Storylines: Definitions and examples of the 6 types of tales

In life, it can feel like things happen accidentally, without cause and with little or no meaning. However, the human brain needs meaning. We need to understand why things are going badly for us to avoid, or why things are going so well for us to do more of what works.

That's why people love stories.

In stories, we see the cause-and-effect relationships between otherwise random events. We experience the deeper meaning of life. We can see through the chaos of real life and see the underlying pattern.

The literary term for this pattern is story arc, and people love storylines.

In this article, we'll talk about defining storylines, looking at six of the most common storylines in the literature, how to use them in your writing, and finally examining which storylines are most successful.

Definition of story arc or story arc

A story arc or story arc describes the form of change in value, whether rising or falling, throughout the story.

That is the definition, but what does it actually mean? Let us summarize.

Storylines rise and fall

Stories change. If a story doesn't go up or down, it's not a story. It is a list of events.

The rise and fall of characters' wealth interests us more than anything else.

This change, the rise and fall in a story, can be plotted to form a curve shape line.

And when you graph them, you see patterns in all forms of stories.

Here is a simple plot of a storyline that Kurt Vonnnegut describes as a "man in a hole":

The x-axis of the diagram describes the chronology of the narrative and the y-axis describes the positive or negative value that the main character experiences.

The 6 primary storylines

Of course, storylines don't always follow such simple graphs. In fact, storylines often look more like a smooth curve:

Yes, stories need to change, but that doesn't mean they all change the same way.

However, when you compare the storylines of the best stories in history, patterns emerge, and you find that these storylines are much more consistent than you might think.

Andrew Reagan and his team of researchers from the University of Vermont found this out after analyzing over 4,000 of the best novels from the Project Gutenberg library.

In fact, they found that stories fall into six main sheets that I will list below. The full study "Towards a Science of Human Stories" can be found here (the part we're talking about starts on page 73).

1. Rags to Wealth (Rise)

All stories move, but some stories have only one movement.

In the story arc "Rags to Riches", this movement is a continuous ascent towards a happy life.

Rags to Riches storylines include:

  • Disney is confused
  • A winter fairy tale by William Shakespeare
  • Jane Austen pride and prejudice
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl
  • Holes by Louis Sachar
  • Roald Dahl's BFG
  • My Fair Lady (film) / Pygmalion (novel) by George Bernard Shaw
  • The great American dream / progress

The Rags to Riches story arc is one of the most common types of stories, but these stories are still very popular, according to University of Vermont researcher Reagan, who found other storylines read more frequently.

2. Wealth to rags (autumn)

As with Rags to Riches, there is only one movement in a Riches to Rags story. However, this movement is in the opposite direction, more of a fall than an increase.

Examples of storylines from riches to rags:

  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • George Orwell Animal Farm
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • I love you forever from Robert Munsch
  • Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

In a Riches to Rags story, the protagonist begins the plot at a fairly high place, but slowly her life continues to evolve until her life ends up being a ruin of his former self.

Addiction stories or stories about mental health often fit into this structure.

3rd man in a hole (fall, then climb)

This is one of the most common and top rated bows and even a bow that I used in my Crowdsourcing Paris book.

Examples of Man in a Hole storylines:

  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Disney & # 39; s Monsters, Inc.
  • Find Nemo
  • "Make America great again," is Donald Trump's campaign slogan

Many stories actually include two consecutive man in a hole storylines, as this curve shows:

According to Reagan and researchers from the University of Vermont, this is one of the most popular structures. He says in his newspaper:

We find that "Ikarus" (-SV 2), "Oedipus" (-SV 3) and two consecutive "man in a hole" arches (SV 4) are the three most successful emotional arches.

Examples of the double man in an arch are:

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
  • The Lion King at Disney
  • And more

Some stories even contain many sheets of man in hole – man in hole, man in hole, man in a hole ad infinitum. Lord of the Rings and the 6,700-page online novel Worm are examples of this.

4. Ikarus / Freytag pyramid (rise, then fall)

This is the plot structure that Gustav Freytag was interested in when he coined the plot structure that is now known as the Freytags pyramid (contrary to popular belief, the Freytags pyramid is not a universal plot structure, but a description of a single sheet). More information on this literary concept (and how it has been misunderstood since then) can be found in our full Freytag pyramid guide here.

The Arch of Icarus, named after the Greek story of a boy who escapes captivity on an island by building wax wings but ultimately falling into the sea after flying too close to the sun, is one of the most popular storylines.

Examples of the Ikarus story arc are:

  • Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The upcoming novel Pluck by J.H. Bunting (me!)
  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  • Peter Pan from Disney
  • The Old Man and the Sea / A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • The fault in our stars by John Green
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  • Titanic (film)
  • Great expectations from Charles Dickens
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The great Santini by Pat Conroy
  • If the word "great" is in the title, you know you are facing a sad ending! This is a popular story structure among literature authors and a basic structure for many classics.

5. Cinderella (rise, fall, then rise)

The Cinderella Arch, like Rags to Riches, is one of the most common arches that can often be found in love stories, sports stories, and Disney films.

Examples of Cinderella storylines:

  • The Disney film Frozen
  • Disney is on
  • How to Train Your Dragon (Film / Novel)
  • Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte
  • Disney Pinochio
  • Aladdin from Disney

If you're writing a Disney movie, there's a good chance it's Cinderella.

6. Oedipus (fall, then rise, then fall)

The Oedipus arch is one of the most difficult to peel off structures, but also one of the best read structures.

Examples of the Oedipus story arc are:

  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • And then there was none from Agatha Christie
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
  • The sun also rises from Ernest Hemingway
  • Gone with the wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The godfather of Mario Puzo
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Hamlet of William Shakespeare

How story arcs fit into dramatic structures

The dramatic structure describes the elements of the movement of a story, and each of the storylines above contains the dramatic structure. At The Write Practice we use a six-part dramatic structure:

  1. exposition
  2. Inciting incident
  3. Increasing measures / progressive complications
  4. crisis
  5. Climax
  6. resolution

Note that many people incorporate the falling plot into its dramatic structure. I don't include it because I think the term "falling action" is misleading and really only suitable for Freytag's narrow definition of the tragic Ikarus structure, not a modern three-act story structure. You can read more about it in my article on falling actions.

These elements of a dramatic structure fit into the storyline "Rags to Riches":

In this arc is the exposition has little to no movement and should primarily get the reader used to the world of history and its characters.

The inciting incident the upward movement begins.

The rising action describes the upward movement of the movement.

The combination of the crisis and Climax is the point of climax, the moment when things could either improve or reverse.

Finally the resolution the story ends with one or two scenes of relative stability.

These components of a dramatic structure can be found in every arch and are part of what gives each arch its structure.

Activity sheets measure values

The increase and decrease in the value of a story can generally be expressed as “assets”. However, you can also become more specific by measuring the movement of a story using six different story values.

You heard that your story needs conflict, but what does that actually mean? Because the type of conflict stories (probably) no longer needs fist fights and loud arguments (although that might not hurt depending on the story!).

No, the kind of conflict your story needs is between a value and its opposite.

What values?

According to Shawn Coyne, author of Story Grid, a good story rises and falls in the spectrum of one of six different values. The six values ​​that Mazlow's hierarchy of human needs follow are as follows:

  1. Physiologically. The value of food, water, air, warmth and rest. Life against death.
  2. Safety. The value of personal security and group security. In terms of history, life against fate is worse than death.
  3. Love / belonging. The value of intimate relationships and friendships. Love against hate.
  4. Appreciation. The value of personal prestige and performance. Performance against failure.
  5. Self-actualization. The value of reaching your potential. Maturity vs. Greenness.
  6. Transcendence. The value of becoming more than yourself. Good versus evil.

The rise and fall of these values ​​determines the rise and fall of the arc.

For example, in a space adventure story like Gravity, where core value is physiological survival, you would measure the arc using this life / death metric.

Let's break this arc and analyze the rise and fall in the value of life and death in the key moments of history:

*** spoiler alarm ***

Exposition: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalksi (George Clooney) take a spacewalk with the Hubble Space Telescope. Life / death value measure: stable.

Incitement: A rocket attack causes a chain reaction of space debris that threatens to destroy much of the spacecraft on the planet. Life / death value measure: A death threat appears.

Rising action: The space debris field begins to destroy spaceships, including Stein and Kowalski's ship, and they have to flee to the International Space Station. But the spacecraft's ISS has been damaged and they have to go to the Chinese space station. On the way, Kowalski sacrifices his life to save Stone. Other space gadgets happen until Stone has no survival options. Life / death value measure: getting closer to probable death.

Crisis: As the only survivor of the rubble field and trapped in a Soyuz capsule without fuel, Stone has to decide whether she wants to end her life or continue working to survive. At first, she decides to turn off life support, but when she loses consciousness, a vision of Kowalski gives her a final solution to reach the functioning Chinese reentry capsule. Life / death value measure: close to death.

Climax: Stone reaches the Chinese reentry capsule just as the space station falls into the atmosphere. It opens from the station and descends to earth when a fire starts. After she has safely landed in a lake, she immediately has to evacuate the capsule because of the smoke and almost drowns before finally swimming on the shore. Life / death value measure: Almost death, but survival becomes a slim option.

Resolution: Stone takes her first steps on earth and thanks Kowalski. When she sees the debris burning in the earth's atmosphere, a helicopter flies over her and signals her rescue. Life / death value measure: Survive with a small lead!

*** End spoiler alarm ***

Notice how the story moves from practically no chance of death to death, almost a certainty to the solution that makes survival even more precious because the protagonist is close to death.

History shifts the value from the positive to the negative form and back again depending on the value. The arch of history is created by this rising and falling movement.

The same bow can be used to tell a love story, a performance story, or even a coming-of-age story. The arc remains the same, but the value represented by the arc changes.

How to use storylines when writing

Now that you've understood the six main arches and how story forms interact with the core value of a story, how do you actually use this information to write great stories?

Here are five tips for using storylines in writing:

1. Above all, make sure your story is moving.

It can move up, it can move down, it can move up and then down. But it has to move, and this movement has to start early.

A story that remains the same is not a story, but a representation of events.

2. In the first draft, don't worry that your story will be associated with a particular arc.

You may know what your bow is when you start writing, and you may not.

Do not worry. Just tell your story (and make sure the story moves).

3. In the first draft, worry about finding your core value.

While you don't have to worry about finding the right form of your story at the beginning of the writing, you should try to determine the core value, the y-axis, on which your story moves.

If you can determine your core value (see the list of six values ​​above for the options), you are much better equipped to ensure that it moves as it is needed.

And while you may be choosing more than one value – perhaps a subplot value or the internal genre – if you try to move it to too many values ​​your story will become cloudy and it will be very difficult to work with it in yours second draft to work.

Above all, keep it simple. You can write another book at any time, but a book that tries to do too much can easily become unusable.

4. Write to the crisis.

When you write a first draft, you don't have to know everything that will happen.

If you're more of a panther than a planner, you may not know anything that is happening.

But the best thing you can do is work towards the crisis.

The crisis is the most important turning point in a story. It is the moment when a character is given a difficult choice that determines his fate.

This moment is usually at the bottom of an arc or at the top of a summit. The climax will follow almost immediately.

If you can find this crisis, you have found your story.

Everything in a story builds on the crisis.

To learn more about how to discover the crisis in your history, read my full guide to a literary crisis here.

5. Find and improve the bow in your second draft.

While you don't need to know the shape of your story arc in your first draft, look for your arc after completing your first draft and before starting your second.

What is its shape? How does it rise and fall? Is it falling enough? Is it rising enough? Is there enough movement?

The purpose of the second design is to improve your bow, make it clearer, smoother and more effective.

All good stories have an arc

Good stories are about change, so all good stories have an arc.

By finding the bow in your story and improving that bow, you can give your readers what they want: meaning.

All people need meaning. While the world often feels confusing, messy, and meaningless, the role of the storyteller is to help people find meaning in their lives.

That's why people love stories.

And soon readers will love your story.

Which of the six storylines is your favorite? Which story arc would you like to use for your next book? Let me know in the comments.


Let's practice using storylines with a creative writing exercise. We will do the following:

  1. Choose one of the six storylines: Rags to Wealth, Wealth to Rags, Man in a Hole, Icarus, Cinderella, Oedipus.
  2. Write a story in six sentences based on this sheet, using the six elements of the dramatic structure: exposure, incitement to the incident, rising action, crisis, climax and solution.
  3. Then set your timer to fifteen minutes and expand your story as much as possible with six sentences.

If your time is up, post your practice in the comment section below. And when you post, be sure to give feedback on at least three other stories.

Have fun writing!

Joe Bunting

Joe BuntingJoe Bunting is the author and leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real adventure story in France. It was a # 1 new release on Amazon. You can follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).