Character Arcs: Making a Long Story Short

Here’s the link to this article by Jami Gold.

March 14, 2023 

A well-structured story uses events (also called story beats) to move the narrative forward — with compelling issues, rising stakes, and an organic sense of cause and effect — toward a surprising-yet-inevitable resolution. At the same time, our story’s plot events force our characters to react, adapt, make choices, and decide on priorities, often resulting in new goals and revealing a character’s values and beliefs. The biggest events are “turning points,” which send the story in new directions and create the sense of change for a story’s arc.

In other words, story structure affects both plot and character (internal/emotional) arcs. So just as we must adjust the plot aspects of story structure when writing a shorter story, we also need to consider the character arc aspects of story structure with shorter stories. Let’s dig into the ways we might tweak story structure for shorter stories, especially when it comes to character arcs.

Story Structure & Shorter Plots

On a basic level, we can understand story structure as:

  • story beginnings introduce characters and story problems,
  • story middles add stakes and depth to both characters and story problems, and
  • story endings bring issues to a satisfying conclusion.

In addition to those basics, the structure of novel-length stories fleshes out events — with inciting incidents, denouements, subplots, pinch points, or other complications — to increase the stakes, create more obstacles, explore failed attempts to solve the problems, etc. Those techniques are especially common in the middle of the story to prevent a “sagging middle.”

Those fleshing-out events like subplots and pinch points are usually the first plot aspects we trim for shorter length storiesShort stories simply don’t have the word count for subplots or other complications.

Character Arcs: What Are Our Options?

3 Types of Character Arcs

Character arcs in Western storytelling are defined by 3 categories:

  • Positive Arc: (also called a Growth Arc) The character learns and grows, bettering themselves (such as by understanding how their previous choices were self-sabotaging), as part of their journey to overcome the story obstacles.
  • Flat Arc: The character learns how to better the world around them (such as by understanding how they can take action) as part of their journey to overcome the story obstacles (think of many single-protagonist series).
  • Negative Arc: (also called a Failure Arc) The character fails to overcome the story obstacles and reach their desires (such as by becoming disillusioned, corrupted, etc.) and succumbs to their flaw (think of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader).

Spectrum of Character Arc Depths

Each of those types of arcs can be explored at different depths. For example, in a positive arc, a character can grow and better themselves in a…

  • simplistic way, such as being willing to trust someone else, or in a
  • deeper way, examining how that emotional journey happens, such as exploring an emotional wound from their backstory that led to them having fears and false beliefs about the world (“trust just leads to being stabbed in the back”), and the character working to overcome their fears and false beliefs to be willingly vulnerable with their trust of another.

There’s no “best” approach, as different stories might work better with certain types or depths of character arcs, and different genres have different expectations for the emotion level of character arcs. In addition, the length of our story can affect the type and depth of our character’s arc.

Character Arcs, Story Structure, and Story Length

Mapping a Simplistic Character Arc onto Story Structure

Using a positive/growth arc as an example, here’s how a simplistic character arc can be mapped onto—and explored within—a story’s structure:

  • What does the character long for and desire? (story ending)
  • What choices are they making that keep them from their dream? (story beginning)
  • What do they learn? (how they change throughout the middle)
  • What are they willing to do at the end that they weren’t willing to do before? (story climax)

Adjusting Story Structure for Deeper Arcs

If our story has the word count and setup for a deeper emotional arc for our character, we could flesh that basic story structure out with:

  • subplots that reinforce their backstory wound or fears from a different angle,
  • scenes with failed attempts to overcome their fears,
  • plot events that make them retreat into their fears,
  • scenes with the character’s growth/epiphanies tying their arc into the story’s theme, etc.

5 Options for Adjusting Story Structure & Character Arcs of Shorter Stories

If our story isn’t novel length, we have several choices for how to adjust our story’s structure for a character arc in a shorter story. For example, we could…

  • stick with a positive/growth arc but keep it simplistic rather than deep – we need a minimum of 3 spread-out sections (such as scenes, or perhaps just paragraphs in shorter stories) to explore the character’s issue, with at least: one to establish the longing, one to illustrate the struggle, and one to show the change.
  • show a positive/growth arc with deeper emotions by tying the change very tightly to the main plot, so every plot event allows for exploration of the character’s internal arc.
  • explore a deeper positive/growth arc—if the story is long enough for a subplot—by making the “subplot” actually the character’s emotional arc (or tie the change very tightly to the subplot, rather than the main plot as above).
  • use a flat character arc, which is often easier to tie directly to the main plot, as the character learns how to take action and cause the change they want to see in the world throughout the plot.
  • limit the number or depth of character arcs if we have multiple protagonists (like in a romance) by having only one of the characters complete an arc, or at most using only a flat arc with the second protagonist (such as by having one protagonist “change the world” by convincing the other protagonist in a romance that they’re perfect for each other).

Not every story needs characters to have an internal conflict arc. Not every story needs deep emotional arcs. But if we want character arcs in our story—and our story is less than novel length—we need to be more purposeful and deliberate with how we structure our story to make the most of our character’s arc with the word count we have. *smile*

Have you written shorter stories where you needed to adjust the story’s structure? How did you adjust the structure for the plot (reduced complications or subplots)? How did you adjust the structure for the character arc (changed the type or depth of the arc)? Had you thought about how your story’s length might affect story structure or character arcs before? Do you have any questions about how story length affects story structure or character arcs?

JAMI GOLD – Resident Writing Coach

Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.

To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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