story arc

Mark A. Mandel mamandel at LDC.UPENN.EDU
Fri Oct 21 13:24:28 UTC 2005

There's been a discussion recently on another list of the term "story arc",
referring to a plot or storyline that runs through several episodes of a
(tv) series, often interwoven in each episode with other plotlines in such a
way that no episode or set of episodes has just one story, and many of these
stories run through (distinct sets of) multiple episodes.

I've got a citation from 1983 (below, from the NY Times online archive). I
don't see it in the ADS-L archives, either generation.

OED Online has "arc" in a clearly related sense, referring to the dramatic
or narrative course of an entire work, s.v. "arc" under DRAFT ADDITIONS
MARCH 2003:
  - "dramatic arc"
    - 1962 w.r.t. Brecht
    - 1986 fiction author Stephen Dixon
  - "arc of story" 1978 Dickens


  - "story arc" not till 2001, tv series "First Wave" on the SciFi Channel,
and in the earlier sense referring to the whole series


  - "arc" by itself 1995 ("X-Files"?) is the only citation with the
'multi-episode plot' sense

Can anyone push it further back?

-- Mark A. Mandel

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 20 Oct 2005 19:52:18 -0700 (PDT)
From: Mark A. Mandel
To: Discussion of the works of Lois McMaster Bujold.
     <lois-bujold at>
Subject: Re: [LMB] Re: OT - There Ought To Be A Word...

> The first one was The Tar-Aiym Krang (if I remember the title
> correctly).

I never read it, but that spelling looks right to me.

> An "arc" I think came out of J. M. Straczynski talking about Babylon 5
> on
> the old GEnie network in the Babylon 5 Round Table, referring to "story
> arcs" in which the TV show features a continuing cast of characters, but
> there are particular stories that extend past a single show, and go on
> as
> continuing plots that can extend through two or more eposides of the TV
> series.

I think "story arc" is at least as old as "Hill Street Blues" (NBC from
1981 to 1987: It
applies to a story or plot line that develops over multiple episodes,
often interwoven with other stories starting and ending at different
times. (See Wikipedia's entry, .)

Hmmm... can't find early mentions, though. I'll ask the Dialect Society.

Ah ha! New York Times, 1983:


Published: April 17, 1983

  ''Claudia was an incredible neurotic and has a very good story arc for
about a season and a half,'' Mr. Pollock adds.


-- Dr. Whom, Consulting Linguist, Grammarian,
    Orthoepist, and Philological Busybody
    a.k.a. Mark A. Mandel

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