The 8-Point Story Arc

Steps

So, you want to write an amazing story? This is how to write amazing stories using the 8-Point Story Arc.

I have to warn you if you read this article it may spoil a lot of “fun” movies for you because you will realise that the movie industry (especially in America) follows this pattern slavishly.

The 8 steps of the 8-Point Story Arc

Unsurprisingly the 8-Point Story Arc has 8 steps. Before we look at the steps in more detail, let’s list them.

Here they are:

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. The quest
  4. Surprise
  5. Critical choice
  6. Climax
  7. Reversal
  8. Resolution

A quite guide to the 8-Point Story Arc

The chances are you already follow a similar pattern when writing short stories, or even planning chapters. If you are familiar with “The Hero’s Journey” or the three (or five) act structure yu will see instantly how the 8-Point Story Arc fits almost exactly with these ideas.

Stasis

This is the initial setup. The “how things are” of the world. By the end of the story, this may well have changed, been threatened, or have been disrupted and then restored. Exactly what happens to the initial world setup depends on the type of story you want to tell.

Trigger

In other story theory, this is called the “inciting incident”. Really it is just the thing that causes the story to happen.

In my story, Legend, the trigger happens a few paragraphs in when Malial’s family are kidnapped. You should go read Legend, I think you would like it.

The quest

This is the thing the hero or protagonist needs to go and do to solve whatever the trigger caused to happen. In a romance, this is to win the affection of a love interest. In a classic fantasy, it might be to go and drop the magic doodah in the special fire, or something. You get the picture.

The quest embodies the thing that the characters int he story want or need to do. It is the both the goal and the journey towards that goal. Without a quest, the characters would just be sitting around drinking tea and saying mean things about each other. I actually wrote a story like that once and a quest still popped up anyway.

Surprise

Sometimes called “the twist”, the surprise is something that the character or characters of the story did not see coming. In a good story, the audience should be supprised too.

The surprise is, perhaps, the hardest bit to get right. Too unexpected and it just seems like a “hand of god” moment. Too well telegraphed and it is not at all surprising.

The website changingminds.org has a guide to the 8-Point Story Arc. It says this about the surprise:

To work within the story, it should be plausible and make sense to the reader, at least in retrospect. Surprises should add to the story, increasing the involvement and ultimate pleasure of the reader. A poor surprise makes them feel disappointed and disillusioned.

Critical choice

This often, but not always grows out of the surprise. The critical choice may be an opportunity to give up on the quest or some other profound decision that will forever change the landscape of the story.

The critical choice should lead, logically (in retrospect), to the next surprise. In this way, the story can move between surprise and choice as often as make sense to you, the writer.

Climax

The climax is where those critical choices are building. In a romantic

In a romantic comedy, this is often a sudden and quite expected argument between the lead character and their opposite number. In a buddy movie, this is where the characters finally, and quite formulaically fall out. As I said before, this pattern is slavishly followed by western movie makers.

This should, if nothing else, be the moment of high drama. Unlike movie land, this climax should have been building for a while and be a logical extension of the choices. It should not be an artificial argument between brothers for the purpose of setting up a reversal.

For a different take on what the climax is for, check out the dailywritingtips.com 8-point arc article.

Reversal

In badly written TV and movies, this is where the rather forced argument is resolved by the big gesture.

This is where everything the hero has learned is put to use. The hero integrates the changes that have been building up and undergoes their final transformation into the person they were becoming.

The bullied child stands up for themselves. The coward finally does something brave. The evil uncle embraces the power of good and does the right thing.

The reversal sets up…

Resolution

This is where the story ends. The new stasis is created, the hero can go home. The prince marries the princess. they live happily ever after, or whatever.

The tensions of the story are resolved and the quest is laid to rest.

You get to write “the end” and as a reader, you feel satisfied (assuming the writer did a good job).

How to write a great story

For those of you that like to watch videos, here is a video presentation of the 8-Point Story Arc.

Over to you

Did you find that useful? Had you heard of the 8-Point Story Arc before? Do you, perhaps, use it in your writing or do you disagree with it entirely?

Let us know your thoughts int he comments section or come and chat with me over at the Author Buzz forums.

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Favourite line that you cut from a story

Hands and paper

The editing process can be brutal. Often you have to cut something that you loved because it does not work with the rest of the story.

What is your favourite line that you cut from a story? Just as importantly, why would you write a blog post about it?

There is an oft-repeated proverb for writers:

In writing, you must kill your darlings

As to who really said it, I don’t know, but the truth is that sometimes the bit you love has to go. But just because it is gone from the story does not mean that it cannot make one last triumph in a deleted scenes section of the DVD of your novel.

Mixed metaphors aside, there is something wonderful about getting to see inside the editing process of a writer. Not only that but sometimes a scene which failed to advance the plot can give fans something really interesting to argue about.

Is that date between the protagonist and the secondary character part of the cannon, and if so, will it shape the next book in the series?

You never know what will hook a reader into buying a book but if you never share any secrets from the cutting room floor you can be certain those secrets gave you nothing at all.

While there is no way to know if a much loved but later cut moment will sell a single book there is very little chance that sharing a few choice moments will not at least titillate fans. There is an outside chance you will draw in a visitor who, having read the scene finally goes out and buys the book to read what happened to those characters.

There is little or no downside to sharing much loved but ultimately cut moments from a work but plenty of potential upsides. If only because it gives you something to write about on your blog while you edit.

This week’s prompt is to share something you cut but that you really loved.

Getting to grips with the Story Bootstrapping Problem

How do you establish characters while making them interesting and keep the audience along for the ride while you do that? It is time to get to grip with this problem.

As writers, we need to establish our characters, set them in a world. We need to outline the goal the characters are working towards while foreshadowing the obstacles between the character and their goal. We need the reader to care long enough to do all that and the reader will not care unless we do all that. This is the bootstrapping problem.

Every story ever written has to wrestle with the Story Bootstrapping Problem.

Thus anonymous reader asks

When your backstory is as important as your story how do you tell both without tacking on a bajillion word introduction?

As hard questions go… Oh, boy. Here we go.

The Story Bootstrapping Problem

I was hoping no one would ask this because this is exactly the topic that I have been struggling with myself.

Every story has a bootstrapping problem. Readers need us to get on with the story and be interesting which requires that we have character, place, and motive established but to do that we need to get on and be interesting.

Writers Stack Exchange has a question about “A long backstory right at the beginning” which at least addresses the Story Bootstrapping Problem. I read that question several times before I tried to answer but, ultimately, I needed to do a lot more reading.

In Fixing Chapter One Patricia C. Wrede tackles the Story Bootstrapping Problem. Incidentally, Patricia’s blog is a great example of an authorial platform, but I digress.

Chapter One and the Story Bootstrapping Problem

In a short story you have maybe a paragraph or two to get to grips with the Story Bootstrapping Problem but in a novel, this is the task of Chapter One. The Story Bootstrapping Problem is what chapter one is for. For this very reason, it is sometimes recommended that you write the first chapter last. It is good advice at least for some of us some of the time.

When it comes to how you start your story, writersdigest.com has some pointers on that, and guess what? You still have to start with Chapter One.

Patricia C. Wrede tells us:

It is the job of the first chapter to get your readers to care about the main character, or at the very least, to be interested enough in the character to keep reading.

Chapter One is the linchpin of the entire story. Chapter one supports everything else as a foundation. Chapter one is, by far, your hardest working chapter. It is no surprise that it is also the hardest work.

Look at all the things the first chapter must do:

  • Make a promise
  • Orient the reader
  • Establish character
  • Set up the plot
  • Show the world
  • Make us care
  • Keep us reading

Solving the Story Bootstrapping Problem with a promise

Chapter One needs to promise the reader that it is worth them continuing. The promise is the cheque that the first chapter writes and the rest of the novel has to cash.

A really good promise is whatever it takes to make the reader excited to keep reading. If you make your promise well, you don’t need to establish backstory, character, or pretty much anything else that does not fit in Chapter One.

Conceptually, the promise solution to the Story Bootstrapping Problem is similar to Linguistic Bootstrapping only on the scale of a single novel. You need to give the reader the tools to infer, deduce, or discover backstory right before they need it.

The promise might be a striking statement, an intriguing idea, a dastardly deed – almost anything can be your promise (depending on genre). How well the promise solution works is entirely down to your skill as a writer. Sorry, there are no easy answers here today.

Aristotle’s Poetics says that we need to stage our story from Pity to Fear and, finally, Catharsis. So we need to show a character unjustly suffer in some way. In otherwords, Aristotle suggess that we use Chapter one to make the reader pitty the main character.

Think how Harry Potter starts. Pitty the abandoned boy, we most certainly do.

Orient the reader and make them want to stay

I’ve never read any Steinbeck but I have it on good authority that his introductions were almost all description that went on for pages and pages. These descriptions were so good, so rich that, as the reader, you want to go and live there – right now.

If you can orient your readers to the point that they get lost in your world, then they will stay long enough for you to introduce them to characters and plot as you wish. This orientation might be harder than the pity route but should (at least in theory) work just as well.

Strong orientation is, potentially, a great solution to the Story Bootstrapping Problem. Again, this is down to your skill as a writer. That level of captivating detail is probably not something I could attempt right now.

Solve the Bootstrapping Problem by establishing character

Another route into the bootstrapping problem is to establish a strong sense of character. Someone that the reader feels deeply attached to. That is, I think, why sequels work so much better than episode one stories. If we have been following a series we already know the characters.

Aristotle’s suggestion could also be taken to mean that we should hook a reader (or listener, or playgoer) by opening a story with a reason to pity the character. By this, we could say that you must have a reason to feel empathy for the character’s plight.

To make this work, the reader needs to be able to think “that could be me”. Even if they do not consciously think it.

You might try to make your hero an everyman or put them in a common situation that goes uncommonly wrong.

It can help to show that your character is charismatic. Some might say that this was vital. This works in much the same way that we make friends. We meet someone and like them even before we know much about them. For our story, we need enough like to let the relationship between the reader and the character bloom. To do that the reader needs to care about the character early on.

Whatever else you do, you are almost certainly going to need to put your main character on the stage in Chapter One. It will help your story no end if the readers are interested in what happens to them.

Bootstrapping with a character readers care about gives you time to get the plot going. Of course, how well this works depends on you as a writer. There are no shortcuts here.

Bootstrapping vs Plot

In a plot-heavy story, sometimes you simply need to lay the bare facts before the reader.

The danger of going in plot-first is that if you do this wrong you may commit the crime of info dumping on your poor reader. No one wants that. Info-dumps are a storytelling fail.

Getting the facts in early can work well as part of the “start at the height of the action” framing device. Let your plot be like a locomotive charging along and taking the reader with it.

Remember though, framing devices are just devices and they will not hook your reader alone. Only your skill as a writer can do that.

How do you solve the Story Bootstrapping Problem

I am currently figuring out how to bring a lot of emotional baggage into a story from before the story started and have the reader care about it as much as the characters. I am not sure I have figured that out yet. If you have a good answer, pick up some easy reputation points on Writers’ Stack Exchange with your insights.

  • How do you solve the Story Bootstrapping Problem?
  • What approaches have you applied and how did you get on?
  • What makes your Chapter One really work?

Share your insights with us in the comments section below.

Have you considered becoming a Storyteller?

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin. Once-upon-a-time there was a person who told a story. That person could be you.

Storytelling is more than just reading out a story that you have written. Stories define us and help us explore the world. They enable us to look at old things in new ways. The storyteller is the artist that guides us on the story’s journey.

Since the first people sat around the first campfire, stories have been told. Although it is an ancient tradition, storytelling is still relevant today. Why do you thing films, books, and computer games exist? Stories are part of who we are.

Everyone has at least one story in them waiting to get be let out. Some of us, have many, many stories. Sometimes that is what drives us to become writers.

Jonathan Gottschall calls us the storytelling animal. In many ways we are, we live in stories. We create stories. We define our world with stories.

Professional Storytelling

Have you considered becoming not just a writer but a storyteller? Perhaps a professional storyteller?

The Society for Storytelling has a number of excellent resources including a guide to Becoming a Professional Storyteller and Telling Tales: A beginners Guide to Telling Stories.

What Great Storytellers Know with Matt Chan is a TEDx video that takes a novel look at storytelling.

If you decide to set up a storytelling event then the Society for Storytelling has a guide on Promoting Storytelling Events. Members of our charity can expect our full support in promoting local events and storytelling is no exception. We’d be delighted to get behind local storytelling events.

Next year, National Storytelling Week takes place from January 27th to 3rd February. So there is plenty of time to plan something (if you want to).

Talking of running events, have you considered setting up a Storytelling club or monthly storytelling gathering? Again, members of our charity can expect our full support in promoting such an event and the Society for Storytelling has guidance on Organising a Storytelling Club.

After all, we are wired for stories, says Lisa Cron.

Have you considered storytelling?

And then the murders began

We have a running joke at Tea and Chat that any opening line of anything sounds better if followed up by the phrase “and then the murders began”.

So for this week’s Fiction Friday writing prompt, take a book (at random, or one of your favourites) and look at the opening line. Take that opening line and follow it up with:

And then the murders began.

What happens next?

If you write something and share it please link to this post and let us know what you came up with. Remember this is not part of the competition but is just to get the creative juices flowing.

Telling Stories at GEEK 2017

This weekend I went to GEEK (Game Expo East Kent) which took place in Dreamland, Margate. While I was there I encountered three forms of storytelling – two that work well and one that does not.

The Story of GEEK

The first form of storytelling was the story of GEEK and Dreamland. On day two I met the storyteller in residence. His job was to record and tell the story of GEEK.

One of the ways he did that was to ask people to place stickers on boards. One board (shown), gave an impression of where people had come from. People, it turns out, have come from all parts of the country and other countries too, just to visit the game expo in Thanet. There were four stickers from people who had come from Romania to visit Thanet for GEEK.

IMG_3333-1000.JPG

While every one of the many thousands of people that came to GEEK has their story to tell, GEEK itself has a story. When it comes to writing that is something worth remembering – no matter who you are telling the story for, the place the story is set has it’s own march larger story. Or, to put it another way, individual characters have a story that is just a part of a richer tapestry of story.

I am glad that GEEK are tapping into the wider story and I am looking forward to reading the story of GEEK.

The story form that does not work

I got to talk to a whole bunch of games developers at GEEK. With some of them, I spoke, at length, about story.

One of the interesting topics to come out of those discussions was how games get pitched. More and more often there are games pitches which start and stop on the story the game will tell. More than one developer has wondered if these people are frustrated film producers.

Games are fundamentally things you play with. They can have story or not. A good story can lift a good game to new heights but a great story can do nothing for a poor game.

Between us, we listed several games where we would pay good money to see a film based on the plot but the game itself was not the least bit fun to play.

At the end of the day, games are a medium with priorities that do not always include storytelling. Yet, with the right foundations of play and mechanics, a good story adds a dimension to a game that can be created no other way.

It was, we agreed, best to start with the game first and follow up with the story.

Then we found an exception that proved us wrong.

The exception

Late in the day on Saturday, I got talking to John William Evelyn, an artist, who had stripped back the mechanics of gameplay to the bare minimum in order to convert the medium of game into a medium for story telling.

I sat and played an utterly compelling demo of The Collage Atlas which is an exceptionally beautiful and novel “game”.

You know me, I love story telling. It should not be a surprise to anyone that I was somewhat captivated by this relaxing game. I anticipate that The Collage Atlas will be a must have game for me when it comes out.

The lesson for us as writers here is this: Whatever form you tell your story in, make sure the story is allowed to shine.