This essay was originally posted to the writing community Get Your Words Out on Feb. 26, 2019. Small edits have been made.
When it comes to plotting methods, there are as many examples as there are writers. I’ve played around with numerous methods over the years, trying to find one that works for me, and I’m going to discuss my current favorite here.
This model, the Magnificent Seven Plot Points, comes from Keep Writing. It’s geared toward writing screenplays, but I’ve found it helpful for prose fiction. Like many plotting frameworks, it’s based on the hero’s journey, and can be adapted into short and long works of fiction.
At this point, we’re not to going to worry about splitting the story into acts or the number of scenes. This framework is just that, a frame on which to build.
Number One. The Back Story
Number Two. The Catalyst
Number Three. The Big Event
Number Four. The Midpoint
Number Five. The Crisis
Number Six. The Climax
Number Seven. The Realization
The back story gives you a starting place for your MC: their wants, their flaws, their current situation and how they got into it, why they haven’t yet acted to get themselves out or how they have tried to get themselves out but have failed.
Let’s use the original Beauty and the Beast as an example. (The novel, not any of the films.)
Beauty’s father is a merchant, expecting a ship to come into port with enough goods to restore his family’s wealth. Beauty’s sisters ask for him to bring them jewels and gowns when he returns from meeting the ship; Beauty asks for a rose.
The catalyst is the inciting incident, the first step of change. It can be as simple as a passing glance between characters or as big as a major change in the MC’s homeland’s political landscape.
Beauty’s father learns the ship sank and he has lost his investment. On his way home from the port town, he passes a garden and decides to take one of the roses for Beauty.
The big event is the commitment to change. From here on out, the world the MC knew will never be the same — may, in fact, be left behind all together.
The Beast captures Beauty’s father and threatens to hold him prisoner, but agrees to release him long enough for him to say goodbye to his daughters. When he reaches their home, her sisters are only concerned with the gifts they won’t receive, but Beauty offers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner.
The midpoint. The point of no return. I tend to think of this as the moment when you’re riding a roller coaster and you crest the first lift hill, and there’s nothing to do now but enjoy the ride.
Beauty travels to the Beast’s castle, is accepted as a substitute prisoner, and lives in the castle and is treated well. She and the Beast form a friendship, even though she only hears his voice. One night she catches a glimpse of him and then no longer allows him to hide from her.
The crisis, the low point. This is also called the darkest moment, when it appears all is lost. If a character floats through their adventure and never fails or is challenged, it makes for a pretty dull story. In longer works of fiction there may be several moments of smaller triumph and failure, leading up to the big moment planted in the first section of the story.
Beauty learns her father is ill and the Beast releases her to go home and see to him, with a promise she will return. At home, her sisters convince her to stay longer and longer, until she dreams of the Beast and sees him dying in his castle.
The climax, or the final showdown. Now, for years I was frustrated with a lot of plotting methods that focused on the protagonist and the antagonist. I write romances! I thought. I don’t have an antagonist! And then I read somewhere, and I apologize at how badly I remember the sources of things as I have not been as diligent a note-taker in the past as I am now, that in a romance the love interest is the antagonist. If there’s a final showdown, it is between the main character and the person they love.
Beauty returns to the castle, finds the dying Beast, and confesses her love. (This is a particularly lovely moment in Angela Carter’s retelling in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.)
The realization. When approaching your plot with a framework of “What does the character want?” the obvious realization is when they get what they want — but the more interesting realization is when they get what they need. If you’re writing a tragedy, they don’t get what they want or what they need. Or, they can get what they want, and realize it doesn’t change anything. There are a lot of ways to play with this.
Beauty’s love breaks the Beast”s enchantment. Beauty and the Beast get married and live happily ever after.
In a traditional story like Beauty and the Beast, the realization is straightforward. The Beast gets what he wants — the end of his enchantment and transformation back into a man — and Beauty gets what she needs, a handsome husband who loves her and will take care of her. (Remember this story was originally written in 16th century France. Security with a good man was a fairy-tale ending for any woman.)
A plotting method such as this one is just a starting point. It’s a framework on which you can build the structure of your story. Once you have your framework in place, you can figure out what scenes and details you need to bring your story to life.