The Simplest Effective Plot System I Have Come Across - Dan Wells

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The Simplest Effective Plot System I Have Come Across - Dan Wells

After watching this series of videos for the third time, I decided to put them here.

I have read book after book on writing and this, by far, blows them all away for beginning writers, and for advanced writers, too, if they have difficulties with plotting.

Dan uses a seven part system of main events:

1. Hook

2, Plot Turn 1

3. Pinch 1

4. Midpoint

5. Pinch 2

6. Plot Turn 2

7. Resolution

This doesn't look like much at first glance, and, actually, the first time I went through these videos (about 2 years ago), I was not all that impressed. For some reason, I needed to read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (which is one of the best fiction writing books out there in my opinion) to realize that:

Plot Turn 1 up to Midpoint --> The protagonist is reacting to the situation.

Midpoint up to Resolution --> The protagonist makes a decision and acts against the situation by volitional.

Plot Turn 1 is often called the Inciting Incident in other systems. And the Resolution is often called the Climax.

In other words, in the first part of the story, the protagonist encounters a problem and tries to figure out what it is and what to do about it while having to deal with it. At a certain point, he gets fed up (or has a realization) and then decides to take matters in his own hands, then he resolves it.

Once you get that idea down enough to use it in your own works, the seven points make perfect sense. (And, as Dan said, these seven are not written in stone.) Also, you see where you can pepper in try-fail sequences and other plot additions.

This system works across all genres, suspense, romance, comedy and so forth--including subplots. I have only mapped in my mind some of Rand's fiction according to this system, but it works like a charm.

And speaking of charm, the best part about this system is that you can use it for different threads all running simultaneously through the same overall story. As Dan shows for the Matrix, he analyzes four different throughlines (although he does not use that term) for The Matrix:

1. Action

2. Character

3. Romance

4. Betrayal

Each has its own seven part throughline or plotline.

This is an amazing set of videos, especially coming from a relatively new author. Together, they come to under 50 minutes (each is a little under 10 minutes). There is some annoying music at the beginning and end of each with plugs for one of Dan's books, but, hell, he's entitled to his commercial.

I hope you, especially writers, get as much value out of this as I did. But even if you are not a writer, this helps a great deal with understanding and interpreting fiction. As Dan points out, his concept weds perfectly to the Hero's journey of Joseph Campbell.

And one not for the record. Dan credits the writers of Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator's Guide, for his main inspiration for this system.

Whatever... It's still the best system I have seen to date.






So far, as far as I know, Dan Wells doesn't have any published books on writing. The moment he comes out with one, I will be getting it.

Apropos, Dan deals with plot across a long story, but I have been experimenting with using his outline for themes and emotional sequences and even small scenes within a larger story and it is very powerful.

Before too long, I should be releasing some my fiction that is in the works.


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Interesting stuff, I just finished watching the first video. I have a few concerns, but I'll wait before listing them (I want to think them through).

But, like I said, interesting stuff. I'll watch the rest later.

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In a college literature class I was taught that the winning story has a reference to God, a connection to Royalty, Sex and Mystery. On the exam I wrote the following: My God sad the Queen. I'm pregnant! Who done it?

I got an A.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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  • 1 year later...

Here's a pertinent discussion that happened on another unrelated thread

... except for the primacy of plot, plot, plot. She employed a limited vocabulary to create startling two dimensional characters...


Be careful with what Rand said as opposed to what she actually did. She talked a lot about plot, plot, plot, but if you look into her stories, the metaphors are as thick as quicksand and they suck you in just as powerfully. (Jackhammer pounding against granite, anyone? :smile: And that one is on the surface.)

Also, the limited vocabulary is an illusion. It's easy to go through her novels and just skip over the big words, but they are there in abundance. The illusion of limited vocabulary comes from the jargon she created and used consistently. Since there are not that many words in her often quirky jargon (who called anyone a looter back then?), and these words call attention to themselves, it seems like there are not many words in the rest. But there are.

As to two-dimensional characters, I have been doing a lot of creative writing study recently and, without even wanting to, this prompts me to think about Rand's character arcs and throughlines. When I started pegging them, the two dimensions suddenly multiplied. Here's just one example of one character: Dagny. (I'm doing this off the top of my head, so I don't have the exact passages, but I will probably write about this later and give all due quotes.)

Dagny had a complexity (among many) in that she cared about people who believed in values she did not share, even when she knew they were opposite of hers. Over the course of the novel she gradually gave up caring about those people and reached the end point in a quite dramatic fashion.

Rand did that throughline in a very precise manner. With each defeat, we saw Dagny trying a little harder, then caring for such people just a little less. She even got to the point where she was ready to watch a bum get thrown off a moving train, but the caring kicked in and she ended up learning the story of the Twentieth Century Motor Company from him. Losing this caring finally reached a "nightmare" point where she had to go off by herself and take a break. She still had a remnant of that caring that called her back with the tunnel disaster. The absolute end her caring throughline was when she shot the guard in cold blood. She didn't give a damn about people like him anymore.

Knowing your bent, that may not be a throughline that agrees with you for any character, but it is there. Throughlines like that do not happen to two-dimensional characters. (Heh. I think you would see it as a gradual descent into hell. :smile: )

There's a lot more, a hell of a lot more, I could say about Dagny, but later.

I do agree that Rand's villains tend to be two-dimensional, but James Taggart was anything but. How many times did he stare at a button or something like that to keep from thinking about a decision? A two-dimensional sleaze-bag would have immediately jumped on an opportunity to be a sleaze.

I could go on and on and I am tempted, but ironically, I don't want to get sidetracked with Rand right now. :smile: I am studying one of the most important books on world literature I have ever read: The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker. (A light read at 800 pages. :smile: ) Later I want to revisit Rand's works in light of what I am learning. Not just in this book, but in several others, too, starting with Aristotle's Poetics.

My point is it is easy to caricature Rand, but when you dig in and start analyzing her stuff with rigor, you see there is a reason her books (especially her fiction) keep selling in the hundreds of thousands year after year. I know of no work where two-dimensional plot-only-focused characters presented with limited vocabulary have been anything but a temporary fad.


Michael, I don't agree with your "caring" analysis of Dagny's character. You ignored her existential context in the various parts of the novel. For instance, shooting the guard was part of a military operation. The guard was the enemy. She was a slave to her work. That's why she ran back to New York after the tunnel disaster. If she became more alienated to those around her it was because they seemed less and less human as she learned more about them. She discovered the bum on the train was not so alienated. She flew to Utah to save Quentin McDaniels and pursued the "destroyer" for the same reason. Of course there is somre bad and arbitrary writing in there. She--Rand--let Hank fly around Colorado for a month thinking she was dead? That was plot subservience.


Michael, I don't agree with your "caring" analysis of Dagny's character. You ignored her existential context in the various parts of the novel.


You can disagree all you want, but it's there. I'm going to write about it and back it up with quotes. And I'm going to include a series of intertwined throughlines.

In screenwriting, they sometimes call the points on a throughline "beats" or "plot points" (they use those terms for other things as well, so put that in your bank of random useless information :smile: ). My point is that throughline thinking is done on purpose and it is taught to creative writers--especially those in Hollywood where Rand cut her chops. (In my meaning, a throughline is the pattern of change through time of a story element.)

Let me give you some references so you will understand I am not talking out my ass.

Ironically, one of the best initial expositions I have come across for thinking in throughlines is right here on OL: The Simplest Effective Plot System I Have Come Across - Dan Wells. What interested me in that analysis was when Wells applied his method to the unfolding of betrayal in a work. A light bulb went off in my head. I thought woah... if that can be applied to the development of a part of a plot in addition to an overall plot and character arcs, it can be applied to other items as well like themes, metaphors, emotional changes, etc. Then I started looking and sure enough it works. When a story clicks, there are underlying patterns in the story elements. When it doesn't, these elements tend to be random, two-dimensional or meander all over the place.

The only caveat is that I found out there are several kinds of throughlines, not just the one Wells does (which is very similar to the plot outline a guy named Syd Field in Hollywood teaches: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting). Another Hollywood guy named John Truby came up with a bunch more throughlines in a book called The Anatomy of Story. They don't call these pattens throughlines, but that's what they are talking about in the wording I use.

I came across even another throughline for sequences that was formally taught in the back rooms of the studios during Rand's time in Hollywood. The current teachers of that approach are Paul Gulino (Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach) and Chris Soth (and probably some others I am not aware of). Here's a YouTube video where Chris briefly mentions where this sequence thinking came from.

He calls a sequence a "mini-movie," but that's just branding crap. The concepts are the same--meaning enough story to fit on a reel (15 minutes max) and still keep the audience's attention so the people will stick around while the reels are changed (which was the case in the early days of Hollywood). My impression is that Rand wrote that way in her fiction (with more sequences than in a movie, of course), but I haven't broken this down enough to write about it with my usual mastery yet. :smile:

As to context, of course there is context. In fact, each sequence is a context. But Dagny is not one person in one context, then suddenly changes into another person in another context, then even another in another context. She is the same person in all of them. And if a pattern in her personality can be shown throughout all the sequences, especially if it is a linear pattern like her gradual erosion of caring for people who do not share her values, I can only presume it was done on purpose. The charm of these sub-throughlines that I am using for analysis is precisely that they run through all the different sequences (or contexts or episodes or mini-movies or whatever you want to call them). They are part of the glue that holds the entire story together instead of the thing being a random series of episodes.

To me, the emotional throughline I see in Dagny makes sense, too. Dagny was the last one to be convinced to join the strike. She had to be convinced intellectually, spiritually and emotionally before she could give up the railroad. This caring throughline to me is just one of her main emotional throughlines (I have to think about it before I talk about others--and there are since, for an easy example, she had three big honking lovers in a linear sequence :smile: ).

I'm talking about a deep premise-level emotional bent, not surface reactions. Think about why a person practices a profession if not to provide value for others. What else is she going to exchange for money? Her opinion of herself? :smile: So what happens when a person stops giving a damn about those she provides value to? How enthusiastic would she be to run a railroad to transport them?

For the fiction writer Rand, caring for them is a legitimate inner obstacle to Dagny joining the strike. I consider this gradual chipping away at Dagny's caring for people when she decided they were unthinking or parasites--until she can shoot one dead in cold blood to get him out of her way in a crisis and not feel a thing--a master-stroke of a master novelist. This throughline illustrates an inner arc in Dagny, not just an abstract intention, so she can legitimately say at the end, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine," while she could not earlier in the story.

I don't give a crap about how it looks to people who only want Dagny to be seen in a glowing light.

To me the throughline is there. I see it. I can't unsee it just because someone doesn't like the way I describe it.


Michael, I'm not disputing a throughline in Dagny's character, just some of the way you illustrated it. The basic congruence of her throughline and that of the novel itself was the novel was on the good side all along--as represented by the character of John Galt. There's a nice synmetry in that he was the first major character therein to go on strike and she was the last and they ended up as a couple. Dagny, however, was on the novel's bad side and she needed to be educated about that from head to toe before switching to the good side. End of story. What she learned was she was sanctioning her own destruction--the sanction of the victim--and her coldness was only not doing any more sanctioning. She already had a low opinion of her brother and the looters et al. from the beginning of the story. This was also Hank's journey. He left his ex, mother and brother and in his mind he was watching them from the rear of a departing train getting smaller and smaller. He was emotionally disengaged from them but his inner state was not that he was no longer capable of emotional involvement only more selective.

In real life you cannot cut yourself off so easily from others almost no matter what the justification. You pay an emotional price. The more you're a thinking machine than an emotional being the easier this is. The real trick is not to get involved with the wrong people to begin with. It's relatively easy for a young person to disown his abusive family, but when the love starts--romantic involvement--so does a much more difficult ballgame. Yeah, Dagny was a cold-blooded killer with the guard but not a cold-blooded person. I once did that. I once had that throughline. One week a fellow soldier next to me got a bullet between his eyes--I escorted the body to the morgue at Saigon--and the next I pulled the trigger. Like Dagny I had no choice. Not to kill would have meant endangering your life and the lives of your compatriots. The choice was to be there. Hers was right and mine a mistake. That's why my story didn't end there. I was still searching for the good side. I think I'm mostly there though I won't stop looking for "right" as long as I'm alive.

I know I'm probably as much confirming as denying what you've said, but I'm not locused on an argument

Once the throughlines start for a major Atlas character on the good side it's essentially become a static character. It's the one side to the other trip that's interesting and without that there is, obviously, no story and no novel. So with all the good guys on the good side it's "The End". It was also Rand's end as a novelist, naturally enough.
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I learned that every great story:

1. has a reference to God

2. has a reference to Royalty.

3. has a reference to sex

4. has an element of mystery.

Having learned that I wrote my prize winning story: "My God! Said the Queen. I'm pregnant. Who dun it?"

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The only caveat is that I found out there are several kinds of throughlines, not just the one Wells does (which is very similar to the plot outline a guy named Syd Field in Hollywood teaches: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting).

I'm glad that you mentioned the Syd Field book. I started reading the first few pages of a friend's copy years ago, really liked what I saw, but then forgot about it. I'll put it on my reading list.


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  • 8 years later...

Here is another super-simple plot system.


I got this from an email list I am on by Janis Ozolins (a guy who teaches visual and word integration).

He was talking about a mind hack to make tasks more fun and less tedious, but the more I looked at it, the more I thought, "You know? That's a pretty good plot."


Mix it up a bit and it can get even more interesting...


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  • 7 months later...

I found a super-interesting discussion of Dan Wells's 7 point plot structure. Apparently his structure has only been around since 2013. Notice that I started this thread in 2013. :) 

I would love to say this is because of my extraordinary talent at finding genius in the raw, superior degree of intellect and herculean effort at probing the depths of writing wisdom, but I can't claim anything other than serendipity and thinking this was a great idea at the time. I really do need to learn to lie my ass off better. :) 


The lady in the video is the ever-charming Shaelin. She used to have a YouTube channel called "Shaelin Writes," but now she is working at Reedsy.

Her earlier videos at Shaelin Writes always seemed like they were striving to answer some important question, missed the mark, but left the question for you to mull over from different angles. Now she works for Reedsy and her videos are a lot better--no doubt due to company standards and mentors.

I hate her new hair-do, though. :) 


Her point is something I felt back when I started this thread.

Dan Wells did not come up with a plot template so much as a process by which to take a concept or scene or idea and work it out into a full story--with questions and throughlines that will hold the reader's interest.

I will have a lot to say about structure and plot later in my writings on writing. But for now, here is one question and a few brief ideas.

Why does story structure exist in the first place? 


1. Pacing. It makes sure you will not tell the same kind of small story over and over and bore the reader. It gives you times when to change gears and where to head with the next small story.


2. Each element of a plot structure changes the situation. For instance, you will have 7 different small stories at Dan Wells's different plot points, each with a different situation. In one of the small stories, you have to present the normal situation. And this will be the opposite of the small story for the end situation. In another plot point, you will do a small story about disrupting the normal situation. And so on.

Don't be confused that I did not mention overall story questions or whether there are other structures and small stories. They exist, too. But a long story is essentially a series of scenes, which are basically smaller stories, tied together by a few arcs of coherence (main characters, story questions, theme, etc.) A good story structure tells you what kind of small stories to write in a sequence--in what order--that satisfies readers, and usually has satisfied them for centuries.


3. Schema. Our brains use schema as a starting point to navigate the unknown. A schema is not a situation per se, but a mental model of a situation where there is a usual part and variations.

Our brains think of all kinds of things using schema. Probably more than concepts.

Don't believe me? What do you think about when you think about a birthday party? How about these things? Friends, birthday cake, presents, people singing happy birthday, a person blowing out candles on the birthday cake, and so on. Is that a concept of a schema?

You can vary these things and still have a birthday party, of course, but a schema is a starting point, not a definition (concepts have definitions). And there can be a lot of other things included, a dog, a grumpy old lady, party games, and so on.

btw - Violating schema is a great way to tell interesting stories. Imagine a birthday party where one of the guests suddenly does a strip tease. Or an armed thief shows up at the door. Or a bomb goes off next door. An earthquake. Or how about a stranger who comes to the door to give one million dollars to the person having a birthday, then leaves and nobody knows anything about him? I could go on and on...

One of the best metaphors I have heard for schema is a toy soldier. You can have a toy soldier with no moving parts and that is like a situation. When you have a toy soldier that can move his arms and legs, turn his head, change clothes and weapons, and so on, you have a model. And this is equivalent to a schema.

A story structure is like this. When it is not like this and more like the unmoving toy soldier, people call it a formula.


I have some more thoughts, but I want to refine them before publishing them.

I hope this has been helpful to you.


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  • 4 months later...

I rarely see Dan Wells's structure discussed in writing instruction materials.

This video includes it.

And it is a pretty decent overview of several popular story structures.


In this video, Chris Brennan does an interesting take on Aristotle's Poetics, too. He calls it "structure" in this video, but it is a list of story elements Aristotle observed and presented (kinda). Brennan mentioned mythos, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle. He mangled this a bit, mixing his own opinions with things that Aristotle said. But it's a good prompt to get you thinking about it. Many great writers go to the Poetics for their foundation.

But is this structure? Anything to fill out a list, I guess. :) 


At least this video is a pretty good overview of some structures (and story-writing ideas included as structure even thought they are not) if you are just getting started.

I don't know why, but scenes always gets left out of these discussions. Here's the raw truth. Stories are told in scenes, not abstract points. So when they talk about refusal of the call, or break into act 3, or final escape, and so on, they are talking about a scene that presents this. A structure is a way to organize scenes, not just abstract ideas.

Good fiction writing is scene writing.

And this applies to Dan Wells's structure as much as it applies to all structures.

And it applies to Aristotle's beginning, middle and end idea. There is a beginning scene, a middle scene, and an end scene, meaning there is a scene that initiates each of these sections. For most stories, each section has a series of scenes.


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