Story arc

Story arc

A story arc is an extended or continuing storyline in episodic storytelling media such as television, comic books, comic strips, boardgames, video games, and in some cases, films. In a television series, for example, the story would unfold over many episodes. In television, the use of the story arc is much more common in dramas than in comedies, especially in soap operas. Webcomics are more likely to use story arcs than newspaper comics, as most web comics have readable archives online that a newcomer to the strip can read in order to understand what's going on.

Many American comic book series are now written in four- or six-issue arcs, within a continuing series. Short story arcs are easier to package as trade paperbacks for resale, and more accessible to the casual reader than the never-ending continuity that once characterised comics.

Dramatic structure and purpose

The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another — in other words, to effect a change. This change or transformation often takes the form of either Aristotle's tragic fall from grace or a reversal of that pattern. One common form in which this reversal is found is a character going from a situation of weakness to one of strength. For example, a poor woman goes on adventures and in the end makes a fortune for herself, or a lonely man falls in love and marries.

Another form of storytelling that offers a change or transformation of character is that of "hero's journey," as laid out in Joseph Campbell's theory of the monomyth in his work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers details the same theory specifically for western storytelling.

Story arcs in contemporary drama often follow the pattern of bringing a character to a low point, removing the structures the character depends on, then forcing the character to find new strength without those structures.

Story arcs in television

Story arcs on television have been around for decades, and are common in many countries where multi-episode storylines are the norm (an example being the UK's Doctor Who), as well as most anime series. Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example, is a single story arc spanning 26 episodes. Other longer anime have multiple story arcs, such as Bleach and One Piece. Perhaps one of the most known anime, Dragon Ball Z, has 4 large story arcs, called "Sagas", divided into smaller sagas. The CGI Cartoon Series ReBoot has 7 story arcs (One at the end of Series 2, 4 in Series 3, and 2 in Series 4), each other than the first one, has been given a name (To Mend and Defend, The Net, The Web, The Viral Wars, Daemon Rizing and My Two Bobs).

Many arc-based series in past decades, such as V, were often short-lived and found it difficult to attract new viewers; they also rarely appear in traditional syndication. However, the rise of DVD retail of television series has worked in arc-based productions' favor as the standard season collection format allows the viewer to have easy access to the relevant episodes. One area of television where story arcs have always thrived, however, is in the realm of the soap opera, and often episodic series have been derisively referred to as "soap operas" when they have adopted story arcs.

Arc-based series draw and reward dedicated viewers, and fans of a particular show follow and discuss different story arcs independently from particular episodes. Story arcs are sometimes split into subarcs if deemed significant by fans, making it easy to refer to certain episodes if their production order titles are unknown. Episodes not relevant to story arcs are sometimes dismissed as filler by fans, but might be referred to as self-contained or stand-alone episodes by producers.

Story arc usage in American TV series

Story arc use in American episodic series (as opposed to miniseries) has been sporadic, in part because of the belief that arc-heavy series are difficult to sell in syndication where stations might not air episodes in order, or casual/occasional viewers might lose interest.

One of the first shows to use story arcs was I Love Lucy, which featured several ongoing story-lines such as Lucy's pregnancy in Season 2, the Ricardos and Mertzs going to Hollywood in Season 4, and Europe in Season 5. However these arcs, with the notable exception of Lucy's pregnancy, were still mainly episodic with no long-lasting consequences.

A more influential attempt at a long-term story arc was in the 1960s TV series The Fugitive. Though the series consisted of self-contained episodes, the protagonist Richard Kimble's primary motivation was finding the mysterious "One-Armed Man" who framed him for murder (giving him the impetus to appear in a different town each week). A small handful of episodes devoted themselves almost entirely to the search for the "One-Armed Man" or Kimble's attempt to stay a step ahead of his primary police pursuer, Inspector Gerard. The series proved influential, with the The Incredible Hulk being the best-known imitator.

A new type of arc-based television storytelling was introduced in the early 1980s, when several dramas, notably Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, began to use a format of overlapping story arcs; that is, in any given episode one new arc might be starting, while a second was ongoing, and yet another might be concluding. These story arcs were typically resolved much more quickly than in a soap opera show, and they might be of varying lengths and were often combined with additional storylines that were contained within a single episode. The early 1990s David Lynch-Mark Frost-produced ABC series Twin Peaks used this method extensively, which, despite critical acclaim and extensive media attention, contributed to its cancellation after two seasons. The technique proved highly influential and was adopted for later, even more successful dramas including L.A. Law and ER, as well as for some comedies.

A noted pioneer of the use of sweeping story arcs in American television, and more notably American science fiction television, was J. Michael Straczynski. His series, Babylon 5, relied almost exclusively on the story arc. Up to that point, science fiction television in the U.S. was often associated with the reset button technique, where individual episodes dominated a series' run and consequences were rarely far-reaching. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would also make extensive use of story arcs, including a main arc begun in the pilot episode, which spanned all seven seasons and thus "bookended" the series. Around the same time, Chris Carter developed The X-Files, which was a mixture of stand-alone episodes and a long running story arc dubbed by Carter as "the Xfiles." Carter and Straczynski proved the concept was viable for science fiction and would pave the way for current arc-heavy genre shows where events within the story have lasting consequence, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the new Battlestar Galactica. The central storyline of such series is often called the "mytharc".

In recent years, American viewers have become increasingly more accepting of story arcs, with arc-based series such as Alias, Six Feet Under, 24, Desperate Housewives, Heroes, and Lost (which are based on huge, long-running story arcs, that intertwine and can also revert backwards and forwards in time during an episode) finding critical acclaim and ratings success, and the release of arc-heavy TV series on DVD generating huge sales. The HBO series The Sopranos utilized arcs and even portrayed a main character, Christopher Moltisanti, referring to his own desire to not "just survive," but rather have his life lead on a major story arc, asking "Where's my arc?" (Sopranos, episode 1.8, 1999).

The tide has turned to the point where arcs have become expected elements of dramatic series, and shows that rely upon stand-alone episodes are now quite often held up for criticism (a good example being Star Trek: Enterprise which enjoyed fan and critical acceptance only after adopting an arc-based format after two seasons of mostly stand-alone episodes). The Asian-influenced Avatar The Last Airbender enjoys high ratings outside its intended 6 to 11 year old audience as well as praise from various critics primarily due to being one of the very few current American animated series to feature a series-long story arc with a central storyline.

While it is uncommon to see a story arc in sitcoms, many comedies have tried their hand at it. One example is seasons 4 and 7 of the NBC hit Seinfeld. Season 4 involved Jerry and George writing their script for their own television pilot, and Elaine's relationship with "Crazy" Joe Davola. Season 7 dealt with George becoming engaged to Susan Ross, then regretting it and trying to break it off, eventually leading to her accidental death in the season finale. Curb Your Enthusiasm also had season long story arcs in seasons 2-6, and Arrested Development also contained multiple story arcs over its three seasons.

Pro-wrestling has also used story arcs, called "angles" within the industry, to tell of feuds between two wrestlers and of different gimmicks each wrestler is given. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is most known to use the story arc format in the pro-wrestling business, so much so that owner Vince McMahon has referred to the WWE as a "sports-entertainment" brand, which has also been uttered in many ways among the WWE staff, and McMahon has at times referred to the WWE as a "male soap opera".

Story arc usage in Manga and Anime

Manga and Anime are usually good examples of arc-based stories, to the point that most series shorter than 26 chapters are a single, huge arc spanning all the chapters. Syndication, thus, is made difficult with anime, as loose episodes often end up confusing viewers unless they watch the entire series. Longer series usually have more than one arc — again, very long arcs are often 30 chapters long such as Dragon Ball Z or One Piece or even Naruto. Tokusatsu also does this and it is usually marked when a main villain is vanquished and a new villain (or hero) appears.

See also

External links

  • BFI webpage: Drama series and serials explaining the difference between a series and a serial
  • Games: Tell Me A Story. How a story arc helps make a game great having the situations and decisions metamorphose during the course of a single game so that the player has the experience of participating in a story with a wide sweep. When a game has a beginning, middle and an end, it is more than just a series of decisions -- the entire game is an adventure.

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