Teacher's Lounge

Teacher’s guide chapter 9: Structuring Story

Lectures & discussions

9.1 The narrative arc/9.2 The elements of a narrative arc

This is one chapter where you really should ask students to read the essay ahead of time. However, you know how unengaging and dull it can be to simply run over a reading saying “so, did you read X section? Any questions?”

We suggest, instead, that you start with the narrative arc chart, on the board. Get students to define a protagonist for you, and a spark (the two most complex concepts here). Then, use Cinderella and/or other stories to run over the function of the arc multiple times. You might also invent your own story, as we do with the Roderick/Rodrigo example. You could even finish that one for us (send it in if you do!).

Depending on the kind and level of students you have, you might use the Archies, classic superhero stories (new ones have arcs that are too long and twisty), or other comics of your choice. Or you can discuss the arcs of novels, shorts stories, and movies. The important thing in driving this lesson home, however, is to engage the students. If they aren’t forced to think the chain of events in an arc through, and identify their parts, they will not internalize the ideas.

One other trick: have students use the basic shape of the arc chart to literally chart other stories. That is, have them write the applicable points at the right places on the chart, and explain their reasoning. You can have students do narrative arc book reports, as well, where they pick a story, and chart the arc of the story, then present it to class. Repetition is key.

Feel free to send in your best arc analyses. We’d like to include some on the site!

Depending on your artistic philosophy, you may have issues with teaching the narrative arc. Of course, you should teach the way you want to. However, we think we make a good argument for teaching this structure to students so that they have it available to them as a tool. We don’t believe the narrative arc is the be-all and end-all of narrative structure, but it is one of the most important structures out there. Its flexibility and ability to sink into the background when necessary make it one of the most basic skills a storyteller needs, in our opinion. If you’re reluctant to teach this using something like Die Hard (a very clear example, by the way), you should pick a story or stories that reflect the arc in a more subtle and complicated manner.


Analyze this

"The Crush" is carefully designed to hit all the major points in the narrative arc essay. You might do a few verbal analyses (Cinderella, et al.), then move on to this story as a group. Note one of the questions in the talking points: how do the obstacles build on the previous obstacles? This is something we don't cover much in the essay, so you might want to spend some time on it. The sense of building and interconnection are vital to a tight arc. One other point we don't bring up is that the spark ties in with the particularities of the protagonist. Clay is a bit geeky, shy, and an adolescent boy—this means seeing a cool girl and crushing out is going to be more of a challenge to him than it might be to, say, a self-confident team captain. A strong spark is designed to dovetail with the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses.

TV writer make-believe

This activity can easily be folded right into your lecture/discussion. Choose whichever set of characters make sense to use, and continue with the examples and troubleshooting you did on Cinderella and whatever else you used. Alternately, you can set students loose in small groups to work on this independently, and then have them write and turn in their arcs, or present them to the class. You can have them write the various stages of the arc on an arc chart, if that appeals to you.

Further reading

Aristotle, Poetics Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting David Mamet, On Directing Film Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting Dennis O’Neil, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics

Thumbnails for a six-page story with a narrative arc

This is the first stage of a project that will carry your students through the end of the book. It's also the first time we've set them so free with regard to topic, so many students may need their hands held so as not to get writer's block right out of the gate. For these students, focus on the utility of the narrative arc chart—as soon as they've got one element in place, they can use the chart to figure out what they still need to figure out. Emphasize what we say in the "materials" section: writing a story really is 99 percent perspiration. It will not come to them whole cloth, but, rather, will require that they use their initial inspiration to build carefully the scaffolding of their story. If students are still under the impression that stories (any kind of stories) flow seamlessly from the fingers of writers, this is the moment to disabuse them of that idea. All storytellers work at it, and make conscious decisions about their arcs that may feel artificial in the moment of decision, but end up making the whole contraption hang together. Students should understand that they need to allow the needs of the story to be paramount, even if that means jettisoning some scene, character, or setting that is close to their hearts. One of Jessica's in-class refrains is "kill your babies!"—that is, make the hard decisions about what belongs in the story. That's what real artists do.
A note about the stories students decide to work on: we recommend to them in the text that they start from scratch, and not work on a story they'd previously thought of—especially if it's long. This won't be enough for some students. Many of them have been harboring dreams of launching their series or graphic novel for a long time, and want to get started right away. There are obvious reasons this isn't a good idea: their skills are not likely to be up to the task of a huge undertaking like this yet. However, the more subtle reason is that students who have been thinking about a story for a long time are going to be really stubborn about it. When you suggest that they jettison some aspect or another, or modify the story in order to accommodate a narrative arc in six pages, they're going to fight it. The story is too developed to submit to critique and modification, yet (likely) too undeveloped to be useful as is. Suggest (or require—we do) that they set aside their epic stories for a little while longer while they get ready to do them right.
The structure set up for students to follow in the homework is very helpful; it breaks down the story across space in such a way as to help make clear where it's over-padded or thin. It also helps to think about rhythm right from the outset. You should decide how much preparatory work you want students to do: how many maps, how many sketches? Be specific if you want this material to get done.
Thumbnail a three-page Chip and the Cookie Jar comic

Chapter 9: Thumbnails for a six-page story with a narrative arc

The crit guidelines in Appendix B are fairly extensive. But one further note: your job will be primarily to troubleshoot the narrative arcs. Make sure both you and the students understand how the arc is implemented in each story. Naming the scenes, and figuring out if each scene moves the story forward, as suggested in the talking points, is a very helpful technique in tightening the story and cutting bloat. It's also a good moment to check how much real estate has been carved out for each scene, and to question whether that pace feels right for the story.