Now that you have established the core elements that comprise the foundations of a negative change arc. You can approach the process of mapping its beats with relative confidence and ease. Ready to work through each beat together?
Again, the exact nature of these beats will vary depending on which strain of negative arc you’ve chosen to write. I’ve done my best to address this variance below while keeping our breakdown concise. Approach this formula with flexibility in mind, and you should be golden. Now, let’s dive in…
The opening beat of your negative change arc sees your character in their everyday world. Over the course of a scene or several scenes, readers are introduced to your character’s daily life or are given a glimpse into what that life was before it changed shortly before the story began.
During this beat, it’s important to establish the Ultimate Lie. Because that will plague your character in a Disillusionment or Fall Arc or the Ultimate Truth that colors a Corruption Arc. The former works best if shown through conflict. In doing so revealing to readers how the character’s limiting belief affects their everyday life.
Shortly after your story begins, an event occurs that shakes up your character’s everyday life. They may find themselves eager to pursue a specific desire or, occasionally, forced into a circumstance they’d rather avoid. But because a negative arc sees your character devolve over time, this beat is more often positive than not.
(Note: this beat sometimes occurs before the story begins or in tandem with the opening beat.)
Presented with an opportunity that excites them, or occasionally forced into something they don’t truly want to do, your character takes action. Though at first, this opportunity may seem promising. In the end it’s this decision that will ultimately prove to be the catalyst for negative change.
It’s all downhill from here, as your character sets out on a journey. Be it figurative or literal, it will feed into their lie rather than leading them toward the truth. Of course, except in the case of a Disillusionment Arc, in which the opposite occurs (with the journey leading your character out of their lie and into a tragic truth.)
As your character begins their journey into the heart of your novel, a series of events will occur that begin to rattle their beliefs. Despite this, your character will cling to the Ultimate Truth or Lie that serves as the foundation of their arc.
In a Disillusionment Arc, your character receives the first glimpses of a tragic truth but chooses to remain in the comfort of their lie. In a Fall Arc, your character’s false belief begins to prove problematic as they pursue what they believe they need. And in a Corruption Arc, your character is first tempted to reject the truth in pursuit of their desire. They may begin to show signs of corruption, though they’ll likely have qualms about this initially.
This beat serves as the midpoint of your negative change arc, and it is a doozy. After first beginning to question their truth or lie during the previous beat. Your character now finds themselves confronted with an undeniable reality, often taking seemingly irreversible action.
At the midpoint in a Disillusionment Arc, your character can no longer ignore the tragic truth and their false belief begins to sour. In both Fall and Corruption Arcs, an event occurs that presents your character with the opportunity to fully see and accept the truth, only to have them reject it entirely.
After the momentous midpoint in their journey, your character no longer waffles between their truth and lie. In the series of events that follow, they willingly fling themselves into the dark abyss, pursuing what they most desire despite the occasional glimmers of truth and the lack of positive resolution their desire will bring.
The exception to this occurs in the Disillusionment Arc, in which your character now fully recognizes their tragic truth but finds its current too formidable to chart a new course. In some cases, the tragic truth may even be a reality in which there is no alternative. Instead, your character spends this time learning more about the truth.
During the second half of your novel, your character has fallen further and further into their lie—or progressively realizes just how tragic the truth can be. This journey has led them to a breaking point, an event that forces them to confront this truth or lie once and for all.
Unlike the Dark Night of the Soul in a positive arc, your character won’t rise from the ashes of this event. In most negative arcs, a tragedy occurs as a result of your character’s lie that forces them to confront their folly. But with no way to undo the tragedy, your character fully embraces their lie in an attempt to prove themselves correct.
Alternatively, in a Disillusionment Arc, your character is forced to watch as the tragic truth proves to be their own undoing — or the undoing of those they love.
With their most grievous realization at their backs, there’s nothing left for your character but to fully devolve into darkness — and they’re going down swinging. In most negative arcs, this beat will see your character pursue their lie-driven desire with reckless abandon. There’s nothing they won’t do to see that desire achieved.
In Disillusionment Arcs, however, this beat sees your character fully reject their false belief. With the tragic truth having led to tragedy, they want nothing more to do with the lie they believed and set out to either remove themselves from the situation or give fully into the unavoidable circumstances.
At last, we arrive at the climax of your negative change arc. For most tragic characters, this event will prove the culmination of their attempt to achieve a lie-driven desire. Ultimately, they’ll either achieve this goal and find the victory hollow or fail to achieve any victory at all.
With a Disillusionment Arc, however, the climactic sequence may see one final, shattering tragedy occur, often as a result of a course already set in motion and in which your character can do little but stand by and watch. In some cases, this tragedy occurs at their own hand.
As K.M. Weiland explains in her excellent blog series, most negative change arcs wrap up quickly after their climactic sequences. With such tragic endings, there’s often little the characters can do to pick up the pieces.
Many tragic characters even die as a result of the climactic sequence. In such cases, some authors choose to show how the character’s death affects those they’ve left behind. In stories in which the characters yet live, readers may receive a glimpse of their new (and likely tragic) everyday lives instead.
The negative arc relies upon the lie the character believes. There will also be one specific objectively good thing in the characters’ life that they will take for granted. This is key and must have some light shone upon it.
The manifestation of the Normal World in a negative arc will depend on which variation of the negative arc your story follows. In the disillusionment arc, the character will start out seeing only the sparkle and shine of the lie; its false promises. As a result, the Normal World of the lie will seem wonderful and amazing. At that point, the character has no reason not to want it or believe in the lie.
However, in the fall arc, the character will already be entrenched in the lie. The Normal World may seem ordinary and maybe even good on the outside, but the dark from within can still be seen. The character isn’t uncomfortable enough to stir things up, but they are neither happy or satisfied either. The Normal World is a symbol of the lie they can’t and won’t escape.
Finally, in a corruption arc, the character will begin in their wonderful Normal World. Their Normal World is one where everything seems fine, and while it has its downfalls it still seems happy and ‘normal’.
Negative character arcs can bring so much satisfaction to your readers’ journey that you should at least give it a chance in one of your stories. And as the writer, you will find that crafting a negative arc will bring you to new depths as a writer. Also, creating and maintaining a regular writing habit is essential to getting the most out of your writing. you can check out my post on successful writing habits here.
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