A Matter of Timing: Positioning Your Major Plot Points Within Your Story

When writers start talking about story structure, one of our biggest brow wrinklers is timing. Even after we’ve identified the major plot points in our stories (more on that in a sec), our work still isn’t finished. Where do we position these plot points within the plot? And how precisely do these moments have to be timed?

Where Should You Put Your Plot Points?

Plot points and their placement is a subject for a much more lengthy exploration, but for now, let’s just get a quick overview of the major plot points within your story’s structure, as well as their optimal placement.

1. The Hook belongs in your first chapter.

2. The First Act (in which you’ll introduce characters, settings, and stakes) will take up the first 25% of your book.

3. The First Plot Point will occur at the 25% mark in your book.

4. The First Half of the Second Act (in which your character will react to the First Plot Point) will span from the 25% mark to the 50% mark in your book.

5. The Midpoint will occur at the 50% mark in your book.

6. The Second Half of the Second Act (in which your protagonist will begin to take definitive action) will span from the 50% mark to the 75% mark in your book.

7. The Third Plot Point will occur at the 75% mark in your book.

8. The Climax will begin at the 90% mark in your book.

9. The Resolution belongs in your last chapter(s).

If you’re unfamiliar with any of these important moments within the structure of your story, I highly recommend taking the time to learn about them. You can read more in Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, Syd Field’s Screenplay, or my own Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.

How Precise Must the Timing of Plot Points Be?

This is where structure can get sticky. In screenwriting (which is way ahead of novel writing in implementing story structure), each of these plot points must be timed down to the minute. This makes movies a wonderful tool for learning and studying structure, since we can spot all the major structural moments simply by keeping an eye on the time. Divide a movie’s total running time in quarters, and you’ll know exactly where the major plot points will show up.

Novelists, however, often buck this demand for precisely timing the plot points. And with good reason. The timing of your major plot points is important, both to fulfill your readers’ inherent story sense and to make sure each segment of your story gets its deserved amount of time on the page. However, it’s important to realize that the timing of these plot points within a novel is far more flexible than it is in a screenplay.

This opportunity for flexibility is available to novelists for a couple of reasons:

1. The Novel Is a Bigger Beast Than Is the Screenplay

A 120-minute screenplay has little room for maneuverability. Every scene, every word of dialogue, and every story event has to count. They have to count in a novel too, of course. But novelists have more room in which to explore subplots and flesh out scenes. If the Midpoint happens a couple dozen pages to either side of the 50% mark, readers probably won’t even notice, and your story won’t suffer at all.

2. The Novel’s Size and Introspective Nature Allows for More “Flow” Between Scenes

While a screenplay’s plot points often revolve around very specific and compact scenes, a novel will create long segments of scenes that build. The timing of your major plot points may slip to one side or the other of the suggested mark simply because they’re part of a sprawling scene segments, in which one related event snowballs into another to create that major plot point.

Keep the optimal timeline for your story’s structure in mind. But don’t feel as if you have to get the plot points timed down to the precise page numbers at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks. This balance of structured fluidity is what allows us to meld our craft and our art into a novel that is truly memorable.

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. The plot points must be necessarily one for each type, even if there is one (or more) important character arc in the story beyond the protagonist’s one, that could have its own plot points?

    (Thank you for what you share with your posts!)

    • 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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.