your character's arc in the first plot point

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 8: The First Plot Point

If the First Act is setup, then the First Plot Point is the point of no return in character arcs. The setup ends, and the story begins “for realz.” At this point the character commits—usually because he has no choice—to a decision that will propel him out of the comfortable stagnation of the Normal World and the Lie He Believes.

Creating Character ArcsWe might visualize a locked door separating the First Act from the Second Act. The First Plot Point is where the protagonist sticks his key in that door and unlocks it. And, like Pandora’s box, he ain’t never going to get it shut again.

Those of you already familiar with plot structure will recognize that the First Plot Point acts as a sort of climax to the First Act. Let’s take a quick look at the structural basics of this first important turning point in your story:

  • The First Plot Point belongs around the 20-25% mark.
  • The First Plot Point ends the setup of your First Act.
  • The First Plot Point is where your character leaves his Normal World.
  • The First Plot Point either incorporates or is directly followed by the character’s decision to react in a strong and irrevocable way.

The First Plot Point will usually be a major scene. In a thriller or action story, something’s going to explode. In a romance, this may be where the leads meet for the first time—or where they decide they hate each other for the first time. Whatever event your story demands, take advantage of the opportunity to make this one of the story’s most exciting and memorable sequences.

The First Plot Point

The First Plot Point will almost always be forced upon your character. Something big and unforeseen smacks him upside the head. It could be something that seems pretty good: graduating (Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game), digging an escape tunnel (John Sturges’s The Great Escape), discovering a princess in your bedroom (William Wyler’s Roman Holiday). But likely it will be disastrous: a murder (Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), a nervous breakdown (Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid), a dashing of dreams (Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life).

Whatever the manifestation, the First Plot Point’s effect on your character’s arc can be found in three important decisions your character must make:

Character Decision #1: Prior to the First Plot Point

Your First Plot Point needs to be preceded by a strong decision on your character’s part (Dorothy Gale decides to run away from home; Jane Eyre decides to hire out as a governess), but the plot point itself is almost always something that upends the character’s plans (landing in Oz; meeting Rochester). This decision leads the character to the First Plot Point, but the decision itself isn’t the plot point.

The First Plot Point is something that happens to your character. It knocks his world off kilter and shakes his equilibrium all to smithereens. It either flatout destroys his Normal World, leaving him with no choice but to physically travel on (the burning of the plantation in Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot) or it warps the Normal World, forcing the protagonist to adapt to new ways of surviving within it (the death of Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man).

Character Decision #2: During the First Plot Point

The most important thing about the First Plot Point is your character’s reaction to it. If he just stands there observing, then turns and goes back to his old life, there can be no story. The First Plot Point sets up the series of reactions that will occupy your character for the next quarter of the book, up until the Midpoint.

As such, the First Plot Point has to cause one very specific initial reaction. Basically, this is just your character’s decision to react. It’s his decision to go ahead and unlock the door to the Second Act. He doesn’t turn away from the First Plot Point–he moves into it.

Character Decision #3: After the First Plot Point

Your character will have two basic responses to the First Plot Point. Either he’ll be, “Heck, yeah!” And charge right on through that door—with no clear idea of what he’s really getting himself into. Or he’ll be kicking and screaming as events beyond his control drag him through.

Either way, what’s important at this point is that the character quickly establishes a clear physical goal—based on the Thing He Wants. Usually, this goal will be very clear based on whatever’s just happened to him at the First Plot Point. Physically, he’ll have immediate needs that must be met, either in an effort to find a new “normal” to replace the old one (as will always be the case when the First Plot Point moves the character to a new setting) and/or in an effort to restore the old normal.

This new plot goal will be an obvious progression of the events in the First Act, but this is the moment where the goal fully solidifies. This plot goal will propel your conflict for the rest of the story, until your character either achieves it in the end or decides it was the wrong goal (in which case, he may or may not still physically achieve it).

Just as importantly, this definitive reaction to the First Plot Point will shape your character’s arc. You know you’ve found the right First Plot Point when it drags your character out his former complacency and puts his feet on the path toward destroying his Lie—even though he probably won’t realize that’s what happening and, indeed, may be actively fighting that destination. Whether he realizes it or not, he has committed himself to change, even though he may still be trying to change in the wrong way.

The difference now is that, unlike his comfy Normal World where living by the Lie was de rigueur, his post-First Plot Point life will no longer enable his complacency. In Character Arcs, Jordan McCollum comments:

 From here on out, whenever he retreats into his fears, he’ll receive negative consequences.

How Does the First Plot Point Manifest in Character Arcs?

Your character’s arc in the First Plot Point could manifest as:

  • Getting tossed out of his majestic Normal World because his Lie has made him too obnoxious—which gives him the new plot goal of trying to return to the Normal World. (Thor)
  • Getting hired as a governess by a formidable new employer—which gives her the new plot goal of making both the job and the relationship work. (Jane Eyre)
  • Arriving at the park and seeing real live dinosaurs for the first time—which gives him the new plot goal of exploring every inch of the park. (Jurassic Park)
  • Discovering Uncle Hub sword fighting in his sleep and hearing the first of Uncle Garth’s stories about their youthful exploits—which gives him the new plot goal of learning everything he can about the mysterious Jasmine. (Secondhand Lions)
  • Getting (literally) kicked out of his place of honor by the arrival of the new Buzz Lightyear toy—which gives him the new plot goal of trying to regain his top-dog spot. (Toy Story)
  • Discovering that a treasure map to Iraqi gold bullion has been found—which gives him the new plot goal of finding the treasure. (Three Kings)
  • Getting caught in the violent crossfire between two rival football firms—which gives him the new plot goal of fighting with the firm that saves him. (Green Street Hooligans)
  • Traveling to Lake Winnipesaukee to find his psychiatrist—which gives him the new plot goal of taking a vacation from his problems. (What About Bob?)

Further Examples of the First Plot Point in Character Arcs

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: The First Plot Point howls, uninvited, into Scrooge’s life when the first of the three ghosts arrives. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows up in Scrooge’s bedroom, forever changing Scrooge’s perception of the world. Even if the ghost should disappear, Scrooge’s Normal World has been shaken. But the ghost doesn’t disappear. Rather, it drags Scrooge through the gate at the end of the First Act. It forces Scrooge to begin the Second Act with the new plot goal of learning all he can about his own life and the Spirit of Christmas—even though he doesn’t fully realize it yet. In the beginning, all he wants to do is survive the night, but he’s already passed his point of no return: he can never go back his Normal World. The world itself hasn’t changed, but he has.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: The Thing Lightning McQueen Wants (the Piston Cup) is dragged out of his immediate reach when he is accidentally marooned—and arrested—in the forgotten rural town of Radiator Springs. If he’d had his way, he would never have ventured out of his glittering Normal World, and his immediate reaction to the First Plot Point is to form the plot goal of getting his bumper back to Normal as fast as he can rev his engine. But in this new world, all the rules are different. The Lie-spawned behavior he’s been liberally rewarded for previously gets him into deeper and deeper trouble in Radiator Springs.

Questions to Ask About the First Plot Point in Your Character’s Arc

1. What major event will slam into your character’s Normal World and force him to alter his original plans?

2. What decision will lead your protagonist to the First Plot Point?

3. Will the First Plot Point seem favorable? If so, how will the complications turn out to be worse than the protagonist expected?

4. Or will this event be obviously disastrous?

5. Will the protagonist willingly embrace the First Plot Point and walk into the Second Act under his own power?

6. Or will he have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, through the gateway between acts?

7. Will the First Plot Point destroy the Normal World? Or will it physically remove your character from the Normal World? Or will it warp the Normal World around the protagonist?

8. How will your character react to the First Plot Point?

9. What new plot goal will the character form in response to the First Plot Point?

10. How will the First Plot Point put your character’s feet on the path to his new Truth?

11. How will the First Plot Point create a new world in which the character will be “punished” for acting according to his Lie?

The First Act is about setting up your character’s Lie. From the First Plot Point on, that Lie’s days are numbered. From here on out, the story is about destroying the Lie and helping the character find the Truth that will allow him to combat the external conflict and grow into a whole person. Plan a First Plot Point that will tear away your character’s safety nets and force him to step out into the biggest adventure of his life!

Stay Tuned: In two weeks (we’ll be taking a break next week, while I’m on vacation), we’ll be talking about your character’s arc in the First Half of the Second Act.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost

Part 5: The Characteristic Moment

Part 6: The Normal World

Part 7: The First Act

Tell me your opinion: Does your character willingly walk past the First Plot Point? Or do you have to drag him, kicking and screaming?

your character's arc in the first plot point

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
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 am really enjoying this series! I’m a little sad we have to wait two weeks for the next one…haha. But I hope you enjoy the vacation! I especially liked what you said about the characters being ‘punished’ for reacting the only way they know how after the first plot point. What previously got them by isn’t cutting it anymore. Being a psychology geek, I can’t help but notice how this relates to behavioral psychology. It seems to me that after the first plot point, the process of ‘extinction’ begins, which is basically that the character’s old behaviors are going to become extinct because the environment–and therefore the consequences for their behavior–has changed. They have to learn new behaviors and new ways of dealing with things, and that process is slow and hard, which makes the length of the 1st half of Act 2 so crucial. =) I hope I am not being too much of a geek, haha! Thanks for the great post!

    • Exactly so! If the character’s Normal World in the First Act had continued, he would have had no true reason to evolve his behavior. It’s only because his surroundings change that he too is forced to change in order to survive (mentally, emotionally, and/or physically).

  2. Excellent as always! It amazes me how fast you do these, you deserve a break. For my story, Mac’s decision will be signing up to serve in Vietnam, and the first plot point will be him mentally escaping from his reality when things go south. However, the world that he has either found or subconsciously constructed doesn’t keep him completely safe from reality catching up and destroying him inside-out.

    • This idea of a “subconsciously created safe world” is important. In the beginning of the Second Act, the character will usually feel as if he’s more or less on top of things – when, really, it’s all a facade that’s doomed to fail unless he can come to grips with his Lie.

  3. A wonderful series!!

  4. She is literally walking through a magical gate, but she has no idea what she’s walking into. It gets her away from her current place and that’s what she cares about the most. For about 10 minutes!
    Her attitude is pretty negative but she isn’t being physically dragged.
    I appreciate you sharing all your wisdom with us. I’m sure my writing is stronger because of it.

  5. In the novella I’m writing, my MC’s first plot point slaps her upside the head. She walks smack into it and she can’t get away from it. It definitely turns her life–and her job–upside down. She can barely leave the police HQ without getting accosted by protestors and reporters! Of course, it came out of the blue, and she’s faced with how to tackle the issues that come out of it.

  6. Thanks for this series. I am learning a great deal and I’m posting some of your links on my blog. I’m curious, though, if you really believe writers have 20-25% of the book to get to this point. I am not finding that kind of patience on the part of agents and editors. The only book I’ve read in the last few years that seems to have that kind of leisure to get to plot point one is Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which I loved for just that reason.

    • The timing in a novel’s structures is slightly more flexible than in a screenplay, but 20-25% of the the story is what you should be aiming for in the First Act. This does *not* mean that nothing of interest or earth-shattering importance can’t take place in the First Act.

      An example I like to use is the movie Changeling. The First Plot Point is the heroine’s decision to fight back against a corrupt police department who is covering up the truth about her son’s kidnapping. Prior to the First Plot Point, the First Act contains such dramatic events as her son’s kidnapping and the police department’s returning the wrong boy and insisting she doesn’t recognize her own son.

      Pay attention to some of your favorite stories. You’ll see how the First Plot Point will land a quarter of the way into the book and how that first quarter is anything but dull.

  7. Great series, KM. It took me my first four novels to figure this out. Finally, someone asked me, “So what?” So what if there’s a dead guy in his diner. He can just step back and let the cops do their job. In that novel, I realized the murder had to be tied to my protagonist. And that accusation had to come at the first plot point. It made a huge difference (though the novel had many more problems), but gave me a valuable tool for future novels. I think it was about then that I really began studying structure. Thanks for being one of my favorite teachers!

    • Great example. The First Plot Point is very often the Key Event that “ties” the protagonist to the plot. Previously, he might have been able to escape. Now he’s stuck.

  8. K.M. I just came across ‘Creating Stunning Character Archs’ series and plan to read the previous 8 parts. After many years away from writing, I’m revising an unpublished work. Although my first plot point is holding strong, my main characters archs seem to be flat-lining. Very grateful that I found your series. Thank you and enjoy your time off. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you’re enjoying the series! Keep in mind there’s nothing wrong with a flat arc – as long as that’s what you’re going for. What I’m dealing with in this series (so far) is the positive change arc, in which the character ends the book by evolving into a more positive aspect of himself than he possessed in the beginning. Later on, I’ll be talking about flat and negative change arcs as well.

  9. Upon throwing out the first twelve chapters of my WIP and accepting that I need a new approach, I started reading a ton of writing blogs. I have to say yours is by far the most helpful for understanding the “science” behind plot structure. This series is especially wonderful. With each new segment I’m able to tweak my story and explain why certain things have not been working. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your valuable insight!

  10. Great article. Gives me a few things to think about, and helps me to understand things I have already put down on paper.

    I have two characters involved in a particular change, and they will be affected differently. One goes through “kicking and screaming,” but the other is much more flexible about change and understands that change is inevitable and has its place.

    There will of course be plenty of disagreements and heated moments between the two. ^_^

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s great when characters react to events differently. Not only does it create variety and interest and realistic characters, but it also allows us to explore various angles of the theme.

  11. Hi Katie
    I’m loving this series. I also love the use of so many examples. Reading these posts with context makes it so much easier to relate to what I’m writing. It’s also great for finding examples of good storytelling (I’m assuming you’re choosing these movies and books because they hit all the things you’re writing about!)
    Speaking of which, you mention ‘What About Bob?’ a lot. A favourite of yours? 🙂
    cheers
    Mike

  12. I’m so glad I discovered this series. I think the reason my novel is falling flat within the first ten chapters is because I have no inciting incident. I have always known how important it is, but the follow-through? Eh. Now that I’ve read this, I’m considering killing off a character now instead of at the climax of the second–and final–book. (After all, what motivates my character is keeping her best friend alive. What if he died sooner rather than later, and, since it’s a time travel novel, she’s going to have to find a way to bring him back?)

    Again, this post was invaluable to me. Thanks so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A character who dies in the present and can be brought back from the past? That I like!

  13. Great post as always, but please help me with something. I’m writing the second of a series. At the beginning of it, the heroine has already left her Normal World (well and truly so, by the end of the first book), so what are the character arc/plot points in such circumstances.

    I’m finding it difficult not to begin book two as if at the usual midpoint of a book (in terms of what you have stated above), as if the first act were done in book one and this is continuing off from that. Is that correct? Will it leave the book as a whole unbalanced? Exasperating!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In a sense, yes, your second book is akin to the Second Act. But it also has to be structured properly as an individual story. I finally got a chance to see Catching Fire last week, and it’s a great example of how a sequel operates on the same template as any other book, even though the character’s world has completely changed. In the beginning of the story, Katniss’s Normal World is completely different from the Normal World of the first book. It’s not normal at all, in some senses, but for the purposes of the second story, it’s her *new* normal.

      That new normal is explored by showing the differences between the worlds in the two stories, by reintroducing the important characters, and by emphasizing how the stakes have evolved in this sequel. Then, when the First Plot Point hits at the quarter mark (with the announcement of the Quarter Quell), everything changes again.

  14. Amanda says:

    I can’t tell you how useful your advice has been over the last year trying to write my first book! And I’ve just come back and discovered this wonderful series. One question, though – if moving into a new world at the quarter mark signals a life-changing event and, therefore, an immediate change of plans, how different does this new (?) goal have to be here? Don’t we then also get a new goal at the halfway mark? Or does each change of goal grow from the last (so that it’s not a totally new goal)? I feel like I need to make more changes of direction than a hare in spring time! Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It definitely needs to grow out of who the character was at the beginning of the story–his discontent, etc. It can also be an evolution of an already existing goal or dream the character didn’t previously have the guts or the means to put into play.

  15. I found this via Writer Unboxed and am catching up on the entire series! You’re setting out the plot elements I’m familiar with but have never been able to articulate. Now maybe I can figure out how to hammer out my WIP into a more coherent whole.

  16. I am reading/listening to this series at the moment and it is helping me immensely. I had my first plot point planned, but I now realize that it is just the preceding decision and that I still need to add an actual big scene to throw my protagonist into a new world. Because the world doesn’t really change, I’ve struggled with that, and now I see that I need to tie it down once and for all, and I can do that by figuring out what my first plot point is. I know I have a bit of head scratching to do in the next week, but I’m so glad I read this before writing it. I can sense that this is going to really tighten up the structure and add the ‘wow’ factor that I have sensed is missing in the plot. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love planning plot points – especially that first one. Never know what kind of good stuff is going to end up happening!

  17. Pam Portland says:

    Yes, I admit I am a bit belated in posting a comment, but I had planned to spend my summer working on my writing when suddenly a first plot point hit me personally. Thankfully I willingly embraced it, but now I am back to my writing and am preparing for NaNoWriMo.

    I just wanted to say, “Thanks,” for such an insightful, effective series of posts to help me prepare for next month. Besides being anxious to get started and needing a way to pass the time until November 1, I feel like working through these series of questions about my character is allowing me to put far more thought into the direction I want my story to take and thus make me more prepared to win NaNo. Again, thanks for an outstanding resource!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s awesome! Best of luck with NaNo – and I hope your own First Plot Point turns out to be the beginning of a great story.

  18. very helpful and insightful to a new script writer attempting to build a strong character.

    thank you

  19. I am currently reading through your series here. I’m really enjoying all of the info. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your help. Thank you! 🙂

  20. Hi! I love this series and it has really helped since I haven’t really thought much about character arc before. But I have a question about the one of the questions at the end of this one. I don’t really understand question seven. What does it mean warp around the protagonist? Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The First Plot Point will drastically change your story. Either the protagonist will leave the “Normal World” of the First Act, or the Normal World itself will be dramatically changed (or warped).

  21. You are one of my favorite teachers. Thanks for being so generous with your wisdom 🙂

    I am working on a book of short stories and while each story is between 11000-14000 words long, i do at times struggle to condense all the aspects of structure and character arc into it, without it seeming like i have tried to. At times i must agree it is effortless, but there are stories that dont seem to yield themselves to all the basic structural points that you bring out in your book “Structuring your Novel.” Is this normal with short stories or is this an indication that I maybe doing something wrong?

    I would love it if you could provide me with examples of short stories or novellas in which Structure and Character arc are properly dealt with. I understand that size shouldn’t be a consideration in the way the story is structured or the character evolves but a good example could help me study your articles with a reference. Inside my head I will attempt to do what you did with Jane Eyre, but with a short story 🙂

    Thanks again for being the best 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Short stories can be a bit of a wild card when it comes to structure. It all depends on what kind of story it is. Some short stories follow the classic three-act structure to the T – just on a much smaller scale.

      But then we also have short stories that are more vignettes – snapshots, moments. And they’re all about a single plot point at the end. The drama rises to that point, and then the story is over.

      For short stories, I highly recommend Joe Bunting’s Let’s Write a Short Story: http://amzn.to/1tB5l31.

  22. I have a question. I’m a little confused. This arc appears to be a three-act structure. So if the first plot point is at the 25% mark, there’s still 5%-ish left of the first act? But I see it noted that the plot point ends the first act? I’m just a little confused.

    For example, my first act would encompass 12 chapters but the 25% mark hits chapter 9. I have three chapters left in the first act. Please help!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re totally on the right track! In the three-act structure, the Second Act is, in fact, twice as long as the First and Third Acts. It comprises 50% of the book, from the 25% to the 75% mark. However, it’s important to realize that the Second Act is split in two with a major plot point (the Midpoint) that shifts the attitude of the story from reaction to action.

  23. I am trying to figure out what my FPP is.

    My protagonist meets some people who tell him some surrealish stories, and he can’t figure out whether he’s being hoaxed. He becomes obsessed with the stories and whether they are true. So his main goal is to find out whether the stories are true (and if they are, to figure out what to do about them).

    So the FPP might be when he meets the first storyteller and hears the first story.

    The first storyteller has a burning question about right and wrong, that she can’t ask of anyone she already knows. Somehow her question reaches the protagonist, and he finds her and answers it and this begins their relationship.

    He is initially plopped into the setting through a plane ticket mixup. But I’m not sure that’s really his entry into the Special World. Maybe the Special World is the community of storytellers, and he enters it when he hears the first story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Only you can say for certain, but you sound like you’re on the right track.

  24. Question. In my WIP, the protagonist’s plot goal after the first plot point to be the same plot goal as before the first plot point, except, due to his rejection of the truth revealed to him, his push towards that goal is strengthened. He would still be in a different situation after the first plot point, and acting upon his lie at that point would have worse consequences than before. Does that qualify as an acceptable first plot point in regards to the protagonist’s character arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long the First Plot Point acts a “point of no return” for the character, in that he cannot return to the Normal World of the First Act, even if he anted to, then yes.

Trackbacks

  1. […] clichéd characters—they are interest-killers for your readers. Then there’s the all-important first plot point, creating conflict with a purpose, and figuring out the difference between a symbol and a […]

Speak Your Mind

*