Formula for fiction? Back to the beginning…

formulaI had been writing fiction for several years before I had the chance to attend a workshop presented by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. This husband and wife team has achieved near legendary status in the speculative fiction writing world. They have both produced a prodigious volume of high quality fiction across several genres and under a variety of names. Fortunately for me, in addition to their professional editing and publishing efforts, they found time to lead workshops for writers at all levels of achievement. I didn’t get much sleep that weekend, but I sure learned a lot.

Arguably the most valuable instruction I received was on something called 7-Point Plotting. It was originally devised by Algys Budrys, himself a legend among Science Fiction writers. I have used it ever since and offer it to anyone interested in producing well-rounded stories.

Every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s easy enough. Budrys, known to his friends as “AJ” broke this down further. He postulated that a good Opening (the beginning) consisted of three distinct elements: Character, Setting, and Conflict.

I find it easier to summarize these as: a Person, in a Place, with a Problem.

Beginning1. Person — Usually, but not always, the primary character in the story. People work best, although there’s no law against starring an animal, alien, machine, or vegetable.  Most folks like reading about… folks.

 2. Place — Where does the action take place? In a courtroom?  A spaceship?  In Captain Kangaroo’s basement?  An interesting setting will often grab a reader when the conflict is weak.

3. Problem— This could be the primary focus of the tale, or it could be a lesser issue. But every opening must have an element of Conflict, because that is what grabs a reader.

Next up is the Middle. According to Budrys, this consists of one or more paired concepts:

Middle4. Try — This is the effort usually made by the protagonist to resolve the main Problem of the story. Each such effort is paired with item 5: a Fail.

5. Fail — Not all fails are fails! Sometimes a protagonist will succeed, only to find that the original problem has gotten worse. As expected, failure will lead to more difficulty, too. Most short stories use one or two Try/Fail sequences. Novels often go through dozens.

At some point, the story will reach the End. Budrys broke this down, too.

End6. Climax — This is the result of the final Try/Fail, the most dramatic and far-reaching. Success or failure here could mean life or death for the protagonist.  It is the culmination of all the efforts of all the characters to force a solution to the Problem.

7. Denouement — This is what Mark Twain called the “Marryin’ and the Buryin’,” and that’s a very succinct way to describe it. It amounts to a summary of who survived the Climax.

The point of all this is NOT to suggest that you should address each of these elements specifically while working. I’ve found the most effective way to use the scheme is to wait until you’ve finished a story. If it works, and you’re happy with it, move on. If it doesn’t work, then break out the 7-Point chart and see if there’s something missing.

Finally, here’s a visual interpretation of the 7 Points when fully incorporated:

Tension timeline

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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10 Responses to Formula for fiction? Back to the beginning…

  1. G. R. McNeese says:

    I like the breakdown of the story. It seems very applicable to whatever format you write. Novels, novellas, short stories. I write a lot of short stories, but I always feel they can be too short. Although length shouldn’t be a factor, I feel like if I followed this structure, my stories would feel more complete.

    • joshlangston says:

      I find the formula most helpful if a story I’ve written doesn’t work. Usually, I’ve shorted it in one of these areas. So, rather than use it as a roadmap, I use it as a diagnostic tool. Either way, it’s a down and dirty writing schematic, especially for fiction. (It’s also the first chapter in my writing textbook, Write Naked!)

  2. An-l says:

    This works — I’m grateful to you for showing me the way through your teaching and writing, and for your continuous effort to help me become a better writer.

  3. jane tims says:

    Fits my usual process when creating story arcs. I create a table to track how close I stay to the arc. Someone wants something and this is how they try to get it.

    • joshlangston says:

      I say go with anything that works. The systems I use work for me, and I’m happy to share them. If they work for someone else, too, then so much the better. Thanks for dropping by!

  4. alicegristle says:

    Hello! A first-time reader of your blog here! I especially like the middle part – try/fail sequences strike a chord for me. 🙂 Also, they emphasise that delightful element of human tragedy that’s usually missing from the rather clinical presentations of plot structure. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

    Also, that last paragraph is gold. About not using it until you have to. As writers, we’re often too needy with systems and wanting to use systems, while ignoring the fact that our subconscious is often a better worker than our conscious mind. 🙂 Thanks again!

  5. theryanlanz says:

    Hi Josh! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured on on Dec 12th. Thanks!

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