How to Write an Arc?

Hey all,

So, sorry for this newbie question. But this is something I'm curious about.

What advice do you have for writing an Arc? Is it a self contained part of the story? How do you weave side stories and plots into an Arc?

Been looking online for the last few hours, and I'm not finding many answers! So, thought here would be the best place to ask.

Thanks and kind regards,


I kind of think of it like a season of a TV show. You have your problems that stretch the whole series and your problems that stretch the season. Like in Agents of SHIELD, they might spend one season learning their powers and fighting a midboss of hydra. Next season they help a student with his powers and fight the boss of Hydra. Season after that? Why not the ancient evil Hydra worships.

You have progression because the heroes are moving forward through threats that are ramped up, but the viewers get a feeling of satisfaction and closure at the end of each season.

Same thing with romances. You have your overarching problem, like close friends that had a falling out. Each season, different couples get together and go through drama while the central problem of the ex-friends either escalated to enemies or they learn to trust one another again.

The way I think of it is that story arcs are determined by plot events, and each of them contribute to the overall/main plot and character development. A person should be able to finish a story arc and feel satisfied (while still excited to see what happens next).

You can think of story arcs as seasons of a TV show or volumes in a multi-book series. The protagonist usually goes on one particular adventure or deals with one particular antagonist, all the while developing new relationships and abilities. At the end of the arc, the character often goes to an entirely new setting or cast of secondary characters, but the character progression remains.

As for side stories and plots, there are many ways to work them into the story. You can have a paragraph here and there that adds details not directly pertinent to the current arc, or single scenes focusing on other areas, or entire chapters that follow a different character, or really subtle foreshadowing. It's a vague answer for a vague question. The key is to make sure that all your scenes have a purpose so that it still feels like a coherent piece of writing.

An arc, as I understand it, is a three act plot that can take place during a much larger three act plot. This means that the protagonist (or whoever) wants to achieve some sort of goal, but status quo is disrupted (Act I), they progress to the goal and fail (Act II), and then they get what they wanted but in a different way that helps them grow (Act III). That would be a common story telling arc.

So, I would have a large three act setup for the story which will take many books/arcs to complete (the hero has to destroy the insidious clown college down the road without upsetting the Demi-Moon), and then multiple three act arcs within it (he befriends a fourth dimensional clown, is betrayed by his non-clown friends, learns about circus diversity). Thus every act of the larger story gets it's own sub three act story.

Television series are the best example of arcs in the current culture, as serial novels aren't as big a thing as they used to be (except online where they're the norm). Long running shows often have an ongoing mega-arc, seasonal arcs, and sometimes mini-arcs within the season to build towards the big payoff of the season finale. Nobody here likely has the same favourite tv shows so it's hard to come up with one as a great example, so I'm going to use movies instead because everyone has heard of the Marvel Universe by now.

The overall arc of all of the Marvel Universe movies is to deal with the alien villain Thanos, who has plans for universe conquering. The build-up to why he's a threat, the goons and henchmen he's sent ahead of himself, are the threads through the rest of the Marvel movies. Loki in the Avengers, Gamorra, Nebula and the Cree in Guardians of the Galaxy, are just some examples of how he sent people ahead of himself. Iron Man's three films show the arc of Tony Stark accepting himself and being a hero. Captain America's films introduce characters like the Black Panther, Winter Soldier and Spiderman who are going to be important in Infinity War. Thor gains new skills and powers over his three movies that will likely help him fight Thanos. Each movie has its own plot and antagonist, while laying threads and seeds for later stories building towards the big confrontation.

So each chapter of a book leads to the climax, and each book leads towards a bigger arc climax, chapters are microcosms of the greater story universe's macrocosm. Each serial chapter should introduce a problem, show some kind of resolution or progress towards it, and then lay hooks that get people to come to the next chapter. Those small chapters hint at a bigger conflict/problem or antagonist, and then build towards that resolution. It's like little waves leading to big waves leading to a tsunami.

Just to offer a different take on this... for my time travel story, I wrote it out in advance (because later parts could affect earlier parts). So for me, Arcs were just a way of separating out major chunks of plot later, under the assumption that it might help readers know where they left off. For instance, the first 6 parts of T&T were just Carrie and Frank travelling through time, so I made that Arc 1.1; after another six eps in the present (introducing more characters) there was another trip to the past, so I had that start a new arc (ending 1.2). Arc 1.3 I ended near the climax, putting the remaining parts (time travelling back to the climax) in Arc 1.4, ending the first book.

Hmm, even after spending week after week writing and planning arcs, I've never really sat back and thought about how exactly I go about doing it. It's a good question!

I think the best advice I have is to just be flexible, in both the writing and planning. There are plenty of times where I had a scene or chapter plotted out in my head, but by the time it came to the actual writing, the plan changes. The scene goes on longer than I expected, or you come up with an even better idea, or you decide to try something else entirely. Instead of getting stuck and trying to force it, sometimes trying something completely different can work too.

It's like improvising a guitar solo. Just play until you have something good.

Thanks all for the detailed and fantastic responses! Sorry for only getting back to you all now, holidays season has be busy!

Thanks so much for all the advice! It's been a great read and truly insightful! :D