I’ve been plowing the vast planes of the writing advice world for a fertile plot structure that my WIP can grow on. After much studying and many crumpled outline experiments, I finally patched together a structure that fits. I’ll relay the distilled version in a moment. But first I must give the due credit to Chuck Wendig and his punchy advice; a very interesting lecture by Dan Wells; and great books such as Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland, and Advanced Plotting by Chris Eboch. Go grab these books, support the good stuff, feed the writers!
Ready? Let’s turn on the plotting machine.
The major points of a solid plot can be structured as follows: (1) Inciting Incident, (2) Plot Turn 1, (3) Pinch, (4) Midpoint, (5) Crisis, (6) Plot Turn 2, and the (7) Climax.
Of course there’s an (0) Intro and a (8) Denouement to these, but they’re more or less optional in my opinion, and don’t carry much meat. They’re more like sown-on appendages to an otherwise fully functional body. Or at least they should be. Every complex, modern (or genre-) story should be pretty stable with the following structure:
1. The Inciting Incident
This is the hook that pierces the reader’s lip and drags him head-first into your story. It’s not the catchy first sentence (even though having one is a good start), and it’s not the masterful introduction of the dazzling protagonist. The inciting incident is that incredible, unexpected and utterly bewildering thing that happens to your protagonist and forever changes her life. This event sets off a chain reaction, and your protagonist must not be able to return to her previous life without significant loss.
Maybe she moves to different place, maybe zombies eat her parents’ brains, or she falls down the rabbit hole and ends up in a parallel universe where the publishing industry is run by sparkling werewolves and the only coffee available in a hundred-miles radius is decaf. Whatever it is, the inciting incident should knock the reader out of his socks and turn the protagonist’s world upside down. It should create immediate conflict, preferable interior as well as exterior conflict, and spring a geyser of questions the reader must desperately need to have answered in order to make sense of the world again.
2. Plot Turn 1
Swallow your gum and hold on to your garter belts, because now the story begins in earnest. After the inciting incident and the subsequent realization that We’re not in Kansas anymore!, the protagonist must step into action. The new situation absolutely demands to be dealt with, the zombies have tasted the sweetness of skull-marrow and are drooling in the protagoist’s footsteps, and the South American Coffee Cartel has decided to switch to the flower industry. All will be lost if she doesn’t do something about it. She must step up, or get beaten off the stage with the shredded remains of your book.
If you’re a raving, screaming, panty-throwing fan of Aristotle, think of Plot Turn 1 as the transition point between the first and second act, as a definite point of no return in your story. It’s where the snowball starts rolling down the mountain.
3. The Pinch
Here’s where your snowball reaches a fork in the slope (don’t ask): on the left you have your protagonist making things worse for herself with every attempt to deal with the mess she’s in, while on the right you have the antagonist littering her bibliography with one star reviews, and posting snippets of her teenage diary on Twitter. No matter which way she turns, your protagonist is heading for disaster.
The Pinch is a single event or a series of events which drive the protagonist toward impending failure.
4. The Midpoint
Many writers complain that middles are the sagging, pathetic depressions all stories unavoidably fall into. We hate writing middles. Hate them! But there’s a simple way to make your story’s middle rise to its full potential–you must give it a central part in your plot, by having your protagonist reach a core understanding of his conflict. Sorry for the puns.
The most useful way to see the midpoint, in my opinion, is as your story’s halftime. The Midpoint is where the protagonist changes his strategy and turns from making one mistake after the other, to adapting and trying to right her wrongs. It’s a point of realization, a point where she gets a grip of herself with one hand, and a grasp of the situation with the other. She now knows exactly what she has to do and how to do it. But she’s got no free hands.
5. The Crisis
Right after seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and running barefoot toward it like the callow little bonehead we all suspected her to be, the protagonist realizes it’s the headlight of the Intercity Express.
The Crisis is a high point of drama and despair, a moment of absolute loss of hope. Her friends are shredded by the merciless trolls of the blogosphere, the zombies have invaded the privacy of her home and scrambled her puzzle, and the antagonist has rammed his boot into her flowerbed. Everything seems lost.
6. Plot Turn 2
But there is still hope where the skilled writer plants it. Just as the protagonist is about to fail epically and doom herself and the whole plot, she discovers how to turn the situation around.
Plot Turn 2 brings the final, essential piece she needs to defeat the antagonist and save the day. It mostly bears the realization that she has had this strength all along but needed to grow into it. Now the situation turns in her favor–
–and propells the reader into the ultimate resolution, the high point of high points, the breathless, high-pitched vibrato of the Fat Lady’s closing act, which drives tears into the audience’s eyes and their undying gratitude into the opera house’s pockets.
The Climax is the peak of your story, the defeat of the antagonist and the moment of glory for your protagonist. Ideally, interior and exterior conflicts will climax at the same time. To be fully satisfying to the reader, the Climax must answer the questions posed by the Inciting Incident. It must also, with one swift twist of a wrist, tie as many loose ends together as possible, because after the climax, there’s not much reason for the reader to stick around.
Hooray! She’s made it! The protagonist saved the day and the reader grins at the back cover, wishing he could shake your hand. Ieally!
This 7 Point Plot Structure, that I’ve distilled out of the genius work of other writers before me, is only one of many ways to lay out the course of a plot. A plot outline is but a guide, and your writing should still flow freely and follow it only when needed. It shouldn’t be like running the gauntlet toward a stiff ending. Be creative!