The Rise and Fall)
Most stories have a natural arc. At the very beginning there is no context and they must establish the setting, which results in a slower beginning. Then once the groundwork has been laid, the slower pace gives way to rising action. Something in our aesthetic taste dislikes tension that moves up and down at random, so without even thinking about it we organize that rising action into a gradual crescendo. Thus we rise and rise until we reach a natural peak at the story’s climax. Then we need to show the aftermath of that climatic moment, which results in a slower ending.
Thus we have a rise, a peak, and a decline: one complete arc.
It’s interesting that we imbue story structure with so many visual and geometric terms: arcs, a peak, rises and falls. Why we can even map a story’s movement on a piece of graph paper.
But we can draw different sort of curves, and we can write different kinds of stories. How about this one?
It’s essentially the same thing, but it’s divided into two rises and falls instead of just one. And it could be further extended into three arcs or four or five or however many you want. And this pattern exists in storytelling, too. Just think of a television series, where each episode is its own complete story, but is also only a single chapter in the larger, season-long tale, which is itself an entry in the larger, series-long tale.
Notice the blue dot in the previous image, halfway down the first arc. In mathematics this is called the “inflection point,” and it represents the spot where the arc stops being an convex curve downwards to a concave curve upwards. Yes, the line still continuing down, but at the point there is already the tendency in the graph to come back up again.
And now consider the example of Season 2 from the television series Breaking Bad. The arc of this season is primarily about the relationship between meth cookers Walt and Jesse, and the strain that comes between them when Jesse’s loyalties shift to his new girlfriend Jane. The tension rises, all the way to the climax, where Walt sees Jane choking, has a chance to save her life, but instead lets her die. Then comes the downtrend of the arc, where Jesse comes to terms with Jane’s death and finally returns to Walt for support, totally unaware that his former partner is guilty of negligence in the moment of tragedy.
But in the midst of all this, Walt has started working for a new drug kingpin named Gus Fring. At this point Gus has relatively little impact on the story, but he has become involved in Walt and Jesse’s lives, and in the following seasons he will become the most dangerous rival they ever face! His introduction is not the high point of season 2, but it is the inflection point, which seeds the upswing that will come in season 3.
But can two arcs exist in a story that isn’t a serial? What about in your typical stand-alone story, such as a single novel or film? Can you start a story, rise to a climax, descend to a low point, and then start that cycle over?
Yes, and this comes in the form of an act. Now I need to be clear on semantics here. Often “act” is referred to as a segment of a continuous story, such as when talking about the rising action, climax, and resolution of a three-act story.
But in this instance I am referring using the term “act” as it is used in playwriting, and this act is itself divided into its own rising action, climax, and resolution phases. In theater and early films many stories were divided into two of these main acts, each with its own complete arc, and separated from each other by an intermission.
Especially in theater this practice is still common, such as in the musical Hamilton. Here the first act rises with the growing tension between England and the colonies, breaks into outright war, and concludes with America winning its independence. Then there is the intermission. In the second act features rising tension between the new nation’s politicians, climaxes in the breaking of Hamilton’s political career and marriage, and then eases itself into an ending of reconciliation.
The use of an intermission between acts serves the logistics of a play or film, because it lets the audience purchase more concessions, gives everyone a chance to use the restrooms, and in the case of old cinema it provides time to swap out film reels. But beyond all of those logistical functions, it also serves a purpose to the story, providing a necessary palate cleanser before diving into the new act. Without that pause, it would feel awkward to see the arc descending to a close and then immediately ticking back up again. In other words, there needs to be a bit of a valley between the two mountains, much like in the second graph that I shared.
Dealing With Middling Ends)
In my current story I have just come to the end of an act. The action has descended from a climatic moment to a naturally low point, and I’m going to end the piece here, partly because it is such a fitting place to fade out from the story.
I did want to consider, though, how would I move forward if I did continue the story as it is written? That was what led me to conduct the research for this post, and now I have a pretty clear idea of how I would do it: via a palate cleanser.
I would make a hard shift away from Cace, Rolar, Aylme, and the water-entity, and I would go somewhere else for a short aside. Maybe there could be another set of characters that are also hidden in the same forest as the children, but who are dealing with problems of their own. And I would conclude their short vignette by introducing someone or something that will become significant to the main characters’ arc in the second act, thus helping to tie the two separate acts together.
But all of this is theoretical, because I’m not actually going to write that intermission and second act. I gave one of the reasons above: because there is a natural lull in the story, so this is the best moment to bow out, but there is another reason as well. I’ve enjoyed working on Covalent, but I’ve also run aground with it, where there is no way to move forward that I want to pursue. But that’s a topic for another day, come back next week as we dive into that.