The Eight Point Arc.
Now we're into something a bit more complicated, but that can help immeasurably.
You've all head of “beginning, middle and end”, I imagine, and this is a sort of expansion of that. As the title suggests, your story is split into eight stages: Stasis, Trigger, Quest, Obstacle, Reaction, Climax, Reversal and Resolution.
Now I'll go into more detail.
1 – Stasis.
This is the opening of the story. The world is presented as is. “Once upon a time there was....”. The reader is shown a world in its normal form. It is the backdrop also, in a way, and might even contain pre-existing conflict or another sort of plotline. Stories set during a war or civilwar are an example of this – the war is a pre-existing conflict and has its own story, but the main plotline has yet to begin.
Once upon a time, there was a person...
2 – Trigger
This is the event that kick-starts the story. Until this point, everything is simply a stasis. A normal world, and it'll remain normal until the trigger occurs. This event might be huge or tiny, but it's important nonetheless. It can be obvious, such as something violent happening to the protagonist, or it could be distant, like the protagonist receiving news. Either way, it starts everything.
...when something out of the ordinary happened...
3 – Quest
As a result of the trigger, the protagonist will want something. This is the quest – what he/she wants. Players of RPG games such as Fallout or Oblivion will be familiar with this and the meaning of “quest” is exactly the same. It is the overall goal.
...causing the protagonist to seek something...
4 – Obstacle
Often called the “surprise” (I prefer obstacle), this is something which gets in the way of the protagonist's quest. It can literally be a surprise, or an obstacle. More so, it could be something physical, such as weather, a disaster, or a troll not allowing you to cross a bridge, or it could be internal – a psychological condition, disease, or any other kind of conflict. Either way, it's something that gets in the way,
...until something gets in the way...
5 – Reaction
Also called the “critical choice”, this is where the protagonist has to address and overcome the aforementioned obstacle. It could literally be a decision, take the red pill or the blue pill, or it could be a struggle – physical (such as a fight) or internal (wrestling with a conscience).
...forcing the protagonist to react and/or make a decision...
6 – Climax
As you've probably guessed, this is the culmination of the previous stages. Simply, it's the consequences of the obstacle/surprise and the reaction/critical choice. But choosing what they did, the protagonist has to deal with the fallout. If the decision is to free the captured princess, then the climax will be the protagonist battling the dragon.
...Which has consequences...
7 – Reversal
This is the outcome of the climax. It's the change of events from one state of affairs to the opposite. Having slain the dragon, the local town is now safe, and the damsel is now free. If the climax was, lets say, to kill Hitler, then the Reversal could be the collapse of the Nazis and the german army.
...the result in which is a change in status...
8 – Resolution
This is simple a new stasis. It's the end. And they all lived happily ever after. Following the choice, climax and the change that followed, the world settles down to this. It's the closing equivalent of the opening stasis. A new world or a new situation is shown.
...And they all lived happily ever after.
Now this 8-point-arc is a template to writing a story. Start with setting the scene with a stasis, and go through the stages until the end.
However, I bet you can think of at least one example where the story does not start at the stasis. The film of Fight Club, for example, starts at the climax or “obstacle” stage. Then it jumps back, and the stasis is shown.
Sometimes films – and stories – can start with the quest, or even a later stage. The stasis and trigger can be shown later.
Also stories can have multiple plotlines, and thus multiple instances of the eight point arc. A single plotline can also have more than one occurrence of each step. There could be two climaxes, for example, or more than one obstacle/surprise.
Also, you can omit one of these stages – but that's something you can experiment with once you've learned the basics.
Using GTA IV, Niko has his own little plots. Firstly, his trigger was the ambush that occurred during the war. That's the trigger. It gave him a quest – to find the one who survived, the traiter. This Is his quest.
This quest extends into GTA IV itself, until he meets Florian. Here, Niko's shown a surprise – Florian's not his man – and an obstacle – he needs to find Darko.
Niko's choice here is to leave Florian and find Darko, and that involves using ULPC, ultimately.
Once found, Niko goes to meet Darko, and here is a climax of the story, but also another critical choice to be made: kill or spare.
The reversal of this is Niko letting go of his quest, and realizing that it has not satisfied him. The resolution is, in many ways, Niko moving on.
Pick up any book, story or even a film or computer game. Look at the story, and as you read, analyse watch or play, note down events in the story that fall into each step of the 8 point arc. Can you see the trigger? Can you see how they connect? Try doing this with Jack and the Beanstalk.
Write a short story, sticking strictly to the 8-point arc.
Write a short story, still using the 8 point-arc, but this time don't start with the stasis. Start at any later stage, such as the quest or even the climax or critical choice. As the story progresses from that point, reveal the steps that you have “skipped” - could be through a face-off with the enemy or a self-realization.