Over thousands of years, storytellers have learned two things about people:
- They listen, read, or watch stories as escape from their lives, and
- They will sympathize with characters who fight and defeat powerful enemies, or that fight but succumb to terrible injustices.
Whether you are a Plotter who plans his stories before writing, or a Pantser who writes to discover the story, everyone then edits and tweaks. The tools and techniques I’m going to show you can be applied both before and after writing.
The two main things to include are the Three Act Structure and the Seven Point System. We’ll cover them first. In the simple case, both are easy to apply. The fun part is then blending multiple storylines. We’ll start with some preliminary knowledge and technique before getting to that.
You are invited to do these steps on your own, with or without Scrivener, as you read along.
Three Act Structure
Storytellers, playwrights, and authors have, over thousands of years, developed the so-called Three Act structure. In the last several decades, Hollywood has applied it most profitably to the movies. Book publishers have also learned it is an important but less visible aspect of bestsellers.
There is a Beginning, a Middle, and an End.
- In the Beginning (Act I), we are introduced to the protagonist, the main character, and setting, where and when. We learn about the protagonist’s life and whether he or she is a good person or not. Then, moments before the end of the first act, a bomb, figurative or actual, drops on or near the protagonist, and his/her world is forever changed.
- In the Middle (Act II), we see the protagonist reacting to the profoundly changed world. He discovers, first of all, that his old way of living and doing things doesn’t work anymore. So, he starts trying new ways of coping, but not all of them work. Act II, like Act I, ends with some major event, something that reminds the protagonist of the source of the change, and with it the reminder that until that source is dealt with, nothing is going to be right again.
- In the End (Act III), the protagonist is forced to a life-changing decision: “I must/can/have-to do this!” She realizes that 1) no one else can do this, and 2) she is the only one who has a chance. So, she gathers things such as like-minded companions, tools, weapons, and knowledge, and then confronts the evil that changed the world. If she wins, the story has a happy ending. If she fails, it’s a tragedy.
Watch practically any movie from Hollywood for the past fifty years, and you’ll see this structure.
Seven Point System
In recent years, fiction writers have developed more detailed structures within those three Acts. One of these is called the Seven Point System.
Dan Wells presents a series of five segments on Youtube on the Seven Point System. He mentions an indebtedness to the Star Trek Roleplaying Game, Narrator’s Guide. And elsewhere, Syd Field’s “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” also gets a nod.
Interwoven with the Three Act system, the Seven Points show us more detail.
- Act I (Beginning, 25%)
- Hook — The Normal World
- Plot Turn 1 — Big Event Changes Everything
- Act II (Middle, 50%)
- Pinch 1 — Bad Stuff Happens, Main Character Reacts
- Midpoint — Main Character says, “That’s Enough!”
- Pinch 2 — More Bad Stuff Happens, Main Character Initiates Action
- Plot Turn 2 — Another Big Event Changes Everything (Again)
- Act III (End, 25%)
- Resolution — Buildup, Climax, and Denouement
The percentage markers on each of the three acts above are worth noting. These sizes (or durations in a movie) are remarkably common. In most Hollywood movies, you can often predict where the two big moments, Plot Turn 1 and Plot Turn 2, will occur. If it’s a standard two-hour flick, Plot Turn 1 should happen at about the 30 minute mark, and Plot Turn 2 should be at around ninety minutes.
The reason for these percentages, the Three Act system, and the Seven Points is simple: They work for the paying audience. Apparently, there’s something in the human psyche that is more likely to be drawn in ($) when this structure and these durations are present. (There are exceptions, of course. But if you’re just starting out, it’s better to “go with the flow” until you understand it before setting off into the unknown wilderness.)
For whatever reason, human beings seem to like stories with these attributes better than those without.
So, how do we go about writing a story that uses these structures?
We’ll begin the answer by doing a little reverse engineering.
Let’s start with a simple story, one that contains a single arc or storyline.
Three Little Pigs
You might remember the fable of the three little pigs whose houses were made of straw, sticks, and bricks.
In it, the brick-laying pig was still hard at work while his companions partied after their easier constructions. At this point, a wolf arrives, and the pigs flee to their respective houses.
After some huffing and puffing, the straw house collapses and that pig joins his friend in the stick house. It, too, succumbs to the wolf’s attack and the two pigs run to their friend’s brick house. There, they are temporarily safe from the creature’s blowing. But the third pig realizes the wolf could come down his chimney and eat them, so he boils water in a huge kettle in the fireplace and, when the wolf does indeed slide down, it is killed.
Thereafter, they build two more brick houses and everyone is safe and happy.
Using 3×5 cards, we can break this story down into the Seven Points.
In case you can’t read my hand-writing, here’s what the cards say.
- Act I
- Hook: Pigs, Houses, & Inclinations — Introducing 3 pigs, 2 of them lazy w shoddy houses, and one who is industrious and builds w brick.
- Plot Turn 1: Evil Attacks — The wolf arrives and chases the lazy pigs into their respective houses. (The pig’s world just changed!)
- Act II
- Pinch 1: House #1 Fails — The wolf blows down the straw house. Pig 1 flees to Pig 2’s stick house.
- Midpoint: THIS STORY DOESN’T HAVE ONE! In a normal Midpoint, the protagonist would resolve to become the hero but, in the ancient telling, we don’t know what Pig 3 is thinking. To make this story marketable to today’s audience, we’ll need to fix this in a re-write.
- Pinch 2: House #2 Goes Down — The straw house goes down.
- Plot Turn 2: “Save Us, Pig 3!” — Pigs 1 and 2 flee to Pig 3’s brick house but the wolf follows, and worse, the pigs are trapped in the house! (The pig’s world just changed again!)
- Act III
- Resolution: Final Battle — The wolf fails to blow down the brick house and pigs 1 and 2 think they are safe but Pig 3 realizes the wolf could come down the chimney and eat them. So, Pig 3 does something heroic; he puts a pot of boiling water in the fireplace, and when the wolf comes down, it is killed. Happy dance!
Let’s transfer this into a Scrivener project.
We learn by doing. There is no pre-typed project for you to download. Go and push the buttons, click the mouse’s clicker, and do it yourself…and learn!
FYI: The steps and screenshots that follow are for Scrivener 3.2.2 on a MacBook running MacOS Big Sur 11.2. While the 3×5 card process will work for anyone with paper and pencil, if you have a different version of Scrivener, some adjustments may be necessary.
Launch Scrivener and click the File menu and select New Project. Therein, click the Fiction category, choose Short Story, and at the bottom, click Create. (Hereafter, I’ll abbreviate mouse click sequences such as this to: File -> New Project, Fiction, Short Story, Create.)
I named my project Three Pigs.
Assuming you are doing the same, in your project’s Manuscript folder, modify and add New Text, and type in the Synopsis for the first scene. Repeat adding New Text (and its Synopsis) until you have all seven scenes.
In Scrivener’s Outline view, it should look like this. (Select Manuscript in the Binder and click the icon in the red circle.)
Next, let’s add the Seven Point System designations. We’ll use Scrivener’s Label attribute.
If you typically use Scrivener labels for something else, bear with me. Over time, I use these for different purposes. They are easy to re-define and, in the lifetime of a project, I will use and re-use them for many short-term deeds.
To set up Labels for the Seven Point System, we need to change the default to “Hook,” “Plot Point 1,” and so forth. In the bottom-right corner of the display, click the double-headed arrow next to “No Label” and choose Edit.
In the Edit (see FIGURE 4 below), modify the labels for the Seven Points. Use the “+” icon, circled below, when you need to add more labels, and click OK when done.
FYI: I’ve shortened “Plot Turn 1” to simply “Turn 1” and the same for “Plot Turn 2” to allow me to keep the columns narrow (see below).
Back in the Outline view, set the scene labels: use the up/down arrows in the Label column for each scene.
Next, let’s add some folders for the three acts.
In the Binder, select the Manuscript folder and do Project -> New Folder three times, and name the additions Act I, Act II, and Act III. Don’t worry if they show up after the seven scenes. We’re going to fix that in the next step.
Now, focusing solely on the Binder, click and hold the first “Pigs, Houses, and Incli…” scene and “drag and drop” it into the Act I folder..
You’ll need a steady hand on the mouse while doing this. After “grabbing” something, move the mouse slowly when it’s near a folder and you’ll see the marker on the screen change to tell you when something will be dropped “into” a folder versus being placed after it.)
Continue until all scenes are inside the appropriate Act folder, and also in the correct order.
Notice, in the Binder below, that the three acts are indented “inside” the Manuscript, and the individual scenes are, in turn, indented “inside” each of the three acts. It’s the indenting (and down arrow on the left) that show this. Your scenes should be “inside” (indented) in the correct Act folder.
In theater terminology, you now have three acts with a total of seven scenes.
In Scrivener, some books have “Part” divisions, each of which contain “Chapters” which, in turn, are composed of “Scenes.” You could argue that Parts I, II, and III are analogous to Acts I, II, and III. If we were working with a large, complex work, we might use that approach. But since this is a simple story, two levels of structuring (Chapters and Scenes) is sufficient.
Click on the Manuscript in the Binder. Your complete Outline view should now look like this. (You may need to expand each of the Acts to see all the scenes.)
We could begin writing this story now but it would never make it in today’s market.
- It has no clear hero. Only at the end do we find out Pig #3 is going to do something heroic. Readers today want to know from the beginning who they should root for.
- There’s no POV (Point Of View) character. We do have a narrator, the person telling the story, but that disconnects the reader from the action. The story will be more compelling if the reader bonds with someone in the story itself. Most of the time, stories are presented from the protagonist’s POV, with or without a narrator.
- The hero, Pig #3, doesn’t do anything until after the straw and stick houses have both been destroyed. Today’s readers want to see him confronting the evil wolf from the very beginning.
- Perhaps it’s a minor problem but, after the first attack, Pig #1 runs to the stick house. Why? Why did he go there instead of the brick house? Readers will want to know why he made this choice so we will need to fabricate something to satisfy their curiosity.
To bring the story up to contemporary expectations, we need to:
- name the major players,
- select a protagonist and tell the story from his POV,
- give him two try/fail attempts before the final climax, and
- give Pig 1 a reason to run to Pig 2’s house.
To get started with the rewrite, let’s create character and setting cards, and then scope out the scenes.
Here are the character and setting cards.
- Mugsy: Pig #1. Straw house. A “party animal.”
- Pugsy: Pig #2. Stick house. Also a “party animal.”
- Walter: Pig #3 and the protagonist. He’s responsible and hard working, but cares about his (foolish) friends. The story will be presented (POV) through his eyes.
- The Big Bad Wolf: He’s big and scraggly with many scars, and has glistening white, saliva-drenched teeth.
- The Forest Clearing: A clearing in a forest. Mugsy & Pugsy build their straw and stick houses on one side. Walter builds his brick house on the other side.
The revised 3×5 story cards look like this.
- Act I
- Hook: Walter Labors, Mugsy & Pugsy Dance — Walter sees Mugsy and Pugsy dancing after completing their straw and stick houses while he is still laying brick.
- Plot Turn 1: The Wolf Enters — Walter sees the wolf and surmises its goal, a tasty meal.
- Act II
- Pinch 1: Straw House Collapses — Walter sees the collapse of the straw house, and when Mugsy flees, he tries to get him to come to the brick house, but Pugsy’s stick house is closer. (Walter’s try/fail #1.)
- Midpoint: Walter Tries to Distract the Wolf — The wolf attacks the stick house. Walter realizes the same thing is going to happen again so he steps outside and starts waving his fore-hooves and squealing to distract the wolf. But, after an angry glare, the wolf continues huffing and puffing at the stick house. (Walter’s try/fail #2.) [Walter initiates action from here on. This is the hero’s cardinal change at the Midpoint!]
- Pinch 2: Stick House Collapses — When the stick house collapses, Mugsy and Pugsy run to Walter’s brick house. They slam the door inches ahead of the wolf.
- Plot Turn 2: It’s Only a Matter of Time — The wolf huffs and puffs at the brick house, but other than the door rattling, it is unscathed. Mugsy and Pugsy voice their relief but Walter knows it’s only a matter of time until the wolf spots the open chimney.
- Act III
- Resolution: Walter Saves the Day — Walter stokes the fire in his fireplace to heat the water in his gigantic pot. When the wolf spots the chimney, he dives down through it, but then plunges into the boiling water and dies. Mugsy and Pugsy elect Walter as President of the Forest Clearing Association and build new houses of brick.
We now have a real Midpoint: Walter has a revelation, that Mugsy and Pugsy won’t be safe in the stick house, and he changes from reaction to action when he waves and yells to distract the wolf. From the Midpoint on, Walter acts like a hero by trying to save his friends!
Let’s put this into Scrivener.
FYI: If you’ve been holding off and waiting for the multiple storyline stuff before turning on your computer, now’s the time to boot up and start typing. This project will be the basis for the more complex work to follow.
Scrivener’s File -> Save As and specifying a new project name–perhaps appending a version number of your own to the name–is another way of creating a new project while preserving the old one.
Here’s my new project with the rewritten storyline after everything has been updated. I named it Three Little Pigs — Single Storyline.
At this point, we could begin writing the text of our rewritten story using each scene’s Synopsis.
But the overall story is still dull and droll. It is, after all, just an old fable.
It needs SEX!
Today’s readers are accustomed to complicated stories. They expect subplots. These may also called different things such as character arcs, story arcs, romance arcs, …
So, let’s have Walter fall in love!
Meet the girl.
- Lola (Romantic Interest)
- Goal: Marriage but have some fun in the meantime.
- Likes scarlet lipstick.
- A flirt.
Adding a romantic interest is going to complicate Walter’s life. He not only has to defeat the wolf, but now he also has to win Lola’s (flighty) heart.
But romance has its ups and downs. Indeed, it can be a story all on its own. In other words, we now have two storylines: defeating evil, and winning at love.
Here are the scenes for the Romance Storyline.
- Hook: Lola Arrives — Lola wanders into the clearing and joins the dancing with Mugsy and Pugsy.
- Turn 1: Walter Sees “His One True Love” — Moments before the wolf arrives, Walter sees Lola and decides she’s the one. He waves when she looks his way but then ignores him and keeps dancing.
- Pinch 1: Lola flees to Pugsy’s House — She runs with Mugsy to Pugsy’s stick house.
- Midpoint: Walter Realizes Only He Can Save Lola — Walter realizes he must save Lola as well as Mugsy and Pugsy.
- Pinch 2: Lola Flees to Walters But Huddles with Mugsy and Pugsy — Lola flees with Mugsy and Pugsy to Walter’s house.
- Turn 2: Lola Sees Walter as Her Knight in Shining Armor — When the wolf huffs and puffs but Walter’s house protects them, she moves from Mugsy and Pugsy to stand close to Walter. He tells her, “We must kill the wolf!” She helps Walter ready the kettle and they exchange looks of admiration and affection.
- Resolution: Walter and Lola Marry — Walter and Lola marry in the clearing before the partially built brick homes of Mugsy and Pugsy.
Using Labels for Storyline
Next, we need to merge and sequence the two storylines together. There’s a nice feature in Scrivener for this. It uses Labels and is called Arrange by Label. It’s a feature of the Corkboard view.
Here’s a preview. Each vertical line represents one storyline and we can drag-and-drop scenes up and down any storyline, and shift them to other storyline(s) as we might wish.
But to use this feature, we have to use labels for storylines. We’ve already set our labels to one of the Seven Points. If we re-use labels for something else, aren’t we going to lose track of our Seven Point information?
Yes and no. We’ll need to move the Seven Points information somewhere else. And Scrivener’s Metadata is the perfect place!
Preparing to Leap Forward Again
Let’s start by shifting the work to yet another new project (and copying over what we need from the old one). [You could also do a File -> Save As and specify the name of the new project rather than copying–drag-and-drop–the scenes. Both methods are valuable. Be sure to try both ways.]
Here’s what you need to accomplish in setting up the new project:
- Name the new project something like Three Pigs — Multiple Storylines;
- Add five characters (Mugsy, Pugsy, Walter, Big Bad Wolf, and Lola);
- Add a setting for the forest clearing; and
- Include the scenes from your previous project, but omit the acts (folders) because, with two storylines, we’re going to be shuffling/merging/squishing things around.
Next, in the Label settings [you changed them earlier–so do it again] and provide only two choices: Main Storyline and Romance Storyline. In the screen captures, you’ll see I also changed the Label colors to lime green for the main story, and hot pink for the romance. (In the Label editor, click on the color dots to change them.)
Label the original scenes as Main Storyline.
Then, add the seven romance scenes beneath the first storyline and Label them to the Romance Storyline.
When done, the Outline view should look something like this.
Next, let’s define two metadata variables. Each of them will consist of a list of the Seven Points. (Additionally, we need to enable them in the Outline view.)
You might question why we need two variables. After all, we did this before with the Label and there was only one of those. The reasons we need two variables is because one scene may, after we do some shuffling and editing, end up in both storylines, and have a different plot point in each. To give one scene two plot points means we need two metadata variables.
As you did before, click the up-down arrow next to the Label field in the bottom-right corner of the display and click Edit…
But this time, on the left side of the edit window that opens, select Custom Metadata (see the screen capture below).
In this display, notice there is an upper and a lower box on the right, each of them with a “+” and a “-” icon (above or below the respective boxes).
On the far right at the top, click the “+” icon and create a new metadata variable called Main Storyline. In the middle between the two boxes, set the Type: to List, and at the bottom of the lower box, use that lower “+” icon to add values for the Seven Points. (Tip: I used shorter names so the columns in the Outline view can be narrow.)
Similarly, add a second metadata variable, Romance Storyline, and give it the same List of possible values.
Click OK to save your changes to Custom Metadata.
With the two metadata variables added, let’s add them to the Outline view.
Select the Manuscript in the Binder, the Outline view, and then the right-pointed arrow in the outline’s heading.
In the list of fields to be displayed in the Outline view (see below), checkmark the Main Storyline and Romance Storyline variables near the bottom of the list.
Finally, set the Main Storyline metadata variable for each of the (first) seven scenes to the appropriate Seven Point value, and the Romance Storyline metadata variable for the (last) seven scenes to their appropriate Plot Point values. (At the moment, each scene should be in one or the other storyline. Below, notice that “Walter Saves the Day” scene is the Resolution in the Main Storyline, but None (not part of) the Romance Storyline.)
Arrange by Label
We’re ready to start merging the two storylines!
We’ll do this in the Corkboard view by turning on Arrange by Label and then dragging-and-dropping the scenes up and down either storyline. (You can also move a scene sideways from one storyline to the other. If you do that by accident, you can just as easily shift it back.)
To get started, make sure the Manuscript is (1) selected, (2) choose the Corkboard view, (3) click Arrange by Label, (4) set the arrangement to vertical, and (5) adjust the card size to the minimum.
Now, you’re ready to drag-and-drop the scenes. (As you do, Scrivener will re-sequence the Binder.)
Reading the synopses, I decided that both Hook scenes should appear in the story as scenes 1 and 2. So, I used the mouse to grab the first scene in the Romance Storyline and dragged it up so it fit into the gap just after the Main Storyline‘s first scene.
Continue adjusting the scenes up and down the story until you have them in a spot that seems reasonable to you.
You may find, as I did, that some scenes should be merged. After shuffling things around, I decided that the first scene in each storyline, “Walter Labors while Mugsy and Pugsy Party” (Main Storyline) and “Lola Arrives” (Romance Storyline) should actually be a single, blended scene. In my mind’s eye, I see Walter looking across as Mugsy and Pugsy dance when Lola comes into view. Walter will admire her beauty, then see her start to dance with his pals and feel his heart start to throb.
How you handle these “merged scenes” is up to you. Here are some suggestions.
- You could copy the Synopsis from Lola Arrives into the first card in the Main Storyline, make an appropriate annotation in both cards (so you don’t forget), and be done with it.
- Alternatively, you could do what I did. I created a “Merged Storyline” (yellow) and slid the two scenes over to it. Then, in the Binder, I moved the second scene “inside” (into) the first–you’ll see it indented in the Binder, and as a stack of cards in the corkboard.
Here’s my final arrangement. (Look at both the Binder and the Corkboard view to see the relationships.)
FYI: I added a “Lola and Walter Love Scene” for the adult version of the story. Novels contains dozens of scenes, many of which are not one of the seven plot points. Additional scenes like this are common in a big work.
For completeness, here’s the Outline view (below). The relationship of the first two scenes, with the second one nested inside the first, is visible in the central editor as well as in the Binder. Also, the metadata columns are visible in the editor’s view and we can see that both scenes are the “Hook” (plot point) for their respective storylines.
Additionally, I combined “Walter Sees ‘His One True Love'” into “Lola Arrives” merging the “Hook” and “Turn 1” scenes in the Romance Storyline. (I re-edited the metadata to add that selection.)
It’s up to the writer to hook the reader’s interest.
The Three Act structure with its Beginning, Middle, and End has been found to be one of the things that consistently works to help hold reader (or viewer) attention.
More recently, the Seven Point System has been found to provide a finer degree of control (manipulation!) of the reader’s interests within the Three Act structure.
With multiple storylines, shuffling 3×5 cards (I staple scene cards together if I want to “blend” them–works great!) and shifting them around with Scrivener’s Arrange by Label lets you see what’ll work best for you.
Applying these structures to a work, either before or after the writing, will make it more successful.