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Rotating Arcs

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Rotating Arcs function like one of those revolving doors you invariably get your coat trapped in — as one character, or group of characters, come in, another is pushed out. While this can happen on a character-by-character basis, it's much more likely the the writer will make use of a Cast Herd.

Rotating arcs that employ cast herds need to do so in a fairly specific way in order to be successful. Outside of the main protagonist and his pals, the "pure" Cast Herd usually consists of a spokesman and several almost-faceless subordinates. However, a Rotating Arc with a cast that consists of one person with a personality and several clones is hardly going to hold the audience's attention, especially since the audience will be stuck with that particular group for an extended period of time. The solution is to focus on a certain, small (usually between 3-7 characters) subset of the cast, ignore all the other characters for the duration, and flesh out the smaller group's individual personalities and relationships to each other for the time it takes to complete a Story Arc. That time may be as short as one episode/issue, but is usually a run of several.

The rotating arc's cast herd is therefore unlikely to consist only of one "type" of character, since it could lead to an overdose of that particular type. For example, six eeyores are likely to become too apathetic to do anything by page 4, while six ditzes for an entire arc are likely to drive the viewer/reader to homicide. This type of Cast Herd is far more likely to be a smaller version of the main, large cast, with a relevant grouping of different personalities.

Once one arc, featuring one particular team, is finished, the writer ties up the loose ends and moves on to another set of characters. There may be a cross-over segment where the team that is finishing up passes on information to the team who's just getting started on their storyline, but then the former team will exit, stage right, until their turn comes around again.

There is an added bonus for the writers here in that when separate cast herds do form an alliance and appear together, it's a big event. If they've done the characterisation of the smaller groups well enough, readers are usually eager to see how they react to each other. "Like sodium and water" is usually the preferred answer for maximum drama, as various team leaders jostle for dominance, love interests suffer jealousy attacks, and deadpan snarkers unite to annoy the hell out of everyone. By the end of this chaos, even the most enthusiastic members of the audience may be a bit relieved to return to the usual one-team-at-a-time format, if only to catch their breath for a bit.

If a character changes groups, or the cast in its entirety is switched around, this is generally an arc in itself, as the fundamental ingredients of the book/comic/show have changed and new character dynamics have to be established.

It sounds a bit ruthless that one set has to kick out another in order to get their turn, but in actual fact this is probably the most popular way of handling large casts. It reduces two-dimensional characterisation, still employs Ensembles to appeal to the maximum number of readers, and decreases the number of occurrences where one character is Out of Focus. Or at least placates the fans with the reassurance that their favourite hero will get a turn in the spotlight too. Eventually.

In effect, this is somewhat akin to writing several character-intense short stories and joining them together, rather than spreading yourself thin writing a long novel with far more characters than can realistically be handled.

The Rotating Arc isn't infallible though. Sometimes it seems that the revolving door has done a 360 degree spin, and the same characters turn up over and over again, at everyone else's expense. An individual character may take up residence in several groups, which is good in moderation as it provides the teams with a mediator (or, at the very least, provides more Wangst when there's a conflict of interests and they're stuck in the middle). Overuse it, though, and readers/viewers will likely get sick of the sight of him/her. There's also the risk that one Cast Herd will be significantly more appealing than the others, so to prevent this, personalities within the groups have to be balanced carefully.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Ah! My Goddess does this on a smaller scale, with shorter arcs. Roughly, Keiichi and the goddesses form one troupe, the demons another, and the Nekomi Tech side characters a third.
  • Castle Town Dandelion is a Slice of Life series surrounding a king's 9 children against a backdrop of Elective Monarchy. As a result, this series is structured such that every chapter/segment is focused on one or two of the Sakurada siblingsnote . Other siblings are often brought into the story as story requires, but there're few stories involving all of the siblings.
  • In Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, until the Red-Light District arc the participating character ensemble was strictly the main characters: Tanjiro, Nezuko, Zenitsu and Inosuke, with one or more side-characters accompanying them. When the Swordsmith Village arc happens, Zenitsu and Inosuke are benched for the first time ever, opening up their place for Genya Shinazugawa to have some focus and have Muichiro and Mitsuri spearhead the arc. The following two arcs shift the structure even further, becoming the final war against Muzan and thus dragging practically the entire cast into the spotlight.
  • Fruits Basket, in the manga's later arcs, as a necessity of parents, brothers, sisters, love interests and random passers by getting roped into the story. Notable for splitting up the core quartet of Yuki, Kyo, Shigure and Tohru. Kyo and Tohru form an arc unto themselves, Yuki begins to appear only in his own student-council related arc, and Shigure only really has any significance when shown with Akito. And let's not get started on the lives and loves of the other members of the Zodiac, who keep the Rotating Arcs spinning around at warp speed.
  • Naruto filler arcs typically follow this pattern. With Sasuke having left the village and Sakura spending all her time training under Tsunade, Naruto typically goes on a mission with other squads, usually with a different character getting emphasis and development in the arc. For example, in the Mizuki Strikes Back arc, he works with Team 10 and Iruka and Mizuki's past is explored; in the Bikochuu arc, he goes with Team 8 and Hinata's growth as a ninja is explored. In some arcs, like Land of the Sea, the featured characters come from multiple teams. Shippuden follows this to some degree with its arcs (Team Guy in the Gaara arc, Team 10 in the Hidan and Kakuzu arc, and Team 8 in the Hunt for Uchiha arc).
  • Upon the conclusion of the Johto arc, the Hoenn arc introduces Pokémon Contests into Pokémon: The Series and a main character in May to participate in them, finally allowing another main character to receive similar focus to Ash. The following Sinnoh arc would repeat the same thing with Dawn, with additional focus put on her Contests. Two generations later, the Kalos arc would introduce yet another style-oriented competition in Showcases for Serena to strive toward. Another two generations later and Goh would share the spotlight with Ash in his goal to catch every known Pokémon before eventually taking part in the Project Mew trials.
  • This is the general structure of Hunter × Hunter. Though there are only four principal characters, more often than not, an arc will only feature two or three of them, with the remaining character(s) doing something more mundane, like Leorio going to medical school or Gon and Killua enjoying life in peace.

    Comic Books 
  • Noticeably averted in Stormwatch and The Authority, where the teams are really too small to divide everyone up.
    • Stormwatch does a Lampshade Hanging on this in "Bleed", where, after viewing a parallel world where there are several Stormwatch teams, Winter remarks "You can't put twenty superhumans in the same town without them picking fights with each another."
      • It can be argued, though, that these comics do a mini rotating arc within the issue by pairing up some of the characters: for example, in The Authority, Midnighter and Apollo, and Jack and The Engineer usually work together as well as being romantically linked while Shen and The Doctor alternate between teams/partners or work alone. Oh, and Jenny (both versions) does whatever the hell she likes.
  • The X-Men uses rotating arcs constantly — with such an enormous cast, and people leaving, dying and resurrecting themselves all the time, it's the only way Professor X and Co. can be kept in check... and the only way that readers can keep up with everyone. Even then, the X-Men shuffle teams pretty regularly, just to keep things confusing.

    Fan Works 

  • Animorphs was like this: Jake, Rachel, Tobias/Ax, Cassie, Marco - with Tobias and Ax switching off, every ten books. (Later, all six would take equal turns.)
  • Discworld does this. Each book's main group is traditionally either Ridcully and/or the Wizards, the Witches/Tiffany Aching, Death/Susan, the Night Watch, Moist Von Lipwig, or a stand-alone book whose characters aren't visited again outside of cameos.
  • Earth's Children: The Valley of Horses rotates between Ayla and her pets and Jondolar and his brother.
  • To a lesser extent, The Lord of the Rings does this starting with The Two Towers when the Fellowship breaks, and especially The Return of the King — the cast herds are Frodo-Sam-Gollum, Aragorn-Éomer-Imrahil, and arguably two or three crystallize around Éowyn and Faramir. They all occur simultaneously in-universe, but are presented in multi-chapter segments.
    • This structure is used for dramatic tension in Return of the King: the Frodo and Sam storyline ends The Two Towers with Sam running after Frodo into Shelob's Lair after Gollum tricked them. We then return to the Aragorn storyline that then ends at the Black Gate, where the Mouth of Sauron holds up Frodo's mithril vest and boasts that he's dead. The reader then returns to the Frodo and Sam story to eventually find out that Frodo had only lost it to the Orcs and is still alive.note 
  • The Malazan Book of the Fallen consists of ten largely self-contained books; while Rotating Arcs is utilized in almost every one of them, the trope mostly applies to the structure of the series. Each book is part of one or more of three overall arcs, and as the series progresses, the arcs start to intermingle and eventually converge toward each other.
  • The Redwall books are organized like this generally. There's usually 1-3 groups off on the adventure and 1-2 groups dealing with some issue that arises back home while they are gone. At least one Villain group (depending on the number of lead villains) is usually present as well, but they also tend to get less personal attention beyond their actions relevant to the adventurers.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, the fourth book, A Feast for Crows grew so large that the book was split into two volumes, the second (and fifth in the series) being titled A Dance with Dragons. The two books take place simultaneously, with each focusing on characters according to their rough geographical position. Two thirds of the way through the latter book the timelines catch up with each other, although the focus remains on the current cast throughout for the most part.
  • Since around 2016, the Halo Expanded Universe novels have mostly been the realm of two writers, Kelly Gay and Troy Denning, who alternate releases and have their own narrative styles and recurring sets of characters that they focus on. Denning tends to prefer hardened Military Science Fiction and character intrigue, while Gay focuses on the epic Space Opera and worldbuilding side of the 'verse.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Bill: Not only do we have CID, Uniform and The Brass, but several sets of external characters. These can be left hanging for months before being rotated back in, putting a strain on viewer engagement.
  • A multi-episode version in CSI: NY: In the Season 4 premiere, Mac suddenly has a Stalker without a Crush, who harasses him with phone calls at 3:33 a.m. every day for weeks. In the 4th episode, Stella gets a Secret Admirer. She reluctantly agrees to start going out with him four eps later. Meanwhile, Mac's stalker continues to taunt him in various ways, and eventually lures him to Chicago at the end of the 9th episode. In the 10th, it's finally revealed that the two men are one and the same. He's out for revenge against Mac for something that happened in their childhood and is using Stella as yet another way to get to him.
  • Gotham has been doing this quite a bit with its nascent Rogues Gallery villains, with characters like Jerome, Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, Victor Fries, and the Pyg rotating in for portions of a half-season and then rotating out when they're captured and/or elude arrest. Typically their arcs intersect with Jim Gordon's in the foreground, while secondary protagonists Penguin and young Bruce Wayne take turns dominating the B-plots.
  • This is a staple of the Law & Order franchise, and is especially prevalent in the main show and Criminal Intent. Depending on actor availability or shooting needs, any given season can flip back and forth between two separate sets of detectives investigating cases at different times, or overlapping casts during a crossover event.
  • In the last two seasons of The West Wing, the plot went back and forth between the White House and the campaign trail, but most of the Story Arc revolved around the upcoming election. Since the candidates had to comment and respond to the crises the President dealt with and the campaigners were still in touch with the characters remaining in the White House, there was a degree of overlap. It also fits the real political problem of a lame duck politician that is leaving office and therefore not as relevant as before.
  • Season 3 of What We Do in the Shadows (2019) alternates between three plots with Nadja, Nandor, and Guillermo focused on the Vampiric Council and later Nandor's ensuing depression from his mid-undead life crisis while Colin Robinson and Laszlo try to find more information about energy vampires, with each episode dedicated to emphasizing one of them at a time. The three plots intertwine in the penultimate episode when Nandor tries to go into Super Slumber out of depression, Nadja entertains a Vampiric Council delegation, and Colin Robinson celebrates his 100th birthday all on the same day. Colin Robinson's death puts on a kibosh on all three. Said death then provides the impetus for everyone parting ways in the finale with Nandor departing for travels to find himself, Nadja leaving for London to take her Council promotion for allegedly killing Nandor (along with an unwilling Guillermo), and Laszlo staying behind to take care of Colin's new baby form.

  • Due to its take on Canon Welding, Mahou MUSH tends to cycle its various themes in and out of the spotlight. Themes tend to generate their own Story Arcs and play them out concurrently, occasionally intersecting to greater or lesser degrees, but arc finales often as not draw in characters from across all themes due to usually escalating to a city- or world-threatening scale. When that happens, the relevant theme's core cast take primary focus for the duration of the finale, then step back out of the spotlight when the storyline is completed. Walpurgisnacht and D-Point are specific examples.

  • BIONICLE used Rotating Arcs for most of its run. The first major story arc spanned three years and featured one group of Toa; the second arc was a Whole Episode Flashback which lasted two years and featured the predecessors to the first group of Toa; the third arc lasted three years and returned to the first group of Toa briefly before shifting focus to a different group of Toa, but then went back again to the first group of Toa in its final year; the fourth and final arc lasted only two years, and began with an entirely new cast of characters, including one character who had long been hinted at but was never truly seen until now; the final year featured two of the original Toa, but largely stayed focused on the new characters. All ten years featured the same Big Bad, either directly or as a Greater-Scope Villain.

    Video Games 
  • This is how certain arcs are handled through events in Granblue Fantasy, with each event showing part of what a Cast Herd is currently up to. This is most often seen with events focusing on the Society and the Dragon Knights.

    Visual Novels 

    Web Comics 
  • Friendly Hostility characters can be grouped roughly into "Fox's friends" and "Collin's friends", and tend to appear as such, one group at a time. There's quite a bit of overlap though, and this is one particular comic that likes to see what happens when the separate cast herds meet.
  • El Goonish Shive switches to this form and back, as much as possible with one main team in two schools. More distinctive in "Night Out" (Martial Arts Crew, Elliot's Crew, Ellen's Crew) and recent arcs (the first half of Hidden Genesis: MIB; second half, and the second half of "Sister II": Nanase, Ellen, Grace; "Hammerchlorians": Susan, Sarah, Grace) where out-of-limelight cast is mostly absent. In others the different subsets of both main and support characters get a spotlight, but the rest still maintains at least token presence.
    • The "Summer" collection of mini-arcs did this to a formula: Tedd and Sarah (Power Fantasy), then Susan and Elliot (Rock Falls Nobody is Hired), Justin and Grace (Nepotism), Tedd and Sarah again, with some appearances by Nanase (Hair), Susan and Elliot again (By the Numbers), Justin and Grace again (Duel of the Disks) and finally back to Tedd (There be Whales Here). Nanase and Ellen had been given background mystery-solving adventures due to previous claims of Spotlight-Stealing Squad.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court uses Rotating Arcs, even though the cast isn't particularly large. Characters and plot threads come and go from chapter to chapter; Antimony is the only constant, and even she gets demoted to the role of spectator in a few chapters.
  • Homestuck starts out moving between its separate protagonists, and gets even more and larger groups as time goes on.
  • The Meek makes full use of this, seeing as it has three different protagonists in different parts of the world, which each chapter focusing on a new character dealing with the story. The first arc deals with Angora, a green-haired, Green Thumbed Innocent Fanservice Girl who is to decide the fate of the world (and is arguably the "main" character). The Second follows Luca, the emperor of Dia' most powerful country, and the third follows a bounty hunter named Soli. The fourth chapter returns us to Angora.
  • The Order of the Stick uses this to an extent, with a minimum of a dozen strips at a time focusing on the Order itself or one of their enemy groups. However, this trope is most apparent during the Don't Split the Party arc, where (as the name implies) the Order is split, following the conclusion of the previous arc — there's Roy hanging out in the afterlife; Haley and Belkar leading La Résistance in Azure City, before leaving with Celia to try and resurrect Roy; Durkon, Vaarsuvius, and Elan in the refugee fleet dealing with Daimyo Kubota's scheming; and on top of that, there's Team Evil solidifying their hold on Azure City.
  • The webcomic Schlock Mercenary does this in the "Massively Parallel" Story Arc. The mercenaries of Tagon's Toughs split into four teams while their wrecked ship was in drydock. The first arc covered Elf Foxworthy's struggle to get the ship fixed, while the megalomaniacal Fleetmind pursued its own suspicious goals behind the scenes. The second arc has Schlock and his team sent on a mission that is going toxic. Pieces from the first arc keep getting shown from the other side of the comm system. The third arc has Kevyn and Pi setting up a system of explosives and teraports for an emergency escape system (the requested work, if not what was actually planned). The fourth arc followed Tagon, the Doc, and the remaining Toughs as they worked a gig as Mallcops in a low-gravity orbital shopping center. All four segments come together at the end as they scramble to reassemble and take on an emergency job with a couple personal twists.
    • At the end of Tagon's Mallcop Command arc it's pointed out that the story wrapped up a few weeks earlier than the others and the rest of the time was spent enjoying themselves at the mall while working the cushy security gig without incident. This trope is lampshaded as the narrator points out how unrealistic it would be to have all four storylines wrap up at exactly the same time, exactly when the next arc would be starting.
      • In fact, Schlock's team's arc wasn't quite wrapped up yet (the rest of his team were in jail, having been framed for some shady dealings) and as a result they get left behind for the beginning of the next arc.
  • Sluggy Freelance does this a lot. Bun-Bun got his own story arcs and cast of supporting characters in "Holiday Wars" and "Oceans Unmoving". Same goes for Oasis in "Phoenix Rising". Torg has had a number of these, from the "Torg Potter" stories where he's magically transported to a corner of the Sluggy universe populated by Harry Potter parodies, to the "Aylee" arc where he and Aylee were trapped for months in Another Dimension, to the massive "That Which Redeems" arc where he was in Another Another Dimension for months without any of the other cast members (although he did have their Alternate Universe versions). The other main characters have all gotten smaller versions of these, usually in shorter arcs with a little more interaction from the other cast members.

    Web Original 
  • The Whateley Universe has to operate this way, since the main characters are written by different authors. The most obvious example was the 2006 Christmas break, which technically still hasn't finished since some authors are writing new stories for it. Phase had a separate novel where she went home and ran into a serial killer who was really an unkillable demon from a hell dimension. Tennyo had a Christmas adventure with Jinn Sinclair who was embedded in her stuffed cabbit, while Jade Sinclair went home with Fey for another holiday and she was stabbed to death, but she got better. And so on. So far, there are seven such stories, two of which haven't finished. And Word of God says there will probably be a couple more.

    Western Animation 
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars has an anthology-style format, in which the show's multiple long-running Story Arcs switch in and out of focus. As such, it is an excellent example of this trope.
  • Total Drama has the episode Total Drama Drama Drama Drama Island, where the cast of 22 contestants look for a briefcase containing $1,000,000. Several sets of characters team up to look for the briefcase, and it cuts between them.