Posts Tagged seven point structure

A Writer Reviews: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Before I start talking about this in terms of writing and character development, I’m going to say if you’ve only seen Dr. Horrible online, through Netflix, on iTunes, anything like that…track down the DVD.  Commentary, The Musical is a full length…well, musical commentary track that is value added and then some.

I’ve been meaning to talk about Dr. Horrible in one of these Writer Reviews bits.  I always figured when I did I would explore the nature of the protagonist and antagonist versus the hero and villain of the story.  That’s legitimately interesting with Dr. Horrible, which does the villain-as-protagonist twist that was later the heart of Despicable Me and Megamind, but without taking the villain-becomes-hero redemption route.  Instead, Dr. Horrible is a fantastic example of a protagonist with two conflicting, and actively contradictory, goals.

I was playing around with these while putting together an exercise on dissecting plots for my writers group.  Dr. Horrible has two main plot lines, which for the exercise I deemed as the “Dr. Horrible” plot and the “Billy” plot, with each of the main character’s personas taking the role of protagonist, and Captain Hammer being the antagonist.  Let’s just do a quick breakdown for those who might not remember the entirety of each plot, using the seven step plot break-down I talked about two weeks ago.  These are my own suggestions for the points, so you may disagree with them and the will be spoiler filled.

Dr. Horrible wants to join the Evil League of Evil.  That’s his hook, and that’s where the story starts, reading viewer email and talking about his transmatter and freeze rays.  Plot Turn 1 comes when he gets a letter from Bad Horse saying he is under evaluation for membership.  Pinch 1 occurs during the Wonderflonium heist, which is interrupted by introduced nemesis Captain Hammer.  Even though he succeeds, the intervention complicates his path to ELE membership.  The midpoint is the second Bad Horse letter, announcing that he’s been unsuccessful in his membership and now must kill someone to get in, it’s the first point of transition from merely felonious to willingly murderous.  Pinch 2, rather than being an all-is-lost moment, is actually a high point during the song “Brand New Day” when Dr. Horrible realizes that Captain Hammer will be his victim.  Plot Turn 2 comes with the creation of the death ray and the accidental death of Penny, which leads to the conclusion as Dr. Horrible rides roughshod over the city and joins the League.

Billy is infatuated with Penny, the cute redhead at the laundromat, and his hook is the opening song “My Freeze Ray.”  Plot Turn 1 happens as he is preparing for the Wonderflonium heist (seriously, Wonderflonium is a fun word to write) when Penny recognizes him and talks to him about creating a shelter.  Pinch 1 has Penny swooning for Captain Hammer after he apparently saves her life.  In the midpoint Penny and Billy are now “laundry buddies” sharing frozen yogurt and talking about their lives, they even nearly kiss at one moment.  Pinch 2, all is lost, happens when Captain Hammer comes to the laundromat, recognizes Billy as Dr. Horrible, and announces that he’s going to keep dating Penny out of spite.  “These are not the hammer.”  Plot Turn 2, now this is the interesting part.  The moment where Billy has everything he needs to win over Penny’s heart, he doesn’t know it.  It’s the point where she walks off stage disgusted that Captain Hammer is discussing their love life and isn’t nearly as interested in the homeless as he seems.  Sadly, because Joss Whedon will rip your heart out every damn time, he doesn’t know this so the conclusion has her dead in his arms, her last words being “Captain Hammer will save us.”

The first important turning point of the story happens at Plot Turn 1 for the Billy storyline, which is appropriate.  Plot Turn 1 is that moment where we’re done introducing the characters and we need to give them a story to take part in.  Our villainous hero in Dr. Horrible has a moment after his first actual conversation with Penny where he considers whether he should go after her, or whether to continue with the heist and experience his other Plot Turn.  The choices are directly in conflict with each other, and he needs a moment to make a conscious choice between the two plots.  It’s that moment where he can choose whether to abandon evil and go after Penny, or where he can continue with his plan.  This comes to a head at the end of Act Two when Pinch 2 for each plot run headlong into each other.  When he has to confront Captain Hammer discussing what parts of his anatomy are, and are not, the hammer, he is again presented with a choice of how to go forward.  However, he doesn’t recognize it as a choice, and instead decides the murder of Captain Hammer will achieve both goals, certain Penny will love him when she gets a “shiny new Australia.”  The fact that he’s hiding behind a curtain when Plot Turn 2 happens for the Billy plot drives the point home.

Conflicting goals make characters interesting.  How they handle them is important.  In Dr. Horrible our main character has with two goals that I think a lot of young men in the target audience can understand: the desire to be a super villain and the desire to date Felicia Day.  Or is that just me?  Anyway, when it comes to conflicting goals like these, there are three possible outcomes to conflicting goals.  First is that the character, through trying to achieve both, achieves neither and learns a lesson in the process.  Second is that the character is forced, whether consciously or unconsciously, to give up one goal in favor of the other, and learns a lesson in the process.  The third is that the character gets to eat his cake and have it to, the conflicting goals through some device deconflict, and the character really learns nothing in the process.

Dr. Horrible is interesting because he has convinced himself that he is working towards the third instance.  Lots of characters, and people, presented with this sort of choice likely to do the same, to rationalize their decisions as being in the best interest of both goals.  It’s what makes the ultimately downfall of the Billy plot line so heart-rending, because he has convinced himself that his actions are building towards happy endings for both personas, though we as an audience are less naïve in thinking socially progressive Penny will agree that a world run by Dr. Horrible is the cure for societal ills.  He never recognized the moment that he chose one plot over to the others.  We can, we the audience know the tragedy that he is walking into.  In part because we’re trained that characters can’t have everything they ever wanted.  That everything won’t be fine.  Because that’s ultimately uninteresting.  There’s nothing of humanity in that answer.

Alright, that’s not entirely fair.  Characters do occasionally get to eat their cake and have it, too.  Not because they’re trying to.  It has to be that though choosing one goal they find another path to their lost goal.  Then they’ve grown and learned, and gotten a pretty nifty reward in the process.  It’s the character who is certain, as Dr. Horrible is, that his two goals are one in the same and can be achieved through the same grand act, who must learn through pain and suffering.

Characters need choices.  They need big choices.  They need conflicting options.  They need two doors, the lady and the tiger, and a requirement to choose one and never open the other.  They can have several shots at the same choice, but they need to either act consistently, as Dr. Horrible did, or have a good reason for changing.  And I won’t go so far as to say they have to be punished for their choices, but the choice cannot lack repercussions.  Some moment that drives home that they chose, and that their choice had implications.  It’s a moment to add depth to the character, and to give them a shot at some genuine emotion.  They have, after all, walked away from something that they wanted, something that motivated them for a good portion of the story, and the audience isn’t going to buy it if the character looks at what happen and they don’t feel…

…a thing.

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Give Me Structure!

I’ve read Blake Snyder.  He says that a movie is a story told in three acts.  Of course the second act is twice as long and broken into two halves, so the three act structure is really four acts. I’ve read elsewhere that three acts is right for any story, though the second act should be the longest and be broken into three acts itself, so the three act structure is really five acts.  I’ve now heard Dan Wells talk, at least on YouTube, and describe a seven point outline for every successful story.

I’m not convinced how different these all are.

First up, some viewing.  For those not aware of the Dan Wells seven point story structure (which he admits to stealing from the Star Trek RPG), there’s a talk in five parts on YouTube.  I’m going to embed Part One, the rest should show up as suggested videos at the end.  Please note, the production elements are not mine:

To provide some recap, he breaks the plots of several movies, novels, and even the short story The Tell-Tale Heart down into seven points that the story has to hit:

  1. Hook
  2. Plot Turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot Turn 2
  7. Resolution

There’s a great symmetry to the structure, the story mirrors itself around the midpoint, framed at either end by an opposing hook and resolution.  If the resolution is falling in love, the hook is two strangers.  If the resolution is solving a murder, the hook is the murder happening.  If the resolution is someone fulfilling their role as a hero, the hook is the person as a regular schlub.  Plot Turn 1 is the conflict being introduced, Plot Turn 2 is the last piece the character needs.  As Dan Wells puts it “the power is in you!”.  The Pinches surround the midpoint, they apply pressure.  The first may introduce a villain, the second may strip away a mentor.  The midpoint is the center of the whole thing, it is the mirror, and it’s where the character moves from being reactive to being proactive.

This is great, this is awesome, and he does a fantastic job breaking down the seven points of multiple lengths and genres of stories, but where the lecture really kicks some ass and is in Part 4/5 starting around the 7 minute mark where he applies this seven point structure to each of the four main plots of The Matrix: Neo defeating the Agents, Neo becoming The One (he defeats the agents by becoming The One, but they are slightly different plots), Neo and Trinity falling in love, and Cypher betraying the crew of the ship.  This is where I’m going to jump shift to where I originally know Dan Wells from: the Writing Excuses podcast.

In their October 2nd, 2011 episode, the Writing Excuses crew talked to Lou Anders about the Hollywood Formula.  Give it a listen, it’s only 20 minutes long (though that’s now 70 total minutes of material I’ve assigned this post).  While largely talking about the three act structure, the podcast also talks about the increased emotional impact of scenes where multiple things happen at the same time.  Looking at the seven point structure, it’s taking points from more than one plot line (though one plot’s Pinch can be another’s Turn) and putting them together in a scene.  The capture of Morpheus, the second pinch in one plot, happens simultaneously with the resolution of the betrayal plot.  At the end of the movie, the three Neo plotlines all have resolutions nearly on top of each other.  That’s why, while the lobby scene is all whizbang cool, the two actual emotional scenes in the movie are that midpoint betrayal and the big final fight with Agent Smith.  They’re designed as big scenes where stuff happens.

Alright, so look, this is all awesome, but why am I talking about it?

Two reasons.  First is because while this presents itself as a broader interpretation of the plotting of a novel, it’s really just another approach.  If we’re going to look at the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet compared to the Dan Wells Seven Points, I can directly line them up (though I suspect others could line them differently):

  1. The Hook is The Opening Image
  2. Plot Turn 1 is the Catalyst
  3. Pinch 1 is the Break Into 2
  4. Both agree on The Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2 is the All is Lost moment
  6. Plot Turn 2 is the Break Into 3
  7. The Resolution is The Final Image

Where does that put the finale?  Between Plot Turn 2, where the hero realizes he has what he needs to defeat the villain, and the resolution where the villain is defeated.

So it’s largely all the same structuring, whether you want to talk about three, four, or five acts, or seven points.  But what got me excited about the usefulness of the seven point structure versus the Beat Sheet is the presentations of subplots.  Blake Snyder does make room for a B-plot in the Beat Sheet, but the seven point system allows the writer to break down any number of subplots into their seven points, and use that all through their outline.  Which is probably more useful than the Beat Sheet when it comes to novels.  Let’s face it, the Beat Sheet is great, and it can inform someone writing for the page, but it’s for a specific purpose.

But I just buried the important word in that last paragraph: “outline.”  In the past I’ve dabbled at being a discovery writer, which is fantastic for some but has gotten me into trouble.  So as I’ve been learning to outline (really, it’s a hybrid outline/discovery system) I’ve been looking for different ways to approach an outline.  The act structure was fine, but this is fantastic, because it allows each character’s arc to be broken into pieces at the same time as the main plotline of the book.

That’s my exact plan.  But not yet.  Instead, I’ve suggest to my wife we use it as one of our revision tools.  Right now we’re too far into the first draft to stop and try to figure out structure breakdowns, but when we hit editing I hope breaking the story into five seven-point diagrams (main plot, and each character’s arc) and seeing where the points line up, it will show where the story as a whole is weak, and where individual character arcs are weak.  Which, hopefully, will result in a stronger story after the second draft.  In that way, this is a tool not just for the outline writer, but for the discovery writer looking towards a second draft.  Make sure the major points are hit in each plot, and work in where they could hit better when revising.  Stacking points from multiple plotlines increases the emotion of a scene (though certainly not every scene needs, or even should, have elements of multiple plotlines).  Resolve them as closely as possible.

And keep an eye and ear out for structuring tools.  You may, as I have, find one you’ve never heard of that entirely changes how you approach your process.

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