If there’s one thing we love here, it’s plot structures! And we’ve talked about a lot of them, but today we’re going over one of the best plot structure tools yet- Dan Wells’ Seven-Point Story Structure.
As usual, we’ll discuss what it is, how to use it, and look at a couple of examples of this plot in action. Along the way, I’ve got some guiding questions for you to think about as you craft your narrative.
So, let’s get into it with and obvious question:
What is the Seven-Point Story Structure?
The seven-point story structure is a set of sequential story beats that most fictional stories follow. Author Dan Wells first described this structure at the 2013 Life, the Universe, & Everything conference. Wells doesn’t take full credit for the system, though; instead, he borrowed it from the Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator’s Guide.
For our purposes, this is another tool like Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, or Joseph Campbell’s monomyth– a guide to create an effective plot.
Here’s another question you’re probably wondering. What are the seven points of the seven-point structure?
The seven points of the Seven-Point Story Structure
We’ll start by going over the seven-story beats of this structure. However, as we list these, you will notice they look familiar. There’s not much difference between these story beats and the ones you’d find in a standard screenplay structure.
The primary difference, and this structure’s hidden power, is not the story beats but the order in which you develop them. Wells’ approach is to plan out the seven points in a symmetrical order going from one end of the story to the opposite, back and forth, until you have your entire plot outlined. You’ll understand this more when we talk about using this structure.
Right now, all you need to know is that you don’t plan these beats in the order they happen in your narrative timeline. In other words, you’re not planning your story in chronological order. With that said, here are the seven beats of this structure:
- Hook- the setup/ exposition of your story
- Plot Turn 1- the inciting incident
- Pinch 1- a moment of pressure for your character
- Midpoint- when your character moves from reaction to action
- Pinch 2- your character suffers a major defeat
- Plot Turn 2- grasping victory from the jaws of defeat
- Resolution- the end state of your story
How to use the Seven-Point Story Structure
So, those are the seven points we’re dealing with. Let’s talk about using these seven beats to construct an outline for your plot. As I said, we don’t work through these in chronological order, and, in your planning, you’ll start at the end by planning your resolution. Then you’ll plan the beginning, the hook. Then you’ll work your way through the middle of the story. So, we start at the end.
Resolution: Ending State
To start, you want to decide what the ending of your story is. Where do you want your character to end up? By beginning with the end of the story, we have a goalpost, something to aim all our efforts toward.
Developing your ending first will make planning the rest of your story more manageable. And the first thing you want to do is decide on is the kind of ending you want, which is easy because you only have two choices:
- An ‘up’ ending
- A ‘down’ ending
An ‘up’ ending is a happy ending where your hero achieves their goal, defeats the bad guy, or finds their true love. Most stories have ‘up’ endings.
You can probably figure out what a ‘down’ ending is, but I’ll describe it nonetheless.
A ‘down’ ending is when the character ends up worse than they were at the start of your story. Maybe the hero dies, they lose their fortune, or their enemies defeat them. We call stories with ‘down’ endings tragedies.
Don’t be afraid of writing a down ending; some of the best stories are tragedies. Tragedies are also great for teaching lessons if you want to relay an important theme.
Why is it so important to know whether you want an up. ending of a ‘down’ ending?
Because your story’s end state will determine how your story starts and the overall direction. Come up with a specific conclusion, whether up or down, and then work backward to get your characters to that ending.
Let’s look at an example from 2008’s The Dark Knight.
This movie has a down ending where Batman takes the blame for the crimes of Harvey Dent to preserve the prosecutor’s legacy. That ending determines every other plot point in the story. And, if we were Christopher Nolan and his co-writers, we could construct the rest of the plot backward, working from that ending premise.
But, if we were writing the next summer blockbuster or any story, where would we go next? If we’re following the seven-point structure, once we write the ending, we go back to the beginning- the hook.
- What is your story about?
- Where is your story going?
- Do you want an ‘up’ ending or a ‘down’ ending?
- What is the final stage of your story, and what is its opposite?
Hook: Starting State
Once you know how your story will end, you’ll write the beginning. You need to figure out where your characters are at the beginning of your story. This decision is easy if you already know your ending, and where your characters will end up.
You want to create an arc for your characters. To create an arc all you need to do is have your character start the story in the opposite state they finish it. So, if your character ends the story on a positive note, they will begin on a negative.
Dan Wells’ outlines two different types of character arcs you can use:
Simple Arcs – Growth
A simple arc is when you transform a character from their beginning state to the opposite state. What does that mean? If you have a character who will end the story in a strong position, you start the story with that character in a place of weakness. Let’s look at an example of a simple arc:
Harry Potter is a terrific example of a growth arc. He ends his journey by defeating Voldemort and fulfilling his destiny as the chosen one (whatever that means). He’s also rich and famous. So, how does Harry start his journey? He’s poor, orphaned, and lives in a cupboard under the stairs.
In a growth arc, we see a character start in a place of weakness and end in a position of strength. Wells also calls this a progress arc. This character arc is widely-used, and that’s because it works. Readers love it; viewers love it. Everyone loves it.
Conversely, you can do the opposite of this arc. You can start a character in a place of strength and end the story with that character in a position of weakness. This arc is a tragedy, and it can work just as well as a positive character arc.
Read more about tragic character arcs here.
Complex Arcs – Shift
A shift is a different type of progress arc, but it is not a progression from weakness to strength. In a shift arc, the character will progress from one kind of strength to another type. In other words, an already accomplished character will have to learn to be strong in different ways. In his presentation, Wells gives the example of Batman in The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight is the sequel to Batman Begins, and in that movie, we see Batman progress through a simple arc. He grows from a powerless victim to a powerful crusader of justice. But, that power comes from his ability to beat the crap out of his opponents physically.
In The Dark Knight, Batman learns that his physical strength isn’t enough to overcome the injustice that has taken hold in Gotham. The Joker even mocks Batman saying that he has nothing to do with all his strength. Bruce realizes that Gotham needs a symbol of hope, not the fear that Batman represents.
- In what state does your character end the story?
- Do you want a growth arc or a shift arc?
- What can your character learn through the plot of your story?
- How will this knowledge change your character?
Midpoint: Shift from Reaction to Action
After you’ve planned your hook and resolution, you will move on to the midpoint of your story. The critical thing to know about the midpoint is that this is where your character moves from reaction to action. In other words, they start to take matters into their own hands, and they begin to work to resolve their conflict.
And here’s another essential thing to know about the midpoint: it doesn’t have to be in the actual middle of the narrative. Midpoints can happen either very early in the story or very late. Or, if you’re just a stickler for semantics, you can place your midpoint in the middle of the story.
Wells gives an example of a midpoint that comes very early in a story- detective stories.
Remember that the midpoint is when a character moves from reaction to action. Your classic detective story usually starts with a client coming to the main character (an investigator) with a mystery that needs to be solved. The detective moves from reaction to action when they decide to take the case.
- What event will move your character to action?
- What actions might they take at this point?
Plot Turn 1: Inciting incident
Once you’ve mapped out your resolution, hook, and midpoint, you’ll move on to your two plot turns. Start with plot turn one, which is the inciting incident.
I don’t think I’ve covered any story element more than the inciting incident on this blog. Here are two articles I’ve written dedicated to this subject:
What to do with your inciting incident
Inciting Incident Writing Exercise
Peruse these articles to learn what plot turn one is and how to write this portion of your story. But let’s talk a bit about what to do with your story’s first plot turn in the context of the seven-point structure.
The purpose of plot turn one is to move the story from the hook to the midpoint. The main job here is to disrupt the character’s ordinary life.
Give the characters a disruptive event to react to. This point is often where an author introduces the story’s central conflict.
Disruptive events can include things:
- Meeting new people
- Discovering a secret
- Confronting a new idea
- Or your classic Call to Adventure
- How will your character discover their conflict?
- What new characters will your hero meet?
- What hidden knowledge will your character discover?
Plot Turn 2:
This turn takes the reader from the midpoint to the resolution. At this point, the character will resolve to do something. This is a very proactive moment for the character; this is probably the character’s most consequential decision.
This is also when your character obtains the final thing they need to resolve their conflict. Wells calls this last thing, “the power is in you!” meaning the hero has a moment when they realize their inner strength. They also discover how to use that strength towards their ultimate goal. Wells gives a few examples:
- Use the force, Luke Star Wars
- Dorthy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz
Ultimately this is a moment when your hero grasps victory from the jaws of defeat. We’ll talk about when the character faces the jaws of defeat in the next section- Pinches.
- What is the final thing your character needs to overcome their conflict?
- What inner strength “the power is in you!” moment could your character have here?
- How will they obtain this final thing?
Ok, the final two pieces of the puzzle. A pinch is a moment in your story that applies pressure to the character. A pinch will force your character into action. Pinch one is a moment after the call to adventure that ratchets up the story’s excitement. Pinch one comes before the midpoint.
Pinch one is often a point in the story where the villain makes their first appearance. Introducing the villain will demonstrate the stakes of the story. This moment will show the reader who or what your character is up against.
Pinch two comes after the second plot turn. This moment is even worse than pinch one. This is the Jaws of Defeat moment for your character. All seems lost. Here are a few suggestions Wells gives for pinch two:
- The hero’s plan fails
- The hero’s mentor dies
- The hero loses everything
Now you know all the ins and outs of the seven-point plot structure, but there’s still more to do. We need to go beyond just plot structure to refine our story. So, let’s talk about the final touches of Dan Wells’ seven-point design.
Finalizing your Seven Point Story
Dan Wells lists five additional elements beyond the plot to bring your narrative to life. Here are those five elements and a little explanation of each one:
Round characters are just one of four different types of characters. But, let’s describe what a round character is- a multifaceted character with a real personality. Make sure that your hero and supporting cast are believable people, not one-dimensional.
Don’t neglect your setting after all the hard work you put into your plot and characters. The best stories have environments so rich and detailed that they seem like other characters in the story. Think of places like Gotham, Westeros, Hogwarts, or the Star Wars galaxy. These environments are beautifully constructed with so much detail. You can almost consume these stories for the atmosphere alone.
I’m not going to go into a great deal about rich environments. Instead, I will link you to two articles I’ve written that can help with your setting and world-building:
World-Building: The Ten Key Elements
Most stories will have at least one subplot, if not more than one. These subplots can be mapped out with the Seven Point structure like you would plan your main plot. Subplots are categorized by character arcs or sub-genres of your main story.
For instance, Wells’ points out how the film The Matrix has four different plots that interweave.
In The Matrix, there is an action plot for the overall movie, a character plot in which Neo undergoes a positive, or growth, character arc and becomes “the one.” There is also a romance plot between Neo and Trinity, and finally, there is the Cypher betrayal plot.
Each of these four plots hits the seven beats of the Seven Point story structure. If you want to see how I’ve linked a video of Dan Wells’ presentation here.
There is also a table further down (under the “examples” heading that shows all of the subplots mapped out.
The “Ice Monster” Prologue
Hook scenes in most stories are boring because most characters start from a point of weakness. Also, stories usually begin before the conflict is introduced; that doesn’t happen until the inciting incident.
The entire first section of a story is generally reserved for setup. Setup is the author describing who the characters are and their ordinary lives before the conflict smashes that everyday world to pieces.
But who wants to read all that setup without at least the promise of excitement to come?
Nobody, that’s who. So, authors need something to grab the reader’s attention before diving into all that boring stuff. That’s where the “Ice Monster” prologue comes in.
Dan Wells calls this portion of the story the “Ice Monster” prologue as a wink to the opening scene of G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
In Game of Thrones, Martin starts the book with characters fighting a magical ice monster. After encountering the beast, though, there is a lengthy section of set up where there is no magic and no fighting.
So, the Ice Monster prologue is like a promise to the reader- I promise that there is magic and action in this world, but we’ll get to it after I’ve set everything up.
There’s another phrase for this technique that you may be familiar with: “cold open.” A cold open is an action sequence at the start of a movie, or it can be a funny gag that opens a sitcom episode.
The cold open is designed to catch a viewer’s interest before the setup. A classic example that I’ve used before is the opening action sequence of any James Bond movie. The fun part of the movie before Bond sits down for a ten-minute briefing in M’s stuffy, British office.
As Dan Wells puts it:
“Before the heroes succeed at anything important, they should try and fail at least twice… A problem that can be solved on the first try is not big enough for your readers to care about.”Dan Wells
In short, a try-fail cycle ensures that your hero earns their eventual victory (provided you’re not writing a tragedy).
Try-fail cycles accomplish many things in your story:
- They demonstrate consequences
- Sometimes they look like victories (like when a character overcomes one obstacle only to find an even bigger problem emerge out of their win)
- They act as actual failures for your hero adding tension to the plot
So those are the five elements needed to flesh out your story. Now, let’s look at this story structure in practice.
Examples of the Seven Point Story Structure
Time for a few examples of the seven-point story structure in action. To do that, we’ll look at two genres. I’m going to break down a movie from the romance genre first. After that, we’ll have an example from Dan Wells where he shows how you can organize multiple subplots into this structure.
Seven Point Story Structure and romance
For this example I’m using the 1997 romantic tragedy, Titanic.
“Ice Monster” Prologue
A salvage vessel is searching the wreck of the RMS Titanic, looking for a large diamond necklace. Rather than finding the necklace, they find a portrait of a woman wearing the necklace. The sketch is dated April 14, 1912, the day the Titanic sank. The crew brings the woman in the portrait, Rose Dawson Calvert, aboard, and she begins to recount her experience on board the doomed vessel.
Hook- the setup/ exposition
We’re transported through time. It’s 1912, and seventeen-year-old Rose boards the Titanic with her wealthy fiance Cal, and her mother, Ruth. Ruth reminds Rose that her marriage to Cal will make their family financially stable again.
Meanwhile, Jack Dawson, a poor artist, wins a third-class ticket on board the ship.
Keep in mind that Rose’s starting point is as a privileged aristocrat. That should clue you into her end state.
Plot Turn 1- the inciting incident
Rose is distraught over her loveless engagement and decides to kill herself. She climbs over the railing of the ship, determined to jump. Jack finds her and talks her off the ledge. Jack and Rose develop a friendship.
Pinch 1- a moment of pressure for your character
Cal, as well as Ruth, strongly object to Rose’s friendship with Jack. Rose discourages Jack but soon realizes she’s developed feelings for him.
Midpoint- when your character moves from reaction to action
Rose poses for Jack and he sketches her wearing only the diamond necklace. Rose and Jack consummate their relationship. Later, Rose and Jack witness the ship collide with an iceberg.
Pinch 2- your character suffers a major defeat
Rose and Jack rush to warn everyone but are confronted by Cal. Cal plants the diamond necklace on Jack to frame him. Jack is arrested and confined to the lower decks of the now sinking ship.
Plot Turn 2- grasping victory from the jaws of defeat
Rose frees Jack from the lower decks. Cal chases Rose and Jack through a saloon but ultimately gives up. He saves himself by posing as a lost child’s father.
Rose and Jack return to the upper deck, realizing all the lifeboats have departed. Unable to escape the sinking ship, Rose and Jack cling to a wooden buoy in the freezing water.
Resolution- the end state of your story
There’s only enough room on the buoy for one person, so Jack sacrifices himself. Before his death, Rose promises Jack that she will survive. Rose’s end state is as a third-class passenger, left in the water without a lifeboat, and forced to survive on her own.
That’s an example of a romance, but Dan Wells goes even more in-depth than what I’ve done here in his presentation.
Seven-Point Structure in The Matrix
Using The Matrix as an example, Wells breaks down the main plot and all the film’s subplots using his seven-point structure. Below is a table showing Dan Wells’ complete breakdown of the movie The Matrix:
|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 wimpy 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||Orpheus is captured||Oracle tells Neo he’s not the One||Trinity won’t open up, Neo thinks she’s in love with 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 Morpheus and Trinity||Cypher attacks in the real world|
|Resolution||Neo defeats the agents||Neo becomes The One||Trinity falls in love with Neo||Cypher betrays Morpheus and kills the crew|
I usually add a “continued reading” section to the bottom of my articles. Instead of that, I’m just going to link you to a video of Dan Wells’ presentation on this topic. Watch it. He does a lot better job explaining it than I do.
Dan Wells on the Seven-Point Structure:
Other places to follow Dan Wells:
That’s all for the seven-point structure. If you made it to the bottom of this article, why not keep up with what we’re doing?
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2 comments on “A Definitive Guide to the Seven-Point Story Structure”
Great post, John!
Thank you, KM!