The plot for pretty much every story ever told follows the same narrative arch. A very basic formula that consists of three phases:
- Normality – everything’s going OK and people are going about their every-day lives.
- Disruption – there’s been some drama or an event where normality get turned upside down.
- New Normal – things have settled down and, while they’ve not gone back to exactly how they were before, a new normality has been established.
The technical term for these phases is:
Equilibrium -> Disequilibrium -> New equilibrium
You don’t need to know these terms for the exam, but it does sometimes help students to remember the narrative arc when they know the proper terms.
And that’s it! That’s the magic formula for creating a story. Think about any of your favourite films or books or plays; they’ll always follow this three-phase formula.
But often stories start in the middle, at the point of disequilibrium, where we’re thrown into the story during the crisis or straight after. So we might get introduced to a character stranded on an island, for instance, and we’ll have no idea why they’re there. Or a plane has crashed in the jungle and we won’t know what’s happened.
We’ll usually then be given a flashback to before the event, so that we know what that character’s equilibrium looked like and the events that led up to the disruption.
Then after that, once we care about the character and know their backstory, we’ll want to see what happens next for them – what their new equilibrium looks like, and how they’ve been changed by the experience.
This method can be a really intriguing way to start your story.
Your three-phase narrative arc doesn’t always need to involve a dramatic event; sometimes the disequilibrium of a story can be quite subtle. Sometimes the disequilibrium can be a petty argument. This is where a story is more character-based rather than plot-based, and the story is more about the maturing of a person or a relationship, so the change taking place is more emotional and psychological, rather than any big external event.
That’s particularly true for a coming-of-age story or a romance plot.
You can also transform your setting to follow the narrative arc. Twilight works very well for that: either going from day to night or night to day – that way, the change in your setting mirrors your plot, which can also allow for some pathetic fallacy.
Once you’re confident practicing different plots, you can start to intertwine narratives. For example, perhaps your story starts on a boat and they discover a plane wreck. Or perhaps you have two characters in separate cars and their lives come together some how.
Do the two cars crash? Do they pull up to traffic lights and they recognise each other?
Writing can be really entertaining when we’re offered different perspectives and there’s a plot twist like that – it shows the writer is ahead of the reader.
It’s sometimes better to leave the ending open and let the examiner interpret it however they like. You don’t even need to know how your story ends! That’s sometimes the beauty of a great story, that the ending is very personal to the reader when it’s left to their own imagination.
That’s a great way to make sure the examiner LOVES your story.