How to Structure A Story: The Eight-Point Arc
One of my favourite “how to write” books is Nigel Watts’ Writing A Novel and Getting Published.
My battered, torn and heavily-pencil-marked copy is a testament to how useful I’ve found it over the years. Although the cover appears to be on the verge of falling off altogether, I’ve risked opening the book once more to bring you Watts’ very useful “Eight-Point Story Arc” – a fool-proof, fail-safe and time-honoured way to structure a story.
(Even if you’re a short story writer or flash fiction writer rather than a novelist, this structure still applies, so don’t be put off by the title of Watts’ book.)
The eight points which Watts lists are, in order:
- The quest
- Critical choice
He explains that every classic plot passes through these stages and that he doesn’t tend to use them to plan a story, but instead uses the points during the writing process:
I find [the eight-point arc] most useful as a checklist against which to measure a work in progress. If I sense a story is going wrong, I see if I’ve unwittingly missed out a stage of the eight-point arc. It may not guarantee you write a brilliant story, but it will help you avoid some of the pitfalls of a brilliant idea gone wrong.
So, what do the eight points mean?
This is the “every day life” in which the story is set. Think of Cinderella sweeping the ashes, Jack (of Beanstalk fame) living in poverty with his mum and a cow, or Harry Potter living with the Dursley’s.
Something beyond the control of the protagonist (hero/heroine) is the trigger which sparks off the story. A fairy godmother appears, someone pays in magic beans not gold, a mysterious letter arrives … you get the picture.
The trigger results in a quest – an unpleasant trigger (e.g. a protagonist losing his job) might involve a quest to return to the status quo; a pleasant trigger (e.g. finding a treasure map) means a quest to maintain or increase the new pleasant state.
This stage involves not one but several elements, and takes up most of the middle part of the story. “Surprise” includes pleasant events, but more often means obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist.
Watts emphasises that surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable – they need to be unexpected, but plausible. The reader has to think “I should have seen that coming!”
At some stage, your protagonist needs to make a crucial decision; a critical choice. This is often when we find out exactly who a character is, as real personalities are revealed at moments of high stress. Watts stresses that this has to be a decision by the character to take a particular path – not just something that happens by chance.
In many classic stories, the “critical choice” involves choosing between a good, but hard, path and a bad, but easy, one.
In tragedies, the unhappy ending often stems from a character making the wrong choice at this point – Romeo poisoning himself on seeing Juliet supposedly dead, for example.
The critical choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax, the highest peak of tension, in your story.
For some stories, this could be the firing squad levelling their guns to shoot, a battle commencing, a high-speed chase or something equally dramatic. In other stories, the climax could be a huge argument between a husband and wife, or a playground fight between children, or Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters trying on the glass slipper.
The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and the climax, and it should change the status of the characters – especially your protagonist. For example, a downtrodden wife might leave her husband after a row; a bullied child might stand up for a fellow victim and realise that the bully no longer has any power over him; Cinderella might be recognised by the prince.
Your story reversals should be inevitable and probable. Nothing should happen for no reason, changes in status should not fall out of the sky. The story should unfold as life unfolds: relentlessly, implacably, and plausibly.
The resolution is a return to a fresh stasis – one where the characters should be changed, wiser and enlightened, but where the story being told is complete.
(You can always start off a new story, a sequel, with another trigger…)
I’ve only covered Watts’ eight-point arc in brief here. In the book, he gives several examples of how the eight-point arc applies to various stories. He also explains how a longer story (such as a novel) should include arcs-within-arcs – subplots and scenes where the same eight-point structure is followed, but at a more minor level than for the arc of the entire story.
You can buy Writing a Novel from Amazon.com – and I highly recommend that you do, as it’s an excellent book for any writer of fiction, and deals with all aspects of the craft (not just eight-point arcs!)
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17 Responses to “How to Structure A Story: The Eight-Point Arc”
Cool article. Quick question: the link to the book you describe leads to a book of a different title: “Teach Yourself Writing a Novel”, not “Writing a Novel and Getting Published” (although both are by Nigel Watts).
Which book describes the eight-point story arc?
Another good book about story structure is “Story” by Robert McKee. Although mainly focused on movie plots, most of what he writes holds for stories in general.
They’re both the same book — just different editions. Both contain the 8 point story arc. The “Teach Yourself” one is the more recent edition.
Ah. Thanks, Ali.
Was not poison the cause of Romeo’s timeless end?
Mongoose, thanks for spotting that — you’re completely right! I don’t know HOW I got that wrong.
I’ve amended the reference in the article now. Thanks again!
One of my favorite movies, “The Big Lebowski,” follows this structure exactly. Caution: although this film is hilarious, the “f” word is used quite often.
I know it won’t be a constructive comment, but at this point all I want to say is: Thank you for this post! I just started writing my own novel and am very unexperienced. But this eight-point-arc helped me a lot now, it gave me back the clear view of my work.
I ran through this article this morning but I wanted to write it on my notebook so I searched for it on the archives..it took a long while ‘coz I for got the title..a lesson learned..next time I’ll jot down right away when an article is worth remembering..thanks a lot! I’m an inexperienced writer and this helped me a lot!
Excellent article; thanks! One quibble — in terms of the tragedy, Romeo’s fatal choice is to challenge and kill Tybalt, after he killed Mercutio. All the other wrong choices stem from that one, and it puts the responsibility for the rest of the tragic outcomes to some extent or another at his feet.
I realise it has been posted for some time but I have only just come across it.
Simple, effective advice.
I’ve had Nigel Watts’ wonderful book for many years and read it ever so often. The eight-point arc is handy even for writing plays and screenplays. I’m a published playwright (Sri Lanka) and recently took a crack at writing my first screenplay — a kind of “art house” psychological drama set in Scandinavia. Even though it has a non-linear plot, the eight-point arc was the template.
Thanks for this! I am writing three stories – a storyboard for a machinima horror miniseries, a sci-fi children’s novel, and a role-playing fantasy game campaign for my 6th grade students. This will work for all of them! I’m really excited to use this and was imagining already the overall arc for each of the eight points.
Thank you for the article. A great summary of how to structure a good story
GORGEOUS!!! However, I am so glad that there are actually no rules about writing that are set in stone, yet this helps generalise the overall formula modern day creative writing uses.
What if the protagonist dies in the climax leaving 3 secondary characters behind? What happens to the other 2 points? How would it proceed?
This would be fun to do with other stories to help get the picture. I was thinking of The Wizard of Oz while reading the eight steps and wondering which part of the book/movie fit into the steps.