What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

You may have heard of these little darlings called “Pinch Points.” Of all the important structural moments in your story, they’re the most likely to be neglected. They get lost amidst all the excited chatter about their bigger, flashier brethren: the Plot Points. But Pinch Points–two of them, both occurring in the Second Act–are crucial to your story’s structure.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165I realized I’ve never written a proper post on Pinch Points, so today I figure it’s time to remedy that. After all, there is a lot of confusion swirling around the subject.

  • What are Pinch Points?
  • Where do they belong in the story?
  • What do they do?
  • And what happens when you neglect them?

Let’s find out!

Second Act Timeline

What Are Pinch Points?

Pinch Points are (comparatively) small turning points that occur at the 37% mark (halfway between the First Plot Point and the Midpoint) and the 62% mark (halfway between the Midpoint and the Third Plot Point).

At their most basic level, Pinch Points are nothing more or less than a reminder of the antagonistic force’s power to stymie the protagonist’s goal. They provide new information to the plot that begins setting up the major events in the Midpoint and Third Plot Point. They also act as important foreshadowing for the confrontations that will play out during these Plot Points and during the Climax.

They’re a pacing trick that re-orients the readers’ attention during the long span of the Second Act. In some stories, you find Pinch Points that have no immediate effect upon the protagonist. The whole scene might take place in the antagonist’s POV, with the protagonist never even gaining any specific knowledge about the happenings in the Pinch Points–as in The Empire Strikes Back‘s First Pinch Point when the Emperor tells Darth Vader to hunt down Luke Skywalker as their “new enemy.”

What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

However, the best Pinch Points are always those that offer more than just simplistic turning points or sneak peeks into the antagonist’s plans. To use your Pinch Points to their maximum potential, you need to make certain they each create very distinctive moments in your story, which can then influence every scene that leads up to their subsequent Plot Points.

The First Pinch Point

The First Pinch Point occurs at the 37% mark, a quarter of the way into the Second Act and halfway between the First Plot Point and the Midpoint.

Before the First Pinch Point: Reaction

The section of the story that leads up to the First Pinch Point is one of reaction. The character has just emerged from the dramatic events of the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act. His world has completely changed, whether positively or negatively, and he is scrambling to keep up with events. He’s in reaction mode–which is not to be confused with passive mode. He is aggressively pursuing his main story goal, but he doesn’t quite have his feet under him. He’s scrambling to understand the obstacles that are being thrown in his way by the antagonistic force, and there is a lot he doesn’t understand–about himself, about his goal, about the antagonistic force, and about the nature of the conflict itself.

The First Pinch Point: New Clues

Halfway through the First Half of the Second Act comes the First Pinch Point. This may be a major scene or a small moment, but it must be a moment that causes the protagonist to feel the “pinch” of the antagonistic force.

  • In Ridley Scott’s Alien, the alien detaches from unconscious spacer Kane’s face and disappears somewhere in the ship where the rest of the crew can’t find it.
  • In Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, the governess witnesses the ghost of her predecessor Miss Jessel.

But there’s more. This “pinch” needs to incorporate more than just a reminder of the antagonist’s power. It needs to set up the next 1/8th of the story, in which the character will slowly begin to grow into a new awareness of his story’s many truths–and specifically the truth about the nature of the conflict in which he is engaged.

Your First Pinch Point needs to provide your protagonist with new clues about the nature of the battle he is waging.

  • In Alien, the crew realize for the first time that the creature they are facing is entirely beyond anything they were expecting.
  • In Turn of the Screw, the governess not only witnesses the ghost but recognizes that her young female ward can also see the ghost and is completely unconcerned by it.

Turn of the Screw Henry James Miss Jessel Ghost

After the First Pinch Point: Realization

Thanks to these clues as much as, if not more than, the pressure asserted by the antagonists themselves, these Pinch Points act as turning points that swing their stories into a new direction and set up the epiphanies that will occur at their Midpoints. In itself, the First Pinch Point does not reveal the true nature of the conflict to the protagonist. Rather, it foreshadows it by providing a peek at facts the protagonist has barely grasped as yet.

In the section of story to follow–between the First Pinch Point and the Midpoint–the character will still be in reaction mode, but he will also begin to move beyond it. As his realization grows, his reactions will become more and more informed, leading him right up to the Moment of Truth at the center of the story.

Midpoint: Moment of Truth

The Midpoint splits both the book itself and the Second Act. It lands at the 50% mark and is the most dramatic turning point in your story. It is a major Plot Point, not a Pinch Point, but it’s crucial to any discussion of Pinch Points, since the Pinch Points are centered around it.

The Midpoint’s primary function is to present the Moment of Truth. This is the moment when the character finally realizes the central truth about the nature of the conflict. It’s instructive when watching movies to observe the protagonist’s facial expressions prior to the Moment of Truth and then afterward. Before the Midpoint, he’ll often look baffled as he struggles to keep up with the conflict. Then the light dawns in his eyes at the Midpoint, and from that moment on, there’s a look of knowing determination on his face.

  • In Alien, the matured baby alien bursts out of its cocoon in Kane’s chest, and the crew realizes for the first time the true nature of the creature they are contending with.
  • In Turn of the Screw, the governess discovers her young male ward outside in the middle of the night and realizes the ghosts are controlling the children.

The Second Pinch Point

The Second Pinch Point occurs at the 62% mark,  three-quarters of the way into the Second Act and halfway between the Midpoint and the Third Plot Point.

Before the Second Pinch Point: Action

Armed with the new understanding he acquired at the Midpoint, the protagonist charges into the Second Half of the Second Act. He’s no longer in reaction mode. He now understands what needs to be done to defeat the antagonist, and he aggressively takes action in pursuing his goal. Thanks to his new understanding, he begins making headway against the antagonistic force.

The Second Pinch Point: What’s at Stake?

But lest everything seem to be going too well for the protagonist, the clever author then sticks in the Second Pinch Point. Once again, this moment acts to bring the antagonistic force front and center, to foreshadow the coming Third Plot Point, and to break up the remainder of the Second Act.

Also once again, the Second Pinch Point has another, equally important job to fulfill. This time, it serves to remind both the readers and the protagonist of exactly what is at stake.

Alien Dallas Death Tom Skerrit Ridley Scott

  • In Alien‘s Second Pinch Point, Captain Dallas is captured by the alien and killed. His death leaves his crew without a leader, not only showing them what is in store for them but also leaving them to the chaos brought about by his lack of direction.
  • In Turn of the Screw‘s Second Pinch Point, the governess’s ward announces he knows the governess suspects him of being in league with the ghosts, and he tries to coerce her into allowing him to return to school. More than anything, the governess wants to rescue her young charges from the influence of the ghosts. She can’t do that if she lets them out of her sight, but she also fears the boy will be a bad influence on his sister if she allows him to stay.

The Second Pinch Point isn’t as much about revealing new clues (although they can certainly play a part) as it is about slapping the protagonist in the face with the question of just how much he’s truly willing to pay to defeat the antagonist and gain his goal.

After the Second Pinch Point: Renewed Push to Victory (and Defeat)

For the last eighth of the Second Act, following the Second Pinch Point and leading up to the Third Plot Point (at the 75% mark), the protagonist will be inspired to push forward in a renewed attack upon the antagonistic force. He’ll give it his best shot–and it will pay off. At the very end of the Second Act, he will reach a moment of seeming victory, in which he appears to defeat the antagonistic force.

But it won’t last. The Third Plot Point will turn it all around and land him in his greatest defeat yet–one foreshadowed by the emphasis on the stakes during the Second Pinch Point. From there, the character will enter the Third Act–the final quarter of the story–and its climactic final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonistic force.

Once you understand the role and timing of the Pinch Points, you’ll be able to navigate the lengthy Second Act with greater confidence and dexterity. Not only do the Pinch Points create important turning points within your story, they also influence everything that precedes and follows them. Pretty important, wouldn’t you say?

Tell me your opinion: What are the Pinch Points in your work-in-progress?

What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

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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 just found this blog thru your books. Before reading the post–it sure would be easier to read if you didn’t use fixed column widths. My screen is 2560 pixels wide, and your post is crammed into a narrow column way over on the left-hand side.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So sorry you’re having difficulty with the site! I believe it’s fixed that way to optimize for mobile devices.

  2. Who knew?
    I didn’t know the Pinch Points, but thankfully you explained them and the Second Act (always with useful examples) .

    Although many say analyze and split into scenes the story takes off his magic, I think it helps a lot before you screwed up in the publication or so.

    Thanks K.M.Weiland!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree! If anything, I’ve found that the more I learn about story structure, the more magic I find.

  3. Excellent post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      • It gets even more fun when you are writing an overarching series of 3, attempting to line up the plot points of the overall story with those of the individual 3.

        It’s easy enough that the 75% of book 1 is the 25% of the overall story, but when it comes to pinch points being inciting events and climaxes, things get interesting.

        It’s actually really fun, moving pieces around to fit multiple purposes. The depth, the depth, the depth.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The thing that I find most fascinating about story structure is that it’s a wonderfully endless rabbit hole. There’s always more to learn!

          • Endless, indeed it looks like only a rabbit hole at the surface, but the catacombs are without walls.

  4. Very helpful post! I use pinch points in my outlines, but think I need to work on getting my them to align with the percentages you give here.

    The first pinch is when my protagonist first comes face to face with members of the alien army he’s training to fight (and learns that this particular alien and his clan hate my protagonist in particular because his father once led a massive victory against their army). The second pinch is where he learns his sister has stumbled into the alien world where he’s fighting, and she’s lost, and he realizes can’t go and look for her because it would mean leaving his troop.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good job with these! They both clearly align with their respective requirements of new clues and reminder of the stakes.

  5. thomas h cullen says:

    The first Pinch Point.. either, the four young adults’ announcement, and their house having been denied to them, or Croyan’s skill being required, during his daughter’s Arbitration.

    The second Pinch Point.. either, the projection about what Croyan’ll likely forfeit (his career record, and financial status), as part of his effort to get Krenok to behave, or his now present skill, pertaining to his “apparent” problem with the Earth Representative.

    The difficulty’s more with The Representative, knowing its anatomy. Do you just judge it as Krenok, that’s all things antagonist-related, or, do you broaden the horizon of the concept of what it means to be an antagonistic force?

    Krenok has nothing to do with Mariel, her Arbitration, or any of her past. However, the Arbitration being judged a First Pinch Point can be interpreted in the general context of Croyan’s being someone who exists in a highly active and requiring world (despite his dress suggesting otherwise).

    And the same with the Second Pinch Point..

    Happy Easter.

  6. robert easterbrook says:

    I was very grateful for your hard work, Katie, creating the visualization of First Act Timeline, and was very excited about applying it to my novel.

    Now that you’ve made the Second Act Timeline, I again extend my gratitude and get excited about applying it to my novel.

    This is fun.

  7. spacechampion says:

    Gold! This is gold!

    I’ve been thinking of story from the perspective of the antagonist, and the Pinch Points seem like they’re the antagonist’s story happening at 1/8th of a story ahead of the protagonist’s story, so the protagonist is always trying to catch up to the antagonist. I’m not sure about it, but if that’s true then the story’s first pinch point is like the antagonist’s midpoint, the story’s second pinch point like the antagonist’s climax. The antagonist’s first act (with key and inciting events) mostly happens before the story opens, ending with the story’s hook, which could be the antagonist’s point of no return.

    The antagonist has a goal, a method, a metric of measuring progress and a motivation. Those four dimensions are probably best revealed at four different points in the story, the pinch points being two of the four. What do you think, K. M? If I’m on the right track, what would you say are the points where the other two would be revealed?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s some definite truth to that, although I don’t think we’d be able to call that a hard-and-fast rule. There’s a ton of variation to how the antagonist’s subplot can play out. But this is definitely a perspective worth keeping in mind.

  8. Quinn Fforde says:

    Thanks for this! This is the first explanation of the second act that I can really use.

  9. This is very helpful for the urban fantasies and sci-fi stories I like to write, but I’ve always had a problem applying this structure to romances (paranormal romances in my case). Story examples are also few and far between.

    Could you maybe go over this (if not the whole 1st plot point-1st pinch-midpoint-2nd pinch-2nd plot point thing) for a romance? Or if you did, tell me where… or even recommend a good book about it?

    The lover as antagonist thing was covered a bit by John Truby, but it still didn’t quite make sense to me. Any light you could shed on the subject would be most sincerely appreciated. Thanks! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t read much paranormal, so I can’t help much from that angle. But I just posted an analysis in the Story Structure Database for the romance Lake House, which has a stunningly beautiful structure and killer Pinch Points (scroll down to the bottom of the post for my notes on the Pinch Points).

      As for the love interest as the antagonist, the important thing to understand is that the antagonist is nothing more or less than a person (or force) who places obstacles between the protagonist and his goal. When the overall goal is fall in love – or not to fall in love – then the other person becomes the antagonist (the creator of conflict) in the sense that their affections and commitment to the relationship aren’t there yet – and thus are causing obstacles between the protagonist and his goal of winning her heart and being happy.

  10. Okay, so maybe I’m a dumb bunny, but I’ve never heard of “pinch points.”
    I’d never heard of “Character Arcs” either, until I read your post about them.
    I just writes stories 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s the way to start! 🙂 Pinch Points are largely the forgotten man in when it comes to important structural moments, so you’re not alone!

  11. Added this article to my list of Writer Tips.

    http://www.chrisvotey.com/writing/writing-tips/

  12. Thank you for this post – it’s very timely for me because I’m outlining a novel, and it made me go back to that section of the outline and ramp up what the antagonist is doing and saying. (Or not doing and saying). 😉

  13. wow, i had no idea what pinch points even were (read this because i’m in the middle of the dreaded rewriting phase of my first novel) but after reading this it sounds like my novel already has the necessary pinch points! thankfully :p will go back over and make sure though. thanks for the info!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! It’s always exciting to learn about a new structural aspect–and then realize you’re already using it on an instinctive level.

  14. I’m happy to find another writer who believes in the power of structure as much as I do. Structure is a mantra I use with my clients.

    I would add there is another use for a pinch point, which is to have the antagonist at his/her lowest point seeing their preferred/desired state. For example, an alcoholic mom who’s lost her kids sees a woman and her family going out for a meal and longs to have her life be so normal. This tightens the screws in terms of what’s at stake and reminds the reader how far the antagonist has fallen and may lose.

    This bit can also cause the antagonist to make a significant choice, either to let go completely or begin to fight back in some new or profound way.

    Best,
    James (www.orchardwriting)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very true. The more the antagonistic has stake (i.e., the more desperate he is), the more the reader will understand the danger to the protagonist.

  15. You are my hero this week. I’m so glad I found your podcasts. I like taking a look at the posts too so I can take notes after this fact. This post in particular has been quite eye-opening. As a reader, I have an amorphous understanding of where/when things need to happen. But your concrete explanation of these mini-game changers is really great. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Pinch points took me a long time to wrap my brain around too. But they’re instrumental in helping us tighten up the Second Act. So glad the post was useful to you!

  16. Thanks for the post! Definitely helps clear things up.

    I have a question about dual POVs. I’ve heard different things about trying to fit each character’s arc into a story structure like this: Make sure each character has/experiences a pinch point/plot point/etc., … or Choose one POV to be the primary and focus on that, … or Alternate depending on whose POV falls on those physical landmarks (37%, 50%, 62%, etc.).

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I touch on the issues of plot points in multiple POV in this post on dual timelines. But the short answer is that you can handle this in two ways: either use the same plot point to drive the plot in both POVs – or time it so each POV gets its own structure-advancing plot point at the proper time. In the vast majority of cases, the first is preferable, since it will contribute to a much tighter story.

      • Thank you! You’re right, it would make for a tighter story to plan the plot points for both together. Easier said than done! I’m glad I have your posts to help though…now I have to scrounge through my wip to see how I’ve done. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Dual timelines are really tricky. But it’s kind of exhilarating when the timing starts falling to place structurally. Have fun!

  17. Freya Shipley says:

    Thank you for this wonderful resource!

    I’m in the midst of my first attempt at analyzing a novel plot. I’ve identified what looks like a pinch point, but I’m not sure. Is it possible for a pinch point to consist of a revelation of backstory? (The novel in question is The Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig.) At the 62% mark, we learn that the villains have been blackmailing and manipulating one of our protagonists, with terrible consequences for him. The reader now understands why he’s done the things he has.

    I’m doubtful because the antagonists aren’t actually doing anything active in this scene. Also, it comes well before the scene that I believe *has* to be the Midpoint. (That scene doesn’t occur until well after the 50% mark.)

    Thank you!

  18. Trying to get caught up on last year’s top ten posts. 5 down, 5 more to go. Love the timing of the pinch points. I never realized how massive the second act is. Wow. We should have a stronger story with the pinch elements.

    Thanks!

  19. I don’t know, but what would you say are the First and Second Pinch Points in Star Trek: Into Darkness?

  20. This was a great post, thank you! My question would be – Do both pinch points have to connect with the protagonist’s main goal? Or can one of them be simply a negative encounter with the antagonist?

    For example, in my WIP, the protagonist and antagonist (starting out as two friends) steal and hide a forbidden book that could cost them their lives if anybody found out. The protagonist does all he can to keep it a secret and eventually his life is changed by the book. He ends up giving his life for it. The antagonist, meanwhile, is afraid of being found out and has a falling out with the protagonist, blaming him for their troubles.

    I’d like to have one of the pinch points (possibly the first one) be the antagonist stealing the protagonist’s girlfriend as a means of expressing his anger over being coerced by the protagonist to steal and hide the book.

    Could this pinch point work, even though it doesn’t directly affect the protagonist’s main goal (that of keeping the book secret)?

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The pinch points are both major structural turning points within the plot, which means they definitely need to affect the main plot. As long as the girlfriend-stealing ties in with your main conflict (which it sounds like it does), you’re fine.

  21. How do pinch points work in a negative arc, particularly the Disillusionment one?

    (thanks so much for your help with negative arcs, btw – I was quite confused about my story until I read about them)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just the same. The pinch points emphasize the stakes and the threat of the antagonistic force to endanger the character’s plot goal, as well as introducing new clues about the true nature of the conflict.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you’re asking, “What are pinch points?” (as I did), then look no further than K.M. Weiland’s latest article: What are Pinch Points? And how can they make your book easier to write? […]

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