The strategic "arches" of "Squid Game" and the best fiction series
How such different hit shows like "Squid Game", "The Morning Show", "Mare of Easttown" and "Big Little Lies" structure their stories and characters to "hook" the viewer through the dramatic arcs
What is a arc? Why is it called a arc and what is it for?
The arcs are key to increasing the viewer's understanding of the character, the intrigue, the atmosphere and the story itself. In addition to generating greater impact on the viewer.
They serve to solve problems of theme unity and plot meaning, to trap the viewer involuntarily in an expectation and also to impact that viewer at the end of the arc, preferably with a good and unexpected surprise.
Why does Mitch Kessler's (Steve Carell) revealing the identity of the “whistleblower” at the end of “The Morning Show” make such an impact? Because it closes an arc that started in the first scenes of the first episode, as an initial incident, when Mitch is fired after being denounced for sexual harassment, generating a narrative sense that there was a “hidden whistleblower” that caused his resignation.
The arc started with this hidden information of the truth, as the whistleblower could be several characters, which are exploited as false leads until the end of the arc, when the whistleblower is revealed. The arc forms through the events that occur in this period of time, between the initial incident, which marks the beginning of the arc, when the viewer is prepared for surprise, and the final incident, which reveals the hidden truth as a final impact.
What sustains the series "Squid Game" is not the games killing humans, which are in many series and movies, such as "Bacurau", but the internal journey of each character, affected by their imperfections
The technique to develop an arc serves so that, in the last minutes of “The Morning Show”, the spectator is caught by a great impact, when what was hidden is revealed in the form of surprise; that the whistleblower was Chip (Mark Duplass), the unsuspecting head of journalism.
What is the big impact on the viewer at the end of the first season of “Westworld”? The discovery that William (Jimmi Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) are the same person, at different times. This impact on the viewer, in which he does not realize that there was a hidden truth in the ten episodes of the series, closes an open arc at the beginning of the first episode, with the existence of a Man in Black chasing Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and a young William who defends it.
The same impact has the viewer when he discovers, in the last episode, that the “responsible” for the deadly games of “Squid Game” was one of the least suspicious characters that could exist, the elderly gentleman Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-su), player number 1. The spectator doesn't realize that you, on the verge of death, as unsuspecting as journalist Chip, was the character who “hidden the truth”, who organized all that killing, in which he also participated. What sustains the series is not the games killing humans, which are in many series and movies, such as “Bacurau”, but the internal journey of each character, affected by their imperfections.
If you review the series, you will notice that this arc of Mr. Oh Il-nam's “an illusion to a truth” made the dramaturgy make more sense, and that the hidden truth was already implicit in every episode, that the character, despite being senile, “knew” how to play more than the others. This type of track that permeates a whole series has a technique so that it can be efficient.
Not every intention of surprise can have the effect on the viewer of surprising him. It is necessary to show what is somehow hidden in the characters' actions – what we call the implication, the predictable – so that we can have an effect of curve and arc at the end, in the form of a “concession” – the unpredictable – than expected. This is the meaning of the existence of what is called the arc.
In “Big Little Lies”, there are two strategic arcs in the narrative structure. One begins with a murder, right in the first scenes, whose "hidden killer", as well as the whistleblower in "The Morning Show" and the responsible for the games in "Squid Game", will only be revealed in the last scenes of the last episode of the first season.
The structural arc of “Big Little Lies” serves to hide the identity of the killer and the slain, opening with that initial incident and closing when the truth is revealed at the end of the season. The series still has one more arc that will generate meaning, and one more important than the murder arc. It starts when the boy Ziggy is accused of having hurt a classmate at school. This incident, at the beginning of the series, opens this arc, hiding who would be the real aggressor, which will be revealed, as a surprise, at the end of the season.
We have already explained in other articles how arcs work in a film, exemplifying them in “Rome”, “Parasite” and “Joker”. Generally, in the course of three acts, an arc is formed that goes from “an illusion to a truth”. The structural arc of these films organizes the character's journey of action and sets up a strategy to arrest and surprise the viewer. What made the series "Squid Game" a phenomenon was not only its scenes of violence, but the individual and emotional journey of each character.
The perfect arc elaborates the characters' journey of “acting” and “feeling”
In “Joker”, the structural arc begins with a phrase by Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) “that he will be seen more dead than alive”, in the first sequences, and closes in the last sequence, when he “surprises” everyone, you don't kill yourself and kill the other. An arc that elaborates the character's journey from Arthur Fleck to the Joker, which starts with a nice guy and ends up as an angry and vengeful guy.
The perfect arc elaborates the character's journey of “acting” and “feeling”. Taking into account that feeling governs action in the production of narrative and sensitive characters. The arc has a strategy, on how to use it to work correctly, and has a theory, based on the construction of surprise through "implication x concession", as well as organizing the character's internal journey, the so-called affective arc that reveals his hidden passion and imperfection, which is present in every good movie and good series.
Therefore, we have two types of arcs, the narrative structure and the character's arc, which can be long, as shown here, or short, which open and close in a few episodes. What all these structural arcs have in common is that they always start with the so-called “initial incident” and close with a “truth that was hidden” in this incident. The character's arc takes into account the “passion” and the damage that affects them.
In the graphics below, to illustrate how these arcs are structured, we will call Arc 1 of the structure and “surprise” and Arc 2 of the character. And there is also Arco 3, strategic, which serves to enhance the final surprises for the viewer, and which closes with at least two-thirds of the episodes elapsed.
Arches are not just structural. They also serve to demarcate the character's sensitive curves, in the way he is affected by his passions, such as hate, rancor, anger, melancholy, fear, ambition, guilt, anger, among others. It is the passions, and their changes or transformations, that form the arc of the character's passion, giving him density. Just as there is the “inner arc”, which the character manipulates in his existential simulacrum, where he hides his “imperfections”, which are always hidden in the character's search for “perfection”.
It is the passions, and their changes or transformations, that form the arc of the character's passion, giving him density
In "Big Little Lies", there is an invisible arc, that of the character Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), which is marked by a feeling of the passion of "guilt", and the end of her journey will be a liquidation of that feeling of guilt, causing the main incident at the end of season one. The actions of the last scenes of the first season, which close a structural arc, occur due to Madeline's need to confess her betrayal and guilt to her husband.
Within this arc of guilt is hidden Madeline's “imperfection” for having betrayed her husband, and this arc closes when she needs to reveal the “truth” to her own daughter, that she was not perfect as she seemed to be. This will also be the arc of journalist Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), the main character of "The Morning Show", in a curve that goes from "an illusion to a truth", in which she closes the arc revealing the truth to her daughter, in the last minute of the last episode, closing the season.
Alex's journey of action is not to lose his post in charge of the program, but in his “sensitive” arc, the character hides a truth, that his family is not perfect as it appears to be and that he knew about the harassment of his former colleague. denounced. This arc closes when the truth is revealed, when Alex reveals to everyone “his truth” that was hidden at the end of the season.
In "Westworld", the arc of the character Dolores, who suffers from a great melancholy (a passion that affects the character with the desire to die), opens with a search for "some special event" and closes at the end of the last episode of the first season, when he arrives at a beach on the edge of the park and then dies, ending the arc of his “suffering”.
The “suffering” curve of the character Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), in “Mare of Easttown”, is the liquidation of a feeling of mourning for her son's death, and its arc closes when the character returns to the place where her son committed suicide. Mare has a “healing arc”, a settlement of the mourning for her son's suicide. A type of internal arc that, when used well, allows the viewer to be sensitive to the character's emotions in an efficient way.
The “suffering” curve of the character Mare Sheehan, in “Mare of Easttown”, is the liquidation of a feeling of mourning for her son's death, and its arc closes when the character returns to the place where the son committed suicide
This character arc serves to “hide and reveal” his passion, which is really what motivates his actions and sensitizes the viewer. It is what “feels” Mare that sensitizes the viewer. Which makes the series good. And she is in mourning, in which she is affected by a harsh melancholy that leaves her numb at the loss of her child.
A journey of revenge is characterized by what the avenging character feels, which needs to be a great “hate”, a passion that the character wants to get rid of. What motivates the character on a journey of revenge is to liquidate her hatred. Killing the other who caused the hate is a consequence of her feeling. And this curve of the character's soul is generated within an arc that forms an “existential simulacrum”, characterized by the character's imperfection.
The strategy of a third "special arc"
In addition to the two types of arc, structural and character, there is another that closes in advance, which serves to surprise the viewer before the end of the season, often even causing a halt in the narrative, and which later reveals that the viewer was tricked. We call this arc the “third kind of arc,” which typically takes place in the seventh episode in a series of ten.
In "The Morning Show", this third arc closes when it is revealed to the viewer, at the end of the seventh episode, that the main suspicion of being the hidden "whistleblower character" - implied to be Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) - dies committing suicide.
In "Westworld", this arc that falsifies the ending closes with a great impact, also at the end of the seventh episode, when Bernard (Jeffrey Wrigth), and the viewer, discover the hidden truth, that he is a robot and not a human as he thought it was, for dreaming and having feelings of "guilt" that only humans have. The impact is due to a strategy of revealing the hidden that we didn't realize.
In "Squid Game", this Arc 3 begins with a policeman in search of his brother, who infiltrates the games to discover the truth about his disappearance. And that quest ends with a surprise, before the final two episodes, closing the arc with the revelation that his brother is the masked person who runs the entire deadly game. Leaving the big reveal, of who controls the masked, for the final scenes, closing the great arc by revealing that it was player number 1.
What motivates the character on a journey of revenge is to liquidate his hatred. Killing the other who caused the hate is a consequence of your feeling
In "Shadows and Bones", this Arc 3 closes when Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) discovers that her hero, the seductive General Kirigan (Bem Barnes), is actually the great villain of the story, exactly two episodes from the end of season. The final two episodes no longer have this initial arc, resuming the series as if it were from the beginning, with the aim of creating a group of "avengers" to act together in the coming seasons.
In “Mare of Easttown”, a series with seven episodes, Arc 3 promotes a stop in the fifth episode, when the crime, which opens the initial incident, is solved, closing the arc of the disappearance of the girls. But there is one more suspicious death. And that will close the final arc, in the last episode, when the “true” author of this crime is revealed.
The theoretical technique of narrative semiotics and passions
From the point of view of narrative structure, Bernard's arc is only possible due to an “implication vs. concession” technique, in which memories of his son who has died are shown. Which implied “not being a machine”, since he is affected by passions. But the truth is revealed in this unpredictable arc, with a “concession”, a type of narrative based on the unexpected, on the arrival of the unexpected.
As for the implication in the main arc of the series, in Dolores' journey of action, it is an assembly artificer, in which the same character (Wiliam and Man in Black), younger in the present and older in the past, are shown at the same time at the end of the arc, without the spectator, until then, having made a connection between them.
The “surprise” scheme, on which we base ourselves to format the arcs, is inserted within a larger theoretical scope, with “seven schemes” necessary to form a good narrative, based on the theory of narrative semiotics, semiotics of passions and semiotics tensive. These diagrams can be found in the two books and videos, available here on Screenwriter Online, where you can also find other articles about arcs in the films “Rome”, “Parasite” and “La Doce Vita”, as well as an in-depth study of the structure and the construction of characters from the entire “Game of Thrones” series.