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WRITING ADVICE: The Narrative Arc

Friday, April 05, 2013

I've been travelling around Australia this past month, talking about my new book THE WILD GIRL.

Inevitably, I've been asked many questions about my creative process. In my usual fashion, I talk about my narrative arc and how I cannot begin writing a novel until I 'see' the clear shape of my dramatic arc, or, to put it in more simple terms, my story thread with its bright beads of scenes, leading strongly and powerfully to my endpoint, my crisis and resolution.

After a session earlier this week, I was asked to explain more about the narrative arc but a woman who was wanting desperately tow rite but had never heard the term before.

How to explain the narrative arc in a sound bite? Its impossible. So I promised her I would do a blog post to explain it for as best as I can. 

Here it is:

I call this diagram, with full hubris, the Forsyth Triangle :)

It is based on Freytag’s Triangle, developed by the German dramatist Gustav Freytag who studied Aristotle’s Poetics. Freytag divided a drama into five parts which he named:

Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement

I have combined his theories with the idea of a three-act structure often used by playwrights and screenwriters.
Some definitions:

Exposition – background information – characters, scene, & situation – a scene that shows the normal life of the protagonist

Inciting Incident – the catalyst that begins the major conflict – a problem or complication to be solved – the point at which normal life is changed

Rising Action – a series of conflicts and crises – obstacles to overcome, ordeals to undergo, lessons to be learnt, revelations to be understood

Crisis – a crucial or decisive moment in the story that has a powerful effect on the protagonist – a turning point

Midpoint Reversal - a pivotal moment, often set at the middle of the story, where it seems all is lost and the hero cannot go on – it often marks a movement from one place to another, whether physical, spiritual or emotional

Climax – (or final crisis) - the turning point of the action, when tension reaches its height. The point in which the hero must not only face – and defeat – his enemy, but also his greatest fear

Resolution – the final stage, where questions are answered and problems solved

Falling Action - the action following the climax that moves the story towards its end – it is usually much shorter than the previous series of events

Denouement – comes from the old French, and means to ‘untie the knot’.  The final scene when all is well – ‘the feast scene’

Understanding the basic narrative arc of a story can help you make sure your story does not sag in the middle, fizzle out at the end or drone on for too long at the beginning (the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts!)

Some other illustrations of narrative arcs:

Patrick Keuning commented on 05-Apr-2013 02:08 PM
Really cool, I've seen a number of versions of this, it's one of the best.
Pat Simmons commented on 06-Apr-2013 07:49 AM
So useful and interesting Kate, as was your talk at Sutherland Library this week.

Thank you
Shelleyrae commented on 07-Apr-2013 02:42 PM
How kind of you to share that Kate - it obviously works for you!
Lauren W commented on 08-Apr-2013 11:45 AM
Hi Kate! Thank you for coming down to the Shire to see us and entertaining us with your stories. This is such a useful bit of writing info, thank you for posting it. It was nice to see the narratic arc for The Wild Girl in the notebook you showed us. Proof that you do in fact follow your own advice! Look forward to your next visit.
Kate Forsyth commented on 08-Apr-2013 01:34 PM
Thanks for all your comments - I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I'm very passionate about novel structure :)
Rhyl Bignell commented on 09-Nov-2013 08:43 AM
Thanks Kate,

As a Creative Writing student your Forsyth Triangle is a really useful tool and has helped me understand the narrative arc. Now I've discovered your website I'll investigate your other practical pearls of wisdom. Many thanks.
Maria Parenti-Baldey commented on 10-Dec-2016 09:00 AM
Thank you for sharing. This has helped me even more to understand structure.
Sarah Maybury commented on 25-Aug-2017 11:54 AM
This is fantastic, thank you Kate. I have been totally dribbling on with the beginning of my novel and really needed some help with "where next". I have been able to plot out my whole story using your Forsyth Triangle - it's really exciting and suddenly so clear! Thanks again. Sarah :)
Deb commented on 28-Feb-2018 04:08 PM
Generous of you to share, thank you. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! Love your books by the way :)

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