One of my favorite things about being a writer is that my “training” never stops. There will always be conferences, workshops, new (or old) books on craft and technique to discover. When your goal is to be a professional author, the learning never ends.
With writing there is always some new technique to learn or style to experiment with. Since I am back in the querying trenches awaiting responses for my Bronte novel, I’ve decided to try improving my short story writing skills once again.
A fellow writer friend recommended Dan Wells’s Seven-Point System (a variation on plot structure) and credited her recent publishing success to her adherence to this system. Since I am hopelessly bad at writing short stories, I decided to look into it. You can watch a presentation Dan Wells did on his Seven-Point System HERE on YouTube!
Wells’s Seven-Point System breaks the structure of a novel/story/script down into seven parts:
- Plot Turn 1
- Pinch 1
- Pinch 2
- Plot Turn 2
If you are a Pantser/Discovery Writer, Wells recommends using this structure like a check list during the revision process, once you have a first draft. If you are a Plotter/Outline Writer, he recommends using the seven-point system to outline your story/novel, starting with your resolution and working backwards to fill in the other events of the story.
As a genre writer, I’m a disciple of Christopher Vogler’s “The Hero’s Journey” story structure (Check out my review of Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey HERE). However, I have found that the stages of the The Hero’s Journey (there are 12), are better suited for longer narrative forms (like novels, series, movies) where the author has time to explore and develop each of those stages. And not all characters and plots lend themselves to Vogler’s mythic archetypes (the mentor, the trickster, etc.) or epic story structure.
What I like about Wells’s Seven-Point System is that it allows for the plot points in a story to be subtler, quieter moments. This works better for short stories where there simply isn’t ROOM to depict epic space battles or sweeping romances.
In order to study this seven-point system in action, I dissected a few successful short stories. [Beware of Spoilers!]
- Hook: Somewhere in the desert the illusive jackalope wives dance beneath the half moon, tempting mortal men to try and capture them. (at 425 words)
- Plot Turn 1: Grandma Harken’s grandson wants to catch a jackalope wife. One night during the dance of the jackalope wives, he steals the jackalope wife’s skin and tries to burn it. (at 972 words)
- Pinch 1: But he cannot burn the skin. He pulls her skin from the fire half-burned and when she puts it on she becomes stuck between her human and jackalope form. (at 1,462 words)
- Midpoint: The grandson brings the jackalope wife to Grandma Harken’s. She decides to help the jackalope wife. (at 2,249 words)
- Pinch 2: But the jackalope wife is miserable and lonely so Grandma Harken takes her into the desert seeking help from the supernatural forces. (at 2,786 words)
- Plot Turn 2: One of the Patterned People uses his power to transform the jackalope wife into a human. The Father of Rabbits produces Grandma Harken’s old rabbit skin (she was once a jackalope wife) and returns it to her. (at 3,872 words)
- Resolution: Grandma Harken gives her rabbit skin to the jackalope wife so that she can return to the dance, and Grandma Harken chooses to remain human with her family. (at 4,656 words)
This story is so much more than this skeletal breakdown, and I highly recommend you read it while it is still available on Apex Magazine’s website. But this shows that the seven-point system helps raise the stakes and maintain the pacing in a short story. Notice that the midpoint event happens at almost the exact middle of the story. The other major points happen between 500-1,000 words from each other, keeping the plot (and word count) tight!
Let’s take a look at another story, this one written by a fellow Stonecoast alumna, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam.
Story #2: “The Girl with the Golden Hair” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (4,590 words)
- Hook: In the city of Mu, Oovis is born with hair of gold and everyone expects her to achieve great things. However, the Queen of Mu is determined that Oovis will not become a heroine. (at 243 words)
- Plot Turn 1: As Oovis grows into adolescence, it turns out that The Girl with the Golden Hair is not so extraordinary after all. The banyo trees mock her as a disappointment, but the silent centaur believes Oovis will still do something great. (at 1,442 words)
- Pinch 1: Fed up with being a disappointment and disillusioned with her failure, Oovis scoffs the magic in her city and breaks several laws. (at 1,786 words)
- Midpoint: Oovis is brought before the Queen for lawbreaking; the Queen agrees to waive her punishment if Oovis will travel to the land of the mountains and bring back the root of immortality for the Queen. ( at 2,431 words)
- Pinch 2: Oovis expects the journey to be dangerous—no one else has ever returned. She and the centaur reach the mountains, but after tasting the root, they become addicted and cannot stir themselves to leave the mountain land and return to Mu. (at 3,107 words)
- Plot Turn 2: After discovering that the root will eventually kill them, the centaur convinces Oovis to return to Mu. The city is abandoned, except for the Queen. The Queen begs Oovis to give her the root so that she may live forever in her abandoned city. (at 3,927 words)
- Resolution: But Oovis throws the roots in the river to save the Queen. After finding his voice in the abandoned castle, the centaur can speak again and he and Oovis leave the wreckage of Mu to accomplish more great deeds. (at 4,428 words)
Again, the major points are fairly evenly spaced. This means that Stufflebeam does not let the reader get bogged down in pages of info-dumping or exposition. There is just the right amount of description woven in among the story’s key elements. (Check out the full story—and listen to the podcast–on Beneath Ceaseless Skies!)
In each of these stories, there is a conflict present in the initial hook. The story’s resolution is directly tied to the conflict presented in the hook:
- Two jackalope wives choose very different paths; one returns to the dance having escaped her mortal husband, and the other chooses to remain a human.
- Oovis desires to fulfill her destiny of achieving something great, and when she accomplishes that great thing, she realizes that she isn’t satisfied with simply doing one great thing—so she sets out to spend her life achieving greatness.
In both stories, the midpoint (occurring at almost the exact center of the story/word count) is where the main character makes a choice that will either help to resolve the conflict presented in the hook, or lead to some kind of failure and/or transformation. If a character is emotionally/mentally/physically unchanged by the events of the story, then the story’s conflict is not significant enough. As a writer, one must keep in mind that if the character is not compelled to change in some way, then what will compel the reader to keep reading?
I learned a lot from this exercise and I hope you will, too. Wells’ Seven-Point System can be used for almost any genre of story or storytelling format.
My next goal is to take a look at some of my own short stories that have not been successful and apply the Seven-Point System before revising.
Have you found a short story structure that works well for you? If so, leave a comment below!