Lessons From 2023: 5 Reflections on “Flat Arc” Periods

Welcome to 2024! And welcome to what has become a yearly tradition here at Helping Writers Become Authors. Every January, I write a New Year’s post in which I look back at the year that has passed and reflect on its major themes, lessons, and gifts. When I began this little ritual six years ago, the idea was to focus specifically on what writing lessons I may have learned. However, I quickly realized the lessons that most impacted me as a creator were inevitably part of the much vaster context that is my life.

Indeed, if you’re one of those who have travelled with me on this site over the years, you know my perspective on storytelling techniques has become increasingly life-centered—according to the understanding that story and life are inextricable. Life creates story; stories create life.

As I began mulling on this year’s post, back in December, I realized that although this was a huge year of forward momentum and productivity for me, it wasn’t a year that was as lesson-packed as some of those previously. Particularly in 2020, 2021, and 2022, I reflected on the intense drama, transformation, and often struggle I was moving through in my life. In comparison, 2023 was a good year, and it felt almost… flat.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

And that’s when I realized that 2023 was, for me, a year in which I was following a Flat Arc, whereas in the previous years I had been on the adventure of Change Arcs.

For those who have read my book Creating Character Arcs, you’ll remember that a Change Arc is one in which the protagonist struggles to transform perspectives, personal identities, and subsequently actions. The protagonist moves from a comparatively limited perspective or “Lie” into a broader perspective or “Truth.”

A Flat Arc, by contrast, is one in which the protagonist already knows the story’s current Truth. Instead of being challenged to transform perspectives, the character is challenged to live a Truth that was previously earned.

The Glorious Importance of Flat Arcs in Our Lives

I’ve been mulling on this lately, having made a few videos about Flat Arcs over on my YouTube channel. Originally, I was planning to publish a more “writerly” post on Flat Arcs this year (and I may yet), but as I began to plan this week’s New Year’s post, I realized my personal experiences this year perfectly represented so much of what I wanted to say about the importance of Flat Arcs.

Flat Arcs don’t sound very flashy or glamorous. And in many ways, they are not. They’re not about becoming, growing, or transforming. They’re about being. As such, they are the foundation of everything. Flat Arcs represent Order in contrast to the Change Arcs’ necessary Chaos.

It’s true that the Positive Change Arc is the darling of character arcs. The quintessential Change Arc is the Hero’s Journey (among others). It is the archetypal wrestling of Light Against Shadow, Progress Against Stagnation, Liberation Against Slavery. The Change Arc is, as Joseph Campbell so poignantly points out in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the winner-takes-all battle of the heroic principle against the tyrant Holdfast, “keeper of the status quo.”

Gives me shivers just writing it!

And yet, this epic dictate brings with it an implicit connotation that the status quo is somehow bad. After all, it is the tyrant to be overcome. So shouldn’t we be overcoming it all the time?

But this cannot be true. The very existence of Flat Arcs shows us this (particularly in how Flat archetypes necessarily show up in between every Change Arc in the life cycle).

Here’s the thing I realized toward the end of last year: you cannot transcend the status quo until you have mastered the status quo.

The status quo is a necessary foundation on which to build the next iteration of one’s life. Skipping from new Truth to new Truth to new Truth without taking the time to fully integrate and embody that Truth represents unsustainability of the highest magnitude. Particularly when considering the sequential Change Arcs of the archetypal life cycle, which I’ve talked about in my book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs, we can see how each later Change Arc can only emerge from a full integration of all previous Change Arcs.

And where does that integration happen? In Flat Arc periods.

This doesn’t mean Flat Arcs are periods in which nothing happens. Not at all. Indeed, the external action can sometimes be even more intense in a Flat Arc than in a Change Arc, as the protagonist takes what was learned and now uses it to transform the surrounding world and its reality. It can be a time of intense conflict with others who don’t like that the protagonist has changed and is, at least implicitly, prompting change in others as well.

As a result, and as an inherent part of this necessary integration, a Flat Arc can also be a time of deep soul-wrestling, which is why doubt is one of the key factors in developing a Flat Arc character in a story. Previously, this character learned a new Truth that presumably made just a little bit more sense out of life. But now, this character must be willing to master this new status quo. The challenge is to avoid backsliding and to cultivate the discipline and sheer willpower necessary to live life at a higher octave than was previously supported by the world. Without cultivating the discipline to become worthy of the new Truth previously learned in the Change Arc, the character will never be able to build a foundation for the next upgrade of perspective.

This isn’t easy. Even though Change Arcs may sound like the great adventures of our lives, requiring as they do tremendous courage and fortitude, it is the Flat Arcs that truly test whether we are willing to live our new Truths in the face of life’s often pervasive boredom, grinding resistance, and determined delusion.

5 Tips for Successfully Living Your Flat Arcs

In short, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that: Flat Arcs are glorious! They are our proving grounds. It’s like the Axel in figure skating: all that twirling about doesn’t matter if you can’t stick your landing.

And so to open this New Year, here are five lessons I have learned from one of the most important Flat Arcs of my life to date.

1. Skipping From Change Arc to Change Arc = Bypassing

Beginning with a Disillusionment Arc in 2016 that eventually helped me complete an overdue Maiden Arc starting in 2018, followed by a Hero Arc in 2021, the past seven years have been a momentous epoch in my life. These transitions were soul-deep and at times excruciatingly painful. But they also, without qualification, created the most glorious years of my life. I am so grateful for these journeys. As hard as it all was, I would choose it all over again without modification.

I am proud of myself for the sheer courage and determination that allowed me to face outgrown perceptions, to let old ego identities die, and to rise into the rebirth of newly evolving perspectives. Back then, I tackled the need for growth with an almost rabid intensity. And despite of how hard it often was, I loved it. (I don’t think it a coincidence that I’m best known for my work on character arcs; transformation is where it’s at, baby!).

In some ways, the harder lesson for me was that however sexy transformation may be, it isn’t where life is truly lived. Life is lived just as much, if not more, in the in-between moments, the “down” phases when it seems like not much is happening. It is lived in the periods of integration.

In these past seven years, I have changed so much as to be unrecognizable. I embraced this phoenix existence with as much pride as determination. And that, too, was an identity that had to go. Sometimes I’m a phoenix with wings of fire, rising out of the ashes. Most of the time, though, I’m just a regular bird with regular wings, hopping around looking for worms in the dirt.

This year, I had to realize I couldn’t rush change. I couldn’t summon it. I couldn’t get ahead of the game and decide to change. I couldn’t do anything that would put me in the driver’s seat for the next Change Arc and make it any easier to live through than the last one. In short: I couldn’t cheat. Thinking I could—thinking that if I could just figure out the end game of everything I ever wanted—I could fast-track myself to even more transformation faster and easier? Nope, that’s just bypassing.

A Change Arc without a Flat Arc to follow it is incomplete. The Flat Arc periods are just as important as the flashier phoenix chapters. Maybe Flat Arcs don’t offer as many dopamine hits or changes of scenery, but they are overflowing with blessings. Flat Arcs are when we have the opportunity to slow down a bit and to reap—at least internally—some of the fruits of our own labors.

2. Flat Arcs Are Hard Work

Flat Arcs are the periods in which we put in the hard work to solidify our victories and ensure that what we have previously learned and gained cannot slip away from us. Flat Arcs are a period of vigilance. And sometimes being the night watchman is a whole lot harder than being the badass warrior.

Change Arcs (in my experience so far) are less about putting in the hard work and more about simply hanging on for dear life. In some respects, Change Arcs happen to us. Life hands us an initiatory experience, often a crisis, and we have no choice but to hurtle over the edge of the roller coaster and find out what we’re made of. Flat Arcs, by contrast, are more in our control. We get to choose whether or not we will step forward and live out the principles we were shown during our terrifying Change Arcs.

It’s one thing to value a Truth when life is hairy and we’ll grab onto anything that will help us survive. It’s another thing altogether to value that same Truth when life has slowed down, when the devil isn’t at the door anymore, and when the next threat is so far away on the horizon as to seem almost invisible. Flat Arcs are filled with challenges, but they are of a more mundane, often boring, sometimes frustrating sort. If Change Arcs are the Declaration of Independence, then Flat Arcs are the minutiae of bureaucracy—not very glamorous, but everything falls apart if the work doesn’t get done.

For me, the hardest flex of my Flat Arc this year was simply being present and doing the work that was before me without fobbing it off into the future. I wasn’t always doing the things I wanted to do, but everything I did was a slow build based on the foundation of the previous Change Arcs. This past year was one of the most productive I’ve had in a long time. In no small part this was because, after so long, I finally had the space within myself to devote my time and attention to external pursuits. I poured myself into my business and my writing in ways I wouldn’t have been able to do before.

3. Mastering the Status Quo

I can look back on the period of my life prior to the massive string of Change Arcs that kicked off in 2016, and I can see how the discipline I showed in those earlier years was the foundation that helped me get through those later challenges. Every moment of boring discipline I showed in my business or my personal development or my relationships became an invaluable lifeline once that hurricane of change hit. To the degree I had “mastered my status quo” prior to 2016, I was able to support a much greater level of transformation than I would otherwise have been able to reach.

Recognizing this has helped me cultivate patience and maintain discipline in this current Flat Arc period. For me, this has looked like getting meticulous with my mental, physical, energetic, and spiritual health. I have spent this period of relative calm, when there have been fewer demands and responsibilities, in being vigilant with myself. I have not turned away from what is hard or scary. I have looked my shadow in the face every day, have chased after my pain, pushed against my places of constriction, found the weaknesses that hold me back.

I have relentlessly brought in every resource I have learned, found, or could dream up to do the work now, while I can, before life itself once again starts rolling faster and faster again. Because it will roll again. The next initiation will come. And instead of being flung headfirst into the maelstrom this time, I will be waiting for it with all due respect for its awesome power.

Mastering the status quo of a Flat Arc means being present with the Truths learned in the previous Change Arc. Change Arcs are all about that flash of insight—that Moment of Truth—that leads to an expansion of the self. But that flash isn’t, in itself, the whole of that particular Truth. This helps us see that Flat Arcs are not as static as is sometimes thought. Rather, Flat Arcs are a testing ground for fully learning these new Truths, for refining them. Only once these Truths have fully integrated into our beings can we transcend their limitations and move up another level in the spiral.

4. Why Successful Flat Arcs Are the Only Way to Keep Change Arcs From Going Catastrophically Wrong

Change Arcs are all about energy. They are kinetic, often chaotic, full of life and possibility and expansion.

Flat Arcs are physical. They are grounded, practicable, orderly. They are not about the potentiality of what could be, but about the bounty of what is.

According to that analogy, we can see how Change Arcs, by themselves, are utterly unsustainable—even catastrophically destructive. More than that, without the stability and structure of the Flat Arc periods, the sheer energy that is unleashed in a Change Arc can become counter-productive and cause its subject to self-destruct. Of course, the drama of my language here is referring to big Change Arcs. The sheer primality of archetypal, initiatory Change Arcs packs a huge wallop. Without the foundation of a previously successful Flat Arc period, that kind of charge can literally kill or maim.

I experienced this up close and personal during my own epic sequence of Change Arcs.  I 100% credit the foundational work—particularly the mastery of discipline in general—that I had done in the previous Flat Arc period to getting me through those years. But I also know that one of the reasons that transformational phase was so difficult was because I really wasn’t prepared to get sucked into the hurricane.

If there is one thing I now know, it is that the hurricane of change will come again.

If there is a second thing I know, it is that we can never truly prepare for the unknown. By its very nature, it is unknowable. To believe that because we survived one epoch necessarily means we have the chops to survive the next is the most dangerous sort of arrogance.

But if there is a third thing I know, it is that if I am to reap the glories of the next Change Arc, then I must prove myself utterly faithful to this current Flat Arc period. Right now it is summer, and the harvest is thick upon the ground. When winter comes again, my storehouses will be full.

5. When the Flat Arc Starts to Sing, Then You’re Ready for Change

People can interact with the inevitability of change in one of two limited ways (and often both).

Either, like the grasshopper in the fable, we believe summer will never end, the storms will never come, and the hardships of life will never touch us or our loved ones. Or we get hooked on the thrill of the adventure and go storm chasing in the belief that our sheer familiarity with the hurricane means it can’t hurt us. (If you’ve studied the dual shadow archetypes associated with each archetypal Change Arc, then you’ll recognize these responses as passive and aggressive, respectively.)

Based on what I’ve shared here, you may notice that I tend toward the latter response (although not exclusively). I want change, and I want it yesterdayBut if this year has taught me that the basic lesson of the Flat Arc is presence, then I have also slowly come to trust in the perfection of its timing. And this is beautiful. Change is too deep and too dangerous to be thrust upon the unwitting or the unready (although it will be if we do not cooperate by facing and accomplishing the work that is before us).

What I have learned this year—in perhaps the gentlest and most loving lesson of all—is that when we are faithful with our Flat Arcs, then eventually in the fullness of time, they bloom out. Where once our new Truth may have felt like a suit of clothes that was too big for us, causing us to stumble and trip about like a child, eventually we grow into it. Our eyes and our hands and muscles become accustomed to the work we are now doing. Our skills grow, and so does our strength.

We move from Not Knowing That We Don’t Know to Knowing That We Don’t Know to suddenly beginning to suspect that perhaps for a while now we have been Not Knowing That We Know. Once there, we are only a breath away from the final step: Knowing That We Know. And when have reached that, then it is time for the next Change Arc.

As we transition into a new year, I feel myself emerging somewhere in those final steps of this current Flat Arc. I feel how I have changed, how I have integrated. I feel how the impetus for yet more change is gathering its charge beneath my feet. This coming year will, I suspect, be momentous. I sense the rumblings of a Queen Arc. If I am right (or if I am wrong), meet me back here in one year, and I will tell you all about it!

Until then, I hope these thoughts on the beauty and power of the Flat Arc will offer inspiration or perhaps even guidance for the New Year that is before you. Whether you are currently following a Flat Arc or a Change Arc, large or small, my wish for you is that 2024 will be a year of profundity, bounty, and Truth. Happy New Year!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What kind of arc were you on in the past year? Tell me in the comments!

The post Lessons From 2023: 5 Reflections on “Flat Arc” Periods appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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  • January 8, 2024