How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The Eight Point Story Arc
May and Watts (2012) describe an eight-part story structure. Here they are, with an additional discussion of each stage.
Establish normality. Create the baseline of everyday reality for the protagonists and their world. Depending on the novel and style, this may be short, even a paragraph, or somewhat longer.
A danger of a longer stasis section is that it bores the reader who consequently quickly gives up on the story. A way of handling this is to go back later in the book, for example with flashbacks, to fill in the back story.
However you start the story, you need to quickly engage the reader. If you have a longer stasis, then you need a powerful writing style that draws in the reader, perhaps by creating intrigue about the protagonist's early life or showing an oddness about their everyday life.
Create a stimulating event that breaks stasis and animates the characters in the story into the main action.
Triggers can be major events such as killings or explosions, or may seem almost insignificant, such as something mentioned in a conversation. Triggers can also be positive or negative, notice or not noticed, sudden or gradual, short or long, etc. The key attribute is that they cause change that starts the real story going.
A way of starting a story with a bang is to have the trigger very early, perhaps even on the first page. The stasis can then be filled in later.
Develop the quest, which is the purpose given to the protagonist for the story as a result of the trigger. This will take up much of the novel and include the points below.
A stated or unstated purpose of the quest may be to return the protagonist to the original stasis (while perhaps an antagonist opposes this). Another, possibly related quest may be to defeat the antagonist. The quest may also evolve as more is learned and the journey transforms the hero. Typically simple personal goals such as conquest or acquisition evolve into broader and more social goals such as saving others. When times get tough, the quest may simply be one of survival.
Introduce surprises that sustain interest and intrigue in the story, and give opportunity for character development.
To be a surprise, an event must be unexpected, at least in part. 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.
Surprises are often unpleasant (Oh no!), punctuated with occasional pleasant respite and reward. Unpleasant surprises challenge the hero as they battle through their quest, giving opportunity for true heroism and personal growth. Pleasant surprises (Hooray!) include gaining treasures and meeting helpful other parties along the way.
At times there will be difficult decisions where the hero might turn back or aside.
Critical decisions are significant and essential, for example to continue with the quest, to pause to help others, to fight evil, etc. Such decisions should be consistent with the character, although they can also be transformational, changing the person (such as when a coward decides to act bravely). Showing the struggle to decide and the exercise of free will can be important.
Critical choices often build through the story, with each becoming more important than the previous one.
The quest builds through surprises and critical choices until it reaches a climax, a point where tensions must be resolved.
There may be a number of minor and major climaxes through the story, leading to the grand climax near the end. While minor climaxes resolve minor tensions and larger tensions are resolved at major climaxes, there is still an underlying building tension that can only be resolved by the grand climax where the whole quest is finally resolved. It is through this sequence of climaxes that the story arc is built and the reader bound into the journey of the hero and other protagonists.
Along the route of the story, there may be a number of sub-stories, side quests and so on, each with their own surprises and critical choices. While these may be, in effect, little tales of their own, they should still contribute towards the final grand climax, where perhaps the significance of these side events finally becomes realized.
In the reversal, the hero integrates all of the learning, becoming a true hero, usually without losing their original charm and personality. Other characters may also change, particularly when they have journeyed and developed together.
Reversals are a the result of the journey and are, as such, inevitable. You do not battle monsters and stay the same person, yet that person is still within you. They should make sense and make the reader nod in agreement of the just transformations that they are.
In the final resolution, a new stasis is found.
This is also inevitable as all tensions are resolved. This new stasis is seldom the same as the original one as characters have learned and grown. It may also serve as a platform for another adventure, perhaps where side characters take on a bigger role or where the hero develops more subtly into a broader, more rounded character. The next story may also be hinted at with a new trigger, such as a discovery that the antagonist not having been fully vanquished or a new trouble is brewing.
The structure of this arc is, unsurprisingly, similar to other structures such as five-stage story structure or Campbell's 'Hero's Journey'. It adds useful elements such as the surprise and critical choice that can be used as guiding principles in writing compelling text.
May, S. and Watts, N. (2012). Write a Novel and Get it Published: Teach Yourself, London: Hachette