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Examples of Story Arc in Movies

Developing the plot of a single, standalone novel or movie is certainly a task. You must map out all the key events, develop your characters, and bring your plot to a proper close. Now imagine you had multiple movies to do that with, or multiple episodes. Book, movie and TV series continue to be popular because they have a continuing story that people can follow over a long period of time.  This is where you find your story arcs.

A story arc is defined as a continued or extended storyline that is used in what is referred to as “episodic” storytelling. This is simply a form of storytelling that is done in multiple parts, like a TV show or even a comic. It is also known as the “overarching storyline.” 

The story arc concept is especially popular with comics. In the past, it was most common for a comic book to have a never-ending story line, with each issue being a continuation of the last and having no end in sight. More recently, comics have picked up the idea of a mapped-out story arc. They typically span around 4-6 issues per arc and definitely make more sense than the never-ending continuity. Contained storylines make the comics more accessible, as well as easier to both collect and re-sell.

Types of Story Arcs

The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state, or one place, to another. This change usually takes places as either a tragic fall or a strong and impressive uprising. Almost all stories – whether they be a novel, a movie, a TV show or otherwise – will follow one of six basic arcs:

Rags to Riches – a complete rise. The classic underdog story. This is probably the most popular type of story as it has proven repeatedly to be extremely successful with the public. It is a simple concept – by the end of the story, your protagonist will be in a much better place than they were when the story began. Classic, world-renowned examples of a rags to riches story include Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Slumdog Millionaire, and Rocky.

Riches to Rags – a complete fall. The exact opposite of rags to riches. This will be a story of an incredibly wealthy and/or successful person losing everything. This is a popular choice of arc for a story that wants to be dark and tragic.

Man in a Hole – fall then rise. In this story, something bad will happen to your protagonist initially, and it will place them in a problematic and unfortunate state. The story will show them working their way out of the situation and ultimately coming back out on top, in a similar or better place than they were originally. This category is where many thriller stories will fall, in addition to horror and action and a good example of this story arc is the 1957 film 12 Angry Men.

Icarus – rise then fall. Named for the subject of a Greek myth that perfectly represents this category. This is when your protagonist will be shown rising from a bad situation, only to fall right back down again by the end of the story, perhaps even worse off than they were before.

Cinderella: rise, fall, rise. This is also known as the very common “boy meets girl” concept. This will typically follow the protagonist as they find something great, and then lose it, but only briefly. In the end, they will get back the wonderful thing that they lost. A common arc for a comedy or drama. Russell Crowe’s 2005 film Cinderalla Man is a great example of this story arc.

Oedipus: fall, rise, fall. This type of story is not as commonly used. This is when the character experiences some sort of tragedy or falling out, which will ultimately be their permanent demise, but somewhere in the middle, they find some kind of relief or a false sense of hope. A small film call All About My Mother is a classic example of the Oedipus story arc. It’s rather sad too.

Intertwine the Arcs

These six different story types are just the basic structure that can be found at the core of (almost) every story. They can still be taken in any direction, and even used in conjunction with one another. You can have each character in your story follow a different arc – perhaps one is losing all his wealth while another is planning to marry the love of his life. You can also place different story arcs on each aspect of a character’s life. Maybe they are growing quite wealthy, but they still cannot seem to win their desired love interest.

Arcs in Action

Multiple story arcs will be present in any good TV show, but they become even more evident as a show gets longer. Criminal Minds is a popular thriller TV series that boasts 14 seasons to date. Each episode has its own individual, standalone story line, that can be followed and enjoyed even if the viewer has not seen any other episodes. Outside of these though, exist additional plots that are played out over multiple episodes. For example – even though it has very little to do with his work life, we follow Spencer Reid over many seasons as he deals with his mothers worsening dementia, coupled with his constant concern that he will inherit the disease as well. Emily Prentiss having to change her identity and fake her own death is another example, as is the story of George Foyet, an unsub who ends up targeting team leader Aaron Hotchner directly for a long time.

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