The seven-point story structure has been around maybe since stories began, with some simpler and some more complex variations. On one of my favorite blogs, the Cockeyed Caravan, Matt Bird adds a fascinating element to the seven-point story structure with examples from the two heroes in Star Wars, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.
This is what he added from advice he received from another screen writer: every hero should first be endangered socially, then physically, then spiritually.
The social danger comes at the beginning of the story, with the inciting incident.
By the midpoint, the danger has escalated to physical danger.
At the plot climax, near the end, the hero faces his greatest test as he/she are in danger spiritually (their beliefs are tested).
Matt Bird also does a fantastic job showing how Han and Luke have different character arcs that complement each other.
I already had the seven point structure down, but when I applied these three different escalating dangers to my latest work-in-progress, WOW!
And then when I applied the different but complementary character arcs (building on my existing character profiles) to my main character and main secondary character, double wow.
This made my brain spark with so many exciting ideas that I then did the wildest thing of all: I applied the seven point structure to my life. I actually did this twice, once to the first 21 years of my life, then again to the second 21 years of my life (I was brave enough to share the first half of my life but not the second. That's still too close).
So here's how Star Wars showed me the story of my own life.
1) Opening: We meet a hero who knows what they want but not what they need. They’re clever and responsible about pursuing their short-term goals, but clueless about their own true nature.
Luke: wants to join the rebellion, be a pilot, do something more exciting than be a farmer “if there’s a bright side to the universe, you are on the far side of it”
Han is hiding out in a wretched bar after screwing up his last job. He gets a huge opportunity to do a sketchy job that will get him the money to get him out of trouble.
Me: At the beginning of my senior year of high school, we're encouraged to make plans for our next step in life. I really have no clue what to do. Most of my friends plan to apply to colleges, some of them really top-notch schools. My parents encourage me to do the same. Why not?
2) Inciting incident: They discover a scary-but-promising opportunity to get what they think they need. This often happens with a disaster in their social situation that pushes them to leave their comfort zone and get started on the path.
Luke: R2 leads him to Obi Wan, who tells him about his greater destiny. He waffles on this, until the Empire makes the decision for him by killing his aunt and uncle.
Han: While Han is deciding to take the risky job, a bounty hunter comes to kill him but Han shoots first, forcing him to commit
Me: I discover an Ivy League university only 3 hours away from me, and it includes a state college where I can get reasonable in-state tuition. It seems perfect: close by, affordable, and prestigious! But my guidance counselor says "I think this university is out of your range. Pick some back ups." I'm offended by this - I'm smart enough to get into an Ivy League. I'm going to succeed even if it kills me.
3) Second quarter: They pursue this goal the easy way and have some fun doing it. It looks like they’re going to get a lot of gain for a little work.
Luke: gets a chance to rescue the princess, whose holo message cry for help entranced him way back at the beginning
Han: his new clients turn out to be honorable guys and he impresses them with his lightspeed piloting. Gets a chance to earn extra money by helping Luke rescue the princess.
Me: I beef up my grades and extra-curriculars like crazy. It's hard work, but an exciting challenge, now that I am motivated.
4) Midpoint crisis (often a physical crisis, or a massive failure): Everything comes crashing down. They lose their place of safety, and stand to lose more than they hoped to gain, but it’s too late to go back now…
Luke and Han finds themselves flushed down the garbage chute surrounded by enemies. Even the girl is unimpressed with them.
Me: I get rejected from this dream university that I had just spent 6 months working like crazy to get into. My life is over. I've failed. But I still want to go to college...
5) Third quarter: They start over, doing it the hard way, and begin to make real progress, but this progress ironically makes the task even more personally painful, due to both external and internal consequences that it brings about for them.
Luke rescues the princess and gets to be fighter pilot for the rebellion, his original goal. But the Death Star is moving in to destroy the Rebel base.
Han gets his ship back, impresses the girl, and even gets paid! heads off to pay his debt even though his new friends feel like he's deserting them.
Me: After I lick my wounds, I figure out that I can go to a less prestigious college for a year, then transfer to my dream university. I keep working at it, don't give up, and a year later, I'm in!
6) Darkest moment/spiritual crisis: As a result of their hard work, the hero finally confronts what they haven’t wanted to admit about themselves (either an inner strength which they finally accept or an inner flaw which they finally reject)
Luke: All the other pilots have failed to blow up the Death Star. It's up to him, but he has to trust the force to accomplish this, and this seems counter-intuitive to him
Han has to put someone else first (his friends, and the Rebellion) before himself, which is counter-intuitive to him because he's used to putting himself first.
Me: Oh my goodness. This university is brutally hard. The competitiveness is killing me. I take a long hard look at my motives. The main reason why I wanted an Ivy League degree was for the prestige. But I'm really not the kind of person who values prestige. What do I really value? Turns out I value being able to express myself artistically much more (mainly through writing).
7) Final quarter: adding their newfound inner breakthrough to the external progress they’ve been making since the midpoint, the hero resolves their problem in a way that gets them what they need, without necessarily getting them what they originally wanted.
Luke (with Han's last minute help) saves the Rebellion by destroying the Death Star. They are heros! Han originally wanted to get his debts paid and get rich. He discovers he really want to help his friends in a worthy cause.
Luke's a little harder, because in the beginning he wants to to escape his boring farm life and become a fighter pilot for the rebellion, and that's exactly what he gets. The change he goes through is that he starts out thinking he'll accomplish his goal one way; he ends up learning he has to accomplish it another counter-intuitive way altogether.
Me: Strengthened by my new found discovery about what I want out of life, I stop competing like crazy, and I still manage to get my degree but with a lot less stress, making time to include writing and other ways to express myself that brings fulfillment. I originally thought I wanted prestige. Turns out I really wanted artistic (writerly) expression.
Applying this same structure to the next twenty years was equally eye-opening, dealing with big things such as love, failed relationships, career, and a long battle with depression and other issues. Last fall, I had my seven point "breakthrough."
No wonder why human beings crave stories that follow this simple, archetypal structure. In some mysterious way, it's built into our own lives, our own stories.
Do you think you could apply the seven point story structure to your own life?