plot, it will contain a setup, escalating conflict, and a resolution of some kind. The phrase “story arc” is widely used in scripting conferences as well as in discussions of the resulting films and television shows. Story arcs are especially prevalent in ongoing, serialized dramas such as prime-time TV series, soap operas, and comic books.

The plot is the basic structure of a story, including the events that characters encounter and the challenges they must face. Longer narratives may have numerous plots occurring one after another; in more complex stories, several story lines may be occurring simultaneously. An individual plot thread from a more complex narrative is sometimes called a story arc. The term originated in the United States in the late 1980s, originally used to discuss long-form prime-time television dramas like Hill Street Blues and Wiseguy. Both series featured large casts of characters and long story arcs that encompassed multiple episodes.

A story arc, like any narrative plot, will take a character or group of characters through a dramatic situation. In its simplest form, this dramatic situation will establish some sort of conflict or challenge and then take the characters through the increasingly difficult levels of that conflict, before finally resolving in a way that changes or instructs the characters. This resolution may or may not affect any other ongoing story arcs. The word “arc” itself refers to a curved geometric shape; a rainbow is an example of an arc. The shape is often used to suggest stories, with the highest part representing the escalating conflict and the low points at either end suggesting the setup and resolution.

A related term to “story arc” is “character arc.” This describes the change and growth that a particular character experiences during the course of one or more stories. A naïve character may become more worldly and experienced, for example, or a sinister character may have a change of heart. Even short-form stories such as situation comedies may have multiple story or character arcs. A common example has the adult characters in a sitcom family involved in one story arc while the children are participating in another.

In series television, several writers may be working on multiple scripts simultaneously. For ease in communication, producers and writers often label different story arcs in the same script as the “A plot,” “B plot,” and so on. Critics, fans, and entertainment journalists are familiar with these terms and sometimes employ them in critiques or online discussions of popular shows. In modern American comic books, story arcs often encompass multiple issues of a particular comic or comics; the whole arc is later released in book form as a collection.

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Discussion Comments
By ddljohn — On Apr 19, 2014

@donasmrs-- There was a need for the term "story arc" because a story arc is a continuous story or narrative. The term refers to television programs where the story continues from one episode to the next. That's why "plot" isn't the right term. When a film ends, the plot ends. But when an episode of a soap opera ends, the story arc does not end. It will continue with the next episode

So it's not really correct to use "story arc" for films, except for perhaps sequels where the story of the previous film continues onto the sequel.

By donasmrs — On Apr 18, 2014

There is already a term describing the story/narrative. It's called "plot." I don't know why there was a need to use a new term like story arc. Why not just call it plot or subplot?

By fBoyle — On Apr 18, 2014

I really like films with multiple story arcs about multiple characters that interlude at one point of the story. So in the beginning of the film, it seems like the characters are part of story arcs that have nothing to do with one another, but the overall plot manages to connect them in an interesting way.

I watched a film like that recently where each of the characters of the film had their own story and they did not know each other. But the series of events managed to bring all of the characters at the same place and they shared a common end. So it was many story arcs or subplots tied into one.

I think it takes special skill to write a script with numerous and complex story arcs like this. It's easy for things to get confusing so being able to tie everything together is an accomplishment for the writer.

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