3 Fiction Writing Terms: Arcs, Beats, Blurbs

Every occupation has its own set of unique terms, and the writing business is no different. Writers need to understand these terms as much as they need to know the characters they write about. When I began learning the writing craft twenty years ago, I was clueless about many things including simple facts such as MS stands for “manuscript” and a manuscript is an unpublished work. 

This is the second post of a series, a list with definitions and links for further reading that I could have used when I started on my own writing journey.


1. Character Arc
“A character arc is the internal struggle and progress a character goes through over the course of a novel that changes him in some way… It can sometimes be confused with character motivations…but why a character acts is different from how he changes because of his actions. Motivation drives the actions. Growth is the result of the actions.” ~ Janice Hardy

K.M. Weiland discusses three types of character arcs on her website:
“The negative change arc tells the story of a character who ends up in a worse place than that in which he started—and probably drags others down with him.” With a positive change arc the protagonist “will be forced to challenge his beliefs about himself and the world, until finally he conquers his inner demons…and ends his arc having changed in a positive way.” A flat character arc (or testing arc) “is about a character who does not change. He already has the Truth figured out in the beginning of the story, and he uses that Truth to help him overcome various external tests.” This type of arc is still one of change because “the character is the one changing the world around him, rather the world changing the character” as is typical with positive and negative arcs.

2. Story Arc (or narrative arc)
More than simply a structure of beginning, middle, and end. According to NowNovel.com, “Story arcs are the overall shape of rising and falling tension or emotion in a story. This rise and fall is created via plot and character development.” Reedsy.com explains, “While the plot is comprised of the individual events that make up your story, your story arc is the sequence of those events.” Also, “The narrative arc is to the story what the character arc is to a character. The narrative arc involves the plot on a grand scale, and a character arc charts the inner journey of a character over the course of the plot.”

For more:
Janice Hardy: “Grow Up Already: Creating Character Arcs”
K.M. Weiland: “Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 1: Can You Structure Characters?” and “How to Write Character Arcs”
NowNovel.com: “Character development questions: Building character arcs”
Reedsy.com: “What is the Narrative Arc? A Guide to Storytelling Through Story Structure”


1. Action Beats (also dialogue or narrative beats)
Not to be confused with dialogue tags (he said, she yelled), action beats are bits of action interspersed in a character’s conversation in the form of some kind of physical movement (such as body language and facial expressions) and sometimes thoughts. Action beats identify the speaker as the one performing the action and are best used without dialogue tags. “Action beats must serve to move the story forward or advance characterization; they cannot exist only to give the character busy work.” ~ K.M. Weiland

2. Action/Reaction (Emotion) Beats
Barbara Ashford says, “As an actress, I’d drill down into a scene to identify its beats—the moments where the emotion of the character shifts. That not only helped me understand the character’s arc but to depict it convincingly. The same technique can help you craft more compelling scenes in fiction by discovering the emotional truth of every moment and determining if the actions and reactions on the page are making those emotions clear—and vivid—to the reader.” She suggests “if you struggle with creating complex characters or building emotional resonance, try analyzing a moment from a story or novel that you find powerful. Break the scene into beats to determine the moment-by-moment shifts of emotion (s) that the character experiences. Then try the same exercise with one of your own scenes.”

3. Story Beats
A description of the important points or action in a story. A beat sheet is a way of keeping track of those points, similar to an outline. In discussing Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat method of structuring a story, Janice Hardy writes, “Snyder breaks down storytelling into three acts similar to the Three-Act Structure, with very specific turning points in each act (called beats) similar to the Hero’s Journey. In a screenplay, these beats are so precise it even says what page they should happen on, but there’s a little more flexibility in a novel.”

For more:
C.S. Lakin: “Actions Speak Louder than Dialog Tags: Using Beats in Writing”
Janice Hardy: “Plotting with the Save the Cat Beat Sheet Structure”
K.M. Weiland: “An Easy Way to Immediately Improve Your Character’s Action Beats” and “Most Common Writing Mistakes: How Not to Use Speaker Tags and Action Beats”
Storyfix.com: “Introducing the Beat Sheet”

Book Blurbs

1. Back Cover Blurb
A brief summary of a book, written in a compelling way that hooks readers. “At basics, the back blurb is a sales pitch. It has to be almost an exaggeration of your story that entices the reader to buy, or at least download a sample to their Kindle or iPad.” ~ Joanna Penn

2. An Endorsement of a book, preferably by an expert or an author representative of the book’s genre or niche. An early endorsement from an important person in the industry can sway an agent or publisher to an author’s side. “[T]estimonials and endorsements from relevant, influential, or important people tell us that the book we’re thinking about buying is a safe purchase. Favorable comments from people we already trust tell us the book is a low-risk investment. They reassure us.” ~ Build Book Buzz.com

For more:
Joanna Penn: “How To Write Back Blurb For Your Book”
Abigail K. Perry on diyMFA.com: “Writing Back Cover Copy: A Secret for Your Novel’s Success”
Sarah Juckes: “How to Write an Effective Blurb for a Self-Published Book”
Mike Duran: “The Ugly Truth about Author Endorsements”

Writing is a complicated business that includes learning the mechanics and finer points of dialog and story structure, as well as constructing a compelling book blurb and reaching out to others to secure endorsements. So many things to know and learn, but we’re all on this journey together.

Is there a writing term you’d like defined? Include it in a comment below, and I’ll add it to a future post.

Check out the first in the series: “Fiction Writing Terms: Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory.”

Speculative Fiction Writer

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One comment on “3 Fiction Writing Terms: Arcs, Beats, Blurbs
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