The character’s emotional arc follows the story’s dramatic structure. According to Gustav Freytag, a story has five parts: exposition, rising action, turning point or climax, falling action, and resolution (a denouement in comedy or a catastrophe in tragedy). In the exposition, the writer provides background information, introducing the main character and major supporting characters, establishing the setting, and defining the basic conflict. The rising action complicates the basic conflict, adding a series of successively more challenging obstacles. The turning point, or climax, reverses the direction of the action. The falling action unravels the conflict. The denouement, or resolution, brings about the comedy’s happy ending, or the catastrophe brings about the main character’s ruin. (A comedy is a story in which the main character is better off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning, and a tragedy is the opposite: the main character is worse off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning.)
The action sequence, or dramatic structure, of the well-made plot is often illustrated by a diagram known as Freytag’s Pyramid:
At the same time, a parallel series of incidents occur within the character’s inner self, or personality. The story starts with the protagonist lacking something that he or she values or burdened by something from which he or she wants to be relieved. In an effort to attain this want, he or she displays increasing competence or incompetence until he or she experiences a moment of recognition in which he or she has an epiphany about him- or herself which equips the character to change his or her course of action. This change in perception, accompanied by a change in behavior, leads to increasing incompetence or competence, which brings about the protagonists’ acquisition of that which he or she had lacked by valued or his or her relief from the burden under which he or she suffered. This sequence of emotional changes can be illustrated by a diagram similar to Freytag’s Pyramid, since the changes parallel the incidents of the plot’s physical and thematic action:
Before we discuss ways by which the moments in the protagonist’s emotional arc may be varied and enriched, let’s look at an example of both dramatic structure, as analyzed by Freytag, and the parallel emotional arc that the protagonist experiences. The film version of The Wizard of Oz offers a familiar instance.
During the exposition, we meet the main character, Dorothy Gale, a nineteenth-century Kansas farm girl, her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, their three farmhands, Ms. Gulch, and a traveling fortune teller, Professor Marvel. We learn that Dorothy feels lonely and neglected. Her only friend, she believes, is her pet dog, Toto. Dorothy is dissatisfied with her home and dreams of going to a more exciting and glamorous place “somewhere over the rainbow.” The exposition introduces the protagonist and other major supporting characters, establishes the setting, and identifies the basic conflict, which is psychological. The inciting moment (the incident that initiates the story’s rising action) occurs when Toto escapes Ms. Gulch’s custody (she had been taking him to be destroyed for having bitten her) and, to save him, Dorothy runs away from home, to be caught in the tornado that whisks her, house and all, off to the strange, enchanted land of Oz that lies “somewhere over the rainbow.”
The turning point, or climax, of the story occurs as Dorothy, to put out the fire with which the witch threatens the Scarecrow, throws a bucket of water on the villain, the witch shrivels to nothingness, and Dorothy retrieves her broomstick.
During the falling action, they take the broomstick back to Oz, where the Wizard grants the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion the gifts they’d sought, but is exposed as a charlatan when he is unable to help Dorothy. A moment of final suspense (an instant wherein the audience or reader is left in doubt as to what will happen to the protagonist) takes place when the Wizard leaves her stranded in Oz when the hot-air balloon by which he had arrived in Oz, purely by accident, floats off with only him aboard. Glinda appears and tells Dorothy that, all along the girl has had the power to return home at any time simply by clicking her heels together three times as she recites the phrase, “There’s no place like home.”
After a tearful farewell to her friends, she does so, and, as the story’s denouement occurs, she awakens in bed, surrounded by her family and their farmhands, to whom she relates the lesson she’s learned from her experience (the story‘s theme), concluding “There’s no place like home” and that if one cannot find happiness in his or her own backyard, he or she is not likely to discover it anywhere else.
We can diagram this same story in terms of the protagonist’s emotional arc, which parallels the physical and thematic development of the story:
In the exposition, Dorothy is dissatisfied with her home life, feeling lonely and neglected. She longs for a more exciting and glamorous life “somewhere over the rainbow.”
The inciting moment, during which Dorothy seeks to evade personal responsibility by running away from home, catapults her into the story’s rising action, where she Dorothy, becoming homesick, shows increasing incompetence in resolving her dissatisfaction with her home life by taking upon herself more responsibility for her own fate. The turning point occurs when she matures, taking action on her own behalf, thereby becoming, in principle, if not yet fully, independent and autonomous. During the falling action, she becomes increasing more competent in resolving her dissatisfaction with her home life as she discovers that the Wizard is incompetent and cannot help her to realize her goal. During the moment of final suspense, the audience wonders whether Dorothy will find a way home, now that her hoped-for rescuer has, in effect, abandoned her. The story, a comedy, reaches its denouement as Dorothy realizes that she alone is responsible for making her life satisfying, or “happy,” and she becomes a mature young woman, rather than the girl she’d been at the beginning of the film. Again, the protagonist’s emotional arc parallels the story’s dramatic structure: plot is a means of showing the development of character, and the development of character constitutes, on the figurative or symbolic level, the story’s plot.
Now that we have seen how plot and character are flip sides, as it were, of the same coin (story), let’s consider how we can vary and enrich the formula in which the main character either lacks something that he or she values or is burdened with something of which he or she wants to be relieved.
- The protagonist lacks something that he or she values; by the story’s end, he or she either gains or does not gain the desired object. (“Object” is used loosely, for the “thing” that the main character lacks and desires may be something quite intangible, such as peace of mind, love, or respect, rather than a material artifact.)
- The protagonist acquires the thing, and still values it.
- The protagonist acquires the thing, but values it less than he or she had valued it at first.
- The protagonist acquires the thing, but values something else more than it.
- The protagonist acquires the thing, but no longer values it at all.
- The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but still values it.
- The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but values it less than he or she had valued it at first.
- The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but no longer values it at all.
- The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, and values it even more than he or she had valued it at first.
- The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but values something else more than it.
- The protagonist acquires the thing, but he or she loses it (or gives it away or has it stolen), with any of the consequences identified above following the loss--that is, he or she still more or less values it, no longer values it at all, or values something else instead.
- In acquiring the thing, the protagonist does not change.
- In acquiring the thing, the protagonist changes for the better.
- In acquiring the thing, the protagonist changes for the worse.