In real life, events happen randomly, without warning and with little or no meaning. But, our basic human instinct is investigative in nature, trying to find meaning even in the most absurd situations. We make an effort to understand why certain things are going badly or perfectly for us, so that we can avoid or use more of it, respectively. As humans, we do not have enough time on earth to make “all the mistakes” to learn from them, that is why “We crave Stories to take Real-life Lessons from them. In stories, we experience the cause-and-effect relationship between otherwise random events. We are able to understand the chaos of real-life through stories and see the underlying pattern in events – This pattern is called a Story Arc.
What is a Story Arc?
A Story Arc describes the shape of the change in value, whether rise or fall, over the course of the story. In simpler terms, it describes the pattern in which the events of story flow.
Story Arcs Rise and Fall
Change is the most basic constant in the stories without which it would be just a list of random events lacking any depth. The change in stories is often depicted through a rise or fall in a narrative for example rise and fall of characters’ fortunes.
Kurt Vonnegut, an American writer whose literary body of work has a Prometheus contribution to the Art of Storytelling, wrote his master’s thesis for anthropology on the notion that
“stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.”
These graphs represent that every story has a certain shape, which in fact is shared by many stories in a pattern. These patterns can be found by tracing the ups and downs of the protagonist’s journey—or “the emotional arc” of the story.
Types of Story Arc
Stories represent a journey and thus they change but that doesn’t mean they all change in the same ways. Andrew Regan with his team of fellow researchers found out that when you compare the story arcs of the best stories throughout history, patterns begin to emerge. (This study was based on the analysis of over 4,000 of the best novels from the Project Gutenberg library).
Through analysis, they interpreted that stories fall into six primary arcs.
- Rags to Riches (Rise) – A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story, such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll.
- Tragedy or Riches to Rags (Fall) – A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet.
- Man in a Hole (Fall-Rise) – A fall, then Rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut.
- Icarus (Rise-Fall) – A rise, then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus.
- Cinderella (Rise-Fall-Rise) – A Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella.
- Oedipus (Fall-Rise-Fall) – A Fall-rise and fall structure, such as Oedipus.
These are six popularly used Story Arcs used in the narrative. Let’s break them down.
1. Rags to Riches (Rise)
Every story shows a movement through its plot but some have a singular movement. In the Rags to Riches story arc, the movement of the arc is continuous upward leading a happily ever after.
Examples of Rags to Riches story arcs:
- Disney’s Tangled
- A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Matilda by Roald Dahl
- The BFG by Roald Dahl
- My Fair Lady (film) / Pygmalion (novel) by George Bernard Shaw
It is one of the most common story types, but they lack in popularity. According to Reagan, a researcher from the University of Vermont, Rags to Riches are not the most preferred story arc and others are more widely read.
2. Riches to Rags (Fall)
Riches to Rags is contrary to Rags to Riches story arc. In this, the movement is continuously downward, a fall rather than a rise.
Examples of Riches to Rags story arcs:
- Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
In a Riches to Rags story, the protagonist begins the plot in a fairly high place, but slowly their life deteriorates until, by the end.
Often stories about mental health and addiction fit into this structure.
3. Man in a Hole (Fall then Rise)
Man in a Hole, considered one of the most used and highly rated arcs. Examples of Man in a Hole story arcs:
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- Finding Nemo
Some stories, mostly actually, include two sequential Man in a Hole story arcs, as illustrated by this curve:
Examples of Double Man in a Hole story arcs:
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- Disney’s The Lion King
- And more
Some stories even contain many Man in a Hole arc—becoming Man in a Hole, Man in a Hole, Man in a Hole ad infinitum. Lord of the Rings is one of the most prominent example of this type of Story Arc.
4. Icarus / Freytag’s Pyramid (Rise then Fall)
Popularly known as Freytag’s Pyramid, this is not a universal structure for plot, but a description of a single arc. The Icarus arc, is named after the Greek story about a boy who escapes imprisonment on an island by making wings made of wax. Though when he flies too close to the sun, the wax in the wings melt leading to his fall into the sea.
Examples of the Icarus story arc includes:
- Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Macbeth by William Shakespeare
- Disney’s Peter Pan
- The Old Man and the Sea / A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
- Titanic (film)
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A popular notion found out in the study is that if the word “great” is used in the title, then you know you’re in for a sad ending! This story arc structure is very popular among literary writers and tends to be a staple structure for many classics.
5. Cinderella (Rise then Fall then Rise)
The Cinderella arc is one of the most common arcs, often found in love stories, sports stories, and Disney movies.
Examples of Cinderella story arcs:
- Disney’s Frozen
- Disney’s Up
- Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte
- Disney’s Pinnochio
- Disney’s Aladdin
If you’re writing a Disney movie, there’s a good chance it’s going to be Cinderella.
6. Oedipus (Fall then Rise then Fall)
The Oedipus arc is one of the most highly read structures, but also the most difficult one to use.
Examples of the Oedipus story arc include:
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
All Good Stories Have an Arc
All Good stories are about change, and thus they have an arc. Without these six arcs, storytelling would be impossible. Or, you know, “experimental.”
By identifying the arc in your own story, and making that arc better, you can give your audience what they crave for: Meaning. Without a proper meaning to the story, the narrative world can feel confusing, chaotic, and meaningless. It is, thus, the role of the storyteller to help people find meaning in their lives through the medium of stories.
Read More – Types of Conflicts used in Storytelling.