Writing About Literature

The Sevenfold Structure of All But the Most Outrageously Experimental Plots

The Sevenfold Structure of All But the Most Outrageously Experimental Plots


  1. Exposition / Setting: what is the status quo? Introduce characters, establish relationships and set the scene in which will occur a totally unexpected . . .

  2. Complication: some new element — an event, new information, new problem, often the appearance of the antagonist, — which in turn sparks a . . .

  3. Purpose: something set off in the protagonist (and possibly the same or an opposing purpose set off in one or a few others) by the introduction of the new element (i.e. the complication) that both points to an as-yet unrevealed motive, and generates a super-objective for the character(s).


  1. Conflict & Rising Action: a function of opposing objectives between characters, or between the character(s) and some other force. This is the classic man vs . . . theme: man vs. man (Connell, The Most Dangerous Game; W.C. Williams, The Use of Force; Crane, The Blue Hotel; Shaw, The Girls in Their Summer Dresses); man vs. himself (Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend; Joyce, Eveline; Barth, Night-Sea Journey; Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart); man vs. environment (including man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. fate, man vs. machine, &c . . . : Orwell, 1984; Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron; London, To Build a Fire; Salinger, A Perfect Day for Bananafish; Sophocles, Oedipus Rex & Oedipus at Colonus; traditional, John Henry).

The meat of the plot occurs through the Rising Action, which is an escalating dialectic between the protagonist as driven by his purpose, and the forces working against that purpose. In effect, the protagonist tries something, is frustrated by the forces of the antagonist’s counter-purpose (or the story’s obstacle), and there is a result from this, which, in turn, sparks the protagonist to try something else, to which the forces of the counter-purpose or obstacle respond . . . &c. At each stage of the rising action the stakes increase, as does the drama & pathos (& absurdity, if a comedy). This continues until the protagonist reaches a . . .

  1. Crisis: figuratively, a dark night of the soul. This is when all seems lost, hopeless (that is, for the accomplishment of the protagonist’s objective), because the protagonist has run out his standard repertoire of ideas & actions to take: the status quo will no longer work; the conflict can escalate no further.


  1. Climax: In response to the crisis, the protagonist takes some action outside the realm of normal behavior (normal for him, that is — i.e. outside the boundaries of the established status quo), in a final confrontation between the conflicting characters/forces. Out of this final confrontation comes the . . .

  2. Resolution / Denouement: the settling of the conflict; the bringing to light of dark motives; the learning of lessons. The status quo, as a result, is forever changed by the occurrence (or knowledge of) the preceding conflict & climax; thus the plot ends with a fundamental change of condition: marriage (Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story); death (Shakespeare, Hamlet); rebirth (Homer, Odyssey); sadder & wiser (Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner); freedom (E.J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman); &c.


Obviously the particular expressions of this sevenfold structure will differ from plot to plot. For example, in Stephan Crane’s story The Blue Hotel, between the crisis and the climax comes a second exposition. In John Updike’s A & P, the complication is introduced in the very first sentence (“In walks three girls in nothing but bathing suits”). Both of these stories, however, make full use of all seven plot elements, as do all but the most outrageously experimental works of fiction and drama.

If you’re writing a story, a plot can germinate from any one of the above stages.


What is Poetry?

. . . it is not meters, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form. The poet has a new thought; he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet


The Passions of Poetry

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. . . . [However,] the Poet ought to profit by the lesson held forth to him, and ought especially to take care, that whatever passions he communicates to his Reader, those passions . . . should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure. Now the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or meter of the same or similar construction . . . —all these imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling always found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions. This effect is always produced in pathetic and impassioned poetry; while, in lighter compositions, the ease and gracefulness with which the Poet manages his numbers are themselves confessedly a principal source of the gratification of the Reader. All that it is necessary to say, however, upon this subject, may be effected by affirming, what few persons will deny, that, of two descriptions, either of passions, manners, or characters, each of them equally well executed, the one in prose and the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once.

William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads


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