By Marissa Graff
As writers, the classic arc-plot diagram is burned into our brains. The one conveying that our characters should move through our books in one steady climb, both externally and internally. But what if the visual of a smooth line is sabotaging the way we convey our character’s journey? What if it’s not presenting the reader with an accurate picture of how diverse and rigorous a character’s journey really needs to be to deliver them to a satisfying and believable ending?
If we think of how a story filled with obstacles and victories plays out, a better visual representation of story looks more like a zigzag. Think of the old adage one step forward, two steps back.
Speaking of stepping back, let’s talk about why an arc-plot model fails to serve us as writers. Internally, if the protagonist only moves forward in their development and experiences constant wins, there’s a sense that the misbelief they had when we first met them wasn’t such a big deal after all. If it’s that easy to change, the story seems less crucial.
Externally, there’s little to no tension in a story where the protagonist keeps winning in a bid against an antagonist. Allowing the character to struggle and be tested not only draws the reader in, it’s simply more interesting for the character’s journey. It keeps us guessing and creates balance. Readers want to see the character face overwhelmingly difficult odds. They want every win to feel earned, and they want to be able to compare it to a previous instance where the character wasn’t quite ready.
So how can you achieve a zigzag character arc that gives the reader a far more believable experience?
Feel the Rhythm
When you step back and look at your draft, outline, or scene tracker, feel out the rhythm of your protagonist’s victories and setbacks. If they’ve just had a scene where they overcame something that would have been impossible to defeat when we first met them, consider presenting them with a challenge that shows their lack of readiness for even bigger change. Then, we will not only understand that there’s more story needed for their ultimate change, but we will also maintain the tension needed to bring us to the finish line. If the character only demonstrates the ability to overcome obstacles, the book begins to feel too easy. We won’t see the character struggle in a way that equips them with what they didn’t have in the opening.
Similarly, if you only deal your protagonist blows, they won’t seem gradually prepared for their ultimate victory come climax time. We won’t see how they’ve been readied little by little, gaining confidence and skills along the way. Utilizing a balance of wins and losses makes the story more interesting and the ending more earned.
Craft Wins with Precision
Isolate your protagonist’s victories as their own thread. You’ll want to consider manipulating their wins with somewhat deliberate precision. It’s helpful to think of where you imagine your character to be in the end and work backward. Dismantle that picture into sizable, actionable pieces that create the finished whole.
At first, consider allowing your character to take small steps toward change, ones that bring about proportionately small victories. That will create a sense that change is hard and growth takes time. It stands to reason that the character would take little steps at first because the risk isn’t as high. But as their confidence increases and experience shapes them, their steps toward change can become bigger and the wins can yield greater reward. This gradual thread of victories will also create the feel of a believable story.
Craft Defeats with Precision
Isolate your protagonist’s losses as their own thread. You’ll want to think about manipulating the obstacles so that they start small, but gradually grow more daunting. Consider making the setbacks the character faces increasingly painful for them. It’s helpful to create a list of the things your character cares about. Then, order the list from things that are least important to most important in terms of personal value. That way, If something of lesser value is on the line and the character is hit with something small at first, it doesn’t deal them a complete defeat. They still have room to want to grow and change. But as your story plays out, you’ll want to move up the list of things your character cares about, closing in on the things your character values most so that they’re efforts must line up accordingly. The smaller the blow, the smaller the effort needed to respond to the obstacle. Or, the easier it is to ignore. But the greater the blow and the more that’s on the line, the more motivation the character will need to summon in order to change. That increase in motivation and their willingness to change will take time. So ordering the setbacks from small to large will yield a realistic series of reactions.
Crafting a zigzag path earns both your plot and your character’s inner journey far more believably than the image a smooth arc suggests. By testing your protagonist’s willingness to change, the reader can then gauge their readiness for the climax. If they’re ready for change all along, the plot feels unnecessary. But if it’s going to take time and a series of wins and failures to crush the protagonist’s misbelief, then every bit of the plot feels needed. And perhaps more importantly, the ultimate victory in the climax feels that much sweeter.
For more information on using conflict to create a compelling two-steps-forward-one-step-back character journey, check out The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles.
Resident Writing Coach
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over five years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.