October 23, 2022

The Narrative Arc Technique

In a previous post, the key elements to approaching a short story were discussed. However, with some of the world’s shortest short stories stretching to only five or six words, it can seem impossible to analyse these texts in great detail. Fear not! The Narrative Arc Technique can help you two-fold. Firstly, it can help you identify if the short piece of text you are reading is in fact a short story and secondly, it can help you to form a framework for analysis. This technique is most suited to those who are looking for short story study techniques, but also works for readers who wish to take a deeper dive into short stories.

What is the Narrative Arc Technique?

This technique provides you with a framework for discussing the five key elements of setting, theme, character, conflict, and plot effectively. It can be easily adjusted to place emphasis on different parts of the story. For example, if you are asked to discuss how the opening of the story foreshadows the ending, you will want to focus on the exposition, inciting incident, denouement and end in order to answer the question. This doesn’t mean that you can just skip over the other three stages though. The following exposition of the technique (pardon the pun!) will demonstrate why each section of the arc is necessary.

Step #1: Exposition

The exposition is fairly easy to identify as it typically comes at the beginning of a short story. Put simply, the exposition is the backstory that helps the reader to understand the story. Given the length of a short story, an exposition tends to be simple, perhaps giving you an idea of character and theme. Part of the exposition may also be alluded to in the title.

For example, take Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour. The title alludes to the fact that the action of the story takes place within the timeframe of an hour. From that, you may glean that one of the themes running throughout the story is how quickly life can change.

To look at the exposition of a short story in the opening line, Ernest Hemingway’s A Very Short Story provides a good starting point. The story opens with the line “One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.” From this, you can instantly ascertain that:

  • The story takes place in Padua
  • The main protagonist is a male suffering from physical weakness
  • The story is told in the third person

Although there is no direct reference to the theme of the story, you can infer from the above information that the story relates in some way to the reflections of an ill man.

When you are writing about an exposition that is short, or you feel has no relevance to the question you are answering, you simply need to say ‘X is a story set in Y about Z’ to satisfy the exposition step of the Narrative Arc Technique.

Step #2: Inciting Incident

For a story to be a story, it needs to have an inciting incident. This may be described as the thing that happens in the story that causes the narrative to unfold. Sometimes the inciting incident may be something grand like a feast as in Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major. However, the inciting incident is often something mundane like a character looking out of a window, causing them to reflect on life.

Often, the inciting incident is embedded within the exposition (although not always). Returning to the first line of A Very Short Story, the inciting incident that takes place is simply a man being taken to a rooftop in Padua so he can view the town.

In Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, the first line deals with the exposition and the inciting incident in tandem. It opens with the line ‘Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.’ We learn in this short line that our main character is called Mrs. Mallard and she has a heart condition (exposition). We also learn that her husband’s death is the inciting incident.

Like the exposition, this may not be relevant to your question, but it is nonetheless important to include in your essay. Think of it as the foundations on which the story is built. Without this incident, there would be no story and consequently no essay. Although it may be tempting to use short story study techniques that skip these steps, to create a full-bodied analysis it is best to include them.

Step #3: Rising Action

This step – and the steps that follow – are perhaps easier to explain than the other two. It may be that these ideas are more familiar, or that they are easier to identify in a short story. The rising action refers to how the action builds towards the crisis. To identify places of rising action, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Is there an element of suspense or tension?
  • How does it build toward the crisis? (This is better answered after you have read the story for a second time)
  • Does it take place before the crisis?

The answers to these questions will help you to effectively identify and analyse the role of the rising action. Focusing on the ‘how’ is key to building an understanding of the story.

Step #4: Crisis

The crisis is also referred to as the turning point. This is where there is an issue caused by the inciting incident. For instance, in The Story of an Hour the crisis arises from Mrs. Mallard trying to hide her true feelings about her husband’s death. To identify and analyse the crisis, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you learn about a character that suggests they have reached a turning point?
  • What does the action tell you about the underlying moral message of the story?
  • How does it relate to both the inciting incident and the climax? (Again, this is better answered after you have read the story for a second time).

In general, the crisis is usually identified by the change in mindset of a character. However, it is sometimes simpler than this. For example, taking the story in the diagram below, the crisis occurs when the boy is caught by the dragon. It is up to you to decide which category the crisis falls into.

Step #5 – Climax

The climax should be easy to identify. It is the high point of the action where an ending of the story can be foreseen. The climax is usually where the main action happens, such as the boy defeating the dragon that has been chasing him. However, it may not be as clear cut in some stories. Take The Story of an Hour. On first reading, you may believe that the climax is (spoiler alert!) Mrs. Mallard’s death. However, the climax is actually when her husband walks through the door alive. This seems perplexing, but if you ask yourself this question then you’ll identify the climax in no time:

  • Does a resolution occur?

If a resolution occurs, this is not the climax. A resolution always occurs after the climax as is demonstrated in the next step.

Step #6 – Denouement

The denouement is another term for the finale of a story. It ties up any loose ends so that the reader is clear about how things pan out. There is usually a resolution during this section too. The classic line ‘they all lived happily ever after’ is perhaps the most famous example of a resolution, but it’s usually not that simple. The best way to think about a resolution is the ending to the problem caused by the inciting incident. Contrary to common belief, the resolution does not always mean a happy ending. For example, Mrs. Mallard’s death is the resolution to the problem caused by her belief her husband had died in The Story of an Hour.

The only question you have to ask yourself is:

  • How does the story end?

Now you’re all set to apply the Narrative Arc Technique!

Practical Tips for Applying This Short Story Study Technique

The easiest way to set out your thinking within this framework is to pick up six pencils of different colours. Underline the parts of the story that correspond to each step in different colours. Finally, make yourself a key, pairing the colour and the corresponding step and you’re good to go. If you are working on a story electronically, you can change the colour of the text, or use the highlight function.

An example of a narrative arc.
Picture credit: Flickr [Creative Commons License]

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