#WriteTip: 7-Point Story Structure

Sam av

Being a ‘Pantser’–someone who writes without a plan, ie, ‘flying by the seat of your pants’–can be fun and carefree. However, in my opinion, a certain minimal level of planning becomes necessary to successfully start and complete multiple books. Without a clear ending in mind, it’s all too easy to write yourself into corners you can’t get out of again. I’ve listened to interviews with successful authors, and most seem to agree that having some kind of plan is the key to success. Whether that means a full outline, character sketches, and maps or a simple rough sketch outline is all on you. But to be a writer, I believe a Panster must evolve into a Plantser (a Pantser with a basic plan) at a bare minimum.

I’ve always been a planner, but I can have a tendency to overplan…I spend so much time on the plan that it gets messy and out of control, and then I cannot effectively follow it anyway. I’ve been trying to streamline my process better, to narrow it down to a basic routine. My intention is to have the same basic plan for every novel, but branch out in more detail if I find it necessary.

The first time I ever saw the 7-Point Story Structure featured on Ryan Lanz’s blog (original credit to Dan Wells), I was amazed. It’s beautifully simple, the kind of small planning snack that’s appropriate for Pantsers who need a plan. But it’s still sophisticated enough for Planners to find it useful as well. Ryan Lanz learned of it via Dan Wells. I have 7-Pointed every project I’ve worked on since reading his post on the topic. I hope you find it as useful as I have.

Because Mr. Lanz explained it so clearly, I’m actually going to quote his words rather than repackaging them as my own. Note: Spoilers for a few very well known modern 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.

So, there it is. The much-lauded 7-Point Structure I always go on about in my videos. Recently, I 7-Pointed the three major plot threads in the sequel to Achillea. Since doing that, I’ve found writing it much easier, as I know the checkpoints to keep in mind as I go.

Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I scene-map. I don’t always know how much planning each of my stories needs, but I do believe that every story needs at least a BASIC outline. How is the story going to start? How is it going to end? What is the turning point? What is the conflict? All of that is covered in your 7-Point. Write out your 7 points and hang them in your work station. Those are the sections of your novel, so you can feel a certain amount of achievement when you hit each checkpoint, but still be allowed the freedom to be as rigidly structured or as free as you prefer.

Voila!


S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print).

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About oneofthedragons

Samantha K. Balk and F. R. Donaldson met on An Archive of Our Own, one of the many fanfiction sites online, when Sam asked Frankie to illustrate the fanfiction that would one day lead to Sam's first novel. They've been friends ever since! This blog was created as a way to share the oftentimes difficult journey any new author experiences on the uncomfortable quest of an introvert for attention to his or her most personal work. It is meant to remind you that authors don't just appear fully fledged like a George R. R. Martin, that all of us start out unsure and feeling inadequate. Feel free to ask us anything. Sam: sammykaye9@gmail.com Frankie: reluctant.fraggle@gmail.com

Posted on July 15, 2016, in #WriteTip and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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