As I said, I am still in the middle of fixing my lack-of-plot, but I recently had a pretty convincing “light bulb turning on” moment. I watched a series of videos, and took copious notes, and, somewhere between listening and writing it all down, a connection was finally made in my head.
For the first time in my life, PLOTTING WITH AN OUTLINE MADE SENSE.
Now, you have to realize, it never had before. Even when I plotted my first novel before I wrote anything, it was slipshod plotting — I shot-gunned out every possible conflict based on the personalities of the different characters and sorted them out into some sort of logical order. (Yeah, I told you it was painful enough I would never do it again — now you know why.)
The thing about the system is it’s not even Dan’s. He lifted it from a Star Trek: The Role Playing Game Administrator’s Guide.
But it’s still really good.
<b>”OK, BUDDY, WHAT IS THIS STRUCTURE YOU’VE BEEN BRAGGING ON ANYWAY?”</b>
Here it is below, but changed a little (I’ve modified his terminology to fit with ther terminology I was trained to use in Lit class — except for the word “pinch” — I really like his use of that word, and I’ll keep it):
1) Setup — introducing Protagonist and, usually, the problem
2) Turning Point 1 — Call to adventure, finding out Protagonist may be special (a jedi, a wizard), or other first steps down the Protagonist’s journey, whatever it is.
3) “Pinch” 1 — Something goes wrong/something bad happens to squeeze the Protagonist, forcing them to change.
4) Midpoint/Commitment of Protagonist — Protagonist finds out the truth about the Antagonist (this could even be nature or self, in other conflict types), swears to overcome Antagonist
5) “Pinch” 2 — Everything goes wrong, defeat looks inevitable
6) Turning Point 2 — Protagonist finds a way to overcome the problem. Sometimes this is ingenuity (MacGyver, Sherlock Holmes), sometimes this is finding the power within (Use the Force, Luke), sometimes this is the “power of true love” (Princess Bride, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), etc.
7) Climax/Resolution — This is not your falling action. This is the end result of the big showdown where the Antagonist is defeated/world is saved (or in a tragedy, where the main character dies — whatever floats your boat). In simplest terms, does your Protagonist win or lose?
NOTE: The first thing you’ll see is I’ve only talked about happy endings, and kind of only about hero’s journey, adventure novels. That’s okay. Dan Wells uses the system to break down Romances and Horror and Tragedy as well, and it can also be applied to Mystery. Just watch his video for more examples (link at end of article).
<b>”BUT I’VE SEEN STUFF LIKE THIS BEOFRE. HOW DOES THIS HELP ME?”</b>
“BAH!” I hear some of you say, this is just a streamlined plot system. It doesn’t help at all! AHH! That’s where you’re wrong.
The genius part of this system is that it’s not just a structure — it gives you an ORDER TO BUILD THINGS IN!!! This was the big jump for me. This, along with all of the examples of different movies and books Dan plotted with it, made the lights come on in my head (note: I’ve changed Dan Wells’ order a little bit, too, because it gave me chicken-and-egg problems; the order below works best for me):
Step 1) Define your Climax
Once you know where you’re heading, it’s sooo much easier to figure out the rest. Does your protag win or lose, is the easy question.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (HPSS): Harry Potter (in the Sorcerer’s Stone) defeats Voldemort.
Star Wars(SW): Luke becomes powerful with the force and blows up the Death Star.
Step 2) Define your Setup
This is usually the opposite of the Climax.
HPSS: Harry Potter is weak and disrespected.
SW: Luke is just a farm boy.
Step 3) Define your Midpont
This is the crux of the story, where the hero accepts his quest or starts to take action, halfway in character development between Setup and Climax. Usually at this point they swear to defeat the badguy or avenge a wrong or something like that.
HPSS: Harry learns the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone and swears to defeat Voldemort.
SW: Luke learns about the Death Star, and swears to help the Rebel Alliance fight the Empire.
Step 4) Define your Turning Point #1
This is where the character is called to heroism/adventure, or first starts the process of change.
HPSS: Harry Potter finds out he is a wizard and goes to Hogwarts
SW: Luke meets Old Ben, learns about his father being a Jedi
Step 5) Define your Pinch #1
The pinch should hurt, it should squeeze your character into action
HPSS: The troll attacks Hogwarts. Without any adults around, Harry and his friends have to grow up and learn to be heroes.
SW: Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by Storm Troopers, there’s nothing left for him. He has to grow up and find his own meaning.
Step 6) Define your Pinch #2
This is the point where “All is lost” in the book (or, in a tragedy, where “Everything’s going to be okay after all!”). Usually this means all friends are eliminated, and the hero is alone.
HPSS: Harry Potter is all alone with the mirror, facing Voldemort, helpless.
SW: No one else has been able to blow up the Death Star, time is running out, only Luke is left, his ship is damaged, and Darth Vader and two other tie fighters are right on his tail.
Step 7) Define you Turning Point #2
This is where the hero snatches victory from the Jaws of defeat! (Usually by finding a new, powerful weapon, “true love”, or a talent within — yes, it’s hokey, and there are better solutions, but it is everywhere)
HPSS: Harry Potter finds the Sorcerer’s Stone because his heart is pure, and he is protected from Voldemort’s touch by the power of his mother’s love.
SW: Han Solo knocks the Tie Fighters off Luke’s tail, and Luke hears Ben say, “Use the force, Luke!” and turns off the targeting computer and destroys the Death Star.
Wow! That’s easy, right? It can’t be that simple! Well — it is. It really is. And that’s why I feel so damned stupid that it took me years to figure it out.
You’ll notice of course that this is a little sketchy — yes it is. This is just the main plot line of the story you’re looking at. You need to add some more plots — one for the villain (so you know what he’s up to), one for any love interest there is, one for any other side plots or sub plots you may be thinking of. I usually do them by major characters.
Once you have all your plots done, you weave them together into something that makes sense. When you’re doing this, remember that you want your climax and your midpoint to have a lot of different plots converging on the same point — this will build emotinoal resonance.
And then you write a synopsis, so you can see if the story holds together in narrative form.
Man! We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? Yes we have. Now go plot something!
(BTW, there’s a lot more to Dan Wells’ system – Action Prologues, Try/Fail cycles, etc. Check out his video here:
Dan Well’s 7-Point Plotting System )