Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Short Story Arc—JB’s Quest

Now most of you know reading this blog that I am an aspiring author, the information I provide is my own interpretation of what I have learned in my creative journey in writing fiction. The information highway (the internet) is filled vastly with articles, books, blogs, webpages on the topic of writing. Clearly then, you understand what you read, is written from one like yourself, a student of the craft, and may not be totally factual or actual, but my own perception.

My journey is to understand the Story Arc, after searching the web I see it is basically used for television sitcoms, and games. The Story Arc, a Three-Act Structure, meaning in effect.

Act 1 # Inciting Incident
Act 2 # Crisis
Act 3 # Resolution

In any good story there has to be something that happens. (Conflict) The character has to be put into a situation, where a decision has to be made to change or not to change. After searching the web and reading a lot of material, I coming to the understanding that in literary short story the character does not necessarily have to change. And reflecting back on last weeks Sweet Hearts of the Rodeo reading “Awaiting Orders” by Tobias Wolff, clearly there was no change in Sergeant Morse.(That’s a BIGGEY, considering all books on the craft say there has to be a change—a resolution.)

Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell WHAT IS THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE?

Often, when I ask a writer this question I am told that it is a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves. Every great movie, book or play that has stood the test of time has a solid Three-Act structure. (Elizabethan Dramas were five act plays, but still had a strictly prescribed structure.) The only place where this is not the case is in a one-act play, where "slice of life" writing is the rule.

From Wikipedia

Dramatic structure and purpose
The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another — in other words, to effect a change. When we look at to effect a change, it takes us to the Greek word Peripeteia. Peripeteia means a reversal of circumstances, or turning point.

Returning to Awaiting Orders:

So in essence, for Sergeant Morse, the resolution, the change came for him in the Greek word Peripeteia a reversal of circumstances. In the diner when, “Morse recognized two men from his company at a table across the room. He watched them until they glanced his way, then he nodded and they nodded back. Money in the bank—confirmed sighting of Sergeant Morse with woman and child. Family. He hated thinking so bitter and cheap a thought, and resented whatever led him to think it. Still, how else could they be seen, the three of them, in a pancake house at this hour? And it wasn’t just their resemblance to a family. No, there was the atmosphere of family here, in the very silence of the table: Julianne with her eyes closed, the boy working away on his picture, Morse himself looking on like any husband and father.” An instance cover, a shield, by their recognizing him as well, changing his circumstances of worrying about his homosexual tendencies being detected.

When we look at the inciting incident is the situation the main character is in, in the beginning of the story. Some refer to this as the hook, an inciting incident doesn’t have to be huge, like a murder or a bank robbery, but it is the question that sets up the story, and creates an event that throws the characters everyday life out of balance and triggers them into taking action. In the beginning we also include exposition that provides the background information needed to properly understand the story, such as the protagonist, the antagonist, the basic conflict, and the setting.

When we talk of Crisis: this is the middle of the story, where the rising action and various obstacles that frustrate and complicate the protagonist reaching their goal.
Last but not least the resolution: the climax, the turning point, which marks the change good or bad for the protagonist.

Hopefully this will be of some benefit to those like me that are aspiring. Hopefully, others will add their thoughts on the subject, perhaps offering a clearer understanding than mine. Perhaps, maybe a lengthier discussion on the subject will arise.
Happy Writing!


  1. Hey JB<

    Great link to a quick breakdown of the three act structure. I like how you tied the topic back into "Awaiting Orders". It's a neat little story, easy on the eyes and very helpful if a writer wants to study the elements that make a story come together.I think confusion arises when writers bring multiple crisis points into a work. That's when balance becomes a big factor. Juggling these events, placing them in the proper order and ascribing to them the correct amount of weight seems to be another factor writers have to consider.

    Excellent post,


  2. I love short stories, I have read a lot of them, and I try to write them, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not about a formula. There doesn't have to be *anything*, not even crisis, change, etc... except good writing. I'm serious. I have read short stories that describe a common seashell in the bottom of the ocean that I have liked better than short stories in which there is some dramatic crisis, which forces the main character to change, blah blah blah... it all seems so contrived, *unless* the author is a very good writer who has put a lot of hard work into the story! If that is the case, then the author could be describing some very common crises and change, I'm talking your run-of-the-mill middle school drama here, and it would rock. Or they could be describing the seashell, and it would rock. A good writer can write about anything. I agree that the formula you described is the most common form of short story. But how many times can the most basic plot be followed???? I don't care about any of that as long as there is good, stunning, captivating writing. I'm sure you agree! I'm just pointing out the obvious.



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