Plot Outlines and Story Arcs

by Justin

Question: On your plot outline you explain how you have an Overall, Main Character, Impact Character, and Relationship Arc. I understand how the Main, Impact, and Relationship Arcs develop throughout a story, but I don't see the difference between the Main Character Arc and Overall Arc. It seems to me that the Overall Arc describes the growth and change of the main character, but isn't that what the Main Character Arc already does?

Answer: The overall throughline concerns the pursuit of the Story Goal. In a well-structured story, the Story Goal is the concern that affects or involves the majority of characters, not just the main character.

The main character's throughline concerns the main character's personal dilemma -- which affects just them. Often this is a dilemma over the right way to try to achieve the Goal.

In some stories the distinction between the overall and main character throughlines is quite obvious. Let me pick some stories most people know as examples...

In Star Wars the goal is to destroy the Death Star so the Emperor can't use it to enslave the galaxy. Luke's personal throughline is about learning to trust himself (i.e. the Force) so that he will make the right decision at the climax (not relying on his targeting computer) that will let him achieve the Goal.

In The Hunger Games, all of Panem is affected by the tyranny of the Capitol and the need to end it. Katniss's throughline concerns whether the best way to survive is to become a hardened killer or to retain her humanity. Retaining her humanity, by not killing Peeta in the finale, is the correct choice that weakens the Capitol's stranglehold.

You can also have a story where the main character is not the protagonist. For example, in The Great Gatsby Gatsby is the protagonist pursuing the Goal of Daisy and the world of money she represents, but the main character is Nick Carraway, Gatsby's neighbour and Daisey's cousin.
Nick's inner conflict concerns how he should view the morality of the events in the story. Should Gatsby be condemned as a bounder and confidence trickster, or should Daisy be condemned for getting away with murder? Though Nick does not determine the outcome, he achieves a satisfactory resolution to his inner conflict.

In Casablanca, everyone wants to escape Casablanca, and it is especially important for Victor Laslo the Resistance leader. That is the Story Goal. However, Rick is the main character. Rick's personal throughline concerns how he overcomes his isolation thanks to the influence of his ex-love Ilsa. Rick's decision to "re-join the fight" makes it possible for Victor to escape.

In Pride & Prejudice, everyone wants a good marriage. That's the Goal. Elizabeth's personal throughline concerns how she overcomes her prejudice against Mr. Darcy, which enables not only her to achieve the goal, but also her sisters Jane and (to some extent) Lydia.

It's true that in some stories the main character's throughline is so closely entwined with the overall throughline that it's harder to see these throughlines as separate -- but they are.

For instance, in The Fault in Our Stars, the Goal is to find out, when someone dies of cancer, what happens to their friends and family who survive them. Hazel-Grace shares this Goal. However, her personal throughline concerns whether she will allow herself to get close to someone -- which turns out to be the choice that lets her experience being a survivor. Even though the story is largely centred on her, it is full of characters who have either lost a loved one to cancer, are in danger of dying from cancer, or who have survived cancer. Hence, everyone is concerned with or affected by the Goal. How Hazel resolves her personal dilemma thus points the way for everyone else.

It may help to consider that the 8 archetypal characters ( and the 8 essential plot elements ( are generally part of the overall throughline.

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