How to Spin a Yarn: Conflict, Resolution, and Story Arc

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Conflict is what drives the story arc. It’s what keeps the audience on the edge of its seat. And it’s a fundamental aspect of story structure. If you want to see how a story arc works, just look at just about any novel or movie or story game. Let’s look at Disney’s Snow White.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Snow White’s evil stepmother the Queen is envious of Snow White’s beauty, so she makes Snow White a maid. Snow White meanwhile meets a prince who would carry her away, which makes the evil stepmother even more envious. She orders a huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart and bring it to her in a gold box. But the huntsman instead warns Snow White to escape into the forest and tries to fool the evil queen by bringing to her in the box the heart of a pig.

Snow White, meanwhile, finds the cottage of the seven dwarves. She cooks and cleans for them in return for lodging. But the evil queen finds out through her magic mirror that Snow White is still alive and still the most beautiful in the land. So she disguises herself as an old crone and creates a magic apple that will put Snow White to sleep forever. Only love’s first kiss will be able to wake up Snow White. She tricks Snow White into eating the apple. The dwarves discover this going on and chase the evil queen off a high precipice, from which she falls to her death.

But it’s too late. Snow White has already taken a bite of the apple and is dead. So the dwarves put her in a gold coffin with a glass cover. The prince happens along, discovers Snow White, kisses her, and she wakes up. Then he puts her on his horse and they ride off and live happily ever after.

The arc

A charming fairy tale, yes, but it follows a classic story arc. Here’s how the story arc works. Start with a conflict. In trying to resolve the conflict, things get worse for the protagonist. He tries once, twice, and then finally on the third try the conflict is resolved. And then there’s an epilogue that shows the new status quo after the conflict is resolved.

Doing it ourselves

Our character gets laid off from his job, and now he’s out of work and needs to support his family. (That’s the conflict.) He has some unemployment pay and some severance. He tries for several months to get a job. (The first attempt.) But that doesn’t work, as he can’t find a job, and now they need to cut back, to economize. His friends at his church find out about his economic situation and invoke the church’s benevolence fund. (The second attempt.) This keeps them in food and shelter, but he still doesn’t have a job, and now he feels guilty for taking charity and inadequate as a provider. One of his friends has been urging him to try a career change, which he has been resisting. But now he does try it. (The third attempt.) It works, and he ends up making enough money to pay back the money he borrowed and contribute money to the church benevolence fund and the other communities that helped him through. And maybe he’s also has gained a new perspective on charity. (The epilogue.)

Variations

I like an abbreviated epilogue, rather than an epilogue full of inane banter. Just tell me what things are like after the conflict is resolved, and end the story.

The plot points are areas of great intensity in the story. Inbetween, there can be periods of relative rest. A story is like a huge boulder. Initially at rest, you have to give it a push to get it going, but then you can coast along, spend a little time looking at the scenery, before the next big push. The times of rest are not excuses to dump expository lumps onto the reader, but they are opportunities to look at relevant asides that would be uninteresting on their own.

In a complex story, there will be layers of story arcs. Consider a serial drama, like Gilmore Girls. The first 3 seasons of Gilmore Girls represent a unified epic story arc. On top of that are stories that stretch across multiple episodes. Then on top of that are individual episodes, each of which is a story of its own. The episode-length stories provide the surface for the multi-episode stories, which are built on the multi-season stories.

To resolve the conflict, the protagonist can conquer it, or the conflict can conquer the protagonist. Be careful with having the conflict win. I personally need the protagonist to win something, even if he also loses something. Maybe he wins a new perspective on life, as he yields to the inevitable. That may be bitter-sweet, but at least it’s not frustrating, as I found, for instance, A Streetcar Named Desire.

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

Catch me on:  my web site Facebook Twitter 

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