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Mapping: The Crazy Eight (Points of Plot Structure)

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Apr. 15th, 2013 | 11:55 am

This is Part Two of a new series on the technical elements of writing (Part One is here). I’ll note that this information is expanding itself as I write, so in the interests of readable posts (useful! personal! brief!), I won’t always get to everything I said I’d get to in the very next post. Today we’ll get to one of the two plot structures I mentioned.

Mapping is about structure. Breaking your story down into its component parts and analyzing how those parts fit together.

A basic plot structure can be used like a tennis racket: sometimes strictly and narrowly for its intended purpose, sometimes to whack the shit out of someone who desperately needs it. Or to hit a piñata. Or to strain soup. Structure is a tool, not a restriction.

Some books or stories follow a straight-up arc, and others nest plots within plots, the incidents in one story line resulting from or triggering the incidents in another. Some critics talk about “male” vs “female” plot structures. A slow build to a single climax with a single protagonist is “male”, interlocking story structures with multiple protagonists and multiple climaxes are “female”—get it? (har har, those crazy critical analysts!)

There are many ways to approach structure. If you’re writing a movie or a genre novel, Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! or Syd Field’s Screenplay give great plot maps; for epic fantasy, you could go with a structure based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (which is the structure of both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars). Or shop around until you find a structure that makes you say, yes! This is my useful tool!

Using structure does not mean you have to write an outline before you start, but it’s useful to check in with a simple structure while you’re writing, to see if anything’s missing. And it doesn’t have to be super-complicated. Today we’re going to explore an eight-point story structure.

Knowing the basic elements when you start (in our somewhat-strained metaphor, the tennis racket has a handle, accelerates force, extends reach, has a netting, can be used as a solid or a mesh) allows us to twist those elements to our own ends.

Eight Points

Let’s start simple: The Eight Point Structure. And since I like it (and it's very well-structured), we’re going to keep using Legally Blonde (and some other sources) to demonstrate.

1) Stasis. The protagonist is a certain way. Her community is a certain way. This is how things are.

Elle Woods is the most popular girl in her school. She’s sweet and funny and in love with Warren, and she’s looking forward to capping her college career with an engagement ring. We also see that she’s not stupid—she calls out a salesgirl who tries to take advantage of her (4:13)—but her knowledge is specialized in fashion and social interaction.

Luke Skywalker just wants to go to Toshi Station, but he’s stuck on the boring old farm.

2) Trigger. This kicks off the story. Just like pulling the trigger on a gun, something big and dramatic happens. It may not be a large physical action, but it upends the stasis and starts something previously outside the protagonist’s experience.

Luke Skywalker starts trying to fix a droid and finds a hologram with a message to his neighbor.

In series books, each new plot has to challenge the protagonist in a new way. In a good series, each book is complete in itself, but we see the protagonist grow and change in reaction to being challenged by a new Trigger every time. Sometimes, what “lowers” popular fiction is that many genre books (mysteries, science fiction, westerns) do not have a protagonist that develops further with each book. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is as sweet and shrewd and perceptive in Nemesis as she was in The Body in the Library, but no more. Sue Grafton’s alphabet series is a good example of telling a self-contained story in each book, while still having her detective, Kinsey Millhone, grow a little in response to each mystery she solves.

In a stand-alone, the Trigger starts the protagonist’s journey to personal change.

Elle goes to dinner with Warren, so sure that he is going to propose to her that when he says, “I think we should break up,” she responds “Yes I do!” before realizing what he’s said.

3) Quest. What does the protagonist want, and how will she set out to get it?

Elle resolves that she is going to WIN WARREN BACK! and that the way to do that is to become a serious girl instead of a “blonde”.

“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”

4) Surprises. Or, in non-technical terms, “most of the book”. Surprises are everything that happens along the way, and can include mini-plot arcs with their own Triggers, Quests, Critical Choices, Climaxes, Reversals and Resolutions.

Elle studies very hard and has the support of all of her friends. Surprise! She gets into Harvard.

Surprise! Elle gets kicked out of class because she’s not good at what Harvard wants her to be good at.

Warren has a new fiancée—Surprise!—who is nasty to Elle.

Elle, whose stasis is that everyone likes her, bakes muffins and brings them to a study group. Surprise! They don’t want her. Or the muffins.

Surprise! Elle makes a new friend, Paulette, at the nail salon. (This also emphasizes that Elle is not a snob, despite being popular and beautiful).

Elle gets invited to a party. She comes up with a great costume. Surprise! It’s not a costume party and she’s made fun of. (Trigger for mini-plot arc #1)

Elle resolves to work harder, buys a computer, and starts doing well in class. (Mini-Quest #1)

Elle shows up Warren when—Surprise!—she can answer a tricky class question that he can’t. (Mini-Climax and Reversal #1)

Notice that Elle’s Quest begins to shift here—she doesn’t know yet that she wants to do well at Harvard more than she wants Warren back, but it’s being set up for the audience so that it’s a delightful but inevitable surprise later when Elle realizes that herself.

Surprise! Elle gets chosen for an internship that Warren and his fiancée also get. (Trigger for mini-plot arc #2, the court case)

5) Critical Choice. The protagonist has changed because of their Quest. They’ve been affected by the Surprises. Now, they are at a crossroads, faced with the biggest decision of the plot: will they choose to be their old self and return to Stasis, or will they act as their new self and make a decision they could not have even conceived at the beginning of the book? (Hint: only one of these options lets you write the rest of the book)

There may be smaller Critical Choices leading up to the big one:

Elle’s internship is going great—until the lead lawyer sexually harasses her. Warren’s fiancée overhears just enough to think Elle is complicit. Elle considers quitting Harvard. The mean lady professor overhears Elle at the beauty shop and encourages her not to quit. The professor reaffirms that Elle’s own personal strength is valuable. Elle decides not to quit. (Mini-plot arc #3, which nests inside the #2 court case plot arc)

The biggest Critical Choice triggers the Climax of the story.

Elle finds out that the defendant in the murder case is innocent. But the alibi would destroy the defendant’s reputation. Elle refuses to share the alibi with the defense team because she promised she wouldn’t and her integrity is more important. The defendant fires the lead attorney and hires Elle. Now Elle must win the court case without betraying the defendant’s confidence.

Note that there is another plot arc in here—Elle knows the defendant already (Surprise! Trigger!), believes in her innocence and sets out to prove it (Quest), gets the alibi (Surprise!), refuses to tell (Critical Choice), and must take on the defense (Climax, which triggers a new Quest and mini-plot arc #4, Elle fighting the court case as the attorney herself).

6) Climax. As a result of the Critical Choice, the protagonist must assemble all her tools and helpers, add them to who she was in Stasis (those traits usually become unexpectedly valuable now), and fight the biggest battle. Her Stasis makes her uniquely suited to be the hero, and the Surprises along the Quest have made her ready to step up.

The rebels are going to take down the Death Star, after finding a hidden weakness in the architecture. Luke Skywalker realizes that firing at the target will be just like “shooting whomp-rats” back home. He is uniquely suited to be the shooter, because of who he was at the beginning of the movie. Thanks to getting off the farm, hanging out with mercenaries, and traveling through the universe, he is now ready to fight this battle.

The actual Climax is the dogfight that leads to the destruction of the Death Star.

Elle is now the defense attorney. She knows the defendant is innocent but can’t use that alibi. She realizes the pool-boy, a key witness, is gay, which disproves his story of having sex with the defendant. She is uniquely suited to discover that information (from her fashion knowledge). Thanks to working hard, studying, and standing up for people who have been wronged, she is now ready to fight this battle.

The actual Climax is the trial, and Elle successfully establishing the defendant’s innocence without ruining the woman’s reputation.

7) Reversal. The protagonist discovers the new person she has become, without leaving behind the goodness of who she was back at the beginning of the book.

Warren now wants to be Elle’s boyfriend again. She realizes it’s more valuable to be a respected attorney than a girlfriend, Warren is unworthy of her, and she wants to be with someone who will value her true self—blonde hair, fashion, soft heart and all.

Note that it’s important that the hero CHANGES as a result of the Quest’s accomplishment. In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle doesn’t just act like a lady at the end of the movie—she IS one. She has learned to think differently, to stand up for herself, and to demand to be treated well. The Climax is that she passes successfully, but the Reversal is that now she can’t go back to her old life. One of the challenges of the plot of Twilight is that Bella Swan experiences Surprises, but she herself does not have a Quest, nor does she change as a result of the events of the book.

8) Resolution. Remember when we talked about how they had to reshoot the ending of Legally Blonde? The director discovered that it wasn’t enough to end with the trial victory, because this story is not about a girl who became a lawyer—it’s about a girl who learned to fit in in a new place, while staying true to herself. The movie added a new ending:

Elle is elected by her peers (because asking the audience to believe that she’s the valedictorian is too much) to give the class speech. She has won their hearts and their respect. She’s friends with Warren’s fiancée—who dumped him—and the hot assistant attorney from her internship, who respects her mind, is going to propose.

Resolution is the “happily ever after.” Resolution ties up loose ends and lets the reader leave satisfied. If you’re setting up a sequel, the Resolution is the new Stasis, and the next Trigger interrupts that Stasis.

So there it is. The Eight Point Map:

Quest (“The I Want Song”)
Critical Choice

What part of the map do you find most challenging in your writing?

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Comments {8}

Andrea Blythe

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from: blythe025
date: Apr. 15th, 2013 11:02 pm (UTC)

I've used structure before and like to study Hero's Journey sometimes (there's a book on the Heroine's Journey, too, which I haven't read yet, but am curious about). I think I've seen the eight-point version before, as well as some of the typical screenwriting structures that I've lear

When I'm writing though I don't think specifically in terms of structure. I think it just floats in the back of my mind as I rough sketch the events I want to write out. It's always good to be reminded of though and to at least give them a consideration as you're doing a rewrite.

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:12 pm (UTC)

Yeah - I'm more likely to use a structure when I go back after the first draft. I like to know where the story is going, which I usually discover about halfway through the first draft, and just write what's flowing, then use the structure for revision.

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blahblahblah, whatever

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from: kathrynrose
date: Apr. 19th, 2013 03:16 pm (UTC)

There is a lot of information in this. I feel like I need to read it a half dozen more times. :)

Thanks for putting this together.

I think Karl provides a mini arc in my novel, because on the main plot, he brings the desk, which is the trigger, but falling for him also changes her stasis, and will make her critical choice harder.

Does that make sense?

Reading this has helped a lot. I think I can see her critical choice moment much clearer.

Here's a question - If I go the way I am planning to right now, we'll lose Rachel, Karl and Heath at the critical choice point. Is that crazy to lose three characters that are so important to her at the beginning of the book? Is it crazy for me to spend so much time with them at the beginning of the book if she is going to lose them?

In Legally Blonde, Elle has her BFFs, and she leaves them, but she still has contact with them, and they come for her big day in court.

Rachel and Karl can't hop a plane and make it to Home.

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:13 pm (UTC)

Which is cool, because it makes her sacrifice bigger, that she's leaving friends behind. Maybe a parallel would be Lyra in the Golden Compass books, the one where she has to leave her daemon behind?

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from: unmowngrass
date: Apr. 19th, 2013 05:26 pm (UTC)

Wow, lots of ways, wow.

Wow, I really want to watch Legally Blonde now (but I don't think we have it).
Wow, this is now REALLY REALLY clear, in a way that it wasn't before.
Wow, I've just realised what it is I hate about most stories (the trigger is often a bit unbelievable (not to mention, generally given away on the blurb of the book/film) ).

I have to say, though, I really appreciate reading this series you're doing. Gives me hope I could, like, one day attempt this, if all that's left to add is imagination :) I've added this entry to memories for that reason, hope that's ok?

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:14 pm (UTC)

Add away, I'm flattered as can be!

I love Legally Blonde because it's so fluffy but it's also rock solid storytelling :) The first Bring It On movie was, too!

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Your Face

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from: kandigurl
date: Apr. 19th, 2013 06:04 pm (UTC)

I find the surprises and the critical choice most difficult. I love writing stasis, the beginning of stories is lots of fun for me. And I love writing climaxes, when everything goes crazy and falls apart and everyone's like, "HOLY CRAP." (At least, that's what tends to happen in my climaxes.) The hard part for me is usually figuring out how to push my characters into situations that will challenge them to move forward, since they tend (like myself) to want to stay put.

I feel that despite having really studied these specific labels and definitions, I have a decent understanding of what makes a story interesting vs. non-compelling. Twilight was the perfect example, I knew it was boring because nothing really happens and the "climax" at the end has nothing to do with the rest of the story, but I couldn't put that in more technical writing terms. On the other hand, Up is one of my favorite movies, and every time I watch it I pay close attention to it to figure out why I like it so much and why it flows so nicely. Wreck It Ralph is a more recent example of what I feel is a "perfect story".

Again, really looking forward to reading more of these articles!

Edited at 2013-04-19 06:06 pm (UTC)

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:15 pm (UTC)

Yeah, critical choice is tough!!! And I find myself wandering in a huge morass of plot nothingness in the middle a lot...

Now I have to go watch Wreck-It Ralph!

Thanks, glad you are enjoying :)

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