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Can you write a story with no character arc? Is that even possible?

And, if it is,
will the story be doomed to drabness in comparison to those that do feature rich
character arcs (of the positive, flat, and negative varieties)?
These are questions I encounter frequently, and theyre absolutely valid. We
often think character arc and story are synonymousbut then we go looking for
the arcs in favorite stories, by trying to find the characters Lie and Truth, and we
sometimes come up short. Are we just blind to the arc the author intended? Or
could it be that such a (gasp!) soulless thing as a story with no character arc
actually exists?
Lets take a look.
Is It Possible to Write a Story With No Character Arc?
In a word: yes. Totally possible. This is fiction after all. Anythings possible!
Character arcs are centered on moments in peoples lives when theyre changing
their mindsets, their worldviews, their personal paradigms. But lots of
interesting things can happen without radical personal growth having to along
with it.
One of my siblings favorite stories of our growing-up years is howd wed play
The Great Escape. Id always get to be Steve McQueen (hey, I was the oldest! I
got to pick first), my brother would always be James Garner, and wed always
make our little sister, despite her protests, be the other American. (Dont
remember him, do you? We didnt even know his name, so we called him Mickey
Brown.) Shell never ever let us forget that.
Sadly, Im unable to report any personal growth involved. Still, its a good story!
What goes in real life goes for fiction as well. If you have a story in which stuff
happens and its interestingbut theres no character arcthat doesnt mean
you might not still have a rip-roaringly grand tale on your hands.
Character Arc = Story, No Character Arc = Situation
In his Writer article A big-city cop moves to a small coastal town (September
2013), Jeff Lyons differentiates a story from a situation, using the following four
Can You Write a Story With No Character Arc?
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[1] A situation is a problem or predicament with an obvious and
direct solution. [2] A situation does not reveal character; it tests
problem-solving skills. [3] A situation has no (or few) subplots,
twists or complications. [4] A situation begins and ends in the same
emotional space that it started in.
Number Two is especially important. A book with no character arc will still be
about a protagonist who wants something, has a goal to gain that thing, and
meets up with opposition that gets in his way. Hell no doubt learn a few facts
and perhaps skills along the way. But he wont have to undergo a fundamental
personal change in order to defeat his antagonist. Whatever Lie may be present
in his life wont be challenged by the events of this story.
By Lyons's definition, Raiders of the Lost Ark (or is it Arc?) is a situation, not a
story. Indy has no character arc. Hes the same guy at the end of the movie as
he was at the beginning. Did that harm the story? Not at all. Nobody (including
Spielberg, who was convinced while he was making it that it was B film) would
accuse it of deep thematic grist. But its a timeless and innovative romp that
continues to charm audiences.
How to Tell the Difference Between No Arc and a Flat Arc
Flat character arcs involve no personal inner change for the protagonist. So how
is that different from a story with no arc? And how can you tell the difference?
The key is that flat-arc stories still incorporate a Lie/Truth. But unlike in change
arcs, the protagonist already possesses the Truth and is able to use it to change
the characters and world around him. By contrast, in stories with no arc, there
will be no battle between a Truth and a Lie.
Arc-less stories tend to show up predominately in the action/adventure genres,
where the emphasis is on the physical journey/survival of the characters. At first
glance, we might want to lump the whole action milieu into this mix. However,
many stories of this ilk do incorporate comparatively shallow Lies and Truths,
making them flat-arc stories.
For example, Jurassic Park (to return to one of my favorite examples) is
essentially as much of a situation as is Indiana Jones, even though it
incorporates a positive change arc in a subplot. But, unlike Indiana Jones,
Jurassic Park presents its scientist protagonists as flat-arc characters trying to
use the Truth that life won't be contained to protect and change the dangerous
world in which they find themselves.
This type of Truth isnt going be as thematically deep as Hamlets existential to
be or not to be variety, but it can still bring an added dimension even to stories
that, on the surface, dont seem to require any type of arc.
Should You Write a Story With No Character Arc?
And now we come to the big question. Should you ever consider writing a story
with no character arc?
Theres no black or white answer to this. You can write a story without a
character arc, and, whats more, you can write a fabulously entertaining story. If
you have a story that works well based on its situation alone and you dont want
to mess with an arc, go for it.
However, Ive yet to meet the story that couldnt be improved by a thoughtful
character arc, even if its as slight as the flat arc in Jurassic Park. As Lyons says
in his article:
Situations entertain us; stories entertain and teach us what it means
to be human.
Weigh your options. What would be the pros and cons of excluding an arc from
your current story? Listen to your gut--but never include a character arc just
because you feel you have to.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland is
the internationally published author
of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining
Your Novel and Structuring Your
Novel, as well as the western A Man
Called Outlaw, the medieval epic
Behold the Dawn, and the epic fan-
tasy Dreamlander. When shes not
making things up, shes busy
mentoring other authors. She makes
her home in western Nebraska.