As writers, we tend to think of ourselves as creative beings. We often strive for originality and authenticity in all things. Because of that, we can tend to shy away from some writing methods and techniques that follow a prescribed formula or strict structure.
Then again, a sonnet is a pretty strict format, and nobody would ever accuse Shakespeare of being less creatively gifted because of using it. Haiku and other poetic forms are highly structured, but allow for an infinite variety of creative interpretations.
With my steampunk fairy tales, I’m using Dan Well’s 7 Point Story Structure. If you want to hear more about it from him, you can watch his series of YouTube videos (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5). If you prefer audio, you can hear him talk about it on Writing Excuses, an excellent 15 minute weekly writing tips podcast: Writing Excuses Season 7, Episode 41.
In a nutshell, the 7 point story structure is:
- The Hook – Introduces the protagonist and sets up his/her initial state.
- Plot Turn – Where something happens that changes the course of the protagonist’s life/journey/present situation.
- Pinch – Something happens that puts pressure on the protagonist, forcing him/her to rise to the challenge, draw on previously-unknown strength, grow in some way.
- Midpoint – Where the protagonist shifts gears and becomes proactive, rather than reactive.
- Pinch – More pressure. Allies are lost, mentors die, and all seems lost.
- Plot Turn – The protagonist acquires the critical resource (information, weapon, etc.) to solve the problem.
- Resolution – Victory or defeat. The protagonist and his/her situation has fundamentally changed.
If it sounds formulaic, it is. It’s a structure, or scaffolding on which you can build a variety of different kinds of tales, from an epic fantasy to a romance novel to a horror story. If you don’t like this particular scaffolding, there are a lot of others you could investigate. Robert McKee’s Story Conference, and the associated books and resources, are aimed at screenwriters.
Plotting a story is really a series of decisions or choices. Who is your protagonist? Where does she start out? Where will she be at the end of the story? What is the conflict? What are the characters’ motivations?
A structure like this gives you a framework for asking and answering the major questions you’ll need to get from the beginning of the story to the end. Once those decisions are made, you have the basic plot outline and can start drafting with confidence. That isn’t to say that you won’t change your mind in the middle of writing. You very well might. But if that happens, you can go back and revise your outline, make any tweaks you need to ensure you still have a compelling core story, and return to your draft with a map that still gets you to your destination: a finished story.