Sunday, December 18, 2005

The eight-point arc

I came across the concept of the eight-point arc in Nigel Watts' Writing a Novel. Watts describes the stages of the classic plot (and there is, apparently, only one) which many of the great novels follow. Obviously, I was learning about this in order to write my own novel, but I soon found, true to Watts' word, that the eight-point arc crops up all over the place. And one good example is the excellent Countdown to Infinite Crisis, written by Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka and Judd Winnick.

The structure of the story is complex, with a set of flashbacks bringing the reader up-to-date with the action with which the story starts. But the eight-point structure is there nonetheless.

The first point, stasis, is the initial state of the characters in the story. In this case, Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle, is portrayed as a fading hero, down on his luck and not regarded as an important player. We know this because Kord tells us himself. Stasis is not necessarily the same as continuity. This being the only Blue Beetle story I have read, for all I know Ted could have been portrayed as a happy-go-lucky winner in all previous outings. But, to the new reader, this doesn't matter, as long as the story has internal consistency.

We then have the trigger which sets the main plot off. In the present, where Kord is breaking into an unknown building, we see that someone has discovered the identities of all the main DC heroes, presumably for nefarious reasons. This is followed by a flashback where Kord discovers his corporation is being robbed by an unknown corporation.

Like most of the great stories, this is working on two levels. By this point, we have established the two mains conflicts in the plot - the physical threat of the unknown figure, and the internal conflict of Kord's self-belief.

We now head off into the main part of the story, the quest: the journey of discovery. In the physical sense, we find out more about Kord's assailant, and, from the dismissive reactions of his friends, we uncover the root of Kord's self-doubt. In particular, we encounter Maxwell Lord, a snotty friend of Kord's, who tells Blue Beetle and his partner that they should give up crimefighting altogether.

In keeping with the traditional description of a story as a beginning, a muddle and an end, we now head off into some diversions, some of which just fill up space and some of which set up some of the mini-series DC launched as part of the whole Infinite Crisis spectacular. The story tends to lose its way in these diversions, which is a problem typical of multiple crossovers.

The next ingredient in the eight-point arc is the surprise, which occurs quite near the end of the story. Kord has located his enemy's hideout in a rather beautiful Swiss castle, which he breaks into with some ease. Having found the main computer system, the flashbacks are finished and we are back in the present time. The surprise is that the mystery assailant is Maxwell Lord, Kord's erstwhile friend.

This sets us up for the climax, as Lord, in typical villainous fashion, explains his fiendish plans to destroy all heroes. This is followed by a fight between Blue Beetle and Lord, which Blue Beetle wins. He turns to flee, defeating Lord's minions along the way.

This leads naturally up to the reversal, where Lord transforms one of his minions into a cyborg OMAC, and sets it onto Blue Beetle, who it quickly defeats.

We're not quite at the finale here, because we still have the critical choice, a difficult decision which the central character has to take in order to succeed. In this case, it comes in the form of Lord, with his opponent defeated and helpless, asking Kord if he will join him. Kord has a stark choice: to die with dignity or compromise himself by joining his enemy. He can only maintain the external fight by losing the internal battle for self-respect. Kord tells Lord to "rot in hell, Max". Kord has chosen death over dishonour.

I should point out here that in an earlier post I said that if someone points and gun at you and asks you to join them, the correct answer is "When do you want me to start, Boss?, which can be followed by a back-stabbing much later. If the authors had done this, we would have had a horrible, morally compromised ending which would have readers chucking their comics in the dustbin. Don't listen to snide reviewers.

We're now at the resolution, where Lord kills Kord/Blue Beetle, and sets the previously unknown Project: OMAC into operation. With Lord now a villain and Kord dead, the stasis of the subsequent Infinite Crisis stories will be significantly different. This story has elegantly used the classic plot to change the lives of its protagonists. Which is why it's a great story.


Blogger Marionette said...

You have to wonder though. When the villain asks the hero to join them, do they really have any expectation of it happening? If the hero agrees, would they actually believe them? I can't think of any story I've encountered where this happens that the choice is at all credible.

11:29 am  
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