Dan Wells is famous for his seven point system for structuring stories. The approach is set out in a series of five videos that are still available on you-tube. Just search for ‘Dan Wells’.
The Well’s system is not vastly different from a number of other systems based around a three-act structure, with major plot turning points at the end of the first and second acts. At the mid point the main character usually learns an important truth, which strengthens his resolve. Wells does not identify a separate inciting incident (or call to action), but treats it as part of the first turning point. In practice, there can be a significant delay between the inciting event and the main characters decision to move into the new story word of Act two. But does it really matter? They are clearly part of the same sequence of events (call to action, debate, more pressure, decision, forward action) that kick starts the story.
The story starts with a ‘Hook’ (the opening state of the main character) and finishes with a ‘Resolution’ (the final state of the main character). The pinch points are the places where the antagonist usually makes himself/herself felt.
The relevant story sign posts are arranged chronologically as follows:
- Hook (Do second)
- Plot Turn 1 (Do fourth)
- Pinch Point 1 (Do sixth)
- Mid Point (Do third)
- Pinch Point 2 (Do last)
- Plot Turn 2 (Do fifth)
- Resolution (Do first)
What I like about Dan Wells approach is that in analysing the structure of the story he starts at the end (the Resolution). How is the story resolved? What has the main character become? And then asks how does the story start and what is the state of the main character (the Hook). The story is the movement between these two points, with the main characters making important decisions at PT1 and PT2 and stiffening his/her resolve at the mid point. In the process the main character may undergo a transformation of character from weakness to strength or vice versa (the character arc).
Starting with the end of the story seems like a good idea, since everything in the story is leading to this end result. But that doesn’t make the design of the end necessarily any easier. Currently, I am struggling with the ending of my third novel. At the start of writing I had a clear plan and an outline. But as I near the final Act, I have started to question the strength of the ending.
One writer once said that how a book starts sells the book to the reader, but how a story ends determines whether the reader will buy your next book. Endings have to fit the theme of the story and the type of ending the reader expects, without being too predictable and boring. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s true. For example, most romance stories have a ‘happily ever after ending’ as a genre requirement, but readers still want some element of surprise in the ending to be satisfying.
That brings me to the ‘twist’ ending. In thrillers or horror stories there may well be a twist ending to surprise the reader. The master of the twist was undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock. He revelled in manipulating audience’s expectations by providing either too little or too much information about a character. So the bad guy maybe really a good guy, or vice versa. Or the audience may know what’s coming, but the main character is blissfully unaware. Nowadays, movies are more likely to rely on fast action cinematic sequences and gore to surprise their audiences rather than such plot devices. That’s a shame, because no one seems to do endings as well as Hitchcock.
That brings me back to my current novel work in progress. I am truly excited about where the story has got to, but if I am to rework the ending I know I need create some distance from the story. That means putting it to one side for a short time and focusing on something else. Writing is not just about writing your story. The time you spent thinking about the story is just as important. I would rather spend a day thinking about one or two great ideas than churning out 2,500 words of garbage. So pausing for more thought about the ending is not a bad idea.
I find often that the best way to refocus the mind on the story is a long walk, and I plan to do a lot of walking in the near future. Don’t expect any Hitchcock like twist ending from me. I like happy endings. But perhaps with a bit more thought I can make my ending more enjoyable and less predictable.
If you’re currently writing a story, how confident are you that you’ve got the right ending? Or maybe, if you’re a ‘pantser’ you’re waiting to write the first draft to find out. Endings are annoyingly difficult to write, but satisfying when you get there.