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