Notes on the 7-Point System

Lots of people are asking about the 7-Point System, especially about variations to it, so I figured a post on the subject was a good idea (also: easier than answering lots of different emails).

Here’s the simple answer to every question people have asked me: yes. Here’s the answer that actually makes sense: story structure systems in general, and this system in particular, don’t force stories to be a certain way, they describe the way stories already are. Take any story you want, study closely how it develops, and you’ll find all seven points, in perfect order. If the story becomes more complex, there might be multiple sets of seven points each (one for each character’s development, or for each subplot, etc.), but the seven point structure will still be there. There might be (in fact there almost certainly will be) scenes and events not included in the seven points, but the seven points will still be there. The seven point system is just a tool for crafting an effective story arc—like any tool, you can adapt it or tweak it or throw it out or use it any way you like.

So, for example, someone asked if you can have extra pinches or plot turns in a story. A plot turn primarily just represents a discovery or a decision, and a pinch is just anything bad that puts pressure on the characters, so yes, you can have as many as you want. They will not be, in my opinion, actual pinches or plot turns in terms of story structure—they won’t represent the same thing for the broader story arc—but you can and should have them, because a story that only has seven scenes or events is probably too short for anything other than a very short story.

Other people have asked if you can use the 7-point system for [insert genre here], and the answer is an unequivocal yes. Like I said, this system basically just describes the pre-existing patterns of storytelling, and can thus be applied to any story you want to tell. Applying it to something you think won’t fit, like a personal narrative or a non-fictional memoir, will actually help a ton because it will give you a strong sense of how to give your elements a sense of progress and an emotionally satisfying arc.

I’ve also had a few questions about series, and how the 7-point system can be applied to them. I’m actuall doing that right now with my Project Z, which is a proposal for a trilogy I intend to start next year. I already knew what my first book would be, but for purposes of the proposal I wanted to figure out the whole series. First I figured out what I wanted the story to be about (always the first step, at least for me), and then I brainstormed cool, exciting resolutions for each book, and then I brainstormed a resolution for the series as a whole. The trilogy will have it’s own 7-point structure, and each book will have it’s own 7-point structure that fits within it, so what I’m really telling is four stories (though the overall story and the third book story will merge together in a lot of ways).

Any more questions on this system? By which I mean, “any more questions on this system that can’t be answered with ‘this is a tool you can use however you want?'”

13 Responses to “Notes on the 7-Point System”

  1. Jason Elliott says:

    This structure is genius! I have an MFA in screenwriting, so to say I’m familiar with the 3 Act Structure is a serious understatement. I use that same structure in my fiction, but this 7-Point system is like the 3 Act Structure on steroids!

    I’m currently using it–thanks to your last couple of posts, not sure how I missed it the first time you talked about it–for each of the three main POV characters’ motivational arc along with the main action and 2 action sub-plots of my epic fantasy. That’s 6 charts for one novel. As I see how the key scenes from each progression will mesh together empowering one another, I’m getting excited! Can’t wait to start writing … but I promised myself NOT to discovery write on this novel.

  2. Will says:

    In writing a story that has multiple 7-point structures for character development and multiple 7 point structures for the various sub plots, how do they interrelate when creating your overall story outline? Is there a method for boiling it all down into a single outline, or is more just winging it?

  3. Erik says:

    Dan,

    For the different genres, I don’t think the question is so much “If” but “How.”

    For example, how would you structure mysteries, both of the classic kind as well as sub-plots involving a question that leads to a suprising yet innevitable revelation or discovery?

    (In other words, how could Lost have been structured?)

  4. Guerry Semones says:

    Will, you may have missed the video of Dan’s presentation at LTUE 2010. He has a link to the video and the powerpoint slides at this post: http://www.fearfulsymmetry.net/?p=405

    In the video, Dan demonstrates multiple 7-point structures from the Matrix and how they inter-relate.

    Basically, he lays the story charts out side by side, and looks for scenes from each arc that might coincide and reinforce each other.

  5. Will says:

    Yeah, I did miss that. That was awesome. Good job Dan, and thank you Guerry.

  6. Jocelyn C. says:

    Will–I just outlined my newest novel using multiple 7 point arcs (one for each major character, a few for important minor characters, and one for the romantic sub-plot). I wrote out each arc on color-coded 3 X 5 note cards, and then arranged them on a big bulletin board to figure out how to intermix them. I’ve only just started to write, but I have high hopes that this system will work well for me. I’m mostly a discovery writer, but this system gives me a bare-bones outline to keep me on track with plenty of room for discovery and adaptation along the way (I can always move/replace some of the notecards if inspiration takes me in a new direction).

  7. Robert says:

    @erik:

    I haven’t seen Lost, so I can’t speak to it. However, mapping a mystery to the 7-Point Structure shouldn’t be too hard.

    I’ll look at every episode of Law and Order, CSI, etc. ever made…

    Hook: a murder is reported to the police (usually a murder, but not always)
    Plot turn 1:
    Pinch 1:
    Midpoint:
    Pinch 2:
    Plot turn 2:
    Resolution: the killer is found

    The midpoint is where the detective(s) move from reaction to action, so the midpoint is probably when the detectives find the crucial clue indicating who the killer is.

    Hook: a murder is reported to the police (usually a murder, but not always)
    Plot turn 1:
    Pinch 1:
    Midpoint: detectives find crucial clue
    Pinch 2:
    Plot turn 2:
    Resolution: the killer is found

    Plot turn 1 and pinch 1 are usually the false leads, while pinch 2 and plot turn 2 are refinements on the actual lead (there’s usually an “almost but not quite right” option).

    So:
    Hook: a murder is reported to the police (usually a murder, but not always)
    Plot turn 1: incorrect suspect 1 is identified and found
    Pinch 1: incorrect suspect 1 is proved to be the wrong suspect (airtight alibi, turns up dead by the same serial killer, etc.)
    Midpoint: detectives find crucial clue
    Pinch 2: incorrect suspect 2, lead to by the evidence in the midpoint, is proved to be the wrong suspect, too
    Plot turn 2: incorrect suspect 2 (usually) blurts out some personal detail pointing the cops at 2a (2’s spouse/business partner/sibling/…)
    Resolution: the killer is found

    Plotting out Lost would, like any long arc, simply have several dozen overlapping structures, most likely:
    * one for the series as a whole
    * one per season (the season arc)
    * one per episode
    * 2-3 sub-arcs per season (fake-out season arcs, or elements of 2-4 possibly-consecutive episodes which could have been a single, weak episode but fit better as part of several stronger episodes)
    * a handful of sub-arcs for the whole series (again, fake-out series arcs, or minor elements that last for 2-5 seasons; usually, no one structure would be strong enough to carry the whole series, and they may not be strong enough for a whole season, but they’re probably larger than a single episode could comfortably contain)

    Anyway, that’s my quick take on the 7-Point Structure for a mystery. Does anyone have recommendations or corrections? I’ll admit to having done it in half an hour or so, mostly while hanging laundry.

  8. Erik says:

    Thanks for that long and well thought out response. That was really kind of you.

    As for Lost, most of us who watched it saw it as a mystery (An “idea” story if you use the MICE quotient OSC uses.) The show apparently saw it more as an “event” story, based on the ending.

    But it included a lot of “mysteries” that everyone was hoping would pay off in cool ways. So I guess I’m asking how you would plot out–as a sub-plot–a big reveal.

    I took a go at it, and this is what I came up with. Let’s say I’ve got a fantasy story where the big reveal is that the source of the power of the enemy ninja is not their tattoos, but the ink the tattoos are made with.

    So I could see the seven point system going something like this:

    Hook: Ninjas attack, and they are mysteriously powerful (Question is raised.)
    Plot turn 1: The ninjas are believed to be using the standard magic system of the world (A simple, obvious answer is posed)
    Pinch 1: A thing that normally thwarts the normal magic system doesn’t work (The simple, obvious answer is proven wrong)
    Midpoint: They figure out it’s the tattoos (They get a revealing yet distracting piece of the puzzle)
    Pinch 2: They realize it can’t be tattos, because recreating the tattos doesn’t work (The distracting element leads them down a dead end)
    Plot turn 2: They discover the ninja magic book is not a book of symbols and tattoos, but a recipie book (The last vital element of the puzzle is discovered)
    Resolution: They figure out it was the ink (Question is answered.)

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this and again for your response.

    If you (or anybody) has thoughts on structuring a big reveal, I’d love to hear it.

  9. admin says:

    You guys are all awesome. These ideas are great, and you obviously know how to structure a good story. I need to get some fresh material before you completely overshadow me.

  10. Robert says:

    Erik, I think you’ve got the structure; it’s just the fine points you’d need to work out now (that is, the skeleton is there, but it needs muscle, tendons, skin, etc.).

    Those fleshy-bits include the “how” of how the story moves from one structural element to the next. For the midpoint, the immediate option is to find/compile a book of tattoos with their supposed abilities (the compilation would likely take months of in-universe work, but might only take a few sentences here and there, spread over several chapters of other action).

    In addition to the book of tattoos, the investigators would likely need to watch the tattooing process to determine if any other rituals/tools are necessary (and the tattooists almost certainly have some rituals: special words, flourishes of the tattoo pen, incense, etc.). It makes sense, though, to hide the true source of the power, so the ink wouldn’t be treated specially, any more than any other element. However, it does need to receive some special attention (“surprising but inevitable”).

    … alternatively, you could have a separate plot about making the ink: a character, who doesn’t interact with either the investigators or the ninja (until, of course, the very end, when they deliver the ink to the ninja), is shown hunting down ingredients, dealing with petty annoyances during rituals, etc. Since there’s already a “normal magic system”, this character could be making a potion for either side. Toss in a few remarks (probably by both sides) to supply problems, and most of the reveal is set up passably well, anyway.

    I think that, as a “reveal” story, the resolution will come about three pages from the end of the book; the investigators discover that the ninjas’ power comes from the ink itself (possibly seizing some in the process), so they quickly scribble a tattoo on themselves to defeat the ninja threat. Or, they file their report, and let someone else deal with the problem now that a solution has been found (this would need to be set up in advance, too, or it’ll seem like a cop-out). An afterword might suffice to explain how the investigators’ bosses stopped the ninja threat now that the source of their power has been identified.

    The short post-reveal is illustrated by CSI, actually; they find that last bit of evidence, finger the killer, usually get a confession of some sort, and often get in a little bit of character development, all in the last five minutes of the show.

    admin: Don’t worry; from where I’m sitting, structure is easy and “generic” ideas like these are tropes/cliches for a reason. Putting them together into a coherent book is the hard part. Then there’s the dialog, and I’m right out (I remember having to write a short story for elementary school; in 5-7 typed pages, I think I had three lines of dialog).

  11. Juliana says:

    Great blog, Dan. I just added it to my Google Reader subscriptions. I’m watching the YouTube videos right now as I’m trying to figure out an outline for a novel. Just wanted to say hi and let you know I’ll be meeting you (hopefully) next week at Writing for Charity. I requested you for my personal critique and am looking forward to it!

  12. Juliana says:

    I just finished watching the YouTube videos. I watched the first half yesterday and swore to give up on my story idea altogether because I couldn’t figure out a good resolution! However, after gritting my teeth and making myself think about it again today (and watching the last of the videos) I am feeling more optimistic. I was reinvigorated at the point when you talked about how to blend multiple storylines together to create a cohesive story. That helped me bring it all together. Thanks!

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