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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.

Short Story Elements

You can use this form to take notes while reading (or planning to write) a short story:







Other characters:






Plot structure, including important events:

Status quo:


Protagonist’s purpose, & counter-purpose of antagonist(s):

Conflict, & summary of events in rising action:



Resolution & dénouement:













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