secrets-of-story-structure-the-first-plot-point

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 4: The First Plot Point

Stories are a series of scenes. Some of those scenes are expected, some of them are even purposefully repetitious for the sake of emphasis. But some scenes change everything. These game changers are the plot points. They introduce significant elements and events that alter the subsequent course of the story. Your story can have any number of plot points, some relatively minor, some shockingly huge. Plot points are what keep your story moving forward. They mix things up, keep the conflict fresh, and propel your character far away from any possibility of stagnancy.

The first major plot point (which occurs around the 25% mark in your story) is a bit of a misnomer, since your story may have any number of plot points within the first quarter of the story. For example, in the film Changeling, we have several cataclysmic plot points (including the kidnapping of the heroine’s son, the return of the wrong boy, and the police department’s insistence that she accept the child anyway) before her decision, at the quarter mark, to fight back against the corrupt police department. Following, we’ll take a look at what differentiates the 25%-mark plot point from any that preceded it.

What is the first plot point?

The first major plot point changes everything. This is the point of no return for your characters. Often, this plot point will be the inciting event; if not, it will be the key event (next week, we’ll talk about the differences between these two events). The first plot point is the moment when the setup ends, and your character crosses his personal Rubicon. But this isn’t just an event that happens to him (such as the kidnapping of the heroine’s son in Changeling). This is an event that either incorporates or is directly followed by the character’s reacting in a strong and irrevocable way (for example, Changeling’s heroine’s decision to fight back against the police). We’ll be discussing the reaction in more detail in a future post.

Where does the first plot point belong?

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThe first plot point marks the finish of the first act, and the character’s reaction to it marks the beginning of the second. In a sense, the first plot point is the climax of the first act, and, as such, it should be placed approximately around the 20-25% mark. Generally, the exact placement of plot points in a novel allows more flexibility than what we find in a film. If you pay attention while watching a movie, you can time the major plot points down to the minute (which makes film an especially valuable medium for studying structure, since we can view the entire story structure in one sitting and identify the plot points with precision by dividing the total running time into fourths).

So what’s the reason for this seemingly arbitrary placement of the first plot point? Why the 25% mark and not the 10% or 40%? Simply, because this is the point at which a reader’s innately human story sense tells him something big is supposed to happen. If you’ve ever watched or read a poorly plotted story that skipped or postponed the first plot point, you probably instinctively sensed the story was dragging. Likely, you grew bored and got up to do something else without finishing the story. No first plot point means no turning point means the first act drags on too long—or, conversely, if the first plot point takes place too early, the second act drags on.

Examples from film and literature

As one of the most dynamic moments in any story, the first plot point is both one of easiest to spot and one of the most exciting to study. So let’s take a peek at what happens roundabout the 25% mark in our four example stories.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): After the ball at Netherfield Park, Darcy and Caroline Bingley convince Bingley to return to London and forget all about his growing affection for Jane. Much has happened in the story up to this point. Lydia and Kitty have become enamored of the militia. Wickham has turned Lizzy against Darcy. Jane and Lizzy have stayed over at Netherfield during Jane’s convalescence. And Mr. Collins has proposed to Lizzy. But everything changes at the 25% mark when Darcy and the Bingleys leave. This is the event that breaks Jane’s heart and infuriates Lizzy against Darcy. Character motivations and reactions aside, it also changes the landscape of the story, since several prominent characters are no longer in the neighborhood for the Bennets to interact with as they did throughout the first quarter of the book.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): Throughout the first quarter of the story, George Bailey’s plans for his life have progressed uninterrupted. Despite his various misadventures in Bedford Falls, he’s on the fast track to a European vacation and a college education. Then the first plot point hits, and his life is forever changed. When his father dies of a stroke, George’s plans are dashed. As in Pride & Prejudice, the standards that have already been established in the story are dramatically altered. This is no longer a story about a carefree young man freewheeling around town. From here on out, this is a story about a man forced to take responsibility by working at the Bailey Brothers’ Building & Loan.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): The quarter mark of Ender’s Game finds Ender graduating from his launch group to Salamander Army after a victorious confrontation with the bully Bernard. Aside from Ender’s personal assertion of brains, tenacity, and leadership qualities, with which he claims his spot at Battle School and makes it clear to himself, the other children, and the watching instructors that he will do whatever he has to do to survive, this first major plot point also changes the game (no pun intended!) by once again moving Ender to new surroundings. As a member of Salamander Army, he’s dropped into a new place, a new social stratum, and a new set of challenges.

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): After refitting the Surprise and heading back out to sea to look for their opponent, the French privateer Acheron, Captain Jack Aubrey is confident everything will go according to his plans. But he (and the viewers) are thrown for a loop by the first major plot point. Instead of the Surprise finding the Acheron, the captain abruptly wakes to discover the enemy bearing down on his much smaller ship. Suddenly, he’s not only not assured of an easy victory—or any victory at all, for that matter—he and his crew are also in dire danger of being captured. They scramble to escape, and the game of cat-and-mouse that will comprise the rest of the film begins in earnest.

Takeaway value

So what do the masterful plot points in these books and films teach us?

1. The first major plot point occurs almost on the dot at the 25% mark (Pride & Prejudice is the only one that was late and even then it was only by a few pages).

2. The first plot point is an event that changes everything and becomes a personal turning point for the main character.

3. The first major plot point almost always changes the story so irrevocably that even the character’s surroundings (either the physical setting or the cast of supporting characters) alters.

4. The first major plot point is something to which the main character must be able to react strongly and irretrievably.

The first major plot point is one of the most exciting moments in any story. Milk yours for all it’s worth! Choose a strong, cataclysmic event to which your character has no choice but to react with everything he’s got. Hit readers so hard at the end of the first act that they won’t even think about closing the book.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the Inciting Event and the Key Event.

Tell me your opinion: What happens at your first major plot point?

Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I agree. This first major plot point is important to the story and seeing it helps the reader want to keep reading. Great post.

  2. Good timing with this post! Our YA book group was just discussing plot points and how difficult they can be to pin down. I think I have it in my sights now, though, thanks!

  3. @Natalie: And as writers, we want nothing more than to keep those readers reading!

    @Angelica: The more often we can spot then books we’re reading and movies we’re watching, the easier it gets to figure them out. So keep watching that quarter mark!

  4. I have just posted in my Facebook that I finished the first chapter at about 3895 words and the first major plot point was established there early on shifting events from normal to the fantasy setting. I remarked how I probably wanted this portion proofread this before investing in the second chapter before starting to write it by getting an objective opinion if the first chapter was utter crap and if it was worth pursuing and going forward from someone not married to the work.

  5. As I mentioned in the Changeling example, having a major plot point happen that early isn’t necessarily a structural no-no. So long as you have a game changer at the quarter mark as well, you should be fine.

  6. I have been working on the placement of major plot point in my book. I have the book start off with a fairly big bang, as in a cataclysmic event that changes the entire world, and at first I was struggling with this because I read a book recently that talks about what you are saying in this post. I was concerned that my cataclysmic event should happen at the 25% mark rather than in the first few moments of the book. But when I went over what I had I realized that I had instinctively placed a major plot point at the 25% mark already. That is the point at which all the characters have been introduced and the new way the world is has been made clear and an event occurs that forces the characters to realize that the world is not changing back and that they have to make changes in how they live their lives in this new world if they are going to survive. Now that I have identified that plot point I can work a little bit more on beefing it up to give it the attention it deserves.

  7. The idea that the inciting event has to take place at the 25% mark is a common misconception (one I suffered under myself for a while). Next week, I’ll be discussing inciting events in more detail and talking about when they should happen in the story and how they differ from “key events.”

  8. The idea that movies are rigid about the 25% mark and books are more flexible made me smile. Perhaps that’s why the popular viewpoint that ‘the book was so much better than the movie’ persists.

  9. The very fact a two-hour movie has much less room to work in means it has to adhere to tighter guidelines (same with a short story). The sheer heft of a novel gives us a greater margin for error simply because the reader’s inner clock isn’t going to be ticking with as much precision as it would be in a shorter work.

  10. A wonderful post. You’ve made it so clear to understand the First Plot Point, which many writers find a hard concept to grasp at first. I read Larry Brook’s Story Engineering and like him, you gave fantastic examples in storytelling (fiction/movies).

    I wrote a post on this topic too, all about story structure and focused one post on the First Plot Point. It’s here if you’d like to see: http://rebeccaberto.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/the-best-advice-ive-learned-on-story-structure-part-2-plot-point-1/

  11. I have been following your Secrets of Story Structure posts. They have been a wonderful read.

    This one in particular was timely, as I am at around the 25% mark in my book and was feeling out how to pace my major plot shift.

    What really struck me was how you emphasized this plot point as “a personal turning point” at which the main character can “react strongly and irretrievably.” This sounds like the Critical Choice stage of the story structure 8-point arch, but the arch makes it sound like it should happen much later in the book. I like the 25% in timing, though.

    Does this plot timing tie in with the 8-point arch? Any other thoughts on the arch?

    Thanks!

  12. Now I’m going to figure out where the plot points of my long (15–30k word) short stories are. It wasn’t until I had to throw away 60k words of the first draft of my working novel that I started giving structure any thought. Fortunately, my pivot point (or first plot point) looks like it will end up between the 25–30% marks.

    Do you have any advice for people who don’t like to outline? I know you’re a huge advocate of outlining, but it’s not for everyone, yet nearly every novelist needs a classic structure.

  13. I’ve never thought about where I put the first major plot point… I’ve always just put it where it “seems” to flow the smoothest.

    Thanks for giving me an idea on where it works.. :D

  14. Great post; these series on story structure have been so helpful. And I love how concisely and well-written they are! A lot of the time, these kinds of posts can get very technical and go on forever, but I like how yours are written in very clear language.

    I also really appreciate the specific examples. It’s good to see the idea in a tangible way like that.

    Keep up the great work :)

  15. Great post. This is a lesson I particularly find useful. I love plot points but didn’t realize there’s one major one at the beginning that’s you’re turning point. I look at the book I’m editing now though and see that that plot point comes just as scheduled 25% of the way in the book. And it’s a good one, so I think I’ve chosen well. I just didn’t realize I guess, that you distinguish one from the other but you’re right, this one off-sets the others to follow and brings about great change. Thanks for the teaching, it’s very helpful!!

  16. Mine comes early, at about 22% through. Being the OCD I am, I calculated exactly 25% and it did come up in the middle of an exciting and important scene — for a secondary character. But the protag Haydren’s main event (as far as I understand main events now) is when a complete stranger recognizes his sword, freaks out about it, slips and starts to say something he shouldn’t (it would seem) and subsequently pulls out a dagger and slits his own throat (the stranger, not the protag). This is the first moment that indicates much larger events being orchestrated around Haydren. Looking back later in the novel, this scene provides fodder for the idea that Haydren is being acted upon rather than acting — an idea that, of course, Haydren rebels strongly against. It indicates for the reader as well that there will be much more difficulty ahead than the normal trouble attending a journey across a dangerous land.

  17. I’ve read a lot about the 25% mark and the first plot point, but this makes it far clearer. I find that a lot of writers who write about writing assume that there’s this common vocabulary out there, and because of that, they don’t explain a lot of the basics. Writers, however, come from such varied backgrounds that it’s impossible to assume everyone follows some magical writer’s handbook. The clarity of this helps make that more possible–thanks!

  18. @Rebecca: Good post! Story Engineering does an excellent job at presenting story structure in a simple and easily applicable way. It’s definitely influenced my viewpoints on the subject.

    @Christopher: The 25% plot point we’re talking about here would correlate to the “Trigger” in the 8-point arch. Of course, characters are faced with “critical choices” throughout the story, so just because they might have to make one here doesn’t rule out later choices. However, I will point out that the “turning point” in the first plot point isn’t so much the result of an active decision on the character’s part as it as a reactive one. Characters spend the first half of the story in one state of reaction or the other, and grow into active choices as the story progresses. I’ll be discussing that more in later posts.

    @London: My advice for non-outliners: outline! Okay, just kidding. ;) If possible, I would suggest trying to identify at least the major plot points (hook, first plot point, mid-point, climax entry, climax) before writing. Then you’ll know approximately how much story you have to write in between each point. But if even that turns out to be too much outlining, I would just wing it (trusting to the surprisingly accurate instincts of a writer), then go back and edit as needed.

    @Gideon: Chances are good that where your plot point seemed to “flow” was exactly where it belonged. When I first learned about the notion of story structure, I went back through all the books I’d written previously and was astounded to discover I had all the major plot points exactly where they belonged. Humans are instinctive storytellers, and as such we have a good sense for how a story is supposed to be structured, even when we don’t *know* how it’s supposed to structured.

    @Lalammar: So glad you’re enjoying the posts! Choosing and analyzing the examples has been one of the most enjoyable parts for me as well.

    @Traci: I have to admit I *love* the first major plot point. I love discovering it in every book I read and every movie I watch. It’s just such an exciting and galvanizing moment. And, once you know what to look for, it’s always so beautifully obvious.

    @David: Don’t sweat the extra 3%. As I mentioned in the post, a novel can safely place it’s plot point anywhere from the 20-25% (and, in some cases, maybe even a few percentages on either side of that). As long you’re roughly hitting the quarter mark, you’re safe.

    @L.B.: That varied vocabulary seems to be especially prevalent when discussing structure. There are so many systems out there – and every system describes itself in a slightly different way, even though they’re all addressing essentially the same thing. Glad I was able to clear some things up for you!

  19. In one project, about the 20% point, my MC’s best friend professes his love for her, then right at the 25% point, there’s a second murder. Yeah, I think I’ve got that covered. ;) For both the plot and major subplot.

    With my other projects, I’m not sure… there’s too much reworking to do. :)

  20. Yep, sounds spot on. Good work!

  21. Another very interesting post. :)

    The end of my First Act is when the heroine confronts a man she has thought of as her enemy, who now claims to be a friend. She has to decide whether to risk everything by trusting him – what will she do? And where does the true danger lie? :D

  22. From the sounds of it, your first plot point is not only a game changer for the plot, but it also does a good job altering the “landscape” of the story by shifting the relationship between two key characters.

  23. Yes, it certainly does that. In fact, to some extent, it changes the relationships between FOUR key characters, who are all involved, and have to respond to the situation. But the heroine’s choice and response are the most critical. :)

    And the physical setting changes shortly afterwards, as a result of her decision. This is where the story REALLY starts. :)

  24. Awesome! You get shiny A+ stickers all the way around!

  25. Hi K.M. Excellent post. I’d never thought about percentages, but it makes sense. I love to write in scenes and agree that studying movies is a great way to study structure. I mainly write flash fiction so I have to get straight into it but your post may help me administer moutn-to-mouth on my three unfinished novels!

    Denise

  26. Flash fiction is art unto itself – one I have yet to attempt myself, although I have a lot of fun reading it.

  27. Scott C says:

    Hi. I’m trying to learn about writing, and I’m having trouble identifying the first plot point in the screenplay for a few good men. I think it’s intentionally understated. I think it’s when Danny Kaffee is at Guantanamo Bay and begins to suspect a cover-up. But he doesn’t react to his suspicions to let the audience know he suspects it. (When Joanne reacts, he tries to shut her down to keep Colonel Jessep from finding out what he suspects.) Is that the first plot point? Does anyone here have thoughts on that? Here’s the link to the screenplay.
    http://www.awesomefilm.com/script/afewgoodmen.txt

  28. I haven’t seen the movie (and can’t accurately measure percentages on the script, since it doesn’t have page numbers). If that’s what happens at the 25% mark and if it directly influences all the story to follow, then that’s probably the first plot point.

  29. Scott C says:

    Thanks for the quick response, KMW. I just watched the film, after reading your comment, and I did a little math. This moment is at the 31% mark, but it’s the only moment anywhere near the 25% mark that could be it. What interests me about it is that, instead of a big reaction that calls attention to the change Tom Cruise makes at that point, Cruise tries to hide the fact that he’s figured it out. The audience is given clues though (he makes a seemingly innocuous comment to Jack Nicholson to see his reaction, and shuts down Demi Moore when she tries to go into it with Jack.) And that moment turns Cruise from standard military lawyer into a man with a cause. But that doesn’t become crystal clear immediately.
    Also, it’s a great movie: written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, with a consultant credit to William Goldman. And a great cast, not only with Cruise, Moore, and Nicholson, but also Kevin Bacon, Keifer Sutherland, Kevin Pollack, and J.T. Walsh. Thanks again for your response.

  30. Now, you’ve got me curious. I’m not generally a big fan of legal movies (or Tom Cruise), but I’m going to have to check it out.

  31. Thanks K.M. for another brillant post. Before starting my own writing adventure I believed the ending would always be the bigger part of the story, but the more I researched and studied the writing craft, I changed my view. Now, like you, I believe the first plot point really sets off the entire story.

    The Harry Potter series would be non-existent if Harry didn’t find out he was a wizard and go to Hogwarts. Luke Skywalker would have no reason to go with Obi-Wan Kenobi and defeat the Death Star if he didn’t go home to find his aunt and uncle murdered. The Lord of the Rings might have been a single volume series if Froto didn’t leave the Shire to protect the ring.

    A good First Plot Point carries a lot of weight with it.

    Thanks again!

  32. It’s difficult to say that any one part of a story is more important than another, but the First Plot Point absolutely carries its share of weight. It’s also one of the most exciting and interesting parts to craft.

Trackbacks

  1. […] first major plot point changes everything. This is the point of no return for your characters. Often, this plot point will […]

  2. […] you could devote to honing your ability to craft memorable characters, impeccable dialogue, and turning points that keeps your readers up at […]

  3. […] first major plot point changes everything. This is the point of no return for your characters. Often, this plot point will […]

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