Story Arc and Archetype, Explained
Today I will discuss story arc and story archetype. Wait. I hear you say. Aren’t they the same thing?
I mean, arc is just an abbreviation of archetype, right? Well… no. They do have some similarities, but they are not the same thing.
What is a Story Arc?
First the story arc. Story arc, in essence, is the method the story carries on over the course of the entire book.
There are distinctive points that the arc travels through, which has been graphed and resembles an arc. Think how an arrow shot into the air would travel. There are two things to note.
First, this is a story arc, which is different than a plot line where the climax is at the highest point. Second, this is not my photo, I have no rights and in fact, I borrowed it from a Google image search. I am a writer, not a graphic artist.
As you can see, there are seven basic points along the arc that the story must go through. It starts at the beginning (duh) and this is where the reader comes in.
Obviously, every book doesn’t start at the dawn of time and must then traverse through the entire universe until the point of the writer’s story begins. No.
It is understood that when a reader picks up a book and turns to page one that time has happened before this book starts. However, this is the beginning of the story and its characters.
The beginning stands however it stands and this is accepted that the world in the story has evolved to this point without much fanfare. Then we start the story.
Now we get Moving
The next point to reach is the inciting incident. This usually happens within the first chapter or two of the book. This is basically telling the reader why they want to read the book.
The inciting incident is what makes the story’s main character start down his trail. It’s a problem to resolve, or a puzzle to solve, or a villain to defeat. Something happens that makes the protagonist get off the couch and go outside.
Pssst. Click here to learn a little trick about the inciting incident to improve your writing, your story and fully engage your reader.
From there the arc mandates that we tell the reader what is starting to happen now that the protagonist is off the couch. Small changes will take place.
Perhaps the villain also gets off the couch because he learns the hero is being active. Or the bomb is being built and placed in the locker. Something–whatever it is–is starting to happen.
Next on the arc is the midpoint. Here is where the story noticeably takes a turn. If evil ruled the world in the beginning, this is the point where the hero makes a large enough change to start a noticeable shift in good overtaking evil.
The next logical step then is that evil starts to fight back. Up until this point they really haven’t had too. They started with control and figured that would be good enough.
Now they actually have a fear that there will be some change. So, they put on their armor and start to fight back.
We then reach the climax, this is the big thing the entire story has built up to, to this point. This is why the reader started reading. The big battle, the solution of the puzzle, the diffusing of the bomb mere seconds before it explodes, a Kardashian wears clothes that actually fit for once.
Whatever it is, this is it.
Then we stroll towards the ending. Wrap everything up, boy kisses girl, the villain escapes to set up the sequel, Lord Vadar get a new hand. Everything is better now and the reader can turn the last page feeling good about what has transpired.
Okay, But What About an Archetype?
An archetype isn’t the story going through its progression. Archetype is what the progression is about. Story archetype is the plot.
As such there are nine archetypes that you can have. Wait. Only nine?
Depends on who you ask. Some say there are only seven.
Now you can begin to see why people say there aren’t original stories, just the same ones told over and over.
I won’t go into full detail here (that would be an entire post for each one, which I may do someday).
Instead, I will cover the nine archetypes here, in general. Keep in mind though that there are, in all actuality, twenty-seven, as they can all be written 3 ways. There will be the way I have outlined here, and then 2 other methods.
The first of those alternative methods is the failure method, in which the goal is not obtained. Second, we have the victory with consequences. This means the hero wins but at a cost that may be greater than the reward.
The Nine Archetypes Briefly Explained
So, for example, we can have the first archetype: Good versus Evil. This is one of the most common archetypes. We have a hero for the reader to root for and a villain for him to fight. It’s basic, steadfast, tried and true.
In the basic method, the hero learns of the villain, sets out to stop them, they fight, and the hero wins the day, saves the princess (Thank you, Mario!) and everyone rejoices.
The first variant–the failure method– is that the villain wins the battle and the hero is destroyed. The second variant–the victory with consequences method– the hero defeats the villain but the princess dies, or both the hero and villain are defeated (Thank you Mario, but our princess is in another castle!).
Examples of this archetype include: James Bond, Odd Thomas, Tommyknockers.
The second archetype is Diamond in the Rough. Sometimes this is also called the Rags to Riches plot. Here the hero is a poor, depressed worthless being, but someone sees great potential in them.
They overcome their own fears to rise above and win the day. Obviously, the variants here are: the hero really isn’t as good as believed and fails, or wins the day but doesn’t change (they stay poor, depressed and worthless).
Story lines in this archetype include: Cinderella, Great Expectations, Pretty Woman.
We all Love a Quest
Next comes the much-loved Quest archetype. Here the hero is sent on a quest (usually of insurmountable odds) and must endure great hardships to see the quest completed.
Obviously, the first variant will see the hero fail at completing the quest. The second variant the hero completes the quest but as it turns out, wasn’t worth it. Perhaps, in this second variant, the prize money was good, but having the hero’s child die unbalanced the equation.
Examples of this include: Moby Dick, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones.
The next archetype is then, of course, The Voyage and Return. Here the hero goes on a quest but finds out that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, gets captured or trapped and must then return home to safety.
The variants here are a failure, where the hero doesn’t get out, or victory with consequences, where the hero makes it back home, but it isn’t any better off (or safe).
Examples of this archetype include: The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Flies, Gulliver’s Travels.
What About Shakespeare?
We then find ourselves with Shakespeare’s bread and butter for the next two archetypes: Comedy and Tragedy.
Comedy isn’t something that is funny (although it can be). Comedy is much more than humor. In essence, the comedy archetype means the protagonist has a struggle then ends in a good way.
In a romantic comedy, the ending is the lovers end up together. The Notebook, for example. Tragedy, on the other hand, is when the outcome is bad.
Think Macbeth, Othello. The two variants here do exist, but are less common.
As if you fail one type it then, by definition becomes the other. (If Romeo and Juliet both lived, for example). However, you can have a comedy fail and still be a comedy (when comedy is defined as humor and not outcome) and likewise for tragedy.
In the latter case, the deaths still occur but the fall out from it is a good thing. Some would argue then, that the 27 archetypes are reduced to 25, but I maintain that there is a way to fail a comedy or tragedy without it becoming the other, difficult as it may be.
End of the Commons
The final of the common seven archetypes, then, is a Rebirth. This doesn’t mean a phoenix rising from the ashes. Instead, it is basically a hero rescue story.
You have to be careful though. You can think about Sleeping Beauty, where Aurora/Briar Rose is the hero of the story but relies on others to rescue her.
In this case, it isn’t rebirth, it is a rescue mission which would then fall under Good versus Evil or even Quest. The hard part though is that the prince that rescues sleeping beauty is the actual hero of the story and thus, the main character.
Obvious variants here are the failure, where the hero fails to rescue the princess, or where the princess is rescued but at such a great cost the hero isn’t happy afterward.
Examples of true rebirth: Beauty and the Beast (Belle is the hero and rescues herself and the beast from the spell), A Christmas Carol (Scrooge is messed with by Marley, but makes the choice to change for himself) and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Can Mystery Be an Archetype?
The next one isn’t whole-heartedly recognized as an archetype, but I disagree with the masses. Mystery. The hero (usually a detective, or police officer) has to solve some major puzzle, crime, murder, etc.
The reason this is usually discarded as an archetype is that there is no effect on the hero. There is no personal tie in to make the hero grow or change. I disagree.
Mystery is much more than a genre and the characters do learn a lot. They can also have major tie-ins to the story. Especially if the victim is a family member, or themselves.
Obviously, the failure method means the killer gets away or kills the hero. The victory with consequences would be such that the cop finds the kidnapper but the kidnapped child has been killed already.
Examples of this fantastic archetype include: Murder on the Orient Express, Identity, Along Came a Spider.
Last but not Least
The final archetype is Rebellion. Most ignore this as an archetype because it can usually be crammed into one of the other eight.
However, the importance of the Rebellion archetype is that the hero is taught a lesson and instead of rebelling must face the mighty force and eventually submits, returning to the masses (instead of rising above them).
1984, for example, or the Story of Job: A Comedy of Justice. This archetype comes under fire because there is no change the beginning and ending are essentially the same (the story arc tells us they must be opposite). However, the variants on this archetype make it its own archetype and why I fully support it.
The failure method then becomes, by default the success. The hero doesn’t submit to the all mighty power and rises above the masses.
Stories in this archetype include: The Prisoner or The Hunger Games.
The Victory with Consequences is that the hero does rebel, wins the day but at such a cost that there is no reward great enough for the hero.
Think the Matrix. Where Neo does rebel and beats Deus Ex Machina (and Agent Smith) but his only true love, Trinity, dies.
I Hope You Understand Archetype or Arc a Little Better
As you can see, Arc and Archetype are totally different. One follows along with the other. You need both.
Arc is defined and as is. An archetype is a plot and must follow along the arc to create a great story.
Good Luck in your writings. Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of how to get there.