A narrative arc or story arc can help family historians write riveting stories. To decide whether your family’s stories could benefit, let’s talk about what a narrative arc is.

What’s a Narrative Arc aka Story Arc?

A narrative arc is the bare bones of the path a story takes. As opposed to a plot, which has all the turning points of your story, a story arc only defines its general shape.

In general, compelling stories don’t ramble aimlessly across a flat landscape. Ideally, narrative arcs takes readers up a conflict-lined trail to a mountain top experience, then supplies resolution.

As Writers Digest’s Robert Brewer describes, a three-point story or narrative arc includes “an inciting incident (the thing that gets the story moving), the climax (… most dramatic moment), and resolution (or sometimes, lack of resolution).”[1] A five-point arc includes the rising action that is implied before the climax and the falling action before the story’s resolution.[2]

In his Writersdigest.com article, What Is a Narrative Arc (or Story Arc)?, Brewer gives some simplified examples of common story arcs:

  • Romance: Lovers meet, lovers quarrel, and lovers reunite (to live happily ever after)
  • Murder mystery: Someone dies, clues and suspects build, and murderer is revealed
  • Fantasy: Characters go on quest, characters defeat the threat, and they return as heroes (or move on to the next quest, if part of a series)

Does every family story need a narrative arc?

What if I just want to recount a nice memory of my grandmother cooking the world’s best fried chicken on the woodstove? Do I need a story arc to write that?

Of course not. That memory is beautiful. Enough on its own.

On the other hand, many stories can benefit from their writers thinking in terms of a narrative arc  because:

  • It helps clarify the conflicts ancestors faced, making it easier to bring those to life for readers.
  • It helps storytellers include the right amount of back story.
  • It helps with pacing, i.e., helps the story move.
  • A writer may realize that the sweet friend chicken is a part of a greater story.

In fact, you may use narrative arcs already. These points are natural beats in the rhythm of stories. I look back at many of my grandmother’s stories and see that she did just this with her eighth-grade education.

Myth: Only long-form narratives like memoirs and biographies need story arcs.

A great writing prompt is the six-word story. (If you’re not familiar with them, google it. It’s a great way to improve your writing.) According to legend, Ernest Hemingway not only challenged his colleagues to write a story in six words but wrote his own.

“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

In those six words, readers can infer a character, a circumstance, and a movement from conflict to resolution.

Brainstorming points

Think about the following to decide if a story arc would help your next story:

Did you ancestor face an “inciting event” or conflict?

This could be anything from family dysfunction to the conflicts that caused them to move to another country, marry a particular person, or take up a new occupation.

The best way to explain this to readers is to delve into the context of your family members’ or ancestors’ lives and reveal their circumstances and vulnerabilities.

Is there a climax to the story?

Did they get to the new world, find true love, find their way out of the forest, survive the attack?

Do you need to add a resolution?

Is your ending clear? What’s left out?

Does your story need more? 

Do you need to add more to the rising and falling action?

Your Turn

Enough thinking. Your readers want stories.

How do you use narrative arcs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Does my family story need a narrative arc pinnable graphic with tree on hill side

[1] Robert Lee Brewer, “What Is a Narrative Arc (or Story Arc)?” WritersDigest.com, November 13, 2020, https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/what-is-a-narrative-arc-or-story-arc.


[2] “Learn About Narrative Arcs: Definition, Examples, and How to Create a Narrative Arc in Your Writing,” MasterClass.com, September 8, 2021, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-are-the-elements-of-a-narrative-arc-and-how-do-you-create-one-in-writing#5-classic-elements-of-a-narrative-arc.

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