The Eight point Story Arc Template For Planning Your Novel
From a reader’s point of view, a good story grips and doesn’t let go. We follow the hero or heroine doggedly, if we can relate to them and like them. We care about what happens to them and how the story ends. that’s why we keep turning the pages. However, this doesn’t happen by chance. The best stories follow a plan called the 8 point story arc.
Everything in the Universe has a balanced structure, whether it’s man-made or naturally occurring. Why should a fiction novel or short story be any different? In fact the 8 point story arc template is exactly what hundreds of writers use to craft their novels. So what is the story arc?
The Story Arc Definition
The video below gives a really interesting explanation on the eight point set up, with some story arc examples. It’s comforting to know that, basically, all stories are the same and that all readers want the same thing.
However, mind-blowing or off-worldy our idea for a novel or story is, we can use the 8 point story arc as a firm foundation for plot, subplot and character building – whatever the setting or theme. Go underdog!
Human society runs on stories they create. Our reality, the way we as individuals, see the world. They make us sad, they make us happy, they inspire us.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood, TV, and books bring in hundreds of billions of dollars each year, and it’s no surprise that the entire nation except for Ohio was rooting for the Cubs. The eternal underdogs finally had their shot.
It’s why day in and day out most people want to live the best story they can. We love good stories. At this point in human history it feels like there are infinite stories, and we’re told they’re all different, but what if I told you the basic structure of all of those stories is the same?
I’m not talking about the stuff that ends up making them different, like style, just a basic structure for every story that’s ever been recognizable as a story. Well, many people have tried different formulas but perhaps no one has done it better than the widely respected philosopher and theologian Joseph Campbell.
He developed the mono-myth, also known as the Hero’s Journey, which he lays out in his masterwork ‘A hero with a thousand faces’. Joseph Campbell‘s hero with a thousand faces – it wasn’t a screenwriting book, it was just a book about a guy who grew up a boy scout.
A Catholic who was really passionate about these Native American stories, who started noticing similarities between parables about Christ and these Native American folktales that predated Christ, and also had no way of of being touched by Christian culture.
He started his life work – comparative mythology and mythology isn’t just stories around a campfire. It’s pop music, it’s the dream you’re describing to your friend on the subway, it’s drawings on a napkin, it’s basically everything.
Indeed, after years and years of studying, Campbell concluded there are characteristics of an effective story and those characteristics are consistent regardless of religion, race, time, or ancestry. It’s nothing short of genius but what if you could simplify his mono-myth into an even more basic structure?
One that helps anyone build a story? Well, Dan Harmon, who we were just listening to, did exactly that. He created the story circle, a distillation of the mono-myth into eight steps. He believes his circle is universal for any story, in any medium.
Before we get to the eight steps he sets out I want to bring the circle back to its most basic form, to first understand the theory behind it. So we have a circle and we draw a horizontal line through it the top of the circle represents where the character’s journey starts and finishes.
The bottom represents the world that needs to be traversed in order to grow and change. In a basic sense this is the ordinary world and this is the special world. So why this ritual of descent and return? Well, for Harman every story has a rhythm or balance.
He lays out three dualities to explain this. The first being life and death. Take, for example, the story of life. You’re alive and then you’re dead. Then your dead body decomposes and feeds plants, giving new life, which then dies that’s a story.
It goes back and forth. They rely on each other. A balance is needed for things to happen. Same goes for the next one he lays out – consciousness and unconsciousness. Upstairs in your consciousness things are comfortable, well-lit and regularly swept. Downstairs in the basement is your unconscious, where it’s older, darker and much freakier.
It’s the stuff you don’t want, and/or can’t think about. However, your pleasure, your sanity and even your life depend on occasional round trips ventures by the ego into the unconscious. Through therapy, meditation, confession, sex, violence or a good story, keep the conscious in working order.
Just like the health of an individual depends on the egos regular descent and return to and from the unconscious, a society’s longevity depends on actual people journeying into the unknown and returning with ideas.
In their most dramatic revolutionary form these people are called heroes but everyday society is replenished by millions of people diving into darkness and emerging with something new or forgotten. To Harman, all stories follow this pattern of descent and return, of diving and emerging.
As he says, all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same pick beat. If the story marches to this beat it will resonate, it will send an audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back.
The audience has an instinctive taste for that and they’re going to say YUM, but how does one venture between these dualities in order to create a story? Let’s build the rest of our circle. We draw a vertical line down the center.
Now we have four intersections and four spaces, or quadrants. Starting at the top and going clockwise, we number the four points where the lines cross the circle, one, three, five, and seven. Now we number the quarter sections themselves two, four, six, eight. Each number has a label and they’ll take us through the story piece by piece.
One – a character is in a zone of comfort.
Two – they want something. Three – they enter an unfamiliar situation for search for it.
Five – find get what they wanted.
Six – they pay a heavy price for it.
Seven – they return to their familiar situation.
Eight – they have changed.
Now, each of the semicircles has an important meaning. Crossing from one half to the other. These are major sources of drama in the story. From top to bottom, you delineate the moment that the hero enters a new situation and is forced to adapt, often struggling to do so.
This usually means that the protagonist fights some external force. The second line is defining the inner struggle of the hero. Once the hero crosses this dividing line, he or she finally faces, and tries to overcome his or her inner flaws or problems.
If we took, for example, Die Hard, we’d have failing marriage and terrorist attack, and left to right we might have stubborn, not stubborn once he descends and returns. Here McClane, no longer stubborn, now has the power to change his failing marriage.
In simplest terms, order, chaos, stasis, change. Now that we have our circle ready, I’d like to apply it to a well-known story – Star Wars Episode Four ‘A New Hope’.
One – you establish a protagonist. When a story starts the audience is just floating like a ghost. You have to give them some place to land. How do you do this? How do you put the audience into a character?
Easy. You just show one. Fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice. Okay, let’s go. Something ain’t quite right. This is where we find out something is off balance in the universe. No matter how large or small that universe is, if this is a story about war between earth and aliens, this is where we see the ship coming toward Earth.
If it’s romantic comedy, our protagonist is on a terrible blind date. We’re learning that things aren’t perfect and things could be better. This is the reason why the story is going to take place. What’s this?You must learn the ways of the force if you were to come with me to Alderan.
You in a certain situation and now that situation changes. A terrorist attack occurs, a small-town girl leaves for the big city. Remember that the top half of the circle represents the ordinary world, while the bottom half represents the special world. It doesn’t matter how small or large the story is, but there needs to be contrast between these two worlds.
What I find so interesting about the circle is how it can apply to any piece of a story. If your writer on a sitcom like Carmen is, you’re writing circles for each character and how they traverse the story, how they change from top to bottom, from left to right, as the story moves forward.
Is this the only way to create a story? No, but Harmon believes that all stories come back to the structure, otherwise they’re not recognizable as stories. To deconstruct storytelling like this should not make it seem dull, or repetitive, or uninspiring.
Harmon’s work alone is proof that dedicated storytellers can use this basic structure to tell incredibly complex, subversive and consistently meaningful stories in their own style. It’s great stories, having a meaningful conversation with a friend, or family member, seeing your favorite sports team win a championship or reading a great book.
It keeps us all psychologically, spiritually, and socially alive. They fine tune as to all aspects of our existence. The rhythm of life and death, our unconscious and unconscious feelings and thoughts, the order and chaos of the world and how they work together.
A great story can change someone’s life, so get out there and tell yours. Hey everyone, if you enjoyed that please go check out Dan Harmon’s breakdown of the circle. He does it in greater depth and in much funnier ways than I could ever do.
Mostly, content of this video comes directly from his breakdown of the circle, so I’ll link it in the description.