Character Driven Plots for Character Driven Readers
Using Story Arcs to Develop Characters with Plot
So, because I’m working on fine tuning this element in my database, seeing what I need to get the most out of it, I thought it would be a good time to talk about story arcs. I’ll let you do the work of looking up story arcs, because I am not a dictionary, but I will say plenty about what they are to me in the writing process.
Story arcs are the ebb and flow of plot, motivation, driving forces, and impacts in your book or short story. They are the reason the characters are here, and they are the reason your reader is here. If nothing is happening in the story, nobody is showing up. This makes story arcs essential to story telling, but for some reason people don’t seem to think much about them.
Usually stories are described by plot, usually only one plot. Sometimes they’ll be a B plot, like you see with sitcoms or cartoons or most anything on television where you have a main plot and a B plot to fill time. But story arcs aren’t limited to two things happening at once in the story; that’s just the formula of writing that’s been normalized and then memed, as people do. Story arcs can actually be quite complex and quite simple at the same time, in the same story, and they span more than just plot points. They are basically everything in a story from the blood pumping through the characters veins, to the events on a timeline, to the music swelling in the background. And when that’s truly understood, and you learn how to organize these concepts for yourself in a way that works for you, your stories can reach an entirely new level.
Breaking it down
This is how I’m currently organizing story arcs, and I want to start off by saying, I’m organizing it this way because it works for me. It might not be the same for you and you want to search for that. You want to develop your own tools that suit you for the best results.
For me, at the moment, story arcs are comprised of character traits, character motivation, environmental forces — and not just the environment, but the setting, the culture, the world that is driving events that can’t be pinned on a character. And, of course, impact.
Impact gets its own little note for every single piece of a story arc. Internal and external impact. Consequences and sacrifices. Motivation is essential for character driven story arcs, but isn’t necessarily present for environmental ones. But impact will always be there.
Sometimes all you have is an impact you know you want to hit, and you need to figure out what you’re going to write to drive to that point. It is the most important aspect of a story arc to measure, because it turns the internal into the external, pushing events through character reaction instead of just through environmental factors.
For the erotica and erotic romance I write, story arcs also include sexual tension, relationship arcs, suspense and tension in general. You can have setting arcs to mark the passage of impact on a space, or building, or city. A story arc could be an emotional arc, which is something I would tie to character arc. But depending on your character, it could look more like a stress arc, or mental illness arc, or a character power development arc, etc. You can have a relationship sacrifice arc, with an understanding that there has to be a sacrifice to reach certain goals between characters, even in the simplest of stories, and you might not know that sacrifice yet, but you know you need to plan for one to be there. Maybe you want a pain arc, because that’s how you measure drama.
Every story might have something unique you need to keep tabs on to ensure it’s going right, and you can call that plot, or character development, or tension, but I find it’s important to classify them all under one topic: story arcs. Because they’re not different, or something to be tracked separate from plot. They are the plot. This is everything required to understand what breathes life into a story, when plotting a series of events isn’t enough. You need to think of pulses, drum beats, a theme song a character is living and imbuing into the story in that moment that changes as they change. Or whatever works for you.
Why story arc?
For me, to put it simply, these are the things I need to keep track of in a story because I can’t just hope to remember it all. The process of identifying and developing story arcs is basically the organization of what already happens naturally in a story for me. You’re trying to find the pulse and make sure the rhythm matches the events. Usually, that pulse is happening already for a writer, and it’s just a matter of maintaining it by paying attention.
But sometimes you miss things, or the first draft opened up an idea into something else that needs exploring. Sometimes you’re so new to something, you don’t even know what you don’t know, which I think is basically everyone. We need to explore a topic and develop it to understand it better. And that’s what making story arcs is about. Developing aspects of a story that go beyond basic plot to craft a better story. Designing a plot to be character driven for the greatest impact, instead of just hoping it will figure itself out once you write “the end.”
The moment you decide something is a story arc, you have made a choice of what you’re valuing in your story, and that will have an impact on everything going forward. So better to make it a conscious decision than to realize nothing is there at all.
If you did bother to look up story arcs, you might have seen a bunch of writing systems telling you they can only present in certain ways to be “successful.” But writing systems are where creativity goes to die, so don’t take it to heart. Instead, explore what these arcs are to you and what feels natural as you’re writing, and if that natural impulse is having a strong impact on the story or fizzling out.
There are plenty of pulses in a story that don’t require a form or a resolution, but instead flare up when needed to push the story along or give it greater impact. Motivational arcs can be as essential as a heartbeat drumming through every scene, or they can flare up once in a while like anxiety, increasing intensity without needing to resolve. Behavioral arcs can take problematic character traits and drop huge plot points as an impact, or they can just be quirky reminders of who your character is and how they act out in the world. And if you find you think you need to change something so integral to a character because someone told you everything about character development is change, think about how impossible it is for most human beings to change, and why it feels so unrealistic when characters do it at the flip of a plot point.
Story arcs aren’t about one purpose, one form, one result. These are tools to control impact, to control reaction and hold tension and suspense. They’re the pieces of a story most people don’t bother to look at, but instead, again, hope just manifest by the end. They’re supposed to be adaptable to the story, not force a story to adapt to them, even as they craft the story. There is no final, proper form to reach for, but instead about understanding why something is going wrong, feeling flat or lacking impact. They’re the place one looks to problem solve a bad or boring book, a diagnostic tool, not a predetermined shape.
It’s essential to recognize these aspects and understand the orchestra you are trying to control, the music you’re trying to create. Each piece is going to ask for something different, is going to get its solo or contribute to the background ambiance. A wind instrument shouldn’t be treated like a string instrument; it’s not one thing. You’re not looking for a formulaic shape, but what that piece needs to be for the story exactly in that moment.
Creating impact out of plot
Story arcs allow for in-depth thinking and then plotting of elements of the story that can otherwise be missed and not developed to their best ability. And it’s in the complexity of that, or the simplicity that one breaks such complexity down into, that really gives power to story arcs. Stories aren’t just about things that happen, but instead about how people are impacted by things that happen. Places are changed. We want to feel an impact in the world as a result of events in a story, otherwise, how does one truly measure an event?
How does one measure the impact of something that is supposed to feel valuable to a character or monumental to a world, without reflecting it somewhere in the story, be it through their behavior or motivations changing? It can’t just be reflected in the plot, an A + B to C to hopefully = to D sort of thing. It has to be reflected in the environment of characters and settings. Even in emotional atmospheres. Story arcs can help you plot and measure the impact an idea has on the story, and I think that’s truly their power.
Brainstorming as part of the process
So how? How does one turn ideas for story into arcs that can be used to help progress and develop a story from start to finish? Honestly, the process of looking for story arcs in your ideas and fleshing them out is the best form of creative brainstorming one can do for story, especially when you’re looking in a way to ensure that these concepts are seen and felt by the reader and in the story.
For myself, organization is essential. Story arcs aren’t necessarily clear ideas that distinguish themselves from each other, and as a result you can lose track of them and fail to show them and resolve them in the story. Something that started out so important could suddenly be erased by a key plot point, or the moving of a scene and fall flat. Suddenly loose ends are forever loose, not just unraveling plot points, but making characters look two-dimensional and uncaring, making plot lines look completely unrealistic because they don’t have an impact. Where something that was built up to be impossible or enormous in impact is suddenly so easily overcome…
Yes, you can claim that was a character having character development of something to overcome a problem, but if you lose track of showing these points and making them feel believable, the reader has no reason to believe what you’re presenting to them. And if you miss out in fleshing a character to their full potential, the reader might not care about anything happening at all because there’s no representation on the page of these events having an impact on another living being.
Don’t assume reading comprehension is the same as mind reading. You have to write the story.
It can be easy to understand that writers need to convey details and visuals for readers when describing foreign worlds, futuristic technology, or magic, etc., but writers can forget that readers need that same guide when it comes to emotions. There is no reason to believe that your reader is anything like the character you’re writing, and if they’re not, if they can’t relate, you need to find a different way for them to relate to the character that isn’t the characters traits, behaviors, and situation you just assume are universal. You have to find a way to humanize a character to people that won’t understand that character, and that’s the importance of character arcs. Not just growth and development, plot points laid out in a row that you’re ticking one after the other as one progresses, but humanization of the character so that the reader can care about the events, can care about the character’s emotions as they’re going through plot points.
You can usually tell the difference when someone is going through a writing system, following an instruction manual to write compared to someone who has learned who their character is and is putting them in the story. It’s the difference of writing a story and building a story that challenges characters to grow. There’s more heart to the second type, engagement, where everything feels important because it’s coming back to character arcs and measurable growth. Instead of plot points which are just the choreography, pushing the character through the motions so the story can happen.
This is why I combine story arcs to include those character arcs, and include character arcs with plotting a book. In understanding that character growth and humanization makes a story impactful for readers, you change the way you look at stories in general. You’re suddenly not there about a series of events viewed through the eyes of a soulless narrator, but instead about characters you care about as you check in to see how they’re coping with the series of events.
Fucking how already, yeah?
So I explained the importance, and showed how focusing on story arcs can change someone’s writing in really intense ways. So how does one do it? Well, it’s really up to you.
How do you organize your ideas on the page? Sometimes it doesn’t start on the page. Sometimes it can be post-its, or note cards on a wall. Scribbles on a whiteboard in color-coded markers. I enjoy surrounding myself with stories and ideas, transforming my environments into a part of my brain. But because of my new visual limitations and how chaotic my plotting process can be, I’ve had to create tools on my laptop to mimic what I would do in real life.
There are already tools out there, digital ones, that might work perfectly fine for people. I personally love Scrivner, of which I’m dictating this post into, because of its design to nest and organize text, but it’s not great for this particular thing for me. I’m also a big fan of Scapple which can color code and create visual blocks of ordered text and images in a web/brain storm shape instead of a linear shape — but I don’t really enjoy all the fiddling involved. There’s also plotting tools that will plot your points on a line to create the illusion of time as an aspect of plotting. Those ones in particular don’t really work for me, but for some people really need a very time focused organizational style for plotting. It’s really about finding what works for you and experimenting.
For right now, I’m mimicking my Post-it style of multicolored post-its with notes written on them. My notes get to be far more extensive because I’m doing it on the computer and have created the element to give me the things I need, instead of limiting me to the constraints of an actual Post-it. Depending on the order I set, my story arcs will graph onto a model based on time, or based on the character and time, or whatever I really want at the moment, because what a writer needs when it comes to plotting a story changes in the moment.
Random tangent to rant
I’m sure it’s clear at this point, but I’m not a fan of writing systems. I’m not a fan of someone following an instruction guide thinking that’s the way to write, because rarely is creativity or any kind of development allowed within a writing system. It’s a reverse engineered plan focused on hitting points, metrics, as the essence of the story and turned into a pattern of plot that needs to be resolved. Nothing else. And when you’re focused on hitting those points, it’s very easy to lose sight of what makes the story actually interesting, what makes a reader show up, what makes you show up. If you’re showing up to follow a formula for some other goal at the end, you’re not showing up to write a story and figure out what the purpose is for it all.
That’s not to say that all formulaic writing is shit. It’s just to say that when new writers are following a formula, they’re not learning to write. There learning a formula. It would be like comparing it to solving something with a math formula. When you’re handed the formula, you’re not taught how to problem solve to reach that formula. You’re not taught to understand the ins and outs of how to get to that endpoint. You’re just handed the shortcut without the experience, when it’s the experience that allows the shortcut to make sense.
It’s not a system. It’s a process…?
Anyways… There’s nothing special about writing story arcs. It can be done on post-its and note cards or paper or laptop. It’s as basic as brainstorming your story, and then breaking down those ideas and plotting them into little bite sized points that you then organize in a way that works for you when you think about your story. It’s making a spot for impact, for motivation, and connecting plot to characters and their motivations as events of impact instead of “things just happening.”
I don’t even think of story arcs as having a beginning, middle, and end, because there comes a time when you need to define what the hell beginning, middle, and end even mean in regards to the transformation of character and plot. (how many pieces does one replace of a boat until it’s a different boat…?) That kind of nonsense is not helpful in plotting. It’s not helpful in brainstorming to demand any rigid structure. Story arcs are a theme to explore through a piece, a way to connect characters to the events of a plot. Organized well enough so that you’re not missing important stuff while in the weeds of writing.
The nice thing about writing stories is you get to say a problem is resolved, instead of out in the real world where most problems hang there, being coped with, no definitive beginning, middle, and end. It usually satisfying for readers for problems to be solved, and cathartic for the writer. But that doesn’t mean that’s how you have to write a story. Your readers might hate you, but many people don’t write for their readers, but for themselves.
At least knowing the story you’re developing, and presenting to the world will be far more clear and done better if you bother to build story arcs and take the time to break it down and organize and ensure that each part is felt.
Because I do look at story arcs as plotting not really in time, but measured in impact, that’s how I write my notes for them. There will be a title or label to express the gist of the story arc, and then a note of information about the brainstorming process for that story arc. Why it’s there, what you want from it, possibly what you’re hoping to resolve or what sacrifice must be made.
Story arcs don’t always come with a solution, but instead they’re just full of the drama of a moment for a character. You have a very cool idea that you want to develop further, and ensure that it ends up in your story, even if you don’t necessarily know how to do that part yet? Make a note, call it a story arc, and develop it into something that works.
So once you have that story arc, for myself, I create editions so that everything to do with that story arc is connected, and I can’t lose track of anything. I need strong visual organization for my brain to thrive when it comes to writing conceptual text. So I color code, and make sure that main idea holds all those smaller ideas that fit into it. Then it’s about breaking down the story arc, brainstorming where these pieces are going to come up and how it’s going to reveal an impact on the characters, on the environment, on the events. Which scenes these pieces of the arcs are going to hit, and why.
It’s just notes. It’s just brainstorming. There’s no magic to it. Even how I organize is just whatever is easiest for me. It’s not a magic spell or special ritual where if you follow all the steps, you’re guaranteed a perfect story. It’s just essential design work as you take the time to develop a story, and it doesn’t need anything special.
No end form to reach for, no bs you must do it this way. You just have to work on developing the story in a way that you can track and ensure the impact is connected to the characters and their actions.
Character driven means acceptance of chaos.
If you fail to do this for plot, you risk building an intricate, exciting maze with plot twists and daring car chases, only to drop a dead cricket in, hoping something exciting will happen. (I don’t know why the cricket is dead, but it happened in the most boring way possible, promise.)
If you’re plotting out your character arc next to that story arc, or better yet, you just create plot arcs that are character driven, you don’t have to worry about being the kind of writer who makes their character jump through hoops for no apparent reason, and the character obeys because they’re boring and have no motivation beyond that the author has put them there to react.
Even with a little life in them, you don’t want your character to just be a mouse in a maze of your creation, simply hunting for cheese. Domesticated. Knowing everything is going to be fine if they follow the rules. You want them to be fully fleshed out, fighting the maze, fighting being there, fighting the unknown author who would dare drop them there in the first place, having emotional reactions that translate to behaviors that have them doing things like burning the maze down — something an author would never have designed — as the character goes and makes a better story.
Your characters need to be more impulsive than you, more motivated than you, and have no care about what you want in this process for them to drive a story, otherwise it’s just redundant and gone to plan, another heist movie where they tell you what they’re going to do, and then they do it, and maybe they kill a throwaway character, and everything’s okay.
You can’t have something new when you’re not allowing it to happen. Rigid structures of book writing preventing change, prevent adaptability. Something wild can only happen if you feel daring enough to let it. When you have an adaptable structure to maintain in regards to story arcs, allowing you to keep tabs on motivations, behaviors, impacts, tension, etc, you’re more willing to let the story become something better, something outside of the formula you find all those other stories living in, because you can see that it’s not pure chaos. The characters can still work in this change, and impacts can still look realistic and genuine to the moment.
I have so much to say about this topic, but I don’t feel like killing my eyes editing anymore today. So yeah, that’s that for now. Enjoy my enthusiastic lecture from a writer who can’t get their shit together enough to get back to writing beyond talking about writing. I’m sure it’s totally motivational.
I’m truly passionate about this topic — it’s everything about writing to me, the problem solving, the orchestration of trying to create an impact in a reader. And it’s fun. Loving what you do is damn fun, and more people should find what they love in what they do.