Made in America

Show Don’t Tell: Story Arc

When it comes to your story arc, you spend hours and days and several cups of coffee plotting your outline to make sure each point is executed to perfection. But are you showing rather than telling your reader along the way?

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1) Exposition

The exposition portion of the story arc involves acclimating the reader into the context of the book with relevant details regarding story and character. The way to show rather than tell your readers the exposition of your novel is by interspersing the details within character action. Rather than beginning your novel with this long history of the world, your story is set in, begin with a scene where your character is in action in some way. They could be running late for work, dreading a first date, or even preparing for a battle in more action-based novels.

These details help ground the story in the ‘present’ of the novel and they allow the reader to learn about the character in the ‘now’ as we’re hearing about the relevant parts of their past. For example, let’s say we’re getting exposition about how your character used to be more jaded but we’re seeing them helping an elderly person cross the street as they’re rushing to work. The reader can directly see that the character has changed over time and this poses a question of what has changed, which you can then answer in the exposition.

2) Inciting Incident

The next stage of your story arc is the inciting incident, or the event that sets your story in motion. This is the event that should answer the question ‘why does your story take place now? Why today?’ There has to be something major going on in the life of your protagonist in order for your story to start where it does. And if you’re thinking to yourself that a major event or character moment doesn’t happen in the beginning of your story, then you haven’t found your beginning yet.

When it comes to showing rather than telling your inciting incident, focus on describing the action and emotion of the scene. The event should be obvious enough to the reader for them to know it’s the inciting incident (again, if it’s not your story needs a rewrite). But to help them along, make sure you’re writing ‘in-scene’ and playing up the drama, emotion, dialogue, and action of the moment. This way your reader will know for sure that this is where the story arc that they’ll follow for the entire novel begins.

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3) Rising Action

The rising action involves a series of events (connected to the original inciting incident) that continue to further the plot of the story towards the eventual climax. So, for example, if the inciting incident was an announcement that a tornado will hit the protagonist’s town, the rising action would involve trying to stock up on supplies, trying to create a bunker to hide in, and even the beginning effects of the tornado. And your protagonist will have obstacles along each plot point, so when they go to the store everything they need will be sold out.

In order to show your readers the rising action of your novel, focus on plotting out these points prior to writing them. Make sure your plot doesn’t go through too long of a lull without the rising action coming into play. And, when you’re writing a scene with a rising action plot point, make sure the stakes are high and clear to the reader. The most obvious stakes are life or death, but perhaps one of your rising action plot points is that a character overhears his best friend talking badly about him behind his back. Without even needing to state it, the reader can infer that it’s their friendship that is at stake in this moment.

4) Climax

The climax of the story should contain two elements: action and choice. The main plot of your story should eventually lead to a choice that your protagonist must make. Then, the climax and/or resolution of your story should be a direct result of the choice they end up making. You, therefore, must make sure that both the choice and action of your climax make sense for your character and the rest of the plot points in your story.

If you’ve done your job write, the choice should be obvious to the reader at this point. All of the plot points should build-up to this moment and, although the reader may not know what the protagonist will choose, they should know what the choice will be between. When it comes to the climax, however, the way to make it obvious to the reader is to write in-scene. Forgo using exposition, limit any internal monologues, and don’t use long scene descriptors. Instead, focus on using short sentences to increase the pace and urgency. Use lots of dialogue and action in this moment as well.

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5) Resolution

Finally, the resolution involves wrapping up the plot of the story. This is a calm point after the high action of the climax of your story where things are falling into place (for better or worse). Focus on tying up any loose ends in your story here. Make sure any consequences of your protagonist’s choice are addressed.

Instead of directly telling your reader that things are being ‘resolved’, focus on dialogue here. Any important conversations that need to be had between characters with rising tension or characters with unresolved issues should be played out before the reader. You don’t need to wrap everything up in a bow for the reader to know this is the resolution of your story. You need only to make sure any leftover moments that need to happen, happen here.

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