From Authors to Authors: On Story Arcs or How Watching Too Much TV Helps Me Write

Hello all and happy Saturday! Our guest for today’s From Authors to Authors post is author Alex Jane who is talking about story arcs. Let’s read the post and see what we can learn from it.

On Story Arcs or How Watching Too Much TV Helps Me Write

I know nothing about writing (as some people who have read my books will attest), by which I mean, I’ve never studied writing. So, forgive me if this is a bit simplistic.

I was at school at a time when they didn’t teach grammar. No one ever told me what a gerund is or how to spot a complex-compound sentence. It’s taken me an age to be able to define the difference between a noun and adverb. What I’ve learnt about writing I’ve learned from reading—and lately from the people editing my work giving me the side-eye and shaking their heads a lot.

Mostly, I bumble along and write what sounds good to me. I notice things about other stories I enjoy reading—like how Kathy Reichs ends every chapter on a cliffhanger so you have to read “just one more” before going to sleep—and occasionally they find a function in something I’m putting together. I don’t do the cliffhanger chapter often but there is another device that I’m really, really fond of—the story arc.

I think most everyone is familiar with the three-act structure, five-act structure, inciting incidences, rising action, and whatnot, but something I actively think about when I’m writing is the way TV shows use the story arc.

Story Arcs, From TV to Novels

It helps me to think of a novel as being a series and each chapter as its own episode. The main story arc has to flow from the opening scene until I write The End, but I also treat each chapter as a story in and of itself. In TV terms, it’s like, for example, in Supernatural, the first season’s story is “John Winchester appears to be missing. His sons, Dean and Sam Winchester, try to find him.” That’s the story arc, but then in each episode, Dean and Sam have to solve a mystery in order to progress in their mission and each of those mysteries is a story of its own.

Now, it’s worth saying at this point that I am a plotter. An uber-plotter. I plot to the nth degree. So I don’t know how this works for pantsers, although I do think that this is something that happens naturally as a part of storytelling in general. But for me, I try to take the three act structure and apply that to each chapter.

Or at least that’s what I’m telling you so I sound vaguely competent. What I actually do is apply the rhythm of an arc to each chapter so by the end of it there is some kind of closure, even if the questions of the overall arc haven’t been answered. You know, in the same way a song follows a pattern of sorts—verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus—it just sounds right. It’s a familiar rhythm that brings comfort and pleasure. Of course, no rule is hard and fast when it comes to creativity and a song that steps outside that pattern can be refreshing and exciting when it’s done right. But for me, I like something I can dance to.

For example, in the first chapter of Home Is Where You Are, it goes thusly.

The sheriff turns up at Caleb’s door with a badly injured werewolf. Caleb is the only other one around so it’s the only place the werewolf, Jacob, can stay safely. Caleb really doesn’t want Jacob there but reluctantly takes him in on the proviso that it’s just a temporary measure. We find out that Caleb is alone and isolated from his family whom he misses, and that Jacob has left his family too. Caleb freaks out and thinks he’s made a horrible mistake by letting Jacob in, but by the end of the chapter, Caleb ends up climbing into Jacob’s bed (in wolf form, no funny business) to comfort him when he has a nightmare.

Now, given a bit of minor tweaking and adding a few dropped hints of what might happen later on between them, that first chapter could actually stand alone as a story by itself. We’ve got our inciting incident, rising action, character development, there’s a point of no return, a darkest hour, and a resolution, all the things to make it function as a unit. And that’s what I try to do for each chapter. Pretty much.

I do switch things up slightly. Sometimes, I think I fail altogether. Mostly, I try to end with a resolution of sorts but also with some question that is quietly nagging to be answered—not a cliffhanger, just a doubt or hint of something more. Why else would people keep reading otherwise?

Then there’s the midseason hiatus. In TV land that involves a massive cliffhanger to get you to tune back in after the holidays, but I think of it more in terms of giving the reader a break. I generally have a chapter about two-thirds of the way through that ends without having a pull to the next chapter. It comes from my own experience of becoming exhausted by books that drag you along with no chance to make a cup of tea or get some sleep and OMG it’s three in the morning, how did that happen! Like most things I don’t plan that exactly but I find the pause happens regardless.

Then usually the penultimate chapter does end on a massive cliffhanger, to help with momentum, and because who doesn’t love an end of season double episode.

The important thing, though, is that each chapter’s story pushes the overall story arc along. It’s the whole Chekov’s Gun principle, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Whatever story your chapter tells, no matter how beautifully crafted it might be, there’s no point in its existence if it doesn’t contribute to the story as a whole. I think structure—and other devices like narrative symmetry and the last line zinger, which also make me weak at knees—can become a burden if I focus too much on them. Ultimately what makes the story is the characters’ development and the unfolding drama.

Although having said that…if you take a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, every once in a while there’ll be a scene or something that doesn’t seem to fit or appear to have a purpose, But give it a season, or two, and the reason becomes clear. Because, yes, chapter arcs, story arcs, but also series arcs are a thing too. I know I’ve had some complaints about stuff not particularly working in a couple of my books. I sit there reading the comments, biting my nails, thinking, “They’re not wrong. But I hope they keep reading though as it’s going to take three more books in this series before anyone finds out what that means.” Like I said, uber-planner. Also, I do probably watch too much TV.

Anyway. Like I said, I don’t really have much technical know-how so I go with what feels right, to me at least.

About Alex Jane

After spending far too long creating stories in her head, Alex finally plucked up the courage to write them down and realized it was quite fun seeing them on the page after all.

Free from aspirations of literary greatness, Alex simply hopes to entertain by spinning a good yarn of love and life, wrapped up with a happy ending. Although, if her characters have to go through Hell to get there, she’s a-okay with that.

With only a dysfunctional taste in music and a one-eyed dog to otherwise fill her days, Alex writes and walks on the South Coast of England—even when her heart and spellcheck are in New York.

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A pleasure to meet you! I’m Alina Popescu, an author, traveler, and hopeless coffee addict. I write urban fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, and sometimes even contemporary stories. A significant number of my books are LGBTQ fiction and romance.

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