What are plot points?
A plot point is an event that changes the context of a story. It could be the death of a main character, a new understanding, a new weapon, a new conflict, a new stake, an increase in the threat posed by the antagonist – anything that changes the way the protagonist thinks about his role in the narrative. Plot points hold the story together by forming the most important nodes of its structure. As well as acting as a foundation on which your story structure is built, plot points help keep the reader engaged by changing the story enough to keep it interesting.
Plot points can occur at any point of the story; however, there are four main plot points that need to be present and in the right places for your story to be solid. These plot points are in the most logical places for the context to be changed. They also act as signposts, communicating to the reader that they are about to enter the next phase of the story.
The four main plot points
1. Inciting incident
The inciting incident occurs quite early in the story and is the point where the protagonist first realises that their life has changed, but not enough to launch them on an adventure. It could come in the form of a small problem that the protagonist plans to overcome and then return to his normal life (like chasing down a runaway droid obsessed with finding Obi-Wan Kenobi and then returning to normal life), a small goal the protagonist wants to achieve and then return to his normal life (like wanting to read a mysterious letter that his aunt and uncle won’t let him have), or an unforeseen conflict thrown in the protagonist’s path that she hasn’t begun to find a solution to yet (like volunteering in the Hunger Games to save her sister from certain death).
The inciting incident has two purposes:
- It should hook the reader. The inciting incident won’t be the first hook because it likely won’t occur early enough, but it should be bigger than any hook you’ve introduced before this point.
- It should provide some set-up for the main goal or conflict. Luke chasing down R2 leads to meeting Obi-Wan, and also removes Luke from his home at the time the stormtroopers attack it, allowing his return home to become another plot point. Harry’s failure to read his letter leads to Hagrid finding him and delivering the news that he’s a wizard. Katniss volunteering for the Hunger Games puts her in the situation of, well, the Hunger Games.
The inciting incident should not come so soon that readers have not yet had a chance to form sympathy for your character, i.e. readers need a reason to be engaged by this incident. Nine times out of ten, it should not occur before the end of the first chapter. It should also not occur so late that everything prior to the incident is unnecessary, as this will likely bore readers.
2. The first plot point
The first plot point usually happens as a result of the inciting incident. The inciting incident puts the character in a situation that naturally leads to conflict. This conflict may be present prior to the first plot point, but at the first plot point it is realised to an extent that the protagonist can – or decides to – start to fight it. Luke returns home to find his aunt and uncle murdered by Stormtroopers and decides to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan to help the rebel alliance. Katniss realises that she must be liked by sponsors to win the Hunger Games and decides on a strategy, holding hands with Peeta to excite the viewers. Harry Potter is a little different, as most loose strings were tied with Hagrid’s arrival. There is still a first plot point, though: when Harry boards the train and is off to Hogwarts. It’s a plot point because this communicates to the reader that they’re entering a new phase of the story – Harry’s life at Hogwarts. To keep the reader engaged, there is still one loose string that hasn’t been tied that will keep the reader reading: the break-in at Gringotts.
In all three of these examples, the story is kicked into a higher gear and goes in a different direction. This new direction is usually the protagonist trying to test the waters. They’re reacting to the situation and trying to understand it and figure out a way of solving their current problems (e.g. finding transport, finding and interpreting clues, preparing for the Games).
The first plot point should appear about a quarter of the way through the story. It shouldn’t come so early that it can’t be properly set up, but it should come early enough that most of the story is dedicated to the protagonist’s struggle with the conflict.
3. The midpoint
In the part following the first plot point, the protagonist is trying to find his feet and solve the immediate problems that the first plot point introduced. At the midpoint, most or all of these small-scale problems will have been solved, but lead to the discovery of an even bigger problem or problems – an even bigger threat posed by the antagonist. The story is, yet again, launched in a different direction as things get more serious. Luke and co. discover that the planet to which they are to deliver the mysterious plans has vanished and they are then captured. Harry and co. discover that Snape is trying to steal whatever Hagrid took from Gringotts and Dumbledore hid underneath Fluffy. Katniss forms an alliance with Rue.
The midpoint occurs in the middle of the book and divides the middle section in half. Following the midpoint, the protagonist starts to become more active in their attempt to overcome the conflict.
4. The second plot point
The second plot point is the beginning of the end. An event here should indicate to the reader that this is so – that they’re heading into the end of the story. The middle of the story is full of subplots and side quests; the final part of the story should zoom in to the central conflict and be about almost nothing else. The Rebel Alliance reviews the Death Star plans and come up with a plan to destroy it. Harry discovers that it’s actually Voldemort who wants the Philosopher’s Stone so the central conflict is fully realised. The rules of the Games change so that Katniss and Peeta will both be able to win.
Signposting the beginning of the end for readers allows them to get into the best mindset for experiencing the climax. This should happen about three-quarters of the way through the story, giving sufficient time for the story to develop before the climax, as well as giving sufficient time for the climax and resolution to happen.
Do you have these four moments in your story? If not, what is it that holds together and progresses your story?
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