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I've been writing my blog for a bit over two years, now, and I've seen the steady trickle of viewers and followers. Some weeks the trickle grows to as much as a minor stream for a day. Over the years I've studied the analytics, and one thing has stood out. Almost every single day a good portion of visitors to this site visit one particular post. Here it is for my Critique Circle friends. Enjoy!
When my daughter and I were writing our first novel, THE LAST PRINCESS, I had already written a novel on my own. I started it in High school and didn’t type “The End” until over 20 years later. 182,000 words later. I learned a great deal about writing in those 20 years – how to write natural dialogue, how to build tension, how to show instead of tell, how to vary sentence structure, how to foreshadow and deliver on a promise, and hundreds of other little things that eventually become second nature to a writer who writes. But one thing, possibly the key thing, I neglected to learn was how to plot a novel.
I realized this long after I had put my first book in the drawer. I knew it was un-marketable, but not precisely why. Other than the length, of course. So when I started on my second novel with my daughter I knew I needed to learn how to structure a plot. I bought several books, but none of them really helped. There was all of this talk about the difference between a plot and a story, and lists of the classic plots, and so forth. None of it stuck.
Then I started listening to Writing Excuses, a weekly podcast hosted by authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler. The podcast referenced Dan Wells’ 7-Point Story Structure on YouTube. Five short ten-minute clips of a single lecture, and I beheld the elusive mystery of Plot!
We were already three or four chapters into THE LAST PRINCESS at this point, having written by the seat of our pants (aka “pantsing”) until we figured out where the characters wanted to go. But we had reached the point where we couldn’t go any further until we had the rest of the book plotted. So overnight I went from a pantser to a plotter and created a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of our book.
Now we are querying THE LAST PRINCESS and we’ve started working on the sequel, THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER. This time we started with an outline. So we revisited Dan Wells and his Magic Story Structure, and I thought I would share it with you. Because I’m nice like that.
Here are the seven plot points, defined. I also include where these points fall in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a common example most of you will be able to see (because most of you have read it):
(1) HOOK – “Establish characters and starting state.”
This fairly self-explanatory; this is the point when your main character or characters and their situation are described. This may or may not be the first chapter. Usually is. [In Harry Potter, this is where we meet Harry and see him living under the stairs.]
(2) PLOT TURN 1 – “Call to action.”
Also known as the “inciting incident.” This is when the primary conflict is revealed: what the hero must do and what is at stake if he/she fails. [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry learns he’s a wizard and goes to Hogwarts.]
(3) PINCH 1 – “Put pressure on characters; force action.”
Sometimes your hero needs a nudge. Characters are often reluctant to undertake what they must do, or are somehow prevented from starting. This is the point when you build the pressure and make it clear the problem isn’t going to go away on its own. This is often a good place to double down on what is at stake if the hero fails, or just demonstrate that the problem is real. [In Harry Potter, this is when the troll attacks and Harry and his companions realize only they can stop it.]
(4) MIDPOINT – “Move from reaction to action.”
This is a key moment in the story – and despite the name, it does not necessarily need to occur in the exact middle of your book. This is the point when your hero stops stalling or overcomes what’s blocking them from acting, and gets busy. [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry learns the Sorcerer’s Stone is at Hogwarts and Volermort is after it. Harry and his companions decide to find the stone themselves to protect it.]
(5) PINCH 2 – “Really lay on the pressure; hero on his/her own.”
Applies pressure to the story and the hero, usually through a great loss. Also known as the Dark Night of the Soul or the Jaws of Defeat. This is often represented by the loss of a mentor. [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry loses his companions on the way to finding the Sorcerer"s Stone and is on his own with the scary bad guy.]
(6) PLOT TURN 2 – “Get the last piece of puzzle.”
This is where the hero finally learns they have the power to solve the problem at hand. [In Harry Potter, this is when the mirror reveals Harry’s motives are pure and gives him the Sorcerer’s Stone.]
(7) RESOLUTION – “Winning!”
Obviously, the resolution of your story. This does not mean your hero succeeds. Many books are about heroes that fail and then exploring the consequences of failure. [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry defeats Voldermort.]
Points 1, 4 & 7 are meant to work together – Hook, Midpoint and Resolution. This is the heart of your story. Knowing your Resolution in advance, you work backwards to your where your story begins (Hook) and the determine the journey (Midpoint). The two Plot Turns (2 & 6) are where your characters are spurred into motion; they carry you from Hook to Midpoint, and Midpoint to Resolution. And the two Pinches (3 & 5) are where you apply pressure to your hero.
This structure will work with virtually any genre or style of book – romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, and so on, and any age group, too (excluding very short children’s books and picture books). An excellent exercise is to take a favorite or popular book and find where these plot points occur in them. Dan Wells does this in his lecture, breaking down Pride and Prejudice, Othello, The Tell-Tale Heart, and others. If you’re especially brave, you can put your own finished books to the test.
With this niftry crib sheet in-hand I was able to plot out THE LAST PRINCESS fairly easily. I defined the action that would represent each of these events in the story, and then filled in the action between, roughly breaking the whole up into chapters. By the time we were finished very little had changed from our initial outline. We did decide to move the death of her mentor after her triumph, because we wanted her motivation to be her own breakthrough of character, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the death of a loved-one. So we replaced Pinch 2 with a different motivation and scene.
Now, we hope we've pulled that same rabbit out the hat again when we plotted THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER. Because, unlike with our first book, I am not comfortable diving in blind this time. We know the characters, now. We know the world and our characters’ relation to it, and we have very specific ideas about what needs to happen in this book. And we're in good company; many writers I have talked to started as Pantsers and turned into Plotters.
I hope you find this information useful.
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Writing the middle grade novel and living to tell about it.