A Quick Note on the Arc of Stories

Loren Niemi  ©2016

There are two kinds of arc (think of it as a path) in a story. The first is the path of the narrative, the plot of the story itself. The second is the path of emotion, which is a braided combination of what the characters in the story feel, what the narrator feels about the action or the characters in the story as they tell it and what the audience experiences.

In my New Book of Plots, I examine in detail ten kinds of narrative paths you can use to get from the start of a story to the end. Some – the Hero’s Journey, digression revelation, flashback and parallel plots – are familiar and often used in spoken, written and media stories. The others are less familiar and serve stories in particular ways. Those particular ways are the key to what kind of narrative arc you use with a story. There is a value in carefully matching the narrative plot to the needs of the story to be both artful and truthful.

Both that artfulness and the especially the truthfulness of a story are also influenced by the emotional arc. In folktales we usually do not know what the hero or heroine feels – joy, fear, anticipation – as the nature of a folktale is to provide a narrative blueprint for the teller to build on but every character in a story can feel something about their situations and actions. You do not have to tell what those feelings are but it is helpful for you to know what they are so you can shape the performance appropriately. It can also be helpful for the audience to see similarities between what they might feel in a similar situation with that of the characters in the story.

Likewise it is helpful for you as a teller to know what is your judgment (and that is really what your feeling about the story is) about the characters in the story. Are you telling this story as a cautionary tale or making fun of the characters or situation? Is this the story about yourself at a younger age and the right or wrong decisions you made? How you feel about what happens will influence how you tell it.

Finally, you are telling a story to an audience for a reason. You want them to respond  – was it funny, was it frightening, did it tug at their heartstrings, and most of all, did it make them feel it was worth their time? You have little control over how they feel about a story but by carefully choosing the words, tone of voice and pacing you can give them suggestions for their emotional responses.

The truth is it often takes a lot of tinkering to get the narrative and emotional arcs of a story to work together. Good stories are tested with many audiences. Good stories are revised and adjusted in performance. Even then, as you change due to age and life experience the meaning of a story will change for you and as it does it offers you another chance to choose the narrative and emotional paths you tell.


Loren Niemi is an innovative storyteller, published poet, the author of “The New Book of Plots” and co-author with Elizabeth Ellis of the critically acclaimed, “Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories.” He teaches Storytelling in the Theater Program at Metro State University and provides workshops, coaching, message framing and consulting services for individuals, businesses, nonprofits and government agencies around the country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *