When I started writing a novel for the first time, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I made a list of cool events that led to what I considered a cool ending, then started writing. That was back in the days of the dial-up modem, when you couldn’t look up a thousand articles about writing on your smartphone. I had little knowledge about how to structure a story. I learned a lot since then, and actually finished a novel-sized story.
I experimented a lot with different ways to set up a story structure. There are a lot of ways to do that. You can follow along the lines of the monomyth, use the five-act structure, or any number of other structures. Today I’ll talk about the seven-point structure, which is a more detailed version of the three-act structure.
In a three-act structure, the story consists of three acts — who would have thought. These are:
- The first act. Here the characters and setting are established, as well as the incident that incites the story.
- The second act. Here the story slowly builds towards a climax.
- The third act. This is where the climax takes place, all the subplots are neatly tied up, and the story calmly ends with a denouement.
This is a very easy to understand structure, and a well established way to do things, going back to the days of Aristotle. However, when I actually sit down and try to structure a plot this way, I run into problems. Trying to structure a 100,000 word story in three acts means you get over 30,000 words per act. That’s a lot of words for a single concept. I can see the three-act structure in an existing story, but it’s too thin for me to think up a plot based on it.
The seven-point structure
I’m a big fan of the podcast Writing Excuses. In one of the podcasts, Dan Wells explained the seven-point story structure he uses when plotting. He didn’t think it up, but he did popularize it. The seven point structure, consists of seven points:
- The hook. The start of the story, which should drag your reader in.
- The first plot turn. This is where the story transitions into the second act.
- The first pinch. This is where pressure is applied to the character (by the writer).
- The midpoint. This is where the character changes from reacting, to acting.
- The second pinch. More pressure, bringing the character to the low point, and mounting toward the climax
- The second plot turn. The story enters act 3.
- The resolution. The climax of the story.
I’ll take a look at each of these seven points briefly, but not in story order. Instead, I’ll use the order in which they are easiest to set up.
I like to write stories from start to finish, to improve pacing and continuity, but that’s by no means required, and I don’t do it when plotting. When you start setting up your seven point arc, you’ll want to start at the resolution. Everything in your story should work toward this climax, which is why it’s easier to start here. Plot and character arcs are very much related in a story, so this climax is both the external resolution of plots, but also the culmination of the character arcs of your main characters. The characters have changed for the better and this pays off for them in the resolution of the story.
Now that the end is set, you can go to the beginning. The question that you must answer is this: how do I start the story so that the reader cares enough to read all the way to the ending? The journey itself must be interesting, and that means you need to start strong. The character and plot arcs need to resonate with the reader. The reader needs to identify with the character, and the story has to start in an interesting place. The hook is about setting up the start of the journey in such a way that the reader is interested.
This is the point in the story where the character decides to start acting, where before they were only reacting. This does not mean that the character was passive or catatonic before, but at the mid-point they start actively trying to change their destiny. They are going to fail, of course, until they reach the resolution. This is the midpoint between the starting state of the characters and their ending state.
The first plot turn
This is where the character is thrown into the story. His or her world changes and forces them forward. Up until this point, the character could still turn back, but after this, there is no going back. This is where the second act starts, in the three-act structure.
The second plot turn
The second plot turn pushes the story from act two into act two. It takes the character from the mid point towards the resolution. After this, all the pieces should be there to make the resolution happen.
The first pinch
After the first plot turn, your story is building towards the midpoint. The characters are being pushed into action, until they decide to actually do this at the midpoint. In the three-act structure, this is where the pressure starts to build toward the climax.
The second pinch
After the midpoint, the pressure does not stop. It increases. Towards the second plot turn, the situation keeps getting more dire and dire. The characters have to be pushed so hard that they reach rock bottom and are forced to change. In many stories, this is where everything seems hopeless. But, it pushes the characters to change, leading through plot turn two to the resolution.
Structuring a story around this seven-point structure can help make it easier to set up a good plot. The same can be achieved by using the five-act structure, or the hero’s journey.
Always keep in mind that this just a way to order your thoughts, not a goal or rule that you must follow. You do not have to follow a structure to write a good story. You could throw all of this overboard and do something different. Half of the writers out there are discovery writers, meaning they don’t plot before starting to write at all. Still, it’s good to be aware of what is out there, and how it might benefit your writing, even if you choose to ignore it.