Structuring a story – seven point structure in practice

Posted: October 29, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

3261773180_27ccde179c_zYou can take the teacher out of the classroom but you can never entirely take the classroom out of the teacher. Hence the fact that Laura sometimes tells me off for using my ‘teacher voice’ with her, and that when I see people learning I want to build on it. So given several positive responses to my previous post on planning a novel, I thought I might spend a bit more time looking at how I use seven point story structure.

To share an example of how this worked for me, I’m going to talk about ‘A Flash of Power‘, a steampunk flash fiction story I published here a few weeks ago. So you can see how I planned it, and how that worked out in the end.

Think short

Unlike planning a novel, for a short story I seldom have more than one plot strand. That’s particularly true for flash fiction – seven story beats in less than a thousand words is quite enough. It also means that those beats aren’t such big shifts as in a full novel, and tend to be more immediately connected.

Step 1: a beginning and an end

Before planning the story I brainstormed a whole bunch of ideas then thinned them out using 100:10:1. I didn’t actually come up with a hundred ideas, but I did the fundamental part of brainstorming lots of ideas, developing a few and then picking one. For ‘A Flash of Power’ that was taking Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the steampunk heroes of a couple of stories in Riding the Mainspring, and giving them the challenge of stopping  a runaway moving factory.

That gave me an obvious end point for my story’s resolution:

  • They stop the machine.
    TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

The second part means there’s some some small slither of character development in what’s otherwise a slightly daft adventure story – mad inventor Blaze-Simms recognises the need for some small limit on what he does.

Seven point structure suggests starting at the opposite point from where you’re going to end, so that gave me my hook to introduce the story with:

  • On moving factory TBS built – lightning-powered, combined with lightning generator.
    DD questioning the logic of the factory, as it’s now out of control.

So the factory’s out of control, and Blaze-Simms is being challenged on the wisdom of his creation but hasn’t listened yet.

Now to work out how they get from hook to resolution.

Step 2: twists and turns

The mid-point is when the characters make a transition towards pro-actively tackling their situation, and that propels them from the hook to the resolution. In this story the characters are trying to stop the factory from the start – again, a flash length story didn’t leave me time for any pre-amble and I wanted to start in media res. So that transition needed to be them taking control, and that meant giving them a plan to stop the factory, making my mid-point:

  • TBS says they can earth the factory.
    DD accepts that as the plan.

Now I needed turn one, the event after the hook that would normally introduce the conflict and which sets them on the path of reactively trying to solve the problem. With the factory already out of control, the conflict came from showing why it was dangerous:

  • It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

Oh no, disaster! The great big factory is going to crush the little people! Quick, heroes to the rescue!

I also needed turn 2, the event between the midpoint and the resolution, where the heroes grasp victory from the jaws of defeat and find the final thing they need to succeed. Here it is:

  • TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

Great. They have a plan and the tools to carry it out, getting them to the end. But everything’s going a bit too smoothly. So…

Step 3: Making things awkward

If your protagonists have everything go their way then the story’s boring. Things need to go wrong. So between turn one and the midpoint came pinch one, piling on pressure for the characters. In this story I didn’t want to add an extra villain or major new complication, so the setback came from the failure of the characters’ own idea to solve the problem:

  • DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

They’ve pulled the plug but the factory keeps going, leading to the midpoint and coming up with a proper plan. But after that comes pinch two, in which even more pressure is applied and they look failure in the eye:

  • DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

Oh no! Our hero is hurtling, however briefly, towards his doom.

Step 4: Once more, this time in order

Put all of that together and you have the plan I used to write ‘A Flash of Power’:

On moving factory – lightning-powered, combined w lightning generator.
DD questioning the logic, as factory’s now out of control.

It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

TBS says they can earth it.
DD accepts that as the plan.

DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

They stop the machine.
TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

And you can compare that with the story I actually wrote here.

Let me know if you’re finding any of this useful. Sometime soon I’ll probably talk about what comes before all of this – some of how I approach developing the core idea of a story. And as I put some of it into practice over NaNoWriMo I’ll probably discuss other writing techniques I use, partly because of my inner teacher, but mostly because November looks crazy busy and I won’t have time for blog ideas that aren’t just spewing out what’s on my brain that day.

If you’re also doing NaNoWriMo then come buddy up with me on the site – I’m there as gibbondemon, just like my Twitter tag – and if you enjoy ‘A Flash of Power’ then you can read more adventures from Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms in Riding the Mainspringavailable for the Kindle through Amazon and on other formats via Smashwords.

Happy plotting!


Picture by Ben Tesch via Flickr Creative Commons.

  1. Lynda says:

    Following your post the other day I sat down and tried to plot out a novel I’ve had bouncing around my head since I was 13 (in what is probably my most spectacular case of procrastination, there are 4 fragments of drafts showcasing the dramatic change in my ability to write over 15 years!). It’s a challenge since I have it plotted basically as a chronology in the lead character’s life, but I’ve had some nice thoughts about how the different plots work which is nice. The down side is I just had a flash of insight, only to realise that said insight basically means deleting one of my favourite bits *which is actually written now* and having to do something compeltely different. This is bloody annoying.

    Is there a better way to deal with this than to feel annoyed at yourself and the gods of good-fiction?! 😉

    • The better way is to view that writing as excellent practice, file it away with other for-now-abandoned things, and know that you can always reuse it for another project later. You probably won’t, because by the time you get to that later project you’ll be a better writer, but it means you never have to completely abandon something you’re attached to.

      And well done on sitting down and getting that plotting done. I actually think that there’s a lot of commitment involved in turning vague dreams of a story into a proper plan, so much respect for doing it.

  2. Sue Archer says:

    Thanks for the example of how to apply this to a short story, Andrew. You see a lot of advice on novels, but not as much on the shorter works. I’m curious – have you run across any good resources for short story writing specifically? I’m on a kick lately where I am reading through a lot of writing resources (like Story Engineering, which I reviewed last week – I think you mentioned having read that one?), and it’s always good to hear about more food for thought. Learning is such an organic process!

    • I haven’t read Story Engineering but after reading your review I think I might give it a go. Every new perspective gives you some new tools to work with.

      I don’t think I’ve ever read any books that were specifically targeted at short stories. There might be a couple of episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast, an I’ll always recommend Writing Excuses as a great source of advice. I’ll pop a couple of other recommendations in the comments on your review in case they’re useful for your readers too.

      • Sue Archer says:

        If you do read it, Andrew, I’d be interested to hear what you think of it. I checked out the Writing Excuses site, and I’m following it now. Who could resist a place where one of the contributors is Brandon Sanderson? It looks like it’s chock full of great tips. Thanks for the lead! And thanks also for popping by with further recommendations, I’m pleased to see what great conversations are happening over this one. 🙂

        • The sheer collection of talent on Writing Excuses makes it pretty impressive. While Sanderson’s the biggest name, I find that Mary Robinette Kowal often comes out with the best insights, and I’ve bought a couple of her novels largely on that basis. I figure that if they’re giving good advice it’s worth reading what it leads to in practice!

  3. […] I use his seven point story structure for […]

  4. […] has a lot in common with the seven point story structure favoured by Dan Wells, and which I use for almost all my stories. You don’t really start in the middle, you start by knowing where you’re going from and […]

  5. […] so my talk will be on what my experiences there taught me as a writer. The workshop is on using seven point story structure to develop a plot, because this struck me as the most practical thing I could […]

  6. […] elements of this template from all over the place, but most importantly from Dan Wells’s seven point story structure. When I’m writing a short story I often just use this template, alongside a character […]

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