An Argument for Setting Aside Arc in Story Development

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Today’s post is by author Adele Annesi (@WordforWords).

Sound crazy? Not really.

I was reading the novel Hold the Dark by Guggenheim recipient and acclaimed author William Giraldi in preparation for his novel-writing workshop at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers Conference. In researching the Netflix adaptation, I saw an interview with the film’s director, screenwriter and main cast on how they prepared for their respective roles. When asked how he prepared for his role as Vernon Sloane, actor Alexander Skarsgård said his preparation did not include a traditional approach to character arc: “I tried to avoid an arc … the approach was slightly different to how I normally work … I saw [the character] almost as … [existing] in a vacuum…”

As a long-form fiction instructor and novelist, I initially bristled at not taking a usual approach to character arc. But Skarsgård’s rationale sparked ideas about the potential advantages of a similar approach to writing fiction.

What we talk about when we talk about arc in character and plot development are the people in the story and how they evolve and/or devolve. We consider how these realities will track throughout the events of the story and how one character’s trajectory will affect and be affected by the other characters and the story itself.

One reason not to take a traditional approach to character arc is when the character isn’t traditional. Another is when a character isn’t all that influenced by others in the story or what’s happening, even when the circumstances are dire and the consequences of the character’s choices are costly. Other reasons include:

  • Flat characters: Contrary to how they sound, flat characters can be complex and exhibit a full range of emotions and responses. But they don’t usually change much or at all from the start of a story to its conclusion. One example is Mr. Darcy, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Yet, flat characters can be essential to a story, for example, when the other characters (and reader or writer) rely on that person not to change.
  • Discovery: Seasoned and adventuresome writers alike can expand their vision and craft by not rigidly blocking out who a character is or not using arc to define or direct the character.
  • Creative freedom: Dispensing with rising action, pinnacle and falling action for character and plot can free the writer’s spontaneity, bring originality to a work, and avoid superficiality in characters and story.

While there are good reasons to opt out of a traditional arc in plot and story, sometimes a more traditional approach works best:

  • Order: A more traditional arc for a character or plot can offer stability for emerging writers and early drafts. This doesn’t mean a character or story can’t change. It just means the project would benefit from a more systematic approach to depicting characters or storyline, like when a character, plot or both are complex, and exploration of theme is key to the work.
  • Structure: If a story includes varied plot points and characters, the overall work could benefit from a traditional arc for at least one of the characters and/or aspect of the plot, as this will better support the structure of the work as a whole.

While the use of a traditional character or story arc remains a valuable tool in the writer’s toolkit, there is something to be said for dispensing with tradition, whether in character development, story creation or both.

There is also value in listening to what our characters tell us about themselves and the story, even when what they say may be hard to hear. Approaching a work of fiction as an organic, ongoing dialogue between writer, characters and story can free writers to both explore and discover—one of the best perks of creativity and art.

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