The Arc Format

I've noticed a common point in nearly all the webserials I follow--in fact, all but one, now that I think about it: they are divided into relatively short "Arcs," usually labeled as such, which tend to be between five and twelve chapters on average. This seems pretty unique to webfiction, as I can't think of a comparable practice in other long-form fiction that I'm familiar with.

What I'm curious about, and would love to hear opinions on from more experienced voices in the field, is just how important is this to weblit? Obviously, every community has its little rituals and standard practices, and sometimes those are arbitrary and not all that meaningful. However, we can't deny that fiction on the web is its own kind of beast with very different demands than print or even ebooks, and the Arc format seems to appeal to one of the watchwords of online content: Brevity.

As I'm following currently updating serials, I don't find a whole lot of significance, if any, in the arcs. They're quite useful to me, though, in reading longer works from the beginning to either their point of completion or wherever they currently stand. It's a handy way to break up the story for when I've got time to read multiple chapters but can't afford to spend the whole day lost in a book.

Where this really concerns me is in my own story, which I've been updating thrice weekly for about a month now. There was a recent topic in this forum about series with multiple protagonists, and that's pretty much the boat I'm in. Right now I just have my primary group in one location, my little wizarding school in the Wild West, with a secondary plot and characters unfolding in another place. However, this is going to be a complex story heavy on the intrigue, and will eventually have upwards of a dozen plots unfolding simultaneously in various locations. I've considered focusing on one at a time for an arc of chapters, then rewinding the clock and using another arc to show what Group Two has been up to during the same period, but I quickly scrapped that idea as confusing and needlessly complex.

So I'm curious if you guys think I have made a horrible mistake in trying to publish this particular kind of story as a webserial. In more general terms, though, I'd also love to hear thoughts on the Arc phenomenon, why it works and why so many use it. It's certainly common enough that there must be a reason.

Write on!

Not going to comment on your story, I'm still too new at this to really judge, but if it works for you then it works.

The whole arc think can be tracked back to the bigger names in webserials, but also the media they drew from. Books might not traditionally have arcs, but they are occasionally divided up into different sections. Comic books however are published in a serial fashion and do have arc. Same with TV shows. Webserial due to how long they can get and the format they are in, work better when divided into arcs as opposed to one large book at the end. Jim Zoetewey and Wildbow both used the arc format, Drew Hayes does not, and it doesn't matter much.

Why Arcs seem so popular among webserials, well I'm going to blame Wildbow for that one. Worm was the first webserial I read, so that just seemed like the format to follow. Wildbow was also one of the first people to use the term 'interlude', now they show up all over the place. Us new guys tend to follow in the footsteps of the more established writers.

Or at least that's what I think, I'm no expert my any stretch of the definition.

I can't speak for anyone else, but the "arc" in my web fiction is roughly equivalent to a chapter in a normal novel. While I tend to call each new update to a story a "post" or an "update," it's not uncommon for other people to call a new post a chapter. I'm hesitant, however, to call a new post a chapter because it is not equivalent to a chapter in terms of created content.

I'm equally uncomfortable calling an arc a chapter because if I did call arcs chapters, people would think I meant a new update.

"Arc" even though it has an established meaning, doesn't have much of an established expectation in size, making it neutral for the purpose of readers. Thus, I use that instead.

As to whether your web serial would be served better by another format (a novel/ebook, for example)... Well, who knows? I personally write primarily from the perspective of a particular character with occasional short stories with a first person perspective from another character, or in third person.

I never paid any attention to whether that was a good structure for web fiction when I started. I just wanted to write in first person for a change. Also, I felt like it suited the story best.

Personally, I tend to think that no one really knows what format works best for writing online.

I always thought of arcs as specific story tracks (with beginnings, rising action, and resolution) rather than ways to group updates, so that's new to me. The Points Between follows a traditional chapter format, and is written to work as a traditional novel. Curveball may have more in common with the problems you're fearing, because at the moment it has five distinct groups of people doing things. The rule of thumb I have for Curveball is that in each issue I have do at least one thing that, in my eyes, genuinely moves the story forward. So each issue the protagonists will either learn something important to the meta-plot, or they'll do something that the bad guys have to deal with, or occasionally the bad guys will do something or reveal something that the reader now knows but the protagonists don't (that's a comic book classic). And that's what I use as my unifying thread -- I can dwell on CB and Jenny investigating for a while, and the story moves forward, and I can switch over to Sky Commando and Division M, and what they do also moves the story forward, though it's a different piece of it. Hopefully (the theory is) this keeps the reader from feeling the overall story has stopped, even though the perspective has changed.

I've managed to stick to this rule with every issue I've put out, though some of the earlier issues are kind of weak and Issue 13 is a bit of a departure because it serves as formal introduction to a new story layer (the existence of magic) rather than moving the primary plot forward (though it does that a bit, just not as much as I'd like) and so far I haven't had anyone come right out and complain about it. I'm a little nervous about issue 18, which I'm working on now, but we'll see.

I use arcs to manage the three POV characters, and give each of them a (hopefully) meaningful bit of story to experience and unravel before I move on to someone else. With just one main character, I probably wouldn't be using arcs.

They also help organize a large amount of chapters, and it's easier to find a particular chapter months or years later if you remember the context of its story arc.

I agree with Wright and Zoetway on the nomenclature, but I've seen arc used in novels to separate out sections before, especially sci fi novels in the 70's. Mostly I see it where the main sections could easily be, or WERE shorter novellas being stitched together in a single book. I've also heard the term used to describe the different books of epic poetry.

I personally like using Chapter X, The Xening, part x, for updates. (or you would if you ever effing updated, my inner voice shouts)

I was influenced by anime which tends to have discrete story arcs that, while not exactly delineated in the airing itself, can be easily pointed out by fans who watch -- "The Ramba Ral Arc" in Mobile Suit Gundam is a thing you can point to as happening in the story. It's a convenient way to divide the writing of a story and plan it out better, particularly when I've got a lot of different stuff I want to cover. I divide my story into Books each of which has Parts, which I've seen in books before.

Each update is, to me, an update. Not necessarily a chapter because there's a slight amount of kayfabe. However, there are arcs that are roughly a month long that usually follow a certain theme. There's a certain conflict for the month, or it's in a certain place, or there's a certain goal to be attained. There are also the super arcs made of an overarching conflict that lasts for a long time or because it draws heavily from the continuity of the smaller arcs. Either way, it involved something happening across multiple arcs.