Stories end at ‘happy ever after’. Why? Because readers want rocky roads of drama not sweetness and light. You can overdo the drama (think Eastenders) but, essentially, when reading a script, novel or poem, readers want their emotions stirred. Conflict and action are how writers give them that experience, but it needs structure. Dramatic arcs are that structure.
If you’ve ever written any substantial piece of fiction, you’ll know that first drafts are rubbish. Errors in grammar, spelling, point of view, tense, plot, setting, characterisation etc. Poorly structured dramatic arcs will be in there, too. Recognising those errors and correcting them is part of the craft of writing. It polishes your talent and makes it shine.
Exposition-rising action-climax-falling action-resolution, these are the five stages of a dramatic arc. In diagrams, it often looks like a Dutch house, pointed at the apex, but I see it as the arc it’s called, curving to the climax before falling away.
Let’s take Macbeth as an example:
1, Exposition: Macbeth, a brave and popular warrior, defeats his king’s enemies.
2. Rising action: Returning home he meets three witches and is told he’ll become Thane of Cawdor and then king. He laughs at the prophesies but is then made Thane of Cawdor. Overweening ambition takes over. He murders the king for the crown.
3. Climax: Macbeth is crowned king.
4. Falling action: Paranoid and intent on holding onto his crown, he becomes a murderous tyrant, losing friends, supporters and - driven insane by guilt - his wife through suicide.
5. Resolution: He’s overthrown and killed.
That’s the major dramatic arc of Macbeth, but scenes and acts require their own dramatic arcs. Brief exchanges of dialogue or the thoughts of characters often have them too.
An example of a dramatic arc in a scene: Macbeth, act 1, scene 7
1. Exposition: Macbeth, having sworn to murder the king, is struggling with his conscience.
2. Rising action: He tells his wife he won’t do it and they argue. She questions his masculinity (his Achilles heel). ‘A coward…’
3. Climax: He wavers. ‘I dare do all that becomes a man.’
4. Falling action: She compares her courage (sic) to his, telling him she would dash the brains from her baby rather than break a sworn pledge.
5. Resolution: Shamed by his wife’s ‘undaunted mettle’ he agrees to the murder.
But even within this scene there are smaller dramatic arcs. The start of the scene above has Macbeth pondering the best way to murder the king (exposition) in a soliloquy. His thoughts turn to concerns: will it end at the murder or ‘plague’ him thereafter (rising action). It leads him to questions his duty (climax). As a nobleman and host, he concludes his duty is to protect the king and, anyway, the murder’s likely to go horribly wrong (falling action). In the end he decides he’s been the victim of ‘vaulting ambition’ and will not murder the king after all (resolution).
So, dramatic arcs come in all sorts of sizes. They also come in different places: In inner thoughts, as with Macbeth’s soliloquy; in personal exchanges, as between Macbeth and his wife; and in the non-personal, such as Macbeths betrayal of king and country. They can be action packed or subtle (a raised eyebrow could be a climax; a cough could be a rising or falling action; a sigh could be a resolution - if they have dramatic significance).
Dramatic arcs are emotional journeys. There's no drama in an argument without a beginning a climax and an end. Imagine a boxing match where they just slugged each other endlessly. Dull. Nerves before the fight, knockdowns, injuries, tears, a screaming crowd, a winner and a loser, disappointment and joy, there's the drama - and dramatic arcs shape it.
And remember, they’re not limited to plays. Prose rely on them equally. Chapters and scenes within those chapters need dramatic arcs. The whole piece should have a clear dramatic arc. Poems, too, have dramatic arcs. Most will come naturally, but they'll need sharpening on the edit.
The hard slog of editing is what I'll cover next week.
Book review/recommendation: Women by Charles Bukowski
They say exceptions prove the rule and I’m not sure Bukowski ever gave an squeezed zit about the craft of writing. You could call his work rough, dirty and unsophisticated in style and content but somehow it works. Somehow, it does what all great writing does, entertains in its exploration of the human condition. It’s semi-autobiographical. An ugly, spot and boil covered old drunk gains fame as a writer. With fame comes sex appeal and he takes full advantage. I’ll leave you to imagine the rising and falling ‘dramatic arcs’—and the climaxes. But, believe me, it’s much more than a shag fest.