Octahedron story structure

Octahedron

To set up a good story, you want all the elements of your story to work together to form a coherent whole. All the different plot twists and character arcs should line up to form a shape. I say, the best shape for that structure is the octahedron, and I’ll explain why.

The links of a story

A story can be seen to be made up of a lot of tiny links. Each link is a step forward in the story. These links form the bigger elements in your story: the milieu, idea, characters, and events. You should recognize these four as the MICE quotient by Orson Scott Card.

The milieu (setting) of your story is the environment in which your story takes place. This can play a relatively minor role, but especially in Fantasy and Sci-fi, that role is pretty big. In either case, the environment is also ever-present in your story, in the form of all the tiny nuggets of exposition.

The idea of your story unfolds as your story progresses. Is it a tale about growing up? A tragedy? A warning about the dangers of advanced technology? Throughout your story, you are showing your arguments as tiny links leading from nothing to the complete unfolding of your idea.

Character arcs also consist of a number of links, the steps in the evolution of the character from their starting point in the story to the end. The (main) characters need to change in the course of the story. You can set these steps up along the hero’s journey or the seven-point arc, or you could just wing it.

The events consist of promises and fulfillments of promises. In a murder mystery, for instance, a murder is committed, which is one link, and the killer is exposed, which is another. I’ve already talked about how all promises made, should also be resolved.

The octahedron

All the links in the story described above form a shape. In a good story, this shape should be an octahedron. Yeah, that’s not the most famous of shapes; see the picture above for an example.

You start at a single point: the beginning of the story. From there, the four types of links start to branch out. After you reach the middle of your story, the branches start to come together again, until you reach the other point of the octahedron: the end of the story.

This shape ensures that your reader understands what’s going on, believes the foreshadowing, and feels the climax. You might be asking yourself if this is really useful at all. It’s a picture of an eight-sided die with some words scribbled around it. Yeah, that’s true. It’s not meant as a silver bullet, though. It’s meant as a tool to look at your story in a certain way. A simple visual aid to remind you of an underlying concept: all the aspects of the MICE quotient have a place and need a structure. While you’re writing it’s easy to forget that it’s not just your characters that are important, but also your milieu, events, and idea.

So, let’s have a look at how mistakes in writing translate to this octahedron.

Without a bottom

You don’t need all those links at the bottom, do you? Why not go with a kind of pyramid shape? The answer to that is Deus Ex Machina.

If you don’t foreshadow important parts of your story, it will seem as if you’re pulling them out of a hat like a rabbit. In a detective story you can’t just have the detective pull out the murder weapon and say ‘oh, yeah, it was off-screen, but I found this earlier and it has your finger prints on it.’ Whatever happens, the reader has to have had a chance to figure it out for themselves. They need to know the rules. This applies to events, but also to character arcs, and even to idea and milieu. That last one needs a little explanation. Like any other part of a story, you cannot pull a location out of a hat either. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but the more special your location is, the more important it is to foreshadow. The Lord of the Rings is a good example. When the hobbits return to the Shire, they find it has been taken over by the forces of Sauron. The characters have come full circle, the location resonates with the location from the beginning. Also, the land has gone from a ‘paradise’ untouched by the wars outside, to a ravaged land, mirroring what happened to the hobbits themselves.

Without a top

On the other side of this, is the build-up that leads nowhere. The Chekov’s gun guideline states that the more attention you draw to something in your story, the more important it becomes to do something with that. If you have links at the bottom of your octahedron, they have to be addressed at the top. An example. If you’re writing a detective story, and you make a point of the detective discovering that all the victims have a missing finger, then you have to do something with that. You can’t just have the detective solve the murder with another clue and ignore the missing fingers completely. That’s not to say it has to be vital to the plot. A simple statement ‘well, those missing fingers were a real red herring’ might be enough.

Again, this applies to all the elements of the MICE quotient, even setting. One of the most annoying things in the Walking Dead Season 2 video game (minor spoiler coming), is that halfway through, the heroes end up in a well-stocked and defensible compound. When they are forced to leave it because of zombies passing by, they immediately forget about it. The location is there, it was built up to be important, it wasn’t really used after – eventually they do come back, but way later.

The bottom or top is sloped too steeply

Some stories start up too fast, confusing the reader. The ‘slope’ of the bottom sides are wrong. I found the Winds of Khalakovo to suffer from this issue: there are too many characters and too confusing events happen in the beginning. How steep the bottom slopes should be depends on the genre, the reader, and your style, but it is something to pay attention to.

Like the previous point, but reversed, your top slope can be wrong. If your arcs don’t line up properly, you’ll get either an anti-climactic ending, or a cascade of twists and revelations. The trick is to pace everything so it comes together into a point smoothly at the conclusion.

Even if the slopes are not too steep, if the slope of top half does not match the bottom half, you end up with a wrongly paced story. Readers will complain it’s too boring, or ends abruptly.

Conclusion

This post does not give you a recipe for a good story. It gives a mental aid in seeing what might be good or bad about your work. You should use it as such: a frame to order and support other tools.

Happy writing.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands