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Writing Excuses 7.41: Seven Point Story Structure

Writing Excuses 7.41: Seven Point Story Structure


Key points: The seven point story structure.

Hook: establish what is going on, who the characters are, their starting state. Opposite of Resolution.
Plot Turn One: Call to adventure. Kicks off story.
Pinch One: The pinches pressure characters into action.
Midpoint: move from reaction to action. Characters take control.
Pinch Two: Raise the pressure, make it dire! Often loss of mentor.
Plot Turn Two: Getting the last bit of information needed to save the day.
Resolution: Do it. Save the day! Note the change in the character from the starting state to here.

These seven are not the only things that happen in your story. They are key steps moving from hook to resolution.

To use this, start with the resolution, then figure out the starting state (hook), and then how the plot turns and pinches will move you believably from one to the other.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 41.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Today's episode, Seven Point Story Structure with Dan Wells.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Howard] And I have a fun little anecdote to share to get us into the mood for this. I was at the Deep South Con a while back, and Lou Anders, who many of you, fair listeners, will remember from our Dragon Con episode about Hollywood formula. Lou Anders was talking to me about Dan's YouTube video series on seven point story structure. Many of you may have already seen that. Lou said, "You know, I've watched that video and I still can't make that work." So we are here for you, Lou. We are here to hold Dan's feet to the fire and confess to us the secrets of making the seven point story structure work. Go, Dan.
[Dan] Well. Thanks for that introduction.
[Brandon] Be brilliant or we'll lynch you
[Dan] Oh, dang it. Okay. This is actually a screenplay story structure system. I got it out of a role-playing book, but it's apparently very common in screenwriting. It's one that I've done. Like Howard said, a lot of people know it. I actually get recognized for it almost more than for my writing. The videos are up on YouTube. Very quickly, let's run through it. It's a way of analyzing how stories are put together in seven points.

The first... You start with a hook. Then you... The hook is what will establish what's going on, it will set up who the characters are and kind of what their starting state is. So a good example to use is in the first Harry Potter book, the hook is I'm a sad little boy who lives under the stairs and nobody loves me and my life is horrible. Okay?

Then the next thing you get is plot turn one, which is kind of the call to adventure. This is what kicks off the story. In Harry Potter, that's guess what, you're a wizard and you get to come to this school and it's really exciting and you get to learn magic.

The next thing that happens is a pinch. The purpose of the pinches is to put pressure on the characters, to kind of exert pressure to force them into action. So again, looking at Harry Potter, the first pinch in that story is when the troll attacks. By the end of the story, we need Harry Potter to be capable enough that he can defeat an evil wizard. So the troll attack is a good way of forcing him to use the magic he's learned in a school setting to actually try to help people and save people. He has to do it himself because the school's evacuated, there's no teachers there to do it for him. He has to do it.

Next, in the middle is the midpoint. This is the point at which we move from reaction to action. Where the characters are sick of running in turn around and say, "You know, we're just going to solve this problem." A good example from Harry Potter is... I would say it's probably the moment when he's in the forest and sees the evil, scary monster drinking a unicorn's blood. Because that's a really good way of saying this is a really scary monster and you need to do something about it. Anytime you need to do that, just have it drink a unicorn's blood.
[Brandon] Yeah. Those unicorns were asking for it, though.
[Mary] Or kill a puppy.
[Dan] They had it coming.
[Brandon] All pristine and pure and prancy...
[Dan] So that's kind of the moment where Harry and his friends say, "You know, this has gone too far. We know there's something going on." They've collected thus far the various other little points of information they need. They know there is a sorcerer's stone, they know that Voldemort wants it, all these things. That's the moment where they say, "Okay, we're going to have to solve this problem."

The next thing that happens is the second pinch. The purpose of pinch two is to really put the pressure on the characters, to make it as dire as possible. So a lot of times, that's like the loss of a mentor. Gandalf dying with the Balrogs, that's a great pinch two. Because now the mentor's gone, and the characters are on their own, they have to solve all their problems on their own. In Harry Potter, I would say that this is, after he's started going down into the dungeon, and he's passed some of the tests, and Ron and Hermione have both essentially sacrificed themselves and are removed. Harry is left all alone, and he has no one to help him.

The next thing we get is plot turn two. The purpose of plot turn two is to... That's kind of where they have the last piece of information that they need in order to save the day and win. Whether it's we figure out the puzzle or we realize where the one weak point here is in the bad guys' plan, whatever it is that's going to wrap it all up.

Then the resolution the very last thing, is where they go and do it. They actually win.

So the plot turn two in Harry Potter is when he's down there and he's looking in the mirror and he realizes he has the thing in his pocket, the sorcerer's stone. You can see a lot of plot turn twos all throughout heroic fiction, the... In Star Wars, where it's, "Use the Force," and he turns off his targeting computer and realizes I have the Force, I have this power, I can do this on my own. Things like that.

Then the resolution is we do it. We have saved... We have gone all the way from our hook, our starting state of poor, sad boy under the stairs to the resolution of I am now the guy who beat the evil wizard and saved the day. So that...
[Howard] In a nutshell.
[Dan] In five minutes, is the seven point story structure system.

[Howard] Now, I'm going to role-play Lou Anders for a moment, which I think I'm kind of allowed to do because I'm bald.
[Mary] Fair enough.
[Howard] He's way smarter than I am, so it shouldn't be hard for me to play dumb and be convincing here. The breakdown that you don't Harry Potter... It seems to me like there are plenty of other pinches and reveals, pinches and plot twists, then just the ones you've described.
[Dan] Definitely.
[Howard] One of the reveals is that the philosopher's stone came to Hogwarts. That there is this thing there that has now been hidden. That wasn't listed anywhere in what you described.
[Dan] That is correct.
[Howard] If I'm sitting down and trying to write a story using this seven point structure, what do I do if there's more than seven pieces? Pinch, reveal, pinch, reveal, how does that work? How do you use it?
[Dan] Well, the thing you need to remember is that these seven points are not the only seven things that happen during your story. What they are, are seven key moments that are going to move you from hook to resolution. That's the way you need to think about them. In fact, if you sit down... And I actually do this with everything I write... Sit down and figure out what your resolution is going to be, which will then tell you where your hook is going to be, because you want to start in a faraway, if not absolutely opposite state, and get a good arc. Then, the purpose of the seven points is to help you move believably from one to the other. I find this especially valuable in romantic subplots and things like that. If I need to characters to end up in love with each other, what are the other little pieces that have to happen that are going to help move them toward that point where they have a... Where they have developed a believable relationship with each other.

[Mary] It seems as though you can use this to have... You can repeat this cycle in miniature within scenes as well.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Mary] Which is very interesting. So to me, the next question that I would say is... The question is, "How do you make this work?" Where we started with... This is why I think a lot of people run into trouble with outlines, is they're like, "Okay. So I understand this. But how do I take this structure and begin to build a story?" That's what I would like to... I almost feel like we could do a brainstorming where we actually brainstormed...
[Brandon] We could, we could.
[Dan] I think we can do that in miniature, after our book of the week.

[Brandon] All right. Book of the week. Mary, you have for us...
[Mary] Yes. My book of the week is Enchanted by Alethea Kontis. For complete disclosure, Alethea is a friend of mine, I blurbed this book, I very much enjoyed it. It is a fantasy in which kind of all of the fairytales are interconnected. The main character is Sunday. She is the youngest of seven children. They are each named after a day of the week. Each of them map onto a different fairytale. Sunday kisses a frog. It's just wonderful, inventive, and if you like fairytales and retelling, this kind of touches them all. It's the... I'm hoping... I think she's doing a series with this.
[Brandon] Okay. Howard, how can they get it?
[Howard] All right. Point your web browser of choice at audio... You can start a free trial membership there at audible and download Enchanted by Alethea Kontis.

[Brandon] All right. Let's say that someone is brainstorming their book, and they've got this ending. Let's go ahead and use the one you were using. They're going to write a romantic fiction novel. Their ending is two characters now are madly in love and profess their love for one another. This is your resolution that you're going for.
[Howard] Profess their love for one another and obstacles between... Obstacles preventing them from fulfilling that have been removed. There might have been profession earlier.

[Brandon] All right. On Writing Excuses, we like to try as much as possible to give you the how-to-do-it, the real world scenario. So we're going to try this with the story we brainstormed with Dan a couple of weeks back. This is the story, if you need familiarity, of soldiers you discover that they have a device protecting their Humvee, whatever it is, that has a demon in it.
[Howard] I. E. Demon was the working title.
[Dan] Yes, an i.e. demon story. So pause this if you need to and go back and listen to that one. We're just going to move on.
[Brandon] But we do have our climax already. We know what we're shooting for.
[Dan] We have our climax already. Our resolution... this is going to end with our hero of the story wrangles this demon by attaching it somehow to a rocket propelled grenade or some other kind of missile and fires it into the enemy camp and destroys it.
[Brandon] I feel like I already know both of our pinches for this story. The way I outline, I would kind of just go and say, "Okay, here's our pinches," if you want to call it that. Because we've got two main conflicts. It's a short story. Number one, a gremlin is out and all our stuff is going wrong. That's gotta be, I would think, pinch number one. Pinch number two is, "Oh, no, our enemy is here and they're going to kill us." This works because it's a raise of... It's an escalation. First pinch is, "Okay, all our stuff is going wrong, this demon is loose," it's not immediately life threatening. But it's an introduction of a problem. If you're going to have your resolution be we need to fire this thing into the enemy camp and stop them, you really... It's kind of the kill two birds with one stone. So I feel like, personally, the second pinch has to be we've been ambushed or we just found the enemy camp and they're planning an ambush of all of our friends who are traveling on the convoy that we left behind or... We are upping the stakes and a lot of deaths are going to happen if we don't do something.
[Dan] Yeah. I think that that will work. My worry is that if that is... If that particular conflict is not introduced until pinch two, that it's going to get resolved really quickly.

[Howard] I would say that the midpoint... The midpoint's kind of where we start being active instead of reactive... Midpoint is the point where we discover that the folks who have us pinned down also have IEDs or some sort of offensive happening at folks who don't know it's coming. We are out of touch. We need to stop this. It's more than...
[Brandon] That was not how the structure was explained to me as the midpoint. Just saying.
[Mary] Midpoint is when we move from reaction to action as I understand it.
[Brandon] Yes. When they make... That's character decision. The pinches are both external. The midpoint is internal.
[Dan] It seems to me our midpoint is going to be I need to grab the manual.
[Howard] We need to take the fight to the enemy.
[Dan] I need to open this manual, figure out how this thing works, and solve the problem.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. There you go. That's the midpoint.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. Yeah yeah yeah yeah. That makes sense.

[Dan] I think what we ought to do first... We know what our resolution is. Let's go all the way back to the beginning, and figure out our hook, which is usually an opposite state. So in this case, it's going to be our character knows nothing about how the demon works or even that there is a demon...
[Howard] Knows nothing about it and doesn't believe the armor is effective.
[Dan] So we start with our hook of guy traveling through... In this military convoy. Doesn't know anything about the demons. Potentially... Opposite state of defeating the bad guys, it might... Is that the bad guys are still a threat. It could be that our opening hook is, there's an enemy base that we think we've found, we need to go check it out. Which presents right from the beginning that there's terrorists or whatever... Taliban out there and we need to go deal with them.

[Brandon] So would the argument then be that we're going to send back this one tank because... This one armor with the experimental protection thing on it? Okay. We unexpectedly found this, we have to hit this enemy base while we're out here even though we were convoying between things. You have to go back, because if something goes wrong, we do not want this armor falling into enemy hands.
[Mary] Or because this is untested. This is supposed to be a controlled trial, and we've introduced a variable. We need to get you and the civilian who is riding with you...
[Howard] The field spook who is riding with you is not frontline authorized. This is now a hot operation. You need to take him home.
[Dan] So we could say that that then is the call to adventure. Our hook is we're out in the desert. The call to adventure is you have to leave...
[Brandon] And get this guy to safety...
[Dan] The safety of your convoy and get back. Pinch then is IED explodes, technology malfunctions, demon escapes. Midpoint is we have to do something about that. I was wrong, I think, about saying that that was the manual. Because we have this spook who's with us. He's the guy who knows what to do. He's going to try to solve the problem, he attempts to and is killed by the demon, which is our pinch two. We lose our mentor, soldier is now on his own, without the expert and has to resort to the manual, solve the problem by himself, which is the last piece he needs in our plot turn two.
[Brandon] Okay. So in this, you would foreshadow that by having the spook have the little manual that he's always flipping through and trying to figure out. When he dies, they get the manual. But then it starts with, "What to do if gremlin escapes..." They're like... I have know, I kind of... That means we miss the cool thing of breaking out our manual earlier on. I guess we have to decide... You would have to decide, do you want spook or do you want manual? That would be... Because you know, reading the field manual out there and trying to figure it out is so much fun.
[Dan] It is.
[Mary] You can still have that, because he... Our main character has not yet read the field manual.
[Brandon] You could also say... You could have the spook be an observer, not one of the technicians. He's from the company to see how this works. He's got this manual, he kind of knows a little bit what's going on, but he's off just talking on the phone. They can grab the manual, open it up and see... Or something like that could happen.
[Dan] Yeah, it could. They could be looking at the manual earlier with... While he's busy and realize that half of it's written in some arcane language they don't even speak or whatever kind of crazy thing...
[Howard] Ancient Sumerian.
[Mary] Wait, this is all in cuneoform.

[Brandon] Okay. So what's plot turn two, Dan? I think that's the only one we haven't discussed.
[Dan] Plot turn two, under this particular thread, is where the soldier has to look at the manual himself and realizes...
[Howard] I would say that it's the realization... When he comes up with the idea that these... What you need to do is you need to take this piece of MRE and you need to write runes with it back in the container in order to get the gremlin back in the box...
[Mary] Wait a minute.
[Howard] He realizes, "You know what? Instead of doing that, I could write on a grenade."
[Dan] Yes. And solve both problems at once.
[Howard] And solve both problems at once.
[Brandon] Right. Then it's... You're launching the grenade, and the gremlin's chasing the grenade.
[Dan] The great thing about that is that at the end then, the demon attached to the grenade becomes an improvised explosive device, which is the title of the story in the first place, which is very clever of you, Howard. Well done.

[Brandon] Yeah. Though I'm going to say, just having done... Gone through all of this, I think the thing that the model is missing for me in this, that I would have to add myself, is the escalating tension of the bad guys. This is talking... We're focused all on the gremlin, there's got to be that external pressure of, "Oh, no, people's lives are going to be compromised if we don't do something," because that's the escalation I'm looking for. Yes, our tank isn't working. Yes, this thing is loose, this is bad. Our whole convoy is now doomed is much worse.
[Dan] Yeah... That's...
[Mary] I think that it have to be the second pinch...
[Howard] That is a fair assessment, because when you broke down Harry Potter for us, at no point do you tell us where... The whole Voldemort story fits into that. I mean, there is a little bit with the eating of the unicorn. But there's a lot of pieces... the villain's arc, the enemy arc is kind of missing from this.

[Dan] Well, it might be a cleaner model to remove the spook altogether. That particular vehicle is recalled because it has an experimental technology on it.
[Brandon] You don't even need the spook.
[Dan] The midpoint is let's look at the thing. The... Pinch two is then not loss of the spook, but oh no, we're stuck here in the desert, and on the radio, we can hear our buddies are just getting slaughtered.
[Brandon] Or... Our buddies are getting slaughtered or our radio goes on the fritz and we pick up the enemy chatter that we know that they're...
[Mary] Or we've just wandered into the back half of the ambush...

[Brandon] All right. We are out of time. Again I want to give a writing prompt, which is not related to Dan's story. But I do think that trying out the seven point story hook would be a good thing for you. You could also watch Dan's YouTube video. Is there a specific title they should search for?
[Dan] If you look up Dan Wells story structure in YouTube, you'll find it. It's in five parts, 10 minutes each. It's from an hour-long presentation at a convention.
[Brandon] All right. There's your story prompt. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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