Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

Maybe you’ve heard of the Key Event as part of story structure. Maybe you haven’t. If you haven’t, then you just might belong to the less confused of the two parties. One of the questions I get most often about the Key Event is: What the heck is it?!

Screenplay Syd FieldThe first time I heard about the Key Event was while reading Syd Field’s awesome book Screenplay. He wrote:

The Inciting incident… sets the story in motion … [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.

This was a total light-bulb moment for me because it helped me finally understand the Inciting Event and its oft-controversial role in the story.

Okay, so the Inciting Event and the Key Event are two different things. Got it. (And if you don’t think you’ve quite got it, be sure to check out this post I wrote not too long ago on the Inciting Event).

But what about the Key Event and its relation to the First Plot Point? Are they different things? And if they are different, where does the Key Event belong in relation to the First Plot Point?

Basic Definitions: The Inciting Event, the Key Event, and the First Plot Point

Before we proceed any further in answering this extremely important question, let’s first take a moment to make sure we’re all on the same page regarding these three structural moments.

To begin with, they all belong in the First Act, which makes up the first 25% of your book. (I’m going include my First Act Timeline graphic here again for easy reference, although I know it’s a repeat for those of you who have already read the Inciting Event post.)

First Act Timeline

The Inciting Event

The Inciting Event is the major turning point halfway through your First Act, which places it right around the 12% mark. It’s the “Call to Adventure.” It’s your protagonist’s first serious brush with your story’s conflict. What it’s not is the moment when your character gets seriously and inextricably involved in that conflict. That comes later. This is just where the conflict catches your protagonist’s toe and trips him up a little.

The Key Event

As we just learned from Syd Field, the Key Event is the moment when the character can no longer escape involvement with the conflict he tripped over in the Inciting Event. This is where it gets personal.

The First Plot Point

The First Plot Point is a momentous event that marks the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. Basically, this is a point of no return for the protagonist. After this, there’s no going back. He’s involved with the conflict whether or not he wants to be, and his reactions to this event are what will create the rest of the story.

Are the Key Event and the First Plot Point the Same?

Notice anything? Like maybe how the Key Event and the First Plot Point sound quite similar? They’re both deeply personal moments. They both seem to be events from which the protagonist can’t walk away. And they both seem to be points of no return.

No wonder we experience all this confusion over the issue!

For a long time, I thought the Key Event and the First Plot Point were the same thing. This is an easy–and not entirely incorrect–assumption. Why? Because very often the Key Event and the First Plot Point are so closely linked as to be inextricable. To the naked eye, they definitely look like the same thing.

But they’re not.

The Key Event and the First Plot Point are two distinct and important sides of the same coin. In fact, the better analogy would be that they’re the two sides of a single doorway. As such, they occur one right after the other, usually in rapid succession.

Think about how you cross through a doorway. You do it in a single step–one fluid motion. The act of leaving one room and entering the next are two distinct events, but they both happen thanks to that one action on your part–that one step.

That’s how it happens in most stories, and that‘s why we often have a hard time figuring out the difference between the Key Event and the First Plot Point.

But it doesn’t always happen that way. There are stories in which the exit from the Normal World of the First Act and the entrance into the “adventure world” of the Second Act are two distinct moments–and these stories are the solution to figuring out how the Key Event and the First Plot Point each operate within the story.

The Key Event: Leaving the Normal World

The Key Event is when your character leaves the Normal World of the First Act. Often, this will be an actual physical departure from a physical setting:

  • In P.J. Hogan’s adaptation of Peter Pan, Wendy makes the hard decision to leave the Normal World of her London home and fly away with Peter Pan to Neverland, where she’ll “never have to think about grown-up things again.”
  • In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Scrooge leaves his Normal World when the Ghost of Christmas Past touches him and whisks him right out of his bedroom in the twinkling of an eye.

Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

But sometimes the departure from the Normal World isn’t so much about leaving a physical setting as it is leaving a previously held mindset or complacent set of expectations:

  • In The Great Escape, Big X–the leader of the escape organization among the Allied POWs–leaves the previously established Normal World of the “perfect” prison camp by calling “Meeting X” and recruiting his lieutenants for the huge escape he is planning.

Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

  • In How to Train Your Dragon, when Hiccup discovers the Night Fury dragon he shot down, he leaves behind the Normal World in which he had never been able to overcome a dragon and was, therefore, the worst Viking in the village.

By the very act of leaving the previously established, relatively safe, very familiar Normal World of the First Act, the protagonist becomes inextricably involved with the conflict. No matter how you slice and dice it, this departure is going to be extremely personal.

The First Plot Point: Entering the Adventure World

Then, right on the heels of this departure from the Normal World comes the First Plot Point. The First Plot Point is when your character enters the “adventure world” of the Second Act. It’s where he enters the main conflict. In some stories, this entrance will be obviously distinct from the Key Event’s exit:

  • In Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers have a relatively long flight over the London rooftops and through the stars until finally they arrive in Neverland where the adventure revs into high gear and the main conflict with Captain Hook kicks off.

Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

  • In The Great Escape, Big X and his men enter the the new adventure world of the Second Act the moment they begin digging their first escape tunnel.

But in other stories, the First Plot Point will come directly on the heels of the Key Event. They’re both part of the same scene, perhaps even the same moment, and are almost inextricable from one another:

  • In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s exit from his bedroom and his entrance into the supernatural adventure world of his own past happens all in one sentence: “…they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand.”
  • In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup’s finding of the dragon Toothless (his departure from his Normal World) and his decision to let the dragon go rather than killing him (the entrance into the adventure world of the main conflict) happens all in a single, seamless scene.

Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

This entrance into the adventure world fully involves the character with the conflict. After this, he can’t turn around and re-enter his Normal World. He can only move forward in dealing with the main conflict.

A full understanding of the Key Event, its role in story structure, and its timing will help you write stronger, better defined First Plot Points–and that can only result in stronger, more powerful stories!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Can you distinguish the Key Event and First Plot Point in your work-in-progress? Tell me about them in the comments!

characters

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.

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. Joleen Scott says:

    I know I have read this before, but sometimes clarification is best. So, my inciting event in my WIP is when the protagonists fiance is seriously injured during a Santerian ritual, allowing a demon to sneak in, And the key event is where the demon completely takes over, kidnapping the protagonists best friend (and possessing fiance), and now the antagonist has no choice but to save both friend and fiance from him.

  2. Freya Shipley says:

    Thank you so much for another incredibly helpful article. (The whole series is fantastic, as is your whole site! 🙂 )

    Until I read this piece, I was thinking that the Inciting Event was the event that sets the plot in motion — the first domino. In my WIP, that’s the writing of a bizarre will: something that happens before my heroine is even born. It’s the direct cause of her whole adventure, but it’s not her first brush with the conflict (as she doesn’t yet exist.)

    So now I’m thinking maybe the IE is when the heroine gets forcibly taken away from her happy home and separated from everyone who loves her. That’s the first time she knows anything’s wrong.

    But is that really the Key Event, followed immediately by Plot Point 1, where she arrives at her new “home” in the villain’s dark realm? In which case, should there be a separate Inciting Event somewhere earlier in the first act?

    Is the inciting event always defined with reference to the main character’s own personal experience?

    I don’t know whether this is enough plot info to enable you to comment. It would be great to hear your thoughts. Thank you!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your analysis of your story’s Hook, Key Event, and First Plot all sound correct to me. The Inciting Event should be the turning point halfway through the First Act (at roughly the 12% mark). It’s the Call to Adventure, where the protagonist first brushes, and, in some measure, rejects the main conflict. You can find more on that in my free e-book 5 Secrets of Story Structure.

      • Freya Shipley says:

        Thank you so much!

      • Freya Shipley says:

        So it goes like this?

        Hook: ??
        Key Event: Heroine is kidnapped from home.
        PP1: She arrives at her grim new “home” (@ 25% mark.)

        And the Inciting Event happens earlier, at 12%?

        I’ve got *Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys For Writing an Outstanding Story*, and I’ll definitely get *5 Secrets of Story Structure* as well.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The Hook is the opening event that grabs your readers and kicks off the plot. From the sounds of it, this is the event that happened prior to your protagonist’s birth.

  3. Gabriela says:

    Okay, I’m honestly just confused about it still. For me I’ll just brand the Key Event and the First Plot Point as the same thing because it’s more convenient that way and won’t make much of a difference. But besides that, I think I know have a thorough understanding of the first act, but I’ve come to noticed that it doesn’t necessarily matter if your inciting event is during the 1% of the story, it just has to be before halfway of the first mark, but the placement that matters the most is the Key Event/Plot Point because it’s best for it to be around 25%.

  4. Gabriela says:

    Is it bad to not know the difference between Key Event and First Plot Point when writing a story? For me, it makes things too complicated, and I understand it way better if I just get rid of ‘Key Event’ and only focus on the First Plot Point, because I see it the same way anyway.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not necessarily. In most stories, they will be so closely related as to almost be the same thing. They’re just two sides of the same coin. The Key Event is where the conflict smashes into the character; the First Plot Point is then where the character smashes *back* into the conflict (in short, he makes the decision to engage rather than walking away).

  5. Joe Nathan Scott says:

    I happened to stumble across your articles while I was doing some research to be more disciplined in my writing and I must say they’ve been a lifesaver. Thank you so much for these free articles and for taking the time to mentor aspiring writers. I’ve been working on a novel for some time now where the protagonist is raised in an academy and is sent to a military base when he graduates. His “call to adventure” occurs when there’s an attack on the base and in the heat of the moment (because he’s in the right place at the right time) he’s ordered by his superior to leave and protect a mysterious artifact. He doesn’t particularly believe in the cause (he longs for ‘freedom’) but since he’s been given a direct order he complies. My question is, does his lack of choice in the matter weaken my ‘inciting event’ any? I might be able to find a way to rework the scene if that’s the case.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even if the character is being forced by outside circumstances, he still has to make an active choice to engage. Ideally, it should be a hard choice, with consequences either way. Although there will be a give and take, you want a plot in which your character causes things to happen, rather than a story in which things happen *to* him.

      Great to hear you’re enjoying the site!

  6. Romina Korte says:

    Thank you, this already helped me a lot! Maybe it’s just my story, but I’m still confused about what these parts would be in my story:

    In a nutshell, the protagonist attends an elitist university against his will, with some big names among the students. One night one of those big names actually pukes on him by accident (yes I know ^^) and therefore invites the protagonist to dinner in his close circle as an apology, which introduces the protagonist to his soon-to-be friends and the person the conflict will be about. At first the protagonist and his kind-of antagonist despise each other, until the antagonist becomes the tutor of the protagonist (which goes against both of their wills). But this new tutoring relationship forces them to spend time with each other and allows the protagonist to get to know the other person and start forming a bond with them over a lot of complications.

    So right now, I would say the inciting incident is the protagonist being puked on and then invited to the dinner? Because that drives him into a new direction and to the new acquaintances. Would the key event then be the dinner where he meets the other person he’s going to form a relationship with over the course of the story after initial mutual hatred? Because that has him befriend all those rich people and kind of exit his old world. Or is that also the First Plot Point, because it also has him enter a new world of abundance? Or is the First Plot Point when that other character becomes his tutor? Because that leads the protagonist into the crazy world of that other character and enables getting to know him past his built walls?

    Okay, I feel like I’ve now confused myself xD If you could give any insight into this you don’t know how much that would help me ^^

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Partly, it depends on timing:

      Inciting Event: 12%
      Key Event: 20-25%
      First Plot Point: 25%

      So with that understood, I’d say your original statement of events sounds right.

      Inciting Event: Puking.
      Key Event: Attending dinner.
      First Plot Point: Meeting the people realign his world at the dinner.

  7. I'm REALLY Confused says:

    Okay, first of all, like my name suggests, I’m really confused. I’ve been trying to study the Structuring Your Novel book but some parts of it frustrate me so much that I want to blow my brains out — well, not literally.

    But it’s been kind of the same for all of the other articles online on three act structure; I suppose my confusion is due partly to the fact that I’m thirteen and am not that experienced. Anyway (sorry for rambling!), I don’t quite understand your explanation of Key Event VS the First Plot Point.

    What I understand is that the key event “is what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.”

    Also, the First Plot Point is the lock-in, or the point of no return.

    To illustrate, in Legally Blonde, Elle Woods is dumped by Warner, the inciting event. I, however, correct me if I’m wrong, interpret that the Key Event is the scene when Elle is sitting on a couch with an old lady, when she reaches an epiphany. She thinks that she must attend Harvard Law School, proving that she’s not just blonde but smart, in order to win his heart back. I think this is the Key Event because this is when Elle is involved in the story line and drawn into the story. Even though no action is happening and it’s all in her mind, it’s essential because the whole story is about her trying to win Warner back by attending Harvard Law. The inciting event simply happens to the character but the key event is when the character actually cares about her situation and is characterized by an epiphany or sudden realization, or change of heart.

    Since, in my interpretation, the key event is the lock in, this would happen when Elle steps out of her car, the front doors of Harvard standing before her. Between the key event and first plot point, she has already studied rigorously and proved herself worthy when she got accepted. Now that she’s at Harvard, there’s no turning back now — or atleast that’s what I think.

    The reason my interpretation of Key Event strays from yours is because nowhere in the quote from Syd did it say that the character was in an inextricable situation, physically. I observed it more as something mental — where the character resigns themselves to take on the problem, because they realize that it has become personal and they have to do something about it. Sometimes in films, an inciting event happens, but the character isn’t engaged until they mentally decide to be so.

    To sum up, I think that the inciting event is an external event that happens to a character; or when the first domino tumbles over. Usually, the character just reacts to it, like how Elle Woods stayed in bed gorging herself with chocolates and soap operas, traumatized of the break up. But the Key Event doesn’t happen until the protagonist accepts her situation and decides to be proactive, which draws her into the story line. This is where Elle realizes she has to attend Harvard in order to win back Warner–and is what the story is all about. The lock in, or the first plot point, is the point of no escape, when Elle has already been accepted into Harvard and was standing before the front doors.

    PLEASE correct me on where I went wrong! I’m really confused and the Key Event and the First Plot Point really confuse me! Please help? :^(

    • I'm REALLY Confused says:

      In othker words, I think , similar to the First Plot Point, the Key Event is like a lock in — but a mental one, where the protagonist decides to tackle on the problem and is drawn into the story. The First Plot Point, however, is a physical lock in — it’s the point of literally no return, like when Elle arrives at Harvard.
      Jeez.
      I should have just posted this comment instead of that monster above, strangly I find that my thoughts become more distinct as I put type them out. Anyways, sorry for the word count!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Legally Blonde, so I can’t verify this 100%. But it all sounds spot on. The reason the Key Event is often confusing is that it’s very fluid. Sometimes it isn’t even a beat of its own, separate from the First Plot Point. The easiest way to think about it is like this: the Key Event is where the protagonist steps out of the Normal World of the First Act, and the First Plot Point is where she steps into the Adventure World of the Second Act.

Leave a Reply

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