I developed OctaPlot as a consolidation of separate prominent story frameworks, including the following:
- 3-Act Structure
- 5-Act Structure
- 9-Act Structure
- Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat”
- Paul Joseph Gulino’s “Sequence Approach”
- Jill Chamberlain’s “Nutshell Technique”
- Michael Hauge’s “Story Structure”
- Syd Field’s “Paradigm”
- Christopher Vogler’s “Writer’s Journey”
- John Truby’s “Anatomy of Story”
- Dan Harmon’s “Story Circle”
- Dan Wells’ “Seven-Point Story”
- Chris Soth’s “Mini-Movie Method”
- Scriptnotes ep. 403
The theory is that all of these contain different takes on how to structure a large-scale narrative (e.g., a novel or screenplay), but they all highlight different elements, so synthesizing them together would create a fuller and more comprehensive picture of what should be included.
NOTE: This system contains absolutely nothing new, and everything in it is shamelessly stolen from the predecessors described above. All I did was spend a bunch of time comparing and combining them into a single unified framework.
OctaPlot follows a logical system that divides a large story into 8 roughly equal-sized “subacts.”
Anyone who’s worked with story structures before can deduce how those break down based on logical subdivisions and plot points of the traditional 3-Act Structure.
I’ve always found the 3-Act Structure to be overly broad, and never understood why there’s a giant second act with an obvious middle point. I’ve always broken things up into 4 acts (with the second act split in half) in my own writing because of it.
Then dividing it into 8 subacts was a logical next step given where the key plot points happen. This is the basic approach followed by Paul Joseph Gulino’s “Sequence Approach” and Chris Soth’s “Mini-Movie Method,” and it totally makes sense.
Here’s how it compares to the 3-Act Structure:
|Act I||Subact 1: Routine Disrupted|
|Subact 2: The New Normal|
|Act II||Subact 3: Attempted Progress|
|Subact 4: Complications|
|Subact 5: Going All In|
|Subact 6: Tragedy|
|Act III||Subact 7: Power through the Pain|
|Subact 8: Victory|
Dividing it into 8 subacts makes each piece more manageable and enables you to more clearly focus on what you’re working on at each part of the story.
In a 120-page screenplay, each subact would be about 15 pages.
For a 100-page screenplay, aim for 12-13 pages each.
In a 240-page novel, you’re looking at about 30 pages per subact.
The Subact System is driven by the Protagonist’s character arc, which is basically:
- Protagonist approaches the world based on their Initial Idea (thesis).
- Reality beats the Protagonist over the head with the Opposite Idea (antithesis) until they begrudgingly accept the Initial Idea wasn’t totally right.
- In the end, the Protagonist evolves to understand the Balanced Idea (synthesis) that acknowledges the best parts of both the Initial Idea and the Opposite Idea.
- Initial Idea: A young woman believes that true love means never having disagreements.
- Opposite Idea: She falls in love with someone, and they have a big disagreement.
- Balanced Idea: They reconcile, and she realizes that true love means working through disagreements together.
That arc is the engine that keeps the story going. The thematic question of the story is whether the Initial Idea or the Opposite Idea is better, and the answer is that it’s actually the Balanced Idea that’s the right one.
The Protagonist has an Antagonist counterpart that often represents the Opposite Idea. The Antagonist could be an individual person, but it could also be a group, an obstacle, an idea, or something else entirely. I’ll refer to it here as a person, but there’s flexibility there.
In the end, the Protagonist wins not merely by defeating the Antagonist, but rather by defeating both the Antagonist (representing the Opposite Idea) and themselves (representing the Initial Idea), and reconciling both ideas into the new Balanced Idea.
The Eight Subacts
Subact 1: Routine Disrupted
- Hook: A quick-hit initial scene that hooks the audience and keeps them engaged. Could be a mystery, an interesting situation, or a hint of big things to come.
- Introduction: Introduce all of the following:
- The Protagonist
- The world the Protagonist lives in
- The Protagonist’s everyday life (which lacks something they crave)
- The misguided Initial Idea that guides the Protagonist’s actions
- The Protagonist’s interesting relationships with other characters
- Hints of challenges and conflicts to come.
- Disruption: The subact ends with something significant happens that disrupts the Protagonist’s everyday life, taking them out of their comfort zone and forcing them to react and change their routine, setting them up for the challenges that will follow.
Subact 2: The New Normal
- Resistance: After the Disruption, the Protagonist resists change and tries to keep things the way they were—sticking to their Initial Idea—usually making things even more complicated and increasing the stakes.
- Advice: The Protagonist receives advice from an ally that hints at the Balanced Idea they should consider, but the Protagonist isn’t ready yet and rejects the advice.
- Full Commitment: This subact ends with a major turning point related to the Disruption raises the stakes and drives the Protagonist to firmly decide that they’re going to stop avoiding change and instead embrace a significant new course of action.
Subact 3: Attempted Progress
- Quick-Fix Plan: The Protagonist creates an imperfect and too-simple plan (based on their Initial Idea) hoping for a quick fix to the challenge they’re facing. They opt for the simplest way to solve their problems, hoping for a quick fix.
- Taking Action: The Protagonist dives into a series of challenges with increasing difficulty. Every time they seem to make progress, though, a larger challenge arises. The story picks up speed and the stakes get higher as they move into unknown territory. Along the way, they meet new people who support or oppose them.
- Evil Schemes: The Antagonist takes sneaky steps to hinder the Protagonist’s progress, giving the audience a sense of anxiety about things to come.
- Doubt: The Protagonist begins to have doubts about their Quick-Fix Plan (and the Initial Idea that informs it) as the challenges keep mounting against them. They consider other options, including quitting or giving up.
Subact 4: Complications
- Failures: The Protagonist deals with the unfortunate consequences of their earlier actions, reinforcing how serious the problems are and how the Protagonist’s Initial Idea isn’t complete enough to deal with them. Increased pressure, higher stakes, and tougher challenges emphasize the need for the Protagonist to step up, adapt, and show what they’re capable of.
- Questions: Allies question the Protagonist’s choices, leading to both internal and external conflicts and doubt.
- Desperate Measures: As challenges and questions pile up, the main character makes an extreme last-ditch effort to get things back on track, sticking to their Initial Idea and fighting against the Opposite Idea—and it seems like they might just pull it off.
- Turning Point: The desperate measures fail, leading to a change so significant that the Protagonist has to do some serious introspection, questioning their Initial Idea. After this turning point, there’s no going back. It’s a point of no return, setting the stage for the climax and the final battle. Instead of trying to avoid change and get back to normalcy, they embrace change and let it happen to them.
Subact 5: Going All In
- Finally Doing the Right Thing: The Protagonist, experimenting with their fledgling understanding of the Balanced Idea, commits to a new plan and starts doing things differently. They take action and rise to the occasion.
- Bittersweet Win: The Protagonist has some success with this new plan, but it comes at a cost.
- Deeper Challenge Revealed: It’s revealed that their apparent win was actually just a surface issue, and a deeper and more complicated issue must still be dealt with. The stakes are higher than the Protagonist ever could have imagined.
Subact 6: Tragedy
- Making Progress: Determined to see things through, the Protagonist actively works to deal with the newly revealed challenge. They’re really trying to change themselves, wrestling with the differences between the Initial Idea and the Opposite Idea. They’re gathering resources and rallying for the final push toward victory.
- Worst Possible Thing Happens: The story suddenly takes its darkest turn, with something terrible happening that causes the entire plan to fall apart. Everything looks hopeless.
Subact 7: Power through the Pain
- All Is Lost: The Protagonist feels drained and defeated, reeling from the pain of what just happened. The costs and consequences of their actions weigh heavily on them, and they’re more vulnerable and introspective than ever. This is the lowest, darkest point of their story. This is their symbolic death.
- Breakthrough Decision: The pain of loss brings clarity, and they finally fully give themselves to the Balanced Idea even if it means sacrificing their prior hopes. They’re going to see it through the right way, no matter what. This hard-won revelation is their symbolic rebirth as the most evolved version of themselves—even though that reborn version may choose to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
- Final Battle Begins: This is the climax of the entire story in which the Protagonist, strengthened by their new perspective, prepares, rallies allies, and commences the final battle against all the forces aligned against them.
- Surprise Twist: As they make progress in the final battle, a new revelation increases the stakes and makes the ultimate challenge seem that much harder.
Subact 8: Victory
- Victory Achieved: The Protagonist—through their perseverance, willingness to evolve, and commitment to the Balanced Idea—struggles and finally achieves success against the Antagonist, bringing the story to a clear conclusion. The tension is resolved and the day is won. Elements of this victory should have been foreshadowed from the beginning.
- Prize: The Hero gains something valuable, which could be physical, social, emotional, or something else.
- The New Normal: The story slows down to wrap up loose ends and give the audience some closure. The Protagonist has evolved into a new person, and we see hints of how the events of the story changed them and the world around them as they settle into a new kind of everyday life.
- Final Image: As the story ends, viewers are left with a memorable, visually striking, and symbolic scene or moment that contrasts with how the story began.
You can’t do everything perfectly. Every story is different, and the OctaPlot structure should be considered a guideline rather than a rule. Following every one of these precisely won’t necessarily make your story good, and failing to follow one won’t make your story bad.
Follow them to the extent that they make your story better, and adapt them where it makes sense for the specific needs of the story you’re telling.