Seven-Point Plot Structure

Story Structure You Should Know

Architectural hallway

I always view the seven-point plot as something that rides along inside of most of the other story structures that you already know. This is just going to be an overview of the seven-point plot structure. If you’d like to go into it in a lot more detail, you can pick up Business for Breakfast Volume 3: The Professional Storyteller.

I learned about the seven-point plot structure from Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. There are other forms of it, but I honestly find this one the most useful when it comes to writing, and applying it to my writing.

Amazingly enough, there are seven parts to this structure.

1. A character

2. In a setting

3. With a problem

4. Trying

5. Failing

6. Climax

7. Denouement

One of the things I like about this structure is that it works both at a small scale as well as on a larger one, by which I mean that this works for short fiction as well as for huge arcing novels and novel series.

You start with a character. Because honestly, that’s where stories start. That’s what readers remember and want to interact with. Characters. Beings who are interesting. Make sure that both your main character and your villain are equally as interesting. And that every side character is the hero/heroine of their story.

In a setting. This is honestly where a lot of beginning writers fall down. They come up with these great characters who have all these likes, dislikes, dreams, and fears. They know their character’s preferences, what brand of soy milk they prefer in their latte.

And yet, they place those colorful, vibrant, alive people in the equivalent of a white room. Or worse, a genericroom.

Who cares if the room has three chairs and a sofa? The setting needs to be as interesting as your characters.

One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that all setting description comes from your character’s voice.

Think about it. Generally speaking, everything that ever gets described in your book is always from the point of view of one character or another. (If you’re writing from an omniscient POV and doing it well, then you’re far more advanced than me.)

Would your main character describe the room they’re stepping into so blandly? Or would they look at the puke green sofa and decide not to sit there because they’re afraid something might rub off on their new jeans? That while the chairs looked just as uncomfortable, they took the hardback one anyway, instantly regretting their choice as the seat gave more than they were expecting, and now they’re afraid they’ll fall through?

Setting is where it’s at, particularly if you’re writing genre fiction that isn’t set in the mundane world. Remember that. If readers leave your stories early, it might be because while you had great characters and problems, the setting was missing.

The Problem. Yup, there needs to be a problem, generally on the first page. If you’re really good, you can usually give some hint of a problem in the first five hundred words.

If you’re exceptionally good, you might be able to get it in during the first two hundred and fifty words. But that takes a lot of skill. Instead, you need to focus on setting before the problem.

The first problem that a character faces does not have to be the Big Bad. It can be as small as trying to light a cigarette in the wind outside of the noisy bar, or the annoyance of a stone in their shoe.

The problems generally build from there, until they’re facing down a demon of the night or a wild gunman on a killing spree.

There has to be a problem, even if it’s an internal fight against agoraphobia. Make it real, and make the struggle real.

Try. When faced with a problem, your protagonist must try something. Step around the side of the building to get out of the wind and light that goddamned cigarette. Stop by the side of the road where there’s a convenient tree to lean against to remove that stone from their shoe. They need to try to resolve this issue, not run away from it, not be passive about it, letting other people solve their problem.

Fail. And they will fail. That’s part of what makes a story interesting. If a character tries something and automatically succeeds, well, where’s the fun in that? All the tension has just dribbled out of the story. It becomes a “Mary Sue” or “Mary Stu” story of the perfect person in their perfect world who can do anything!

Ho-hum.

Instead, you have a flawed being, someone who is much more real, who your audience can relate to.

Who tries to do this or that, and fails. Even if it means they can’t get their damned lighter working and they have to go around the corner of the building, stepping into the dark alley behind it.

Of course, there are times when a character tries something and they succeed. Like someone in the shadows reaches out with a lighter, so they finally manage to get their damned cigarette lit. Only to finally get a good look at the “good Samaritan” and realize that it’s the ghost of their partner, dead these long eighteen months.

You can keep repeating the try-fail loop for a long time, all the way through your story. How many try-fail loops you have may dictate how long your story is. A short story may only have three. A novel may have hundreds.

Climax. All these try-fail loops finally come to a culmination, that great battle between the protagonist and the villain. All along, the protagonist has been trying and failing and scraping along and building tension. The villain has been trying and succeeding, throwing wrenches into whatever works the hero has been creating. Until finally, they confront each other, each drawing from previously untapped depths to finally resolve their issues. The hero needs to go all-in at this point, and they need to solve their own problem. But finally, there is victory.

Denouement. This is the return to normalcy, where we wind down the story and basically tell the audience that it’s time to go home. Order has been restored, triumphing over chaos. The mystery has been solved, or at the very least, resolved. Some sort of justice had been served. We can all take a break, a breather, until the next big battle.

You may think that I’ve just described the arc of a story, whether big or small. And I have.

However, one of the neat, nifty things about the seven-point plot structure is that you will use it again and again in whatever you’re writing.

Every chapter should start with a character, in a setting, with a problem. This is the way you keep your readers engaged.

Not only that, but every scene should also start with a character, in a setting, with a problem.

Think of a scene break or the end of a chapter as the time when your reader gets to take a deep breath. They may start to surface out of your book.

Then you hook them again, drawing them in hard and deep, by giving them a character, grounding them in setting, then making it important with a problem, either big or small.

This is when you get readers writing reviews, “complaining” that they had to stay up until 2 AM to finish the book. “Just one more chapter…”

When you learn the seven-point plot structure, you’ll start seeing it pop up everywhere, even in commercials. It’s a powerful tool for your toolbox.

I regularly write about my crazy life on my blog: www.leahcutter.com/blog

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Leah Cutter sold her first short story back in 1997, and continues to write and sell both her fiction and non-fiction. She supports herself with her writing.

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