How the Seven-Point Story Structure Can Help Your Writing

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I still remember the day I started writing my first novel. I felt a little lost. I knew the basic concept of the story I wanted to tell, but the endless sea of possibilities on how to get there was overwhelming.

I kept wondering if there was a blueprint, of sorts, for the structure of writing fiction. Of course, I knew there wasn’t any one way to write a book, but there had to be some sort of roadmap for story structure.

I found some tools along the way, like the Hollywood story formula, but nothing helped me nearly as much as the seven-point story structure. Since it helped me so much, I feel compelled to share it on here with you all. I now write all of my books/stories with this system. Of course, this isn’t the only way to go, but even if you take a different route, it’s good to know the different strategies that are out there. If you like, imagine these points as guideposts.

I want to say up front that all the credit for the information in this post goes to the horror writer Dan Wells. He made a video from a writing seminar he did a few years ago where he discussed this topic. In fact, that video is in the Writer’s Toolbox via a link. I’ll provide some new examples and tidbits to keep it fresh, but most of the information here comes from Dan’s seminar. This information is valuable enough to hear multiple times, even if you have watched the video before.

I’ll list all the points, then I’ll break them down. Also, there will be spoilers involved in the examples.

 

The Seven-Point System

  • Starting Point
  • Plot Turn 1
  • Pinch 1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2
  • Resolution

 

Assuming that you already have the basic concept of the story worked out, like the major characters, conflicts, and setting, the seven-point system encourages you to start at the end. Not that you have to begin writing at the end, but you need to know how the story ends for the purpose of this exercise.

Resolution: everything in your story leads to this moment. Make sure you know what kind of resolution you want. This isn’t necessarily the last chapter. This is merely the climax of the story.

Two major types of resolution are plot and character. An example of this in the television series Lost would be the plot resolution where Jack defeats the villain appearing as John Locke, and a character resolution is Jack’s personal development to the point where he could accept the responsibility of the island’s protection. They are two separate, yet connected, resolutions. They also have different emotional peaks. They’re going to end in different ways.

To give another example, let’s build the seven-point system with the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

  • Starting Point:
  • Plot turn 1
  • Pinch 1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2
  • Resolution: Harry defeats Voldemort.

 

Okay. Now that we know where it’s ending, we need to know how the story begins. With the Starting Point, a simple trick is to start with the opposite state. If the character ends strong, he/she typically should start weak, and vice versa. This creates movement and a character arc. That’s why it’s important to know where you are ending so that you can make the beginning as opposite as possible.

For another example, take the television series Breaking Bad. What fascinated me with this series is the slow transition from the rather dorky science teacher to the streetwise drug lord. You almost couldn’t get any further opposite, which is why, in my opinion, it makes the series so interesting. An already badass kingpin becoming a badass kingpin isn’t terribly interesting.

 

So, to go back to the Harry Potter example, we now know what the Starting Point is because we figured out what the Resolution is:

  • Starting Point: Harry lives a sad existence, with zero power or abilities.
  • Plot turn 1
  • Pinch 1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2
  • Resolution: Harry defeats Voldemort.

 

The Midpoint is the exact center between the two states. It is the point at which the characters begin moving from one state to the other. A lot of times, this is where the character moves from reaction to action. Something changes at this point to bring the character to action, which is an effective Midpoint.

In the first Lord of the Rings movie, the Midpoint where the characters move from reaction to action is at the Council of Elrond where they decide to take the ring to Mordor. The Midpoint doesn’t have to be in the exact middle of the book, and it could take place over several scenes.

  • Starting Point: Harry lives a sad existence, with zero power or abilities.
  • Plot turn 1
  • Pinch 1
  • Midpoint: Harry learns the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone and swears to protect it from Voldemort.
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2
  • Resolution: Harry defeats Voldemort.

 

Moving on to Plot Turn 1, just as the Midpoint moves you from the beginning to end, Plot Turn 1 moves you from the beginning to the Midpoint. It often hints to the major conflict.

Plot Turn 1 often introduces the protagonist to new people and/or new settings. It can also serve as the “call to adventure” for the protagonist.

  • Starting Point: Harry lives a sad existence, with zero power or abilities.
  • Plot turn 1: Harry becomes a wizard and learns magic.
  • Pinch 1
  • Midpoint: Harry learns the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone and swears to protect it from Voldemort.
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2:
  • Resolution: Harry defeats Voldemort.

 

Plot Turn 2 moves the story from the Midpoint to the Resolution. At the Midpoint, the character is determined to do something, and in the Resolution, it is accomplished, so Plot Turn 2 is where the protagonist obtains the final thing/skill/knowledge in order to make it happen.

Often times, in supernatural type settings, the final thing needed in order to accomplish the Resolution is discovered to be something that the protagonist had all along, but needed the last piece of the puzzle in order to use it. For Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, she had the ability to return home at any time by tapping her heels. In the Matrix, the ability was already in Neo, as it was in Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.

  • Starting Point: Harry lives a sad existence, with zero power or abilities.
  • Plot turn 1: Harry becomes a wizard and learns magic.
  • Pinch 1
  • Midpoint: Harry learns the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone and swears to protect it from Voldemort.
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2: Harry discovers the stone is in his pocket because his motives are pure.
  • Resolution: Harry defeats Voldemort.

 

Pinches are my favorite part of this system. Pinches apply pressure when something goes wrong, someone attacks, a problem comes up, or an obstacle is placed in front of the protagonist’s goal. It forces the characters to either spring to action or change the course of their plans (either way is active behavior–which is always good in stories). It is often used to introduce a villain.

Most likely, there are many conflicts in the beginning, but that just bridges the gap until the reader finds out about the main conflict. For example, in a romance, the male protagonist might have some issues at work before bumping into the love of his life (and also the main conflict of the story) at the coffee shop. If the destined couple were to discover each other (and their main conflict) within the first few pages of the story, it would likely feel rushed to you.

  • Starting Point: Harry lives a sad existence, with zero power or abilities.
  • Plot turn 1: Harry becomes a wizard and learns magic.
  • Pinch 1: A troll attacks.
  • Midpoint: Harry learns the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone and swears to protect it from Voldemort.
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2: Harry discovers the stone is in his pocket because his motives are pure.
  • Resolution: Harry defeats Voldemort.

 

Pinch 2 applies even more pressure and often makes the situation feel hopeless. A plan could fail, a mentor could disappear or die, a villain seems on the brink of victory, or a break-up happens. Often, the harsher the Pinch 2, the sweeter the victory. The lower the valley, the higher the summit. Make sure that Pinch 2 is tougher than the first.

The sense of loss is a very common Pinch 2. In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo loses his mentor in Gandalf. In the movie Batman Begins, the villain shows up, beats up Batman, burns his house, then terrorizes the city. Another example would be showing an unbeatable army at the gates, making the situation for the heroes seem bleak, such as the battle scene at Helms Deep.

  • Starting Point: Harry lives a sad existence, with zero power or abilities.
  • Plot turn 1: Harry becomes a wizard and learns magic.
  • Pinch 1: A troll attacks.
  • Midpoint: Harry learns the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone and swears to protect it from Voldemort.
  • Pinch 2: Ron and Hermoine fall to the traps in the dungeon, and Harry is left alone.
  • Plot Turn 2: Harry discovers the stone is in his pocket because his motives are pure.
  • Resolution: Harry defeats Voldemort.

 

If you’d like more examples, let’s look at Pride and Prejudice. By the way, for you romance writers, in a few weeks I will be interviewing a published romance author to discuss the facets of writing romance. So, stay tuned for that.

  • Starting Point: Elizabeth and her sisters are single.
  • Plot turn 1: Darcy and Elizabeth meet and hate each other.
  • Pinch 1: Darcy breaks up Jane and Bingley, then proposes to Elizabeth in a very insulting way.
  • Midpoint: Darcy explains himself in a letter; he’s a noble man trying to protect his friend from perceived impropriety.
  • Pinch 2: Lydia runs off with Wickham, and Elizabeth thinks Darcy will hate her family even more.
  • Plot Turn 2: Darcy helps Elizabeth’s sisters.
  • Resolution: Elizabeth and Darcy get married.

 

Here’s another example from Othello. This time, the Starting Point and Resolution are flip-flopped in a tragedy format, in regards to sad/happy.

  • Starting Point: Othello and Desdemona are happily married.
  • Plot turn 1: Iago swears to destroy Othello.
  • Pinch 1: Iago plants evidence of an affair.
  • Midpoint: Othello suspects Desdemona of adultery.
  • Pinch 2: Othello kills Desdemona.
  • Plot Turn 2: Othello learns that Desdemona is innocent.
  • Resolution: Othello kills himself.

 

Here’s one more example. This is in regards to the horror genre with A Tell-Tale Heart:

  • Starting Point: The narrator insists he’s sane.
  • Plot turn 1: The narrator resolves to murder the old man.
  • Pinch 1: The narrator tries eight times but can’t bring himself to do it.
  • Midpoint: The narrator kills the old man.
  • Pinch 2: The police officers come to the house.
  • Plot Turn 2: The narrator can hear the old man’s heart still beating.
  • Resolution: The narrator is insane.

An interesting point to note: notice how the main resolution isn’t about whether he comes to justice or not. It could be a resolution, just perhaps not the main one. It all depends on how the author builds the story.

 

And there you have it! There is the seven-point story structure. Now, keep in mind that this system is merely a skeleton. There are many more facets to a book/story that you’ll want to include, such as try/fail cycles, subplots, character development, etc.

Even for people who dislike outlining, having seven sentences of outlining for an entire book is a fairly small amount of outlining. There is plenty of room to discovery write in between the points if that is your preferred method.

I hope this has been helpful! Perhaps in the future, I’ll make a post about the Hollywood story formula.

 

Be sure to stop by the Writer’s Toolbox for free, useful tools that no author should go without. If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing via email to have future ones emailed to you. Image courtesy of Raul Hernandez Gonzalez via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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77 thoughts on “How the Seven-Point Story Structure Can Help Your Writing”

  1. Hey, this will help me immensely, because I can often get the beginning and the end and sometimes the middle, but have a really hard time with getting from A to Z. I’ll use this as a template when working on story ideas. So glad I read this.

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  2. Thank you! I can outline my story much better now and will visually draw the 7 points onto a canvas of mine that I have in front of me as I write. Even though it is the skeleton of the story, it is the foundation to build on, adding flesh and blood later. I think like this. I don’t know how some writers are able to just write from beginning to end, but perhaps, one can do that after a lot of practice and after having published many stories:)
    smiles~elizabeth

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  3. I usually yawn and mutter ‘oh God, not someone else thinking they can tell people how to write’, or, worse, allow people to think that you can actually write a decent novel by reading blog posts and books about how to do it (cue 2 million books on Amazon that don’t sell, by people who forget it takes talent, not just formula) – but I like this!!!! It’s the sort of thing that really helps people who do have the talent but haven’t got a clue about structure. Saved to pass on to a couple of worthy recipients. Incidentally, I thought Doc John was a right tit all the way through it until the last two episodes. And Kate should have nipped off with Sawyer when she had the chance!

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  4. Good stuff. What types of techniques have you seen for a series of, say, three books, where the author starts Book 1 with a scene that’s actually the beginning of Book 3 (it becomes more obvious once it’s read through)

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    1. I’m not sure that I’ve come across that situation, specifically. Although, I have read about the 7 point story structure working for lengths different than novel length. For example, chapter-long or series-long.

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