The Dramatic Arc

By Ray Foy

How deliberately do you build your fiction from units of problem-complications-climax? Maybe you don’t think about it and write “by the seat of your pants.” Even so, a good understanding of this “unit of fiction,” better known as “the dramatic arc,” will only improve your storytelling.

The dramatic arc is a vital component of storytelling. Years ago, in a short-story writing class, I was introduced to it in the form of five points that define the structure of a story:

THE FIVE-POINT STRUCTURE

1. A character with a problem

2. Complications

3. Crises that reach a climax

4. Resolution of the problem

5. Character learns something about self or life

This is an elaboration of the problem-complications-climax construct. It is largely intuitive for writers writing without regard for dramatic structure. The stories people tell each other (whether true or not) tend to run along the lines of these five points. Using this format in your fiction creates stories that resonate with your readers.

Let’s look at each of the five points more closely. For each one, I’ll give a brief description and an example of how it is used in a classic piece of storytelling: King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard.

POINT ONE: A CHARACTER WITH A PROBLEM

A story’s opening scenes show the protagonist behaving normally in his normal world. A problem is introduced that disturbs his world. This initial problem is often called the “inciting incident,” “the hook,” or “the disturbance.” It is the thing the protagonist must struggle against to return to normalcy, and it prompts readers to keep reading.

CHARACTER PROBLEM EXAMPLE: KING SOLOMON’S MINES

We are introduced to Allan Quatermain as a 19th century “great white hunter” in Africa with several problems to resolve: (1) his hunting business just barely supports him, (2) his latest hunt went badly, (3) he suffers from injury, and (4) he needs money to help his son become a doctor. The story begins with Quatermain returning home by ship after a hunt. On board, he meets Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good. These men are searching for Sir Henry’s lost brother, who was searching for King Solomon’s lost diamond mines. They engage Quatermain to lead an expedition to find him, taking Quatermain out of his normal world.

POINT TWO: COMPLICATIONS

Complications are the problems we throw at our characters. They should start early in the story and build upon one another. This is how story tension is established and grows. Complications can mushroom and twist into subplots, but they must take the reader to a crisis that prompts the climax.

COMPLICATIONS EXAMPLE: KING SOLOMON’S MINES

Complications abound quickly in Mr. Haggard’s tale:

            (1) Quatermain’s expedition must cross a desert where they nearly die of thirst.

            (2) They are threatened by the evil king and witch doctor of the Kukuana tribe. 

(3) They have to fight in a tribal rebellion where they are outnumbered.

            (4) They must search for the diamond mines in caverns beneath a mountain.

            (5) The witch doctor traps them in the mines.

            (6) They must find their way out before they starve.

POINT THREE: CRISES THAT REACH A CLIMAX

At this point, the story crisis is operating in full force against the protagonist, who must fix things so he can return to his normal world. Ideally, this should require the protagonist making a decision leading to an action that resolves the story problem.

CRISES EXAMPLE: KING SOLOMON’S MINES

Quatermain and his friends find the mines, along with a huge stash of diamonds, but they are trapped underground. They can ration their meager food and hope for rescue or search the labyrinthine tunnels in the dark for a way out. They decide to search.

POINT FOUR: RESOLUTION OF THE PROBLEM)

This is the story’s climax. The protagonist, by her own initiative and strengths, resolves the initial problem.

RESOLUTION EXAMPLE: KING SOLOMON’S MINES

Quatermain, pockets full of diamonds, finds a tunnel leading to a hole, dug by some animal, that is their way out of the mines.

POINT FIVE: CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING

This is the story’s denouement—the plot’s unraveling. We see the state of things, now that the crisis has been resolved, and how the protagonist has been changed for good or ill. This denouement can be brief (which is the usual) or extended (which can work if done skillfully).

CHARACTER LEARNS EXAMPLE: KING SOLOMON’S MINES

Quatermain realizes that life and love have value far beyond diamonds. He is convinced to retire from his hunter occupation and return to England to live near his friends and write about his adventures.

Writing with the dramatic arc in mind will infuse your stories with tension and movement, keeping your readers reading. It does work. They’ve been reading King Solomon’s Mines for over a hundred years.

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