How can screenwriters use character arcs and story arcs to ensure that their screenplays have an overarching narrative?
Your protagonist’s external ARC is a three-act story structure that applies to them and them alone.
Action. Reaction. Consequences.
You present them with conflict (Act 1), have them react (Act 2), and then show how they deal with the consequences of those reactions (Act 3). It’s that simple.
Your protagonist’s internal arc is basically an emotional three-act structure.
Acceptance. Revelation. Contentment.
You show them accepting their current fate and situation (Act 1), force them to come to a revelation about their inner feelings and emotions (Act 2), and then let them be content, knowing that they’ve figured something out about their life.
If you follow that structure with your protagonist while adding an external arc that helps them come to those inner conclusions about themselves, you’ll create an empathetic and cathartic connection to the audience.
But what elements ensure that your whole screenplay has a narrative arc? Here we present three simple, actionable elements that will help you close the arc of our ARC acronym screenwriting guidelines to make sure your screenplays have the narrative arc necessary to capture engage the reader and audience.
First of all, what is an arc?
Let’s start with the basics first.
If you look at a circle from a narrative perspective — regarding both a character arc and story arc — it’s easy to see that you generally don’t want your characters or stories to come full circle. Essentially ending where they started. Physically and emotionally.
A true narrative arc is about change. We need to see the story and the protagonist change, as opposed to revolving back around through the past events and through what the protagonist has already experienced in their life. We’re looking for change. We’re looking for evolution.
Sure, you can creatively play within the diameters of the narrative circle. Look no further than at what Back to the Future II and Back to the Future III did, among many other time travel films.
But beyond any imaginative timeline narrative structure, you want to focus on the present, and take your protagonist from the beginning of their ordinary world to their evolved world or state.
Yes, by way of The Hero’s Journey, your protagonist can come back to their ordinary world, but only in an evolved state, having learned or experienced something that has changed them.
So, writing a screenplay that has a full arc means that you’re not traveling full circle without the evolution of character — and you’re not going from beginning to end in a straight and easy line. There’s no drama in that.
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Let’s Break Down ARC
Here we delve into the elements that create your screenplays ARC (Acts, Resolutions, Conflict).
Since humankind began telling stories through grunts and etched pictures, the narrative has always been universal — beginning, middle, and end.
When you break everything down to the core, every story follows the three-act structure. The early days of storytelling told tales of hunting for prey (beginning), confronting the prey (middle), and defeating the prey (end).
The three-act structure in cinema is the most basic and pure structure that most films follow. You have:
- The setup
- The conflict
- The resolution.
Yes, many film and screenwriting theories pitch four-act structures, five-act structures, and the seven-act structures for television movies — as well as many other variations. But they are all just evolved and expanded structure from the general three-act structure.
When you choose to use the basic three-act structure for your screenplay, you’re offering perhaps the most accessible story design for audiences.
Each scene matters. Each scene progresses directly to the next, carrying the story’s momentum forward in a natural progression — void of any excess. There is the setup of the character and their world, followed by a conflict that they are either forced to face or choose to take on and then we’re led to the resolution.
Movies like Star Wars, The Fugitive, Witness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Die Hard are perfect examples of the three-act structure’s most simple form. In retrospect, anyone can apply varying degrees of guru philosophy and beat sheets to each of them. Still, in the end, those types of stories showcase true beginnings, middles, and ends with constant forward progress as every scene builds towards the finale.
Read ScreenCraft’s 10 Screenplay Structures That Screenwriters Can Use!
When you’re developing your screenplays, you need to start by identifying your story acts.
- Where does the protagonist begin?
- When are they faced with a conflict that changes their lives?
- How do they react to that conflict?
- How do they fail and then learn from those failures to conquer the challenge?
All of these questions, and more, encompass your story acts. You can fit various narrative structures within those acts as well.
But if you define those acts early on in the process, you’ll take that straight line all screenwriters start with (beginning to end) and begin to arc it higher and higher.
Readers and audiences need resolutions. It’s just part of the storytelling experience.
- Nobody starts a joke and ends without a punchline.
- Nobody shares an experience and fails to deliver on what happened in the end.
- Nobody teaches a life lesson without a point to be made and learned from in the end.
We need to see resolutions in the stories we experience, primarily because the reader and audience live in the protagonist’s shoes for 90 to 120 pages or minutes (on average). Stories and conflicts left unresolved leave them with unsatisfactory experiences. We look for catharsis in movies. We seek to experience something. We want to be fulfilled by the end.
- Indiana Jones never got the Ark of the Covenant out of the Nazis’ hands.
- Luke Skywalker never blew up the Death Star.
- Hans Gruber and his henchmen got away, and John McClane never reconciled with Holly.
Every story point and character point needs to be resolved by the end — unless you’re leaving something more for another installment. However, as a spec script screenwriter, you can’t assume that your story will get another installment — let alone get produced at all. So you need to ensure that you’re leaving the reader — and later (fingers crossed) the audience — satisfied with resolutions. And that goes for secondary characters and storylines as well.
Without resolutions, there is no satisfying and concrete end to the story. If there’s no end to the story, there’s nothing to arc to from the beginning.
It sounds blatantly obvious. But you’d be surprised how many novice writers leave plot and character elements — big and small — unresolved in their spec scripts.
Conflict is everything when it comes to story and characterization. Without conflict, there is no reason for the protagonist to leave the comfort of their ordinary world. If they don’t leave their ordinary world, there’s no journey or story to tell. And with no journey or story, the character has no platform to showcase their arcs. And their arcs are primarily portrayed through their actions and reactions while taking on the conflict at hand.
Without that trickle-down effect that conflict causes, you have no screenplay.
Conflict is everything.
You can even have the most simple and basic concept — something that’s pretty tame — and make a fantastic script out of it by injecting as much conflict into the protagonist’s journey. And the conflict needs to be constant, evolving, and unending. With every few pages, you need a new, additional, or evolved conflict that challenges the characters and their physical and emotional being.
And the more conflict you have, the more the characters have to lose as a result of that conflict. It’s called raising the stakes. And the more the stakes are raised, the more invested readers and audiences will be in your story.
As you conjure these conflicts to throw at your characters, you need to ask yourself these questions:
- What do my characters stand to lose through the central conflict?
- What do they stand to gain?
- What is at stake (freedom, lives, relationships)?
- What are the consequences of each and every action they take in reaction to the conflict at hand?
The answers to those questions will come after you’ve introduced the next conflict they are forced to deal with. As you keep adding more and more, those answers will get better and better. Before you know it, you’ll have a screenplay that has significant stakes from the beginning, middle, to end.
That’s it. It’s really that simple. To create the best story and character arcs, all you need are:
- (story) Acts
- (unending) Conflict
Keep that in mind with every single writing session you have and every few pages of the script you write.
Looking for screenwriting software with robust story structure tools? Check out Arc Studio Pro!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies