Writers are roughly sorted into pantsers and plotters. Pantsers, literally, fly by the seat of their pants and make their stories up as they go. I’ve tried my hand at pantsing, mostly because I thought I was enough of a genius to not need any kind of roadmap and would still end up where I wanted to go. Yeah. You guessed it. Didn’t go so well. That is not to say that pansting can’t work. It apparently does for a lot of people. But I am not one of them.
After I realised that, I started plotting and outlining. A lot. Which made me realise another thing: planning my novel became a tool to keep me from actually writing it. It’s the ideal method to avoid this fear inducing process of doing the real work. Because it doesn’t matter if your outline is bad. It’s just an outline, right? No one cares.
Plotting is great. But if you want to be a writer, you need to write stories. Not only fragments and character sheets and histories and legends of the world your story is set in.
I want to be a writer. Hence, I have to write. But plotting is important. This calls for a compromise, and it’s no accident that my four month plan includes a clearly defined planning stage. I’ve given myself a deadline and I know exactly on which day I’ll sit down and start writing. I’d advise anyone to do the same. Because setting a deadline doesn’t mean you are not allowed to plot or plan anything anymore after that. It only means that, at a fixed point, you’ve finally got to sit your bum down and get to your story.
I’ve tried various methods of plotting, most notably the “I’ll just chronologically think through it scene by scene and write it down” version (that one probably has a name, but I don’t know it, hands up and comment if you do) and the snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson. The first one bored me to death. The second one is great but doesn’t correspond too well to the way my creative mind works.
This is something to keep in mind: you don’t “fail” at a certain type of plotting. If it doesn’t work out, it might just not be for you. Every brain is different. Every creative process is, to a certain extend, unique. Trying different methods is an excellent tool to hone your skills, to think about your ideas from different angles but your mastery of 20 different plotting techniques says nothing about your ability as a writer.
While I personally would advise anyone to go into any longer (and actually, even shorter) writing endeavour with some kind of outline, plan, or at least clear idea of where it is supposed to end, it’s up to you to find your own method.
Which is where I finally get to where I was going: The 7 point system. It’s been developed by author Dan Wells. It’s a very straightforward, very handy tool to structure your plot and encourages you to ask a bunch of the right questions before writing yourself into a frenzy. I’ve never used it before but I can already see it’s benefits in my current plot work.
The method operates on the premise that, in one way or another, you can break down any given plot into the things that happen within and between seven crucial moments:
- Plot Turn 1
- Pinch 1
- Pinch 2
- Plot Turn 2
There is also a particular way to work through those points when setting up your novel. The probably most surpising one: Start at the End. Know where you are going. Which, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been so surprising to me, because when you move in real life, you usually do that with a certain destination or outcome in mind. The same applies in writing. Your chances to set up a coherent plot and thus, story, are much higher if you know where you want it to go from the beginning.
So let’s sort through those seven points, put them into the order you should approach them in and go a bit more into detail about what they mean. (Disclaimer: this, as everything, is not set in stone. Of course you can also try to set them up chronological, then go back and forth and adjust etc. Do what works for you. However, Dan’s proposed order makes a lot of sense from a story telling perspective because it understands and represents the push and pull that moves any story along).
Resolution: Know your end to know your beginning. Almost all fascinating stories takes a character or situation from one end of a spectrum to another. Character is weak at the beginning? Set him up strong at the end and have him work for it throug the narrative. You want peace and harmony in your fictional world at the end? Make sure it doesn’t only have to deal with little squirmishes at the beginning. Plunge it into a war. Stories are brought to live by tension.(Note: Tension does not solely depend on the scale of your events, it depends on the stakes and on the amount of change, hard decision making and sacrifice that is necessary to get from where you are to where you want to be.)
Hook: As mentioned before, one convenient (yet very functional) way to do that is to set the hook up as the opposite of your resolution.
Midpoint: Characterised by the transition from reaction to action, that sets into motion the transition from the beginning state in the hook to the desired outcome in the reslution. Someone determines to do something via a concious decision. I put emphasize on concious because that is what gives your character agenda. If they are only pulled along by the events, they become a whole lot less interesting.
Plot turn 1: Introduction of conflict. It’s the path the story takes to reach the midpoint, described by Wells as “call to adventure” or “confrontation with new ideas”. It is something, that changes the world of the protagonist and spurrs them into action. To quote Dan: “Farm boy, come rescure the princess!”
Plot turn 2: Setting up the path from mid point to resolution. After the decision to do something has been made, plot turn 2 now provides the thing that is needed to see it through. A skill is learned, an object found, insecurities are overcome. Often, it happens in the form of what Wells calls “grasping the victory from the jaws of defeat”. More on that in a second.
This section comes with a sign of warning from me personally: This is usually the point where the infamous deus ex machina slips in. The jaws of defeat are so tight that none of the actual characters could ever dream to grasp anything from them. Suddenly, a wildly enigmatic person/ highly convenient object appears and helps them out because the author wants it so. Do not do that. If you find that you’ve put your characters into a situation that will prevent them from reaching your envisioned resolution, go back. Give them better suited skills (Note: not MORE. There is only so much skill a believable character can have.) Change the challenge. Introduce another character earlier. Change your resolution. But don’t be lazy and just have someone magically conjure an escape out of thin air. The readers want to root for your character and they want them to win but they sure love to see them suffer in the process.
Pinch 1: This is where you apply pressure to your character and force them into action. Traditionally, it’s also the point at which to introduce the villain. While that works quite well, you by no means have to do it here. Do what is best for your particular story.
Pinch 2: Apply more pressure. Your story has progressed, your characters have grown and they are well on their way to see their goals through. Make it hard. Make the situation seem almost hopeless. This is where you create the aforementioned jaws of defeat (and yes. You can totally cue the Jaws theme in your head when doing so.) I’m quoting Wells for a last time: Make sure it’s BAD.
A few pointers at the end: This system is supposed to be guiding you through the buildup of your plot and thus the tension in your story. They are NOT a scene plan. Deciding on having a protagonist that is limited skillwise at the beginning doesn’t mean that the first scene needs to wax on poetically about how poor and weak your farmboy is. It merely serves as a reminder that while you write an engaging scene to open up with and draw the reader in, you know what your protagonist is like right now and set him up accordingly.
This is a guide to check whether the stakes are constantly getting higher, whether you challenge your characters enough to grow through the progression of the narrative and whether you are able to keep your story from flatlining at any point. It also helps to logically tie the different parts of your plot into each other. But you need to put some flesh to the bones. The set up of the seven points does not yet make for a good story. It also needs well rounded characters, a solid and entertainig setting as well as sub plots.
One thing that Dan Wells also mentions and is worth repeating is the importance of try-fail-cycles. Ever tried out something you’ve never done before or had to find your way out of an icky, sticky situation? 9 times out of 10 you’ve fallen flat on your face the first time. So should your characters. Have them fail at least twice before actually solving the mess they got into. It doesn’t always have to be on an epic scale but have things fall through. It makes the victory all the sweeter. And more believable, too.
The 7 point method can be applied to character arcs, main story line and sub plots. Weave them together and you have yourself a rich and enticing story!
I’ve so far been plotting in Scrivener, but since my basic plot has now been finished, I’ll transfer that into an excel sheet, just to have all 7 point plot lines visually next to each other (and no, my characters have no names yet. I’m waiting to learn more about their personalities before settling on names. Some of the place holders might be misleading, so take them with a grain of salt.)
You can find Dan Wells explaining the whole system himself in a very entertaining talk here on youtube.