If you had pick the single most important moment in characters arcs, what would it be? The Third Plot Point, you say? Well, you’d be right. Now here’s the harder question: Why is it the most important moment?
The Third Plot Point is the low moment in your story. A minute ago, at the end of the Second Act, your protagonist seemed to have won a victory. Everything seemed to be going his way. He was getting the Truth figured out, and he seemed to have at least pushed the Lie to the back of his life. Even the antagonist appeared to be at his mercy.
Cue the “happily ever after” sonata, right?
Nopers. Because, as you know all too well by now, pushing that Lie to the back burner isn’t good enough. Before this story can end, that Lie has to reappear front and center and confront the protagonist head on. That’s what the Third Plot Point is all about. This low moment—this defeat, which is made all the more crushing because it comes on the heels of a seeming victory—will force the character to stop deceiving himself about the Lie. He can’t evade it anymore. He can’t pretend it away. He has to confront it once and for all—and either destroy it or be destroyed.
Before we continue, consider the structural basics of the Third Plot Point:
- The Third Plot Point is a low moment for your character, a place of seeming defeat.
- The Third Plot Point forces the character to be absolutely honest with himself about himself.
- The Third Plot Point changes the paradigm of the story one more time.
- The Third Plot Point strips away any remaining veils and reveals to the character what the conflict is really about.
The Third Plot Point
The Second Half of the Second Act was a place of empowerment for your protagonist. His embrace of the Truth after the Midpoint allowed him to act rightly with more and more conviction (and success) throughout the rest of the Second Act. But after the apparent victory that closed out the Second Act, the Third Plot Point now forces a crisis—in both the plot and the character’s arc.
This point of crisis is the result of a reversal enacted by the antagonistic force. The protagonist thought he had the bad guy down for the count, but the baddie’s got one more trick up his sleeve. Usually, this reversal is accompanied by a completely unexpected (although, of course, not unforeshadowed) revelation.
Sometimes this revelation will be a plot twist, but often it will be nothing more than a sudden and full understanding of the protagonist’s Lie-empowered weaknesses. It’s this new information, as much as anything, that lays your protagonist open for the final blow. He’s so stunned he can’t even fight back.
The Ultimate Choice Between Want and Need
In plot terms, the Third Plot Point is all about creating a “physical” moment in which the protagonist’s plot goals are endangered. But in character terms, the Third Plot Point hinges upon not just “something bad” happening in the outer conflict, but rather an inner choice on the protagonist’s part.
At last, after two long story acts, he must at last choose between the Thing He Wants and the Thing He Needs—between the Lie and the Truth. Throughout the Second Half of the Second Act, he convinced himself he could have both. Now, he realizes that’s impossible.
If this moment is to bear its full weight in the story, it must be a soul-wrenching choice. Whatever the protagonist decides here, he will lose something vital. He can either choose the Truth and lose his dream. Or he can choose his heart’s desire and live the Lie for the rest of his life.
The Thing the Character Wants needs to be within his grasp. It’s finally right there, in all its wonderful glory. He’s dreamed about it for so long. Now it’s his for the taking. All he has to do is close his eyes to the truth and reach out and take it. And he wants it so badly, the desire for it is practically killing him. The stronger your character’s yearning for the Thing He Wants at this point, the more powerful your Third Plot Point will be.
But that’s only one side of the choice. The other is the Truth—which he has also come to realize he can’t live without. Even as siren song of the Thing He Wants beckons him almost irresistibly, his eyes are finally opened to the full horror of the Lie. He shudders at the thought of sacrificing the Thing He Wants, but he is equally sickened by the possibility of having to reject the Truth and step back into the shadows of his Lie. In Plot vs. Character, Jeff Gerke emphasizes:
[The protagonist] comes to understand both the promise and the price of the two ways. He comes, in other words, to truly understand his choice…. The moment of truth is not complete unless the hero understands not only what he stands to gain by choosing one option over the other, but also what he stands to lose.
Since this is a positive change arc, your readers all know, deep down, what your protagonist is going to choose. But the harder his choice, the more readers will begin to doubt his final decision—and the more powerful his choice will be when he makes it.
The Old Self Dies
Finally, his heart feeling as if it’s about to torn in two, the protagonist makes his choice. He chooses Truth. He chooses to reject the Lie. He will not allow himself to live by this false belief anymore. He will embrace the Truth and do the right thing, even though it means (or, in some stories, seems to mean) forever losing the Thing He Wants. (Whether or not he actually gains the Thing He Wants in the end is irrelevant. For now, the only thing that matters is that he is fully willing to give it up.)
At this point, the choice must become more than decision; it must become an action. His convictions are so strong they force him to act upon them in a way that solidifies his new path. He must burn his physical bridges. After the Third Plot Point, he won’t be able to go back and change his mind in order to gain the Thing He Wants, even if his resolve should later weaken.
Metaphorically, this moment is a representation of the character’s dying to his old self. Although he may still experience throughout the Third Act, he is, at this moment, so committed to the Truth that he’s willing to physically die for it. Indeed, he does metaphorically die, right alongside his Lie.
The Third Plot Point will often feature actual death, either literally or symbolically. If an important character doesn’t end up literally dying here (as, for example, Obi-Wan does in Star Wars), death might be represented via life-threatening weather in the background, the character losing his job (signifying professional death), a pet’s death, a funeral on the road, or an obituary in the paper. The death motif must be organic to your story. The symbolism can never be arbitrary (e.g., the funeral the character passes on the road must have some connection to do with the plot). But the pall of death will almost always be, if not in the forefront, then hovering in the background of the Third Plot Point.
How Does the Third Plot Point Manifest in Character Arcs?
Your character’s arc in the Third Plot Point could manifest as:
- A ruthless attack on an innocent town (including people he’s come to care about) when his brother attempts to kill him. He chooses to literally stop fighting and sacrifice his own life to save others. (Thor)
- The discovery that Rochester is already married to a madwoman and that Jane can only remain with him if she’s willing to sacrifice her spiritual and moral freedom by becoming his mistress. She decides the price for being loved is too high—and flees. (Jane Eyre)
- The electrocution of Tim, followed by the escape of the raptors. Dr. Grant decides to do whatever he has to do to protect the children. (Jurassic Park)
- The return of his mother and her latest abusive boyfriend and their claim that his uncles are thieves who have been lying to him about how they became rich. He chooses to reject his mother’s lies and refuses to reveal the money’s whereabouts. (Secondhand Lions)
- A refusal by Andy’s other toys to help him escape Sid’s room, followed by Buzz getting strapped to Sid’s rocket. Woody realizes he can’t escape alone and chooses to admit that Andy’s need for both Woody and Buzz is more important than his own escape. (Toy Story)
- The realization that one of them—Troy—has been captured by Iraqis and is being tortured. They decide to sacrifice half their gold in a deal to get vehicles and return to save him. (Three Kings)
- A betrayal by one of the firm members that leads to Matt’s brother-in-law being stabbed. Matt decides it’s time to walk away from the violence and take his sister and her son to safety in America. (Green Street Hooligans)
- The psychotic breakdown of his psychiatrist. Bob chooses to heed “the fam’s” wishes and leave them, even though they’ve all grown to care for one another. (What About Bob?)
Further Examples of the Third Plot Point in Character Arcs
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: On the stroke of midnight, just as Jacob Marley predicted, Scrooge is visited by the most terrifying specter yet—the Ghost of Christmas Future. The stink of death is miasmic in this section. Tiny Tim’s death is revealed. But, even more important, Scrooge’s death and its callous treatment by acquaintances and strangers alike, fills the Third Plot Point and most of the Third Act. Scrooge clearly sees the cost of his Lie and finally decides he will surrender his wealth and live the rest of his life honoring Christmas “in his heart” all the year ‘round.
Cars directed by John Lasseter: Right in the midst of his newfound friendship with the townsfolk and possibly love with Miss Sally, Lightning’s Third Plot Point is thrust upon him. Doubting the sincerity of Lightning’s newfound virtues, Doc has called in the media. Lightning is given the very escape route he’s been craving all along. His ability to get to his tie-breaker race in time is practically gift wrapped for him. But, suddenly faced with the realization that the race may mean giving the peace and happiness he’s found in Radiator Springs, Lightning has to be dragged away.
Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Arc in the Third Plot Point
1. What crushing event and/or revelation turns your character’s apparent success into the worst defeat yet?
2. How was this defeat enabled by the character’s refusal, thus far, to completely reject his Lie?
3. How does this defeat force your character to face the true ramifications of the Lie?
4. How can this defeat offer the character a clear path toward the Thing He Wants?
5. If he takes this path, how will it force him to reject the Thing He Needs?
6. How can you set up a clear and decided choice between the Thing He Needs and the Thing He Wants?
7. Which will he choose?
8. How can you literally or symbolically represent death in this scene as a way of reinforcing the demise of your character’s Lie-empowered old self?
By this point, you should be able to see how the plot points steer your story around the corners of your character’s arc. The First Plot Point kicked him out of his Normal World and forced him to start reacting. The Midpoint woke him up out of his reactions and guided him into taking action. But that action was, at least partially, just an external response. The character spends the Second Half of the Second Act acting in the right way (for the most part), but he hadn’t yet quite learned his lesson. Deep down, he still believed he had several options open to him, even though there was only one right option for him within the story.
That, as you’ve just learned, is why we need the Third Plot Point. The Third Plot Point rips away all those options and forces the character to a place where he has no choice but to be absolutely honest with himself about himself and about his situation. In the coming Climax, your protagonist will rise from the ashes, ready to do battle from a place of inner wholeness. The Third Plot Point is the place from which he rises.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll be talking about your character’s arc in the Third Act.
Previous Posts in This Series:
Part 1: Can You Structure Character?
Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes
Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost
Part 5: The Characteristic Moment
Part 6: The Normal World
Part 7: The First Act
Part 8: The First Plot Point
Part 9: The First Half of the Second Act
Part 10: The Midpoint
Part 11: The Second Half of the Second Act
Tell me your opinion: How does the tragedy of the Third Plot Point force your character to choose between the Lie and the Truth?
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