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A simple formula for creating effective story arcs

by Sue Brown-Moore

As a story editor, one of my most effective tools is digging deeper, usually through the question why? The closer you look at a character’s motivation, the more the nuances of the story sparkle, and you might even discover an entirely different story hidden in the shadows. 

As creatives, gut instinct can only take us so far.

(Scroll to the end for buy links)

The book

One of the books that helped me truly understand story structure when I first started studying it as a craft—because gut instinct can only take us so far— was Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland. My learning style is concrete+sequential, so the straightforward format of this book really helped me understand the technical structure that underpins (nearly) all effective character-driven stories.

You might already be familiar with the three-act structure of storytelling. It’s commonly used in blockbuster movies, as well as the traditional romances many of us grew up with. This method of storytelling breaks the plot up into three distinct sections—the setup, the action, and the climax.  

Designing character arcs that resonate with readers can be tricky.

But stories that pack the most punch are usually character driven, and a the way a hero’s character arc influences and is affected by the plot points can be a little trickier to grasp.

Creating Character Arcs excels at breaking down a character’s ideal journey into consumable, memorable bite-sized pieces, with examples from popular books and movies to emphasize the underlying ideas.The book also walks you through self-study exercises by listing a series of exploratory questions at the end of each section. For me, just seeing the plot points and character  milestones helps me organize my thoughts and decide where I need to focus my work.

That said, people who learn in a more free-form way might find the structure and depth of Weiland’s book overwhelming, especially as a place to start. The companion workbook may be more your style.So while the formula in Weiland’s book is simple to understand, it’s not necessarily easy to master. Take some time to really study and absorb the lessons in this book. I find myself going back and reading more, piece by piece, as I become more familiar and comfortable with the earlier concepts. 

The secrets to creating strong character arcs are simple to understand but difficult to master. 

One of my favorite personal challenges is to watch a movie and try to identify the main character’s Goal, Motivation, Wound, Void, Want, and Need*, then see how the filmmakers explored those traits through the events of the story. Understanding the characteristics of the heroes can help bridge the gap between the theory and the practical story applications.  

The workbook

If you’re a hands-on sort of learner, there’s a companion workbook (available in physical and ebook formats) that boils down the key takeaways and asks leading questions.

I use the workbook as a quick-access reference, something I can pop off the shelf and flip through until I find exactly the details I need. 

Were I writing my own story, the open-format brainstorming questions would be essential to digging deeper and really getting to the heart of my characters and their needs. Sometimes the journey isn’t as clear cut as we first think, and having a resource like this workbook will help you delve through all the chaos of story planning.

I know this is a pretty heavy topic, and there’s so much to learn that getting started (or even figuring out what to focus on next) can feel daunting. As writers, we spend our lives deepening our understanding of story and character and all the connective tissue between. This book-workbook set has really helped me polish my understanding of story structure from a character perspective, and I love that I don’t need to read the entire thing all at once to get value from each individual section.

Weiland’s books have helped me deepen my own understanding of character development.

*That said, if you’re new to the study of character journeys and plot structure, some of the terms in these books might be unfamiliar (like Ghost, Wound, Need, Void, etc). Because these core concepts are such a key part of a story’s foundation (and because different teachers often use their own unique lexicon), I will be talking more about storytelling terminology and its applications over the next few months here on Patreon.The February and March Pro Tips delve into the definitions of each of these terms (and more) and why you need to master understanding them. In March’s Resource, I’m sharing my personal character creation worksheet—the one I use in all my edits—and will walk you through setting up and understanding each piece of the story puzzle through the eyes of your characters. Until then, happy storycrafting!  

Where to find the books

Amazon is the simplest place to link these. If these links don’t lead to your country’s store, you’ll at least be able to see what the full listing looks like so you can find it locally.Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland

 If you purchase through the links above, I will make a fraction of a penny in commission. “At last, I can retire and give up this life of crime.” (Bonus points if you can name the movie that quote is from 🙂 )

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