Writing Excuses 7.41: Seven-Point Story Structure

If you’ve ever had difficulty outlining something, this episode might be a perfect fit for you. We discuss the Seven-Point Story Structure, an outlining system Dan uses in which the story moves forward along seven sequential points.

Dan originally acquired this from a role-playing book, but it also sees regular use in screenwriting. Dan walks us through the system, and we hold his feet to the fire on behalf of Lou Anders, who once privately confessed to Howard that he just couldn’t get this thing to work.

Here, without any flavor text, are the seven points:

  • Hook
  • Plot Turn I
  • Pinch I
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch II
  • Plot Turn II
  • Resolution
While these are (obviously) not the only seven things that happen in your book, these are the key things that are working together to move you from hook to resolution.
After an explanation of the system, we brainstorm this on Dan’s “I.E.Demon” story in order to demonstrate the tool for you. Also, for Lou.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Enchanted, by Alethea Kontis, narrated by Katherine Kellgren

Linkage: Dan Wells Seven-Point Story Structure on YouTube

Play

Try out the seven-point story structure for yourself. Outline something!

47 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.41: Seven-Point Story Structure”

  1. I have been studying and trying to master the seven point story structure for five years now. It has helped my writing significantly. I will be checking Dan’s YouTube video out. There is always more to learn.

    If Lou is having issues and you are all busy, I wouldn’t mind tutoring him. haha…… It’s actually quite easy to get once you play it out the way you guys all did in this episode.

    Thanks guys, as always, you rock!

  2. Weird. I just found Writing Excuses about a week and a half ago. Listened to a few episodes. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I stumbled on Dan’s YouTube video tonight. I JUST finished watching it and came here to go through some plot episodes to get a better feel for it. Then I see this! Strange, eh?

  3. Another great podcast. I personally love this structure. In school I had to learn Robert McKee’s structure which is the same but uses Five Points, but I never really got it. This story structure makes more sense I think because Pinch I and II are linked to the same conflict/opponent.

    I think it’s also important to note that this structure is designed for a story with a single main character at its core. You can use it for a story with multiple main characters by either dividing the narrative load equally among the multiple characters(they all suffer equally; when one suffers they all suffer; when a big character change happens it affects them all) OR by giving every main character their own arc plotted out with their own 7-points…I think. I’ve never used the latter method but I know for a fact the former method is how Thelma & Louise works (or at least that’s how a film professor explained it to me).

    Dan got this from a Star Trek RPG, but for those curious this structure was actually developed by a guy named Syd Field in his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. The book actually goes over it a lot more in depth and has other good screenwriting advice. Plus, you can get it for like $10 on Amazon so it’s well worth the investment.

  4. That came just when I’m trying to untangle my novel’s plot. Very timely, guys! It does get harder to work it out when you don’t know exactly what your ending is going to be, though. “Victory, then everyone gets cake” is not enough sometimes 🙂

  5. Great episode guys. And what a thing to wake up to on a cold Monday morning.

    I’m not sure that I’d characterize my dilemma as that I couldn’t make the Seven-Point system work so much as that I know my Hollywood Formula and Dan’s Seven-Points are two approaches to the same result, but I have been studying Dan’s and trying to reconcile them without success. Or rather, I understand the 7-Point system but don’t seem to be able to apply it in practice at the same time as or with the same ease of my own system.

    So today’s episode was enormously instructive. I think that at some point Hollywood Formula and Seven Points will have to have a love child.

  6. I look at the Seven-Point System as a pacing tool, and the Hollywood Formula as a character arc tool. But that’s just what they seem to lead with. I think as you drill down into either system (as documented by those expounding upon them) you’ll find pinches, plot turns, and the like in the Hollywood Formula’s three-act structure, and you’ll find character relationships and arc structure in the Seven-Point System.

    But I’m not sure it’s that useful to go into that level of detail. When I’m outlining, there are things I have trouble with, and there are things I don’t. I like a simple tool that addresses the bits where I tend be weak, while leaving me alone to explore the areas I’m pretty good at working out.

  7. After Dan said he pulled the seven-point structure from an RPG, I checked the video expecting mention of Theatrix, an obscure RPG from the mid-90s. I was surprised it came from a Star Trek RPG 10 years ago.

  8. I think I’ve figured out why plotting doesn’t work for some people. Or, at least, for me. I’m a hardcore discovery writer. This morning, I tried once again to create a story using the 7 plot point method. I came up with a really boring story. I then switched to what I normally do and started brainstorming linearly. That worked great and I came up with a much better story.

    I have used the 7 point plot and the Save the Cat method several times but after the first draft. I first spin out a story, then I pull out the various plot models and see what is missing from it. If I’m missing a pinch point or something, then I brainstorm some more and add it in. This had been immensely useful for me as a way to impose an outline over my initial ramblings.

    So, the 7 point plot method is a great tool for me, but my linear brain can’t create stories with it.

  9. It’s totally possible to use a method like this, heroes journey, etc in a linear fashion. You can “discover” your outline without writing prose, then go back and clean up to make it tighter to better match whichever format you like (god there are so many…)

    What I’ve been experimenting with recently is just thinking about story beats without any interest in order, then trying to figure out which ones are the key points (basically same thing as Dan’s 7 points) and figure out from there where the other beats fit in order wise, and after that look for where I think there are gaps in each of the story arcs I see and fill them in.

    Then depending on how long my outline is I might look to add additional arcs or remove some to get it down to the size of story I’m shooting for. Still not 100% sure about it but the method at least is taking me in the right direction.

  10. I think it’s easier to apply the pinches on the character plots (romance and character development), as well as the whole story arc, than to apply them to a mystery plotline.

    My main plots are character deveopments, romance, action capability, 2 mysteries and an over all story. As I mentioned the mysteries were much more difficult to pinch.

    I think that the best part of the system was to get an overview of the different plot arcs and see in which order different events should be placed to get a good cohesive story with some good “star” moments.

  11. To see how seven-point structure plays out, I broke down Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”–and I have some questions:

    The move from Hook to Resolution is something like “Sane but caged wife becomes insane but free woman.”

    1. Hook: Sane, caged wife disregarded by husband: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.”

    7. Resolution: Insane woman is free from male control: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”

    The Midpoint between Hook and Resolution, where the character becomes more active, might be when the nameless protagonist starts to strip off the yellow wallpaper, imagining that there’s some woman kept prisoner underneath. (Spoiler alert: it might be herself.) Or maybe the midpoint is when she starts to trace the wallpaper’s pattern and get interested in it. Or is it a bit of both? In the Harry Potter example in the Youtube video, there are a bunch of little events that add up to the midpoint, so maybe these points are not necessarily single events.

    Plot turn 1 is the catalyst/call to adventure, which here might be when the protagonist is installed in the curious room with the yellow wallpaper (even though she would rather be in another room).

    Plot turn 2 is grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat or, in horror, grabbing horror from the jaws of victory. (Like in “The Tell-Tale Heart”: he’s almost gotten away with murder, but the thing that he wanted to get away from is still there.) Instead of “the power is in you,” we might call this part “the horror is in you”: the protagonist gives into the quest to free the trapped woman, lying and biting and scratching.

    Pinches are where characters face additional pressure, often external–troll, police, etc. So Pinch 1 might be when sister-in-law comes to help supervise and the protagonist first senses the woman in the wallpaper–which nicely breaks down into social and psychological pressure. (It might make sense to break this story down into two seven-point plots for the external and the internal stories.)

    Pinch 2 is more pressure, sometimes a loss of support. Perhaps when the protagonist tries to talk to her husband about leaving and is shut down. From there, she begins quickly to suspect him and her sister-in-law and the maid of conspiring against her.

    So putting it all together, it looks something like this:

    Hook: sane, caged wife
    Plot turn 1: installed in room with yellow wallpaper
    Pinch 1: feels confined even by sister-in-law/meets woman in the wallpaper
    Midpoint: becomes interested in the wallpaper pattern, begins to strip it off
    Pinch 2: gets no support from anyone, becomes paranoid
    Plot turn 2: identifies with woman in wallpaper and tries to free her
    Resolution: insane, free woman.

    How does that seem to people?

  12. The second best thing about Dan’s videos is that they led me here, to what I have come to consider The Home Team. Listening to Writing Excuses is the way I jumpstart my writing week. You all may not be that smart, but you are definitely that generous, and these podcasts encourage and inspire me to keep plugging away at the novel I’m writing. Yes, folks, I’m ACTUALLY DOING IT.
    Which brings me to the BEST thing about Dan’s videos. The way this paradigm demystifies structure helped me to organize the brainstorms into an actual story, and helped me to see where I was missing an essential element. This gave me the confidence to draft, and now I’m halfway through. Thanks, Dan! Thanks Writing Excuses! Good Stuff!

  13. Personally, I think you are sticking to the format too much. I immediately thought that Pinch 2 should be the loss of the manual. The mentor in this case is an inanimate object, the manual that they have been relying upon since Pinch 1 where the demon gets loose. In Pinch 2, the unit could come under attack by enemy forces and the manual is destroyed or damaged. This forces the protagonist to “improvise” and come up with his/her own solution. Relying upon some RPG experience (this RPG is role playing games, yes, a fair number of soldiers actually play), he comes up with a solution to attach the demon to the RPG (rocket propelled grenade).

  14. I watched the YouTube videos some time ago, and I’ve recommended them to everyone since. Something really clicked about plotting, and now I have an easy way to make sure that my stories have motion — things get worse (pinches) and situations change (plot turns). It’s also a flexible enough “outline” that I can discovery-write through it while aiming for a few main points.

    I guess that was a long way to say — thanks Dan, this is awesome stuff.

  15. One thing that the videos made clearer than the podcast (being longer of course) is that the resolution doesn’t have to be an action-oriented “hero saves the day”. The Telltale Heart was a great example, where hook to resolution was “sanity to insanity”. I have a story where the climax has the protagonist discover that things are not what they seem, and it started to sound a little passive when compared to Harry Potter.

    And for your amusement, I submit my rechristening of the seven points as “Hook, Call, Pinch, Midpoint, Jab (stronger than a pinch), Aha!, Resolution”.

  16. I listened to the podcast at work (easy to do while copy editing), and used my lunch break to completely rearrange the Scrivener file of my current WIP. I’ve also already set up my NaNoWriMo book for this year along this structure. It makes so much sense, and clicked for me immediately.

    Thanks for continuing to give us the most “nutrient-dense” podcast of all.

  17. I have to take the opposite approach to Howard’s comment saying that the Hollywood formula is better for character arcs and the 7-point structure is better for pacing.

    I use the 7-point story structure as a tool to make sure the arc for my character makes logical sense. It’s a character arc structure generator. The Hollywood formula, based on Mary’s anecdote about getting her beta readers to cry at the end, makes me think that the Hollywood formula is best used for pacing. In particular the ending of a story.

    All this is, of course, my own personal preference. And, along with the three act format, all three screenwriting tools often overlap—like Howard said.

  18. I was referred here by a friend and found this profound at a glance. Good writing is all about being succinct so it helps when the advice itself is effective at that level it’s pretty jaw-dropping.

    Thanks for the great read, I’m looking forward to nosing through the video.

  19. I have fond memories of this structure. I was looking around Youtube for tips on how to plot a novel. And what did I find? This guy named Dan Wells talking about this very subject. And then I found out that this guy was on a podcast. And here I am!

    Thanks for this episode! I think I got a lot of insight from it.

  20. They seem to mention some various categories of Pinches during the podcast.

    I remember the following:
    Loss of Mentor
    Loss of Companion(s)
    Loss of Significant Other
    Loss of Wealth
    Loss of Everything – ie when they discussed Batman Begins

    Were there other Pinches they mentioned? Trying to spark my creative ideas. Pinch can be a Loss or Threat of Loss. Direct Attack. Can anyone think of other broad categories?

  21. MClark: I’d say new information. Could be argued to fit under something else, but IMO when new info is revealed that changes their understanding of how dire the situation truly is, I’d call that its own thing.

  22. I was wondering if the lack of tension-building that Brandon mentioned could be addressed by adding a second parallel 7-point plotline concerning what’s happening to the convoy while the POV stays with the enchanted Humvee. I put one together that moved from safety and certainty to danger and confusion and then interleaved it with the plot points that were developed in the podcast:

    Enemy hook: Enemy force is spotted in distance; decision made to engage)

    Demon hook: Hero is sent away from convoy to protect civilian/secrecy/?

    Enemy turn 1: Main force attempts to ambush enemy

    Demon turn 1: IED explodes and releases demon, disables Humvee

    Enemy pinch 1: (via radio) enemy was prepared for us; battle has commenced

    Enemy midpoint: (via radio) commotion; main force falling back to regroup

    Demon pinch 1: Using manual, civilian is killed in attempt to recapture demon

    Enemy pinch 2: Radio goes dead; lost communications (Caused by demon pinch 1?)

    Demon midpoint: Hero determines that demon is real and retrieves manual to attempt capture

    Demon pinch 2: Hero discovers manual is written in strange symbols with occasional TLA

    Enemy turn 2: Hero discovers enemy position (how?)

    Demon turn 2: Hero finds diagram and matching (damaged) symbols on wreckage

    Resolution (both): Hero attaches demon to RPG and fires into enemy camp

  23. I know this is somewhat late, but I’ve watched Dan’s YouTube video at least a dozen times over the last year or so. And am now listening to this podcast again — and as I read some of the comments above, I feel like I’m starting to “get” this method. Well, at least more than before. Plotting is my biggest weakness — my “stories” tend to be a series of slice of life events as opposed to a “story.” I have trouble connecting all of the things together into a story — I’m not sure why, though I have a few theories. However, after listening to this podcast (and watching the YouTube video) again, it feels like I learn something each time. Thanks again for the show and explaining this method. Not sure I “have it” yet, but I’m learning.

  24. I’m using the Seven Point Story Structure to help me build my project for NaNoWriMo this year. It’s already helped me to come up with a working framework for the project though I will be filling in the details of it as I go along.

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