how to choose your story's plot points

How to Choose Your Story’s Plot Points

choose plot pointsYou’ve got a story, and you’ve got characters who are doing stuff in that story. That means you’ve got a plot. But how do you know if you’ve got your characters doing the right stuff at the right time?

At first glance, this seems intuitive. Story is (or should be) a chain of causes and effects. Something happens, and that causes something else to happen. Nothing could be more sensible.

But the realities of plotting are more complicated.

If you’re attempting a specific artistic effect (and you should be), then it’s probably not going to suffice to just let your story’s events pour onto the page at random. Instead, you’re going to need to carefully plan each major structural moment—and everything in between—to create that end effect you’re going for.

Regardless whether your personal method favors plotting or pantsing, applying an understanding of structure to your story offers you a great advantage. Once you understand story’s fundamental framework, you can then make informed decisions about how to create your best possible Hook, Inciting Event, First Plot Point, Midpoint, Third Plot Point, Climax, and so on.

However, sometimes this sounds simpler and more obvious than it is in actual application—as evidenced by so many recent films and novels. These well-intentioned stories usually succeed in presenting plots that feature plausible chains of cause and effect. But because they haven’t optimized their structural integrity, they still end up failing in their chief mandate: offering stories of heart and soul.

Having just viewed Netflix’s Outlaw King, about Robert the Bruce’s final bid for Scottish independence, I feel this film offers a particularly good learning opportunity.

Outlaw-King-on-Netflix-Chris-Pine

On its surface, there isn’t much to critique. Production values are good; the plot is a decent chain of causes and effects; the structural pieces are all in place; the story is one of wrenching sacrifice and determination.

And yet, as more than one IMDb review has stated, “the writing didn’t have a lot of heart.” Or, as Manohla Dargis aptly grumbles in the introduction to her NYTimes.com review of the movie:

At least in old Hollywood, filmmakers would also try to entertain you amid the clashes and post-combat huddles, giving you something more to watch and ponder than this movie’s oceans of mud, truckloads of guts and misty, unconsidered nationalism.

Here’s the thing: this film could easily have had it all. It’s all there in the story, waiting to be mined. A better understanding of structure and theme would have created better organization, which would have incalculably amplified the story’s power, effectiveness, and, yes, heart.

If that sounds like something you’d like to accomplish in your own story, let’s take a look at just how to make it happen.

How to Choose the Right Plot Points for Your Story

What is plot?

This almost rhetorical question gets bandied about a lot by the writing intelligentsia. There are many, many responses, because plot actually remains a surprisingly abstract concept.

But here’s my answer for today.

Plot is pacing.

From a certain perspective (said in best Obi-Wan voice), structure is about nothing more or less than controlling a story’s pacing for optimal entertainment value.

(And since we’re defining stuff, let’s define “entertainment” for what it really is: “emotional impact.” If you want to keep your audience’s attention—aka, entertain them—then you’ve got to engage them personally and primally. Obviously, there are varying levels of this—everything from mildly funny jokes to life-changingly empathic experiences. But the principle remains the same: engage the emotions.)

What this means is that each structural beat—particularly, the major turning points at the First Plot Point, Midpoint, and Third Plot Point—should be designed to control pacing in order to create the optimal emotional effect upon audiences.

But this only works when the author understands and utilizes these structural beats properly.

What Happens When You Choose the Wrong Plot Points?

Here’s a quick overview of how Outlaw King is structured (and therefore paced):

Hook: The Scottish lords, including Bruce, unhappily surrender to King Edward I of England and swear fealty.

Inciting Event: The timing tells us the Inciting event is Bruce’s marriage to Edward’s goddaughter. But the true Inciting Event is the riot he witnesses when Wallace’s dismembered arm is displayed publicly.

outlawking

First Plot Point: Bruce appeals to his rival for the crown, John Comyn, to help him fight the English. Comyn threatens to betray him, and Bruce murders him. Bruce is subsequently crowned King of Scots.

First Pinch Point: The English treacherously attack Bruce’s camp the night before an agreed-upon battle. His followers are slaughtered, and he is forced to go on the run.

Midpoint: Bruce flees to Ireland, while his wife and daughter are imprisoned and two of his brothers killed.

Outlaw King Ireland

Second Pinch Point: Bruce finally returns to Scotland and starts taking back some of the castles, which spurs the English to pursue him with promises of no quarter.

Third Plot Point: Bruce and his followers prepare their first pitched battle against the English—at Loudoun Hill.

Climax: They enter battle.

Climactic Moment: They are triumphant, and the English retreat.

Resolution: Bruce wins, his family is returned to him, Scotland is free (as summarized in subtitles).

So what’s wrong with this picture (other than the messy Inciting Event)? At first glance, it might seem like everything’s in place, but the single biggest problem is that the structural beats get weaker and weaker and weaker as the story progresses, instead of growing stronger and more powerful.

Whereas the Midpoint should be the single greatest turning point in the entire story—shifting the protagonist from reaction to action—here, the protagonist’s actions are almost passive; he won’t actively regroup until another eighth of the story has passed. And when the Second Pinch does arrive, Bruce’s return to Scotland and immediate triumph in regaining his own castle seems to be almost taken for granted by the filmmakers.

This isn’t, however, a problem that starts with the story’s Midpoint.  Rather, this is a problem that originates in a poor choice of structural beats and a correlated poor control of pacing.

Don’t Know Where to Begin Choosing Your Plot Points? Start at the End

The events of Bruce’s life, post-Wallace, create a naturally compelling three-act story: his decision to claim the crown and rebel, his exile from and return to Scotland, his hard-fought triumph.

On the surface, that’s exactly what this film gives us…. except, inexplicably, it cuts out Bannockburn. As anyone familiar with Scottish history knows, the Battle of Bannockburn was the finale of Bruce’s triumphant story.

The Battle of Loudoun Hill, which ends the movie, was only the beginning of his eventually victorious campaign against the English, and as such, it feels rightfully anticlimactic.

Honestly, I’m agape at how anyone could decide, Hey, we’re going to tell a story about Robert the Bruce—and NOT end the story with Bannockburn. It’s like deciding to write about the Battle of Stirling Bridge without Stirling Bridge. (Oh, wait…)

From a structural point of view—and, therefore, a dramatic point of view—Bannockburn is the obvious point of the story. It’s the single structural moment that is tailor-made for this story’s Climax. (More than that, it is astonishingly cinematic, not least in Bruce’s opening duel against Henry de Bohun, a gambit historically celebrated as one of the most impressive instances of single combat.)

Understanding Bannockburn’s appropriateness for the Climax reveals an entirely different and better-organized structure for the story.

Let’s take a look at how this story’s plot points might have been rearranged and strengthened for a more powerful overall effect.

Hook: The Scottish lords, including Bruce, unhappily surrender to King Edward I of England and swear fealty.

This is still a good choice for the opening scene. It’s clearly the first domino in the events of the conflict to follow; it begins the story in medias res without omitting anything important; and by starting after the demise of the famous William Wallace, it squarely centers this as Bruce’s story.

Inciting Event: Bruce witnesses the public display of Wallace’s dismembered arm and the subsequent riot.

The Inciting Event is the moment that defines the entire story to follow. As such, its timing is important. By delaying this scene until almost the quarter mark in the story (crowding it up against the First Plot Point and the end of the First Act), in favor of Bruce’s awkward relationship with his new wife, the film muddied its throughline. Is this a story about Bruce and Elizabeth—or Bruce and Scotland?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with emphasizing and developing a relationship subplot (indeed, I’d argue  Elizabeth’s scenes end up being the most interesting and compelling of the story), but not at the expense of the story’s cohesion. A story’s major structural moments create its backbone and, as such, must be unified.

This is where timing becomes an important part of pacing. Readers and viewers instinctively respond to the timing in a story. When story requires nearly a quarter of its length to get to the Inciting Event, its focus muddies.

Key Event: Were this my story, I would have tied the timing of Bruce’s murder of Comyn in more tightly with the Call to Adventure (above). In a busy story that covers a lengthy period of time, there isn’t space to waste. By tightening up the First Act to provide better timing for the Inciting Event, this far more consequential scene with Comyn could be given more weight, leading directly to the First Plot Point when…

First Plot Point:Bruce is crowned king—and immediately goes to battle against the English, who treacherously attack his camp the night before the agreed-upon battle. His followers are slaughtered, and he is forced to go on the run.

Outlaw-King-Florence-Pugh-Chris-Pine

Now that the set-up of the First Act is complete, we have reached the story proper: Bruce’s fight against the English. And since we’re just now entering the Second Act, we still have plenty of time in which to explore and develop the main conflict.

First Pinch Point: The first half of the Second Act is all about the protagonist’s reactions to the consequences of the First Plot Point. This is where he will struggle—futilely, as often as not—to regain his balance.

This, of course, means this section of the story would be the perfect place for Bruce to feel the full impact of his choices, leading up to a First Pinch Point when he goes into exile in Ireland for the winter, knowing he has left his family and his country in devastation behind him.

Midpoint: Now that we’ve accomplished a tighter first half of the story, we have the time and the space to leverage a truly important moment for the story’s centerpiece: Bruce’s return to Scotland.

This event is a tremendously important moment in both the story’s plot and its character development. As such, it deserves to be developed from the inside out. In addition to providing the protagonist a swivel point from reaction to action in the exterior plot, the Midpoint should also function as a Moment of Truth within the character’s interior arc.

Unfortunately, this was a tremendous missed opportunity in Outlaw King. As a historical figure, Robert the Bruce presents an almost perfect character arc—from a shilly-shallying political opportunist to an all-in king of his people. But the film doesn’t even touch that. Had it spent its opening scenes more wisely in setting up the foundation for Bruce’s inner evolution from Lie to Truth, it could have added depth and meaning to its otherwise straightforward account of medieval brutality.

The film sends Bruce back to Scotland (at the Second Pinch) with no more dramatic grist than a grim face and a little patter from his buddy about the efficacy of vengeance. How much better to mine this moment as a personal sea change? What might have started for Bruce as his one shot to grab the crown has suddenly become eminently important on a deeply personal level. (Is that how it went for the real Bruce? Maybe, maybe not. But telling a story means telling a story.)

Outlaw-King

Second Pinch Point: And finally we come to the proper place for the Battle of Loudoun Hill. Here, Bruce sets up for his first battle against the English. He is just now starting to stick it to his enemies. He wins, but he feels the pinch as he suffers great losses (the death of his young vassal arguably works even better here, since it only raises the stakes for what is yet to come).

Third Plot Point: So many action movies these days either skip the Third Plot Point or use it simply as a turning point into the beginning of their final climactic battle. Again, it’s a timing issue: they want enough time to pull off at least a twenty-minute epic battle. But in skipping or glossing over what should be one of the most impactful moments in a story, they almost inevitably gut their stories’ emotional impact.

The Third Plot Point represents the “dark night of the soul” for the protagonist. Even if what happens here isn’t literally the worst thing that happens in the entire story, it is an event that prompts the protagonist to reconsider his actions—and, just as importantly in a Positive Change Arc, his devotion to his newfound Truth.

Without this moment, the power of the character’s willingness to make sacrifices for that Truth (thereby proving the true scope of his personal change) lacks all teeth.

In plotting my own stories, I don’t pull punches with major plot points, including the Third Plot Point. Always, I try to create an event for this structural moment that is suitably impressive—something that at least symbolizes death, since that is what is represented here for the protagonist’s inner journey, as he once and for all dies to the old Lie-driven self and steps consciously into the Truth-surrendered self.

However, even just a deep moment of personal doubt experienced by the character on the eve before battle is better than nothing. At least pay heed to the emotional downbeat needed here before the rise into the final confrontation of your Climax.

Climax: In Outlaw King, that Climax should have been the Battle of Bannockburn. Because with the finality of this battle, the story, too, reaches its looked-for end. The war is won. Scotland is free. Bruce is king.

Resolution: When you end the story where it belongs, you have no need to sum up all the good action in a few quick subtitles at the end. Instead, you can focus on a scene that demonstrably shows how the character—and his world—has been changed by the story’s events.

***

Although Outlaw King‘s historical background provides easy examples to draw from in reorganizing its particular structural challenges, the same principles apply when you’re writing straight-up fiction. In fact, when you have total control over your plot and characters, you have even more leeway (and, I would argue, more responsibility) for creating dynamic and well-organized structures.

Start looking for the most important and impactful moments in your story—and mindfully make the most of them by placing them each in the right place at the right time in your characters’ personal journeys.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How did you choose your story’s plot points? Tell me in the comments!

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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. honestmillennial says:

    You know, I’ve been trying to figure out why this film wasn’t working for me, and I think you nailed it! I appreciate your commentary on Robert and Elizabeth’s relationship and how the filmmakers muddied the plot by putting so much emphasis on their wedding and early relationship. I do think that led me to expect the relationship to be more consequential, and I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t. Also, I have to say… the eventual consummation of the marriage was pretty awkward. Again, it felt like we were being led to believe it was more meaningful or important than it actually was. That’s been bugging me, and I feel like I had to say something 😉 The film clearly suffered from the editing process, but there’s no excuse for not including Bannockburn.

  2. Although I am binging on Vikings the plotting discussed on this article I think can apply to practically any story, in particular a lengthy and complex one.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Lots of movies and TV/streaming series are just as guilty of the pitfalls mentioned in this post.

  3. Kevin Whaley says:

    Great review. I’m going to use this to try to fix problems in my story. Thanks

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