You’ve developed strong characters and the world you’ve created is awe-inspiring. Now what? If you’re like me, the idea to your story came to you in a flash. You may already have a scene or two written in your head. But what about the rest of the book? What happens between the beginning and the end? How do your characters get from one place to another?
These are the questions I struggle with on that story that’s been nagging at me in the back of my head. Since I started writing, I’ve studied different story structures from The Hero’s Journey to Save the Cat! I’ve learned about Inciting Events, Plot Points, and Pinch Points. But knowing the definitions of these terms didn’t help me figure out my process. And then I stumbled across a YouTube video collection featuring Dan Wells in 2010.
Now to be honest, I’d come across these videos previously in my exploration of writing and the message didn’t really sink in the first time. I had to struggle through one book and the planning of another before what Mr. Wells was saying really hit the mark for me.
Before we get into the meat of things, let’s talk about your writing process. Are you a discovery writer (pantser)? Or a plotter? Do you let your book inform you of where it’s going? Or do you outline the plot beforehand and write scenes based on your outline?
Personally, I mix it up. I often know where I’m going to end up, but no clue how I’m going to get there. I know some things that are going to happen, but not all. And typically, I write myself into a corner where I can’t see how I’m going to get where I need to be from where I currently am. Once I’m stuck, I go back to the drawing board to plot out what needs to happen. Eventually, I work out the issue and get unstuck. Many of the articles I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listened to suggest that, whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you always plot your novel. Either you do it before you write or afterward when you’re editing and making sure everything lines up.
As a former project manager, I’m all about planning so I’ve been trying to find a process that lends itself to fully plotting out the book before I sit down to write. And I think I’ve found it. It’s helped tremendously in my current work-in-progress.
7-Point Plot Structure
If you do a quick Internet search, you can find tons of articles on what the 7-Point Plot Structure is. And if you read some of these, you’ll see they all differ slightly in what the points are and where they fall. The one I’m focusing on comes from Dan Wells. He has a series of YouTube videos that walk through his explanation of what these plot points are and how to use them. You can watch the videos for a more in-depth explanation, but I thought I would summarize what I got out of them.
For your reference, the first video is here.
The plot points in Dan Wells’ version are:
- Hook – Hero is in the opposite state to their end state. Lays the foundation for your character arc.
- Plot Turn 1 – Hero’s world changes from status quo to the new world. Introduces the conflict.
- Pinch 1 – Something goes wrong that forces the hero into action.
- Midpoint – Hero shifts from reaction to action. It is a conscious decision.
- Pinch 2 – Something fails that makes things seem hopeless. (Dark night of the soul.)
- Plot Turn 2 – Hero obtains the last thing needed to resolve the conflict.
- Resolution – Hero follows through on their decision from the midpoint. Everything in the story leads to this moment.
The order that you should approach figuring out these points will help you derive the overall plot. Start with the ending, figure out the opposite of that ending (where they would start from to get there), then find the middle where the story turns. Repeat the process for each section you are looking at.
The plotting order is:
- Resolution (how the story ends)
- Hook (how it begins)
- Midpoint (middle of the entire story)
- Plot Turn 1 (middle between the Hook and the Midpoint)
- Plot Turn 2 (middle between the Midpoint and the Resolution)
- Pinch 1 (middle between the first Plot Turn and the Midpoint)
- Pinch 2 (middle between the Midpoint and the second Plot Turn)
Now that you know what these seven points are, what’s the process? This is where I had the aha moment.
Determine the Seven Plot Points for Each Subplot
Draw a table with each of your subplots at the top of each column. Below the first row containing your subplot titles, create seven rows (one for each plot point). We’ll use The Matrix as an example like Mr. Wells did in his videos.
|(Prologue)||Ice Monster prologue! (Trinity fights and escapes from the Agents.)|
|Hook||Neo is an underachiever||Neo is an underachiever||Neo is alone||Cypher is their friend|
|Plot Turn 1||Neo learns about the Matrix||Morpheus tells Neo he’s the One||Neo meets Trinity||Cypher makes a deal with the agents|
|Pinch 1||Agents kidnap Neo||Neo is the new guy; can’t do anything||Trinity isn’t interested in Neo||Crew discovers an unauthorized trip into the Matrix|
|Midpoint||Neo escapes the Matrix||Neo meets the Oracle||Neo falls in love with Trinity||Cypher tells the Agents where they are|
|Pinch 2||Morpheus is captured||Oracle tells Neo he’s not the One||Neo thinks she loves someone else||Neo spots the trap, they try to escape|
|Plot Turn 2||Neo becomes the One||Neo realizes the power is in him||Neo risks his life to save Trinity and Morpheus||Cypher attacks in the real world|
|Climax / Resolution||Neo defeats the Agents||Neo becomes the One||Trinity falls in love with Neo||Cypher betrays Morpheus and kills the crew|
Focus on the plot for one subplot at a time and don’t pay attention to the plot points of the other subplots while you’re doing this. This step is simply to get down what the story behind each subplot is without regard to how it fits with the other plots.
Tip: If you do this in a spreadsheet, you can hide the other columns to help focus on one subplot at a time.
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Another tool you can use to do your plotting in is Plottr. This software helps you visualize your plot points. I’ve taken Mr. Wells’ table above and plotted them in Plottr so you can see what it looks like.
Arrange the Subplot Points in the Story
Once you’ve determined what your plot points are for each subplot, you’re ready to make a second pass to spread out all the plot points or events in the story. This is where you figure out the order of events and which ones can align in the same scene to create powerful moments in the story.
Here’s what it looks like in a table format:
|Ice Monster prologue! (Trinity fights and escapes from the Agents.)|
|Neo is an underachiever||Neo is an underachiever||Neo is alone|
|Neo learns about the Matrix||Neo meets Trinity|
|Agents kidnap Neo|
|Neo escapes the Matrix||Morpheus tells Neo he’s the One|
|Neo is the new guy; can’t do anything||Cypher is their friend|
|Trinity isn’t interested in Neo|
|Neo falls in love with Trinity|
|Cypher makes a deal with the agents|
|Crew discovers unauthorized trip into the Matrix|
|Neo meets the Oracle||Cypher tells the Agents where they are|
|Oracle tells Neo he’s not the One|
|Neo thinks Trinity loves someone else|
|Neo spots the trap, they try to escape|
|Cypher attacks in the real world|
|Morpheus is captured||Cypher betrays Morpheus and kills the crew|
|Neo risks his life to save Trinity and Morpheus|
|Try/Fail Cycles (resuing Morpheus)|
|Neo realizes the power is in him|
|Neo becomes the One||Neo becomes the One||Trinity falls in love with Neo|
|Neo defeats the Agents|
And here’s what it looks like in Plottr (two images w/ overlap):
You can see how the plot points on one story line or subplot may line up differently from another subplot. (Keep in mind that even though the labels at the top say “scenes”, they are still just plot points. They may very well end up being scenes, but currently, they are just points on the map.)
One thing I like about Plottr is that you can easily drag and drop your scenes to anywhere on the timeline. This makes it easy to move things around and line them up where they make sense.
Here are some additional articles and resources on the Seven-Point Structure that go into more detail on each plot point:
- The Seven-Point Story Structure: From Idea to Plot in 5 Steps on Reedsy, which gives a deep-dive into each plot point.
- Big Picture Story Structure: Part 3: Seven-Point Plot Structure by John Wong discussing weaving plots together and breaking down Star Wars for you.
- Writing Method: 7-Point System by Dan Wells by E.P. Hasan who shares a printable mind map and a condensed PowerPoint summary of Dan Wells’ lecture on the topic.
By figuring out the key plot points for each subplot, you can start laying the foundation for your entire book. Once you know how each storyline evolves, the structure of what happens and when unfolds and gives you an idea of what your finished book will look like.
Now you just have to go write those scenes.
What kind of story structure do you use?
Follow me on Twitter at @LancyMcCall for more discoveries, insights, and surprises from my writing journey.