The Arachnid Novel Writing Method

A foolproof method of mixing pantsing and plotting

Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t have a clue about story structure. I thought you just had to tell a story somehow. I had watched many movies and read many novels, so I thought I implicitly knew what a story was.

I guess to a certain extent I did, we all do, but when I dived in and tried to tell a coherent story that was more than a few thousand words long, I began to flail, and with every chapter, it felt more and more like wading through treacle.

So I started reading up on various outlining methods. There are so many story structures that people have invented to help keep stories on track.

In the book “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel,” author Jessica Brody compares writing a novel to a long car trip. If you focus on the entire journey, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the endeavour. However, if you break it up and consider each leg of the journey separately, and focus only on one leg at a time, then the whole thing doesn't seem so insurmountable after all.

The three-act structure is the most famous structure. It’s confusing because the second act is twice as large as the others, and split by the midpoint. I never understood why it isn’t just called a four-act structure, with each act a quarter of the story, separated by emotional turning points. What’s more, each of those acts has an emotional turning point within them. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes not.

I like to split the story at each of these turning points. So you can think of my structure as an eight-act structure. Eight separate parts. Eight legs of the Hero’s journey. Eight legs. Arachnid!

The reason for splitting it into eight bite-sized chunks is that an eighth of a novel is manageable. It’s the size of a novella, around 10,000 words. Giving each leg a clear beginning, middle, and end means that they can all be developed independently.

That’s important for me because writing a novel is an overwhelming task. I don’t want to have to keep all the details of the whole story in my head at once. I want to concentrate on smaller parts. Remember, this is just for the first draft. In the second draft, you can make things more coherent, plant Chekov’s guns, add foreboding, etc. But for the first draft, get the legs done as quickly and effortlessly as possible, one at a time.

I always fancied myself as a pantser. I didn’t want to be constrained by an outline. I wanted to be free to let events unfold naturally and let the characters tell their own story. However, I would always meander and get lost without any kind of scaffolding. The main idea for the arachnid method is that you are free to pants the individual legs, but within the vague emotional constraints of that part of the novel. Plotting occurs at the leg level, hitting the beginning, middle, and end points for each of them. For example, go wild with the first leg, but make sure it culminates in an inciting incident.

Most of the ideas here come from other people’s plot structures and storytelling ideas, such as:

Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”

Syd Field’s “Screenplay”

Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat”

John Truby’s, “The Anatomy of Story”

Dan Harmon’s “Story Circle”

I really recommend studying at least a couple of those in addition to this structure. You don’t need to follow any of them religiously, but knowing what they are and why they exist is very important if you want to have a solid story structure.

I have chosen three movies that fit the Hero’s Journey quite well, so I will use examples from them to highlight the basic idea of each leg. The movies are Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Matrix.

The Eight Legs

Here is an outline for the eight Legs. They are titled: Disruption, Opportunity, Outlander, Assimilation, Refocus, Consumed, Reborn, and Resolution.

Each one has a beginning, middle, and end. The main thing to keep in mind is the difference in the protagonist’s situation and mental state from where they start the Leg to where they end it. When writing, focus on where you want to end up, and have fun slowly getting there.

Leg 1 — Disruption

Beginning: We get to know the protagonist. They are living a stable but unhappy life. They’re oppressed, bullied, frustrated, or unfulfilled.

Middle: We see their life bearing down on them. They can’t continue this way; it’s slowly suffocating them. We also see their personal flaws which aren’t helping either. This is where the theme of the story is directly stated to the downtrodden hero, but they are too naive to understand or accept it.

End: Something big occurs that knocks them out of their current pitiful existence. It can be something wonderful or something terrible, but it must be profound enough that it can’t be ignored.

Examples: Harry lives with his horrible, bullying relatives, then gets a letter from Hogwarts. Luke has to do his chores and can’t go off on adventures, then he discovers a princess’s secret message. Neo has an unfulfilling job and no social life, then gets contacted by Morpheus.

Leg 2—Opportunity

Beginning: The inciting incident has left the protagonist’s head spinning. They are either dancing with euphoria or reeling from an attack. Regardless of whether it was good or bad, the incident has knocked them out of their life and left them bewildered.

Middle: A journey/mission/opportunity has presented itself. Will the hero choose that path, or attempt to get back on with their life, such as it is? There is debate, can they succeed? Should they even try? At first they refuse. That’s how most people would react. They are scared and lack confidence. What on Earth could they possibly do?

End: Ultimately the hero does choose that path. It may be something someone says, or it may be a realisation that they can’t go back to their old ways, but in the end, they take a deep breath, resolve to face their destiny, and step over the (literal or metaphorical) threshold into a new world.

Examples: Harry says “I can’t be a wizard, I’m just Harry,” but he agrees to go with Hagrid anyway. Luke refuses Obiwan’s mission, but then accepts after his aunt and uncle are killed. Neo’s fear of heights gets him captured, but eventually, he takes the red pill.

Leg 3 — Outlander

Beginning: It’s a brand new world that the hero is woefully unprepared for. Thrown in at the deep end, they’re struggling for air, lost, confused, and ignorant. They make embarrassing mistakes or barely escape with their lives from easily avoided situations.

Middle: After several mistakes, they begin to find their feet. They are still bumbling and clumsy, but they learn the basics and start to understand the new reality. They make some new friends and new enemies who give them a sense of up and down, good and bad, safe and dangerous in this new environment.

End: The hero accomplishes something in the new world. It may be a small win, but it gives them the confidence that they can survive there.

Examples: Harry befriends Ron and makes an enemy of Malfoy, then gets accepted into the Quidditch team. Luke needs saving in the Mos Eisley cantina but then gets his first taste of The Force during a simple training exercise. Neo fails the jump but then holds in own in a fight with Morpheus.

Leg 4—Assimilation

Beginning: There’s still a long way to but the hero’s confidence is growing. They are feeling good about themselves, and happy to be learning. They have begun to see the new world as a place of opportunity, rather than a scary confusing realm.

Middle: More learning, more fun and games, steadily getting to grips with the world. Shared adventures strengthen new friendships. Repeated confrontations with bad guys deepen the animosity. The hero is feeling a part of the new world. They’ve assimilated.

End: Something important happens that gets the main story moving again. Regardless of whether it’s good or bad, it changes the direction of the story. It’s a sobering end to the fun and games, a reminder that the hero is still on a mission. This is the midpoint of the story. Until now, the hero has been pretty reactive, after this, they become proactive.

Examples: Harry realises that something important is about to be stolen by evil forces and sets out to stop it. Luke and friends get pulled into the Death Star and set out to rescue the princess. Neo is taken to see the Oracle where he learns he is not ‘the one’.

Leg 5— Refocus

Beginning: The hero is back on their original mission, or recent events have altered it and sent them on a new one. Either way, they are active and full of resolve. A deadline has been set, raising the stakes and intensifying the conflict.

Middle: Ramifications of the midpoint events are felt. Things are getting serious. Bad guys are gaining strength, and in desperation, the good guys make a plan of attack.

End: The hastily-made plans of the good guys fail. They fail because it was a naive plan. The hero underestimated the bad guys and was betrayed by someone they trusted.

Examples: McGonagall doesn’t believe the kids and Dumbeldore is gone. Luke and friends get caught in the trash-compactor and begin to squabble. Cypher betrays the team and Morpheus gets captured.

Leg 6— Consumed

Beginning: Failure of the plan begins a blame game while they count their losses and lick their wounds.

Middle: Things are falling apart. Evil forces are growing stronger, intent on driving a wedge between the good guys and cutting them off from outside support. Trust in the protagonist is growing thin. The good guys turn on each other. Petty differences lead to arguments, arguments turn to fights, and fights break the bonds of friendship.

End: The hero comes to their lowest point. They’ve lost everything. Consumed by darkness. Friends have been killed, captured, or abandoned them, and the enemy seems more powerful than ever. This is a place of death. Death of a character, or a symbolic death. But whatever it is, it’s a reason for the hero to fall into despair.

Examples: Harry and friends take on the various traps guarding the stone, but Harry ends up alone with the enemy. Obi-Wan is murdered before Luke’s eyes. Neo is chased by agents and then shot through the heart.

Leg 7 — Reborn

Beginning: In their darkest hour, the hero looks in the mirror and asks “who am I? Why on Earth did I take on this foolish mission? How can things possibly get better?”

Middle: With nothing left to lose, the hero shakes off their pride and puts aside their childish ways. They stop clinging to the old way of thinking and embrace the hero they have been forging of themselves. They find renewed courage and set out to clear a path to the big bad enemy.

End: The hero looks at the entrance to the battlefield, takes a deep breath, and resolves to see this journey through to the end, despite the overwhelming odds against them. It’s a suicide mission, but it’s the right thing to do. Of course, it doesn’t have to be an actual battle, it could be a business presentation which they know will be an embarrassing failure, or a public declaration of love they are sure will be unrequited. This is where we see real courage. Our hero has arrived.

Examples: Harry comes face-to-face with Voldemort and lies to protect the stone. Luke goes on the mission in his fighter, up against the awesome power of the Death Star. Neo gets up after seemingly dying and casts off hate and self-doubt.

Leg 8— Resolution

Beginning: Battling to the finale. It’s not easy to storm the castle and fight your way to the throne room but that’s what the hero must do. This is where the hero is going to meet their destiny. They are a new person, full of resolve, making their way to the big confrontation.

Middle: This is what it has all been leading to. The final battle. The time to put one’s life on the line, all or nothing, no way to back out now. This is the time for a twist. Either the antagonist pulls a twist, resulting in a harder fight than anticipated, or the hero pulls one, leading to a surprise victory. But make sure it is earned and doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It must be plausible and solidly set up in previous scenes.

End: The hero has achieved what they set out to do, and the world is a better place for it. The hero has changed a lot, sacrificed much, but is ultimately more mature and free to move on and find happiness. They’ve gained confidence, skills, maturity, and friends. They beat the bad guy, won the boy/girl, and brought peace and prosperity to the school/boardroom/kingdom/galaxy. In the last few pages, you must show the audience how far the protagonist has come with a subtle callback to the first chapter.

Examples: Harry realises his skin is poison to Voldemort, then wakes up a school hero. Luke uses the force to do what others cannot and is awarded with a medal. Neo kills agent Smith and becomes a superhero in the Matrix.

So there you have it. The eight Legs of The Arachnid Novel Writing Method. Work on the legs one at a time, without thinking about the others. If you change something in later legs, don’t be tempted to go back and start dissecting previously finished ones. Let them stand as they are. Repeat after me: “I can always fix it in the second draft.”

Scifi writer, roboticist, and game developer, 2x Quora Top Writer. I write about writing speculative fiction, computer graphics, AI, evolution, and programming.

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