The workshops at the Writing Excuses Retreat were all fascinating and educational, but there was one that truly came across like drinking from a firehose: Dan Wells’ talk on “Deconstructing Story Structure.” In it he talked about the Hollywood Formula, and the Seven-Point Story Structure. The former was harder to get my head around, so it may take a while for me to figure out what to say about it. This is a brief summary of the latter, including links to resources I found on the Web.
The seven-point structure is, among other things, a way of organizing your ideas and starting a mini-outline of your plot. It can be used by outliners, but pantsers can analyze what they’ve written to find out if the structure suggests something that might be missing. The startling (to me at least) idea is that you start with #7, the resolution of the story: what happens at the very end. You then set up #1, the hook: the beginning, where the protagonist and the world are in pretty much the opposite state to the end. There’s a midpoint (#4) where the protagonist moves from reacting to events to taking some initiative, two plot turns (#2 and #6), and two “pinches (#3 and #5) that apply pressure to the protagonist.
You’re going to need examples to understand what’s going on, and the two best capsule descriptions I’ve found give some: Dan Wells’ blog entry from October 6, 2009, and the Writing Excuses podcast of Oct 7, 2012, almost exactly three years later. I guess there’s something about the first week of October – and, oh, look, here it is, the same week another three years later. Dan made a series of five 10-minute YouTube videos. I also found a couple of bloggers who gave interesting summaries.
Dan gave several caveats: both these structures (7-point and Hollywood) are tools that provide shape to a story, not ends in themselves. They’re not just a bunch of events; they’re a structure that carries the reader from the beginning to a satisfying end. They can be used to analyze existing stories as well as plan new ones, and they’re just the skeleton of a story that has to be augmented with much more, such as subplots and try-fail cycles.
I’ve seen other situations where working backwards is the right thing to do. In computing science there’s a discipline called “proofs of program correctness” where you start with a description of the state at the end of a computer program, and work backwards through each statement to show mathematically that the program establishes the end state correctly if started in a particular initial state.
Dan credits for idea to a role-playing game supplement: the Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator's Guide (available from amazon.com and amazon.ca and likely other online booksellers). Unfortunately for the originators, it’s pretty clear that by this point the Web considers Dan to be the expert on the subject, or at least the chief evangelist.