As we all know, writers tend to fall into one of two categories: plotters or pantsers. There’s the ambiguous gray area between the two that some of us wade into from time to time, but ultimately, most of us tend to lean one way or the other.
However, whether you choose start your Big New Idea with a blinking cursor on a blank Scrivener document or by filling entire notebooks with outlines and character profiles, your story has to have one thing in common with everyone else’s—regardless of their planning methods or lack thereof. For your story to incite curiosity, pull a reader through the pages, and ultimately fulfill its promises, it has to have a narrative arc, also known as a story arc).
Take any classic or modern work of literature and you’ll likely find elements of the Eight-Point Arc. I’m going to describe it here, and I’ll use examples of several different works to avoid creating one big spoiler for any particular story. Keep in mind that your story’s narrative arc goes hand-in-hand with your character arcs, which I discussed a while back here.
The Eight-Point Story Arc
- Stasis. Known sometimes as “exposition,” this is the part of the story that sets the scene. Think of Katniss hunting just outside District 12 and observing the starvation and desolation when she returns within the broken electric fencing.
- Trigger. Something happens that triggers the protagonist and kicks off the Quest. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister, Primrose, is selected for the reaping and Katniss volunteers in her place.
- Quest. The protagonist embarks on a quest; in The Hunger Games, Katniss’s quest is to partake in—and win—the Hunger Games for the sake of her family.
- Surprise. Self-explanatory, the surprise is something unexpected that changes the story for better or worse. One surprise that may stand out to Harry Potter fans is Harry’s discovery that he can speak Parceltongue in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, which decidedly alters the direction and outcome of the book.
- Critical Choice. The critical choice is, by name, critical—that is, it can’t be made by accident and the result has a lasting effect on the story and its characters. Often, this is where we get a full picture of the protagonist’s true colors, such as that fateful moment in which Robb Stark chose to marry outside his arrangement with the Freys.
(Note: arguably, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire series is composed of MANY different intertwining story arcs in order to create a massive epic in which there is no true single protagonist. For this example, I’m focusing strictly on the story arc of the Starks’ quest to vengeance in the HBO show).
- Climax. A direct result of the critical choice, the climax is the height of drama, the point in the story at which all the built-up tension over hundreds of pages finally peaks. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this is the moment when the war against Voldemort erupts at Hogwarts.
- Reversal.This point in the novel is what separates a true climax from a fireworks show. Your climax shouldn’t solely fill the purpose of forcing a reaction; rather, it should be a consequential moment that leaves your characters forever changed. This state of altered being is the reversal, the decelerating moment in which Jasmine is safe, Aladdin’s selfish ways are changed, and the genie is set free.
- Resolution. The story has come full-circle and the characters are now in a new form of stasis. This isn’t the way things were, it’s the way they are and will be (or, where the sequel will pick up with a brand-new trigger!). Example: the hobbits returning to the shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings.
Now, those of us who wing our way through novels may have a hard time with this because we feel restricted by outlines and spreadsheets; that’s okay, and it’s not expected that everyone prep and write a story in exactly the same way. If you’re struggling to wrestle out all the main plot points of a story before you get writing, try applying the arc to your story after the first draft is written. Hold up the skeleton of the arc to your full, well-rounded story, like a star frame to the expansive night sky, to identify the constellations of scenes and events that correlate with each of these phases.
Examining your story this way, through the lens of the Eight-Point Arc, can help you smooth out the narrative flow and identify kinks in your plot. Likewise, if you’re having a hard time with unruly characters whose actions aren’t matching up with their personality or the direction of the plot, character arcs can also help—whether you use them as planning devices or editing tools.
Do you use the Eight-Point Arc to plot or edit your story? Let us know how it works for you—or whatever else you use to polish up your narrative instead!