The Series: the Arc

Perhaps one of the most successful book series is Harry Potter. What made the series so popular? Many things, but the one this article focuses on is the series arc.

The arc of a story consists of about six narrative steps. Although different words are used to describe these steps, they refer to the same concepts. First, the world and characters are introduced. Second, a significant change occurs in the protagonist’s otherwise stable existence, which defines the protagonist’s story goal. For example, Gandalf and the dwarves visit Bilbo Baggins at his quiet home, asking him to retrieve the Arkenstone from Smaug’s dwelling. Third, the protagonist resists this change until some other significant shift compels him or her to address it. Fourth, the protagonist commences his journey to reach his story goal, encountering one obstacle after the next. He loses hope, until a second major shift propels him forward to the climatic obstacle: frequently a battle with the antagonist directly—the fifth step. Sixth, the subplots are resolved.

Why call this an “arc”? The curve refers to the protagonist’s emotional state. The story starts with her more or less happy. As she progresses toward her story goal, however, she becomes more miserable, being the most miserable in the climactic battle. Providing she accomplishes the story goal, the story ends with her happy again, usually a little happier than when she started. The “arc” can also refer to the momentum in the story, as well as level of conflict. Stories frequently begin slow and the pace increases, ending in a slower mode again. As for conflict, stories often commence with a low level of conflict, which then increases, and then resolves.

A story arc is usually found in each book in a book series. For instance, Harry Potter completes another year of school, having faced a large challenge that year. Each book consequently tells a self-standing story and gives the reader a fulfilling experience. A series arc, by contrast, is the story told over the entire series, starting in book one and ending in the final book. The reader only gets part of this story in each book: e.g., Harry Potter’s increasing confrontation with Voldemort.

In a single book, the structure consists of Stories A, B, C, and D. Story A is the main storyline, whereas B, C, and D are the subplots. Similarly, in a book series, the structure can be Stories A, B, C, and D. Story A is the series arc, the story told over the entire series, whereas B, C, and D are the story arcs in books one, two, and three respectively. In this example, book four (the final book) consists of steps five and six of the series arc (the climactic battle and resolution of that storyline).

The series arc motivates the reader to continue to the next book, luring the reader through the whole series. The bothersome question of how the series arc concludes drives the reader across all the books, which provides one reason the Harry Potter series was so successful. A book series omitting the series arc lacks this particular enticement.