If you work in TV or film, you’ll often hear the term “story arc”. It’s often used as a slightly pretentious way of saying “story”.

I have to say, it never made much sense to me why a story should be described as an “arc”. An arc, after all, is a section of a circle – a smooth curve – which doesn’t seem like a good description of the way a story unfolds. I was curious where the term had come from.

I did a search on Google’s Ngrams, and thought I’d found examples of the term being used going back hundreds of years… but most of them seem to be cases where the words “story are” have been badly scanned. (“All characters in this story arc fictitious.”)

The first legitimate uses don’t crop up until around 1973, from Time magazine, in a review of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. (Time, Vol 102, p. 53.)

He accomplishes this with no sacrifice to the pacing of his action sequences or the suspenseful development of his story’s arc.

However, the term doesn’t really take off until the late 1980s. This 1988 TV Guide listing for the series Wiseguy uses “story arc” to mean a minor story which unfolds over a number of TV episodes.

This five-episode story arc casts Jerry Lewis and Ron Silver as a father and son who become entangled with mobsters …

During the nineties, the term became increasingly popular.

According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, “story arc” describes a shorter story contained within a longer one, and was popularized by enthusiasts of Joseph Campbell and his “hero’s journey” (although Campbell himself doesn’t seem to use the term “arc”).

Well, that makes sense.

In case you don’t know, Joseph Campbell was a mythologist who claimed that all the world’s major stories are a “monomyth” – they’re really the same story, where only the details differ.

George Lucas and Joseph Campbell became buddies after the first three Star Wars films, and talked a lot about the influence of the Hero Myth over Lucas’s work, which explains why “story arcs” became so popular after that.

You can see how well it works, because, after fully embracing Campbell’s system, George Lucas went on to produce three more Star Wars films, widely considered to be the finest of his career. (Ooh! Snarky!)

If you look up images of “story arc” you’ll see an assortment of mathematical curves which are supposed to represent the rising and falling tension in the story. I’d love to see the scripts that come out of them.

The Routledge encyclopedia suggests that the idea of a story forming an arc (or curved section of a circle) is a simplification of an idea from German novelist Gustav Freytag, who wrote about stories rising to a peak of action.

One big difference is that Freytag’s story structure wasn’t an arc – it was a pyramid. He saw stories as occurring in a five-stage structure, with a flat introduction (exposition), which suddenly changes to a period of rising action, a climax (which Freytag puts in the middle, at the top of the pyramid), a period of falling action, and then it’s over, and we end on a flat conclusion (denouement). Not a smooth curve, but a series of abrupt changes, which is a better description of how a story changes.

Like most systems of Story Structure, it’s all very dogmatic, and Freytag presumably used it in the writing of his own works. His most successful was Debit and Credit, a novel about the superiority of the German master race over Jews, Poles and Slavs.

Update 2016-08-07. I misjudged poor old Freytag. His system makes more sense than I thought. And, although he is an major figure in the history of German antisemitism, he wasn’t antisemitic himself. More on that soon.