Inciting Event: The three-way tie-breaker race for the Piston Cup, taking place in California, is announced.

First Plot Point: 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.

First Pinch Point: Lightning McQueen receives tools from just about every character he meets in Radiator Springs. Mater and Miss Sally talk about how wonderful Radiator Springs is, with its friendly neighbors and leisurely pace of living. But he resists. He scares off their customers by trying to escape his community service sentence. Lightning tries to move toward the Thing He Wants and away from Radiator Springs by fixing the road as fast as possible, and, as a result, Doc “punishes” him by challenging him to race—and beating him. Throughout the First Half of the Second Act, the townsfolk keep showing him a world where people care for each other. The Truth is right in front of Lightning’s face, but he keeps resisting it, insisting it’s something that doesn’t even appeal to him.

Midpoint: Lightning discovers that Doc is the famous Hudson Hornet racecar who won an unprecedented three Piston Cups in his day.

Second Pinch Point: When Lightning sees Doc out racing by himself, Doc explains his bitterness about racing and accuses Lightning of selfishness and an inability to change.

Third Plot Point: 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.

Climax: Lightning embraces his friends and their importance in his life when he joyfully accepts their help as his new pit crew. He races with renewed purpose, making up lost ground.

Climactic Moment: Even though Lightning’s attitude toward the townsfolk from Radiator Springs is demonstrably different from how he treated them in the beginning, he still hasn’t actually done anything to prove his devotion to the new Truth. He gets his chance when rival racecar Chick Hicks acts selfishly (just as Lightning would have at the beginning of the movie) and wrecks the respected old racecar The King. Lightning, just about to win the race, sees what’s happened and realizes helping The King is more important than winning the race. In a lovely Climactic Moment, he slams on the brakes, just before the finish line, allowing Chick to win. He then circles back to help The King finish his race.

Resolution: Lightning backs up his shocking climactic action by turning down the coveted Dinoco sponsor in order to stand by the Rust-eze sponsors he formerly disdained. He then returns to make Radiator Springs his new training headquarters, breathing new life into his friends’ dying town, which also allows him to simultaneously pursue his dreams without living in the fast lane. He fulfills his promise (and proves he can be trusted) by securing Mater a ride on the Dinoco helicopter, then cements his relationship with Miss Sally. He blatantly offers the answer to his thematic question when he tells The King why he sacrificed the Piston Cup: “This grumpy old racecar I know once told me somethin’. It’s just an empty cup.”

Notes: The Third Plot Point is especially worth nothing here. Objectively, Lightning’s “rescue” and return to the race is a completely good turn of events. But the story understands that the Third Plot Point needs to be an emotional low point. The “good” thing that happens to Lightning feels like a tragedy in light of the new friendships he’s made. Hence, the story gets its emotional punch it needs even in the midst of a plot point that could very easily have missed the needed ebb in the emotional pacing here.

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