How the 8-Point Story Arc Keeps Your Novel on Track
The eight-point story arc is the friend who gently reminds you about your decluttering goals when you put the ukulele back in the closet because you might still learn to play it someday.
It’s the post-it on the bathroom mirror reminding you that you wanted to work out every morning.
It’s the alarm on your phone telling you today’s writing session starts in thirty minutes.
In other words, the eight-point story structure is the template that keeps you on track. This focused story planning format rescues you when you start getting lost in the details or distracting yourself with tangents. How?
By reminding you about the story you wanted to tell.
If you’re planning to write a novel, this friendly li’l template can simplify the process. It’s a versatile structure that’s embraced by planners and pantsers, genre fiction authors and formula-resisting lit fic writers alike.
So what exactly is this structure? Why is it such a crowd-pleaser? And how can you use it to write your novel?
I’ve got answers for you.
What is the Eight-Point Story Arc?
The eight-point story arc is an approach to storytelling introduced by Nigel Watts in his book, Teach Yourself Writing a Novel.
As you probably guessed, this particular structure features eight major story beats:
- Critical Choice
If you’ve already explored other story structures, those beats may not feel all that revolutionary.
They’re not. There’s nothing super groundbreaking here.
What makes this story structure so useful is the bare-bones simplicity of it.
Planners can use eight-point story structure as a first step in developing a more detailed outline. Pantsers and plantsers (the planner/pantser hybrid) can use this structure as a map to keep their discovery writing on track.
And everyone can use it to write a concise, fluff-free synopsis when it’s time to query agents.
See what I mean? The eight-point story arc has something to give you no matter when or how you use it. It also happens to be a great tool for tracking your character arc as you build the plot. I’ll show you how in the next section.
What are the Eight Points?
The gloriously simple beats of the eight-point story arc are as follows:
This is your character’s “normal.” Harry Potter living in the cupboard under the stairs, Katniss Everdeen hunting to feed her family, Bilbo Baggins living his happy, hairy-footed life… you get the idea.
In this beat, you’re showing your readers life as your character has known it so they can appreciate the crazy changes that are about to go down.
In terms of character arc: Whether or not they’re happy with life, your character has the comfort of knowing their world and having a routine. They live by a flawed philosophy (“the Lie”) that has never been challenged and their wants reflect their limited perspective.
You may also know this as the inciting incident. This is the event that triggers your character to leap into an adventure they had no intention of pursuing three pages ago.
Sometimes the trigger presents an opportunity to make life better, like Harry’s letter inviting him to attend Hogwarts. The trigger can also be a negative event that disrupts your character’s life, like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.
Either way, this event throws your character wildly off course.
In terms of character arc: Whether the trigger feels like an opportunity or a threat, your character is being shoved outside their comfort zone.
Now your character is making a choice to charge into the adventure. Maybe they’re pursuing new opportunities. Maybe they’re trying to restore their stasis. Whatever the case may be, they’re launching into the quest with a clear goal.
It’s important to note that the quest is when you start paying off the premise that got your reader to pick up your book in the first place. This is where the detective takes the case or your hero/ine begins the journey or your love interests start fake dating.
Also keep in mind that the goal (and thus the quest) can evolve. In The Hunger Games, Katniss sets out on a quest for survival and ends up on a quest for justice.
In terms of character arc: Now outside their comfort zone, your character has zeroed in on a specific goal. If you want your character to do some serious growing, fill their adventure with obstacles that suggest they either have the wrong goal or they’re pursuing the right goal in the wrong way.
Also referred to as the midpoint (way less exciting), this is a major, unexpected event that changes your character’s relationship to the quest.
It might deepen their resolve like when [REDACTED] dies in The Hunger Games. Or the surprise might cause them to question their mission, like when Lara Jean catches real feelings for her fake boyfriend in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
In any case, your protagonist now sees their goal in a new light and must reconsider how to proceed.
In terms of character arc: Your character discovers that their quest isn’t as straightforward as they thought. They realize they were wrong about something. Maybe they were naive or underestimated someone or mistook an ally for an enemy (or vice versa). They have to re-evaluate and reset.
5. Critical Choice
Your character should make a lot of noteworthy choices over the course of your novel, but this is the big one. This is the choice with no easy answer. We’re talking about an “Oh crap, I’m the seventh horcrux. What now?” kind of choice.
This is Simba deciding to face his demons and reclaim his throne. It’s Rose deciding not to leave the sinking Titanic on a life raft because... I don't know, I guess she’d rather survive by hogging a door?
Your character’s decision will drive them straight into the climax.
In terms of character arc: This is where your character realizes they must change in order to survive (even metaphorical survival). Their choice contradicts the Lie they lived by in the beginning.
The exception would be if your character has a flat arc. In that case, your character doesn’t change and this decision simply reveals who they are and what they value most.
That critical choice has led your character here, to the ultimate battle of your novel. The tension is higher than it has ever been and there’s so much at stake.
In most books, the character prevails in the climax. They achieve victory by tapping into their natural strengths and applying the lessons they’ve learned on their journey.
But you can go the bummer route, too—have your character fail and allow their world to fall apart. (Note: that’s not an option if you write romance. Happy endings only.)
In terms of character arc: Your character faces their greatest fear. This is probably a fear they just spent the whole book avoiding. It’s a sign of growth that they’re choosing to push through this battle rather than retreat to safety.
Simba takes the throne and the land is bright and happy again. Katniss wins the Hunger Games and becomes the icon of a rebellion. Cinderella is living her best princess life while her stepsisters may or may not be having their eyes pecked out, depending on which version of the story you’re reading.
In short, the critical choice and the climax have caused a total reversal. Characters may have swapped status. Things may have gotten significantly better or decidedly worse. One thing is certain: your character will not return to their old normal.
In terms of character arc: The transformation is complete. This person will never be the same again.
Now we’re settling into a new stasis. Things have calmed down a bit and we see what the character’s life will look like going forward.
Harry Potter has a job and a family, and his scar doesn’t hurt anymore. Belle gets to throw on that gold dress whenever she feels like it and dance in the fancy ballroom with her hunky beast-turned-prince.
You don’t have to go too deep, just give the reader a little closure. Show them what long-term rewards (or disasters) this journey has earned.
In terms of character arc: Your character is now applying what they learned over the course of the story to the life they’re building on the other side. As Dan Harmon would tell you, it’s a good idea to show how your character’s transformation makes their whole world better.
How to Use the Eight-Point Story Arc
So that’s the eight-point story arc. Now that you know what it is, let’s talk about how to use it.
Or rather, let’s talk about how you can use it, because there aren’t a lot of hard-and-fast rules here. This is a flexible format that’s here to serve you.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
Determine How the Eight-Point Story Arc is Most Useful to You
As I mentioned before, the eight-point story arc can serve you in countless ways.
If you don’t like to plot your stories out in detail before you write them, you can use this structure to create a bare-bones outline. Determine what needs to happen in each of the eight beats and discover the rest as you write.
If you prefer to know your story scene-by-scene before you start drafting, the eight-point story arc can serve as the first step in the planning process. Use the eight beats to get a general sense of where your story is heading. Then fill in what happens to get your character from beat to beat.
You can also layer other, more complex story structures on top of the eight-point story arc. The Hero’s Journey, three-act structure, and Save the Cat are all compatible with the eight-point approach.
Finally, you can use this story arc to work backwards and clarify the heart of a plot you’ve already fleshed out.
This is especially helpful when you have to write a synopsis or pitch your novel. We writers tend to get attached to every character arc and tense moment. It’s hard to talk about our ideas without breaking down every scene.
Try plugging your book into the eight-point story arc, however, and it becomes easier to define what your story is really about.
Now that I’ve explained how you can use this structure to simplify plotting, I’d like to complicate things.
Create Multiple Story Arcs Within Your Novel
The eight-point story arc is great for tracking your protagonist’s journey, but why stop there?
You can use this story arc to flesh out the arcs of side characters, including the antagonist.
Apply the story arc to your subplots.
If you want to get really crazy, you can create an eight-point story arc in individual scenes. Just make sure those scenes don’t feel too resolved or your reader won’t have a reason to turn the page.
Or go macro and use the eight-point story arc to build your protagonist’s transformation over the course of an entire series.
Whatever works for you.
Track Internal and External Conflicts
In addition to thinking about how each point of the story arc furthers the character arc, consider how these beats contribute to the conflict.
Your character should grapple with an internal conflict and an external conflict. (You can learn how to weave the two together in this article.) In terms of the story arc, that grappling looks like this:
- Point 1 (Stasis) shows the reader a pre-conflict world.
- Point 2 (Trigger) instigates conflict.
- Points 3–6 (Quest through Climax) heighten and complicate the conflict.
- Points 7–8 (Reversal and Resolution) resolve the conflict.
Remember to Make Sense
Finally—and this is important—remember that each beat in the eight-point story arc needs to be a natural result of the events leading up to it.
The surprise can’t just be surprising. It also needs to be something that makes the reader say, “Oh, of course! I should have seen that coming.” Same deal with the critical choice, reversal… all of it.
The explosive moments in your novel need to be plausible. If they’re not, they won’t thrill your reader. They’ll enrage your reader. And you can’t sell more books to angry readers.
If you’re not sure how to design a logical flow from one beat to the next, this article on scene and sequel might help.
One last tip for applying the eight-point story arc to your story:
Plot Your Novel With Dabble
If you haven’t tried the Dabble writing tool yet, I highly recommend giving this thing a whirl. It’s the easiest way to use the eight-point story arc—or any story structure, really.
You can use Dabble’s Plot Grid to map out your eight story points. From there, you can either start drafting your novel right in the same tool or you can add to your existing structure.
See, the Plot Grid is completely customizable, so you can add columns to track your character arcs and make sure you hit important beats. You can also add and delete scenes between major story points and add label ribbons to keep track of everything from timeline to lingering questions.
It’s an easy and honestly pretty fun way to untangle and organize your writer brain.
Bonus: you can try it right now for free for fourteen days. You don’t even have to enter a credit card. Just click this link and start building your story arc.
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