are your plot points too weak

Are Your Plot Points Too Weak?

If you know anything at all about story structure, you know your book’s plot points are the tent poles holding up the entire circus of your story. Without them: yawn.

But here’s the good news! Almost all stories end up with plot points—whether or not their authors even know what plot points are. People just instinctively realize that something world-changing has to happen around the 25% mark in a story (the First Plot Point), something has to cause the character has to have a major revelation about the conflict around the 50% mark (the Midpoint), and something horrible and seemingly unconquerable must happen around the 75% mark (the Third Plot Point). That’s just how stories roll, and (most) authors agree on that without question.

And yet… some stories are dying, not for the lack of plot points, but because their authors aren’t putting in the effort to create bone-rattling, adrenaline-spiking, mind-splatteringly awesome plot points.

When reading a book or watching a movie, I instinctively watch for the plot points, and more often than not, they’re plenty obvious. Something big happens. Something wonderful or terrifying or unique happens. That’s the way it should be. A book’s plot points should be so obvious that even folks who have no clue about plot points will realize something important just happened.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes I’ll be reading a story, waiting patiently for that something amazing to happen. The 20% mark approaches, and my anticipation begins. The 25% mark passes, but that’s okay, we’ve still got time. The 26% mark passes, the 27% mark, the 28% mark—still nothing. And before I know it, I’m staring at 35% on my Kindle’s progress meter, and I’m wondering, Was that little blip of an event back there—was that supposed to be the plot point? Please no.

Turns out, yes. Can I have a side of snores with that yawnburger?

The whole point of the plot point is that something happens. Sure, stuff is also supposed to happen between the plot points as well, but those in-between times are there to allow for quieter introspection and character development. Here’s the thing though: the quiet moments only work when something earth-shattering happens to punctuate them.

If you’re not creating strong, memorable events for your book’s plot points, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. In writing strong plot points, not only will you be able to stave off reader boredom, you will also have the potential to create vastly resonant and memorable scenes.

Take a look at your book’s plot points. Are they big? Are they exciting? Are they unique within the overall conflict of the story? Did you have blast writing them? If not, take a moment to reconsider how you can strengthen them—and, as a result, your entire story.

Tell me your opinion: How can you make the last major plot point you wrote even bigger?

Are Your Plot Points Too Weak?

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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. This reminds me of some books I’ve read that have had a clear lack of plot points because there was too much nothing going on. I’ve stated before and still believe that the stories that suffer from this problem are ones that are too character driven. Yes, characters can sometimes make plot-less stories fascinating, but usually not and even when it succeeds, a coherent plot gives characters an arc to make it more than just fascination in personality and what their favorite cereal is. I believe some “literary” authors fail to realize that there is such thing as subtle, almost action-less plots that their cast of characters would be great in compared to fantasy/sci-fi/thriller stories that are so much about the action or ideas, there are no room for characters. Right now I’m re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird and am reminded how a subtle, character driven plot can work great.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m getting to where I dislike the terms “character-driven” and “plot-driven,” simply because they’re misleading in the idea that a story should be one or the other. What we’re really talking about is the “character’s interior” in a story versus the “character’s actions.” How it really works, of course, is that a perfect book is a balanced blend of the two – no matter how the pacing turns out.

      • I’m sick of both terms too, but unfortunately they are prime for use as long as authors focus too much on one over the other.

  2. Siegmar Sondermann says:

    Since I´ve learned about the plot-point-thing, my stories get the structure I failed to provide them with before.
    Concerning the strength of the plot points, I try to take to heart what Alfred Hitchcock said.

    “Drama is life, with the dull parts left out”.

  3. Let’s see…I blew up a tavern with 30 people inside. I suppose I could throw in my protag’s love interest. I do the same thing with my Kindle. If I pass that 25% mark (you gotta be careful, some books have extra stuff at the end) and nothing happens, I get verbally abusive with the author. Good thing he’s never in the room with me. And my wife has lodged an official complain over me pausing movies to see where we are in the story. I’m more challenged on my next project. It’s contemporary YA, so I can’t blow anything up. But I’ll figure it out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s one thing I love about reading e-books–you can time those plot points down to a science. It makes analyzing story structure so much easier than trying to divide up page numbers.

  4. I killed someone, and I’m about to do his funeral. Which is turning the hero’s social circle inside out and he’s terrified it’ll finally be his undoing. He harbors the fear everyone thinks he’s not up to his responsibilities, and he blames himself for this death, even though he couldn’t have stopped it.

    It’s going to be splashed all over the news, which is the last thing he wants.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Funerals are often excellent plot points. Character deaths change the story world around them – and that’s what a good plot point always does.

  5. There’s a reason those big, important plot points are often called “turning points.” The story hinges upon them. Once they happen, everything is different, and your protagonist can’t go back to the way things were. If a plot point does not significantly change the direction of the story you’re telling, it’s not a turning point. And if it doesn’t have an impact, why is it there to begin with? Why did it happen?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very true. Major plot points are all about reversals, or, at the very least, the introduction of new and significant information. The character’s story goal must be refined with every new plot point. Otherwise, as you say, what’s the point?

  6. Oh my, this is so true. Sometimes I find myself wondering where did the plot points go.
    Thanks for another great post!
    M.

  7. SJ Griffo says:

    Great post. I think movies have a lot of influence on today’s novels. Most blockbuster movies have a lot going on in every scene. I think that generally works better for a movie and for certain fiction genres. Still, it has given us short attention spans, no matter what we read/write.

    Although the trend in writing instruction seems to be leaning heavily toward raising the stakes on every single page, I’m not a fan of novels that have too much conflict/too much happening simultaneously. Sure, they’re page-turners, but they can be exhausting and sometimes easily forgettable. Sort of like an amusement park ride. Thrilling while you’re on it.

    On the other hand, if I’ve read 50 pages and I’m still asking “What is this story about?” there’s a strong possibility that I won’t finish the book. Unless it’s one of the classics, because those stories sometimes amble along. I may hang in there for another 50 pages or so.

    Whether a story is character or plot-driven, the author must make me care about the characters enough to want to know how they solve their problems. No problems, no plot.

    My writing is mostly character-driven, so I occasionally struggle with pacing the raising of the stakes, even when I’ve outlined some great plot points.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is why “sequel scenes” are so important. They’re the reaction phase after the action that allows readers to catch their breath and dig deeper into the interior lives of the characters.

    • Definitely, the nature of stakes, and the nature of a plot point, depends on the story. Sometimes it’s the fate of the world. Sometimes it’s the fate of a bid on eBay. In character-driven literary fiction, the plot points certainly can be subtle, and they rarely involve the fate of the world, but things still change. The moment comes when going back to the way things were at the start of the novel is not an option. Whatever causes that to happen is a plot point as significant as any.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        A good rule of thumb: If the event doesn’t cause the character a significant reaction, it’s not a strong enough plot point.

  8. I’ve never deliberately looked for plot points in books and movies. At the end, I decide whether I want more from that author or director and the number of major changes doesn’t seem important. Maybe I should be paying closer attention.

    In the novel I’m writing now, I went with the three act structure of a screenplay. My major plot points are around the 33% and 66% points. I guess you would be disappointed with that. On the other hand, it’s a thriller and there are many minor plot points that change people, groups, and the relationships between them.

    I’ll be updating my plot grid now to show minor plot points as well as the two major changeovers. My novels in it’s third draft, so the three act structure will be staying. Maybe the next one will be four acts. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even readers who have never heard of plot points and therefore wouldn’t be able to consider their impact on the story will be basing their ultimate opinion of the story on the overall effect created by the presence (or lack) of the major plot points. The timing of plot points in a book can be relatively flexible, so the late timing of yours wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Still, I always recommend that writers try to keep their plot points timed tightly – otherwise, you’ll end up with a very short second or third act.

  9. I never ‘looked’ for my plot points. I suppose I assumed they happen when they should happen. But since you asked, I went and looked. The first one seems to actually fall just BEFORE the 25% mark, around 20%… but this baby still has to be edited, so it may be right where it needs to be when we are done.
    The 2nd is within pages of the middle and the final one shocked me by being exactly where it should.
    I have learned a lot … currently obsessed with your idea that character arcs also have ‘set’ points 🙂 Yes, like plot points, I knew they were ‘there’… just never seemed like something anyone would actually plan for. Shouldn’t they just come where they should as the character develops? Apparently, for mere pantsers like me, they still do. Yay!
    Appreciate your sharing all this information. It is fascinating.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Here’s the amazing thing about story structure: the *reason* it works is because it’s so ingrained in the human psyche that it’s practically instinctive. When I first learned about story structure, I did the same thing you just did – I grabbed all my books and looked up the quarter marks where the plot points were supposed to appear. And lo and behold! There they were! The great thing about then *learning* story structure is that we’re able to strengthen our subconscious story instincts with conscious knowledge. And that includes making those already existing plot points even bigger and better.

  10. Thanks for the interesting post. I will rush over to my excel sheet/book plan and check the timing of my major scenes. Dead body, shark attack, kidnapping/rescue. Lol, what a strange sounding book I have.

  11. When I finished my first draft of my novel, I knew it was too short. So I made a list of the plot points. the biggest one, the one I knew needed to be at the 50% mark, more or less, was 61% through. I spent months restructuring the ending and adding more detail. Now that same part of the story is at the 53% mark. Right around the 75% mark is another huge game-changer. Using percentages to re-write and know where my missing words needed to be was so helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s very true that the timing of the plot points in a novel are comparatively flexible. But so many authors latch onto this as an “excuse” to avoid the tight timing, when really (as you’ve discovered) the timing is a tremendous tool in discovering which sections of the story may be overpowering or underwhelming.

  12. Nana Kwarteng says:

    In my current WIP, my young, wealthy hero (heir to the vast fortunes of his respectable family) realizes he’s in love with a beautiful street prostitute he has befriended…First Plot Point. In the Second Plot Point…turns out his families business dealings are not so respectable at all, and unknown enemies are lurking behind the scenes to blackmail him. And then just when he thought things could get no worse, turns out the woman he loves (and who loves him in return) was forced into prostitution because his father bankrupted her father, leading her father to commit suicide…Third Plot Point. Is their love strong enough?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice premise. Keep in mind that the plot points all have to involve major events and subsequent decisions on the protagonist’s part. What action does his realization in the First Plot Point lead him to take that changes his Normal World forever? What happens in the Third Plot Point that tests their love to the breaking point?

      • Nana Kwarteng says:

        I’ll keep that in mind, Miss/Mrs. Weiland. Thanks for the advice. You’re a great and appreciated mentor.

  13. thomas cullen says:

    “the quiet moments only work when something earth-shattering happens to punctuate them.” Good analysis.

    About half of all the lines of literature in The Representative are plot points – at least that.

    The 25/50/75 % breakdown you put forward sounds correct; it’s just the natural structure, isn’t it.

    To see how that applies to TR: ironically enough, I would say that its own broad structure is one of three parts – story set-up/ story take-off/ story discovery.

    I think I’ll write that down actually!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When I first learned about story structure, I flipped through my already existing stories to see how their plot points stacked up–and I was shocked to discover I had unconsciously been adhering to correct structure all along. A conscious understanding helps us implement it better, but the reason story structure works in the first place is that it’s already deeply ingrained in the human psyche.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Exactly……a state which exists because of our very innate attachment to narrativism in the first place. We are hooked on being narrative – we spend vast portions of our waking existence, day by day, being so and talking so.

        Reflectiveness – this is for me an always must for story structure. Acknowledging what’s come before (way before!), and also vice versa……making sure the reader/viewer can in hindsight recognise the seeds having been planted at the outset.

        I’ve done all this with The Representative!

  14. I guess the biggest take away value from your blog is : pay attention to your own emotions when writing. Instead of getting it done, focus on your own reactions. That’s where most of the answers to the plot issues resides.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true. A writer’s gut instinct is one of her most powerful tools.

      • Thanks…. I am having difficulty figuring them out in my own WIP. Since my ideas are popping and spilling all over the place. But since I am excited, I know I will work through it (in a good way) somehow… 😀

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Definitely. Plot points are the road signs of excitement. If you’re excited about something in a story, there’s a good chance it’s a major plot point.

          • All right, so divide those events which I think are exciting, and tweak and tweeze them for my needs, and then made them plot points?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            That’s a good way to start. You may find there’s not enough “space” between some of those events for them all to be major plot points. But it’s still a good way to start figuring out your story’s structure.

  15. I’m a huge fan of comedies of manners (including the kind where the comedy is very subtle and oblique, like Barbara Pym’s novels.) One thing these books have taught me is that plot points can actually be events that to *us* may seem trivial (e.g., a new vicar arrives in the next village) as long as the *characters* perceive them as utterly earth-shaking.

  16. I’m hesitant to ask this question because I know it sounds dangerously stupid but I must ask it because it’s bugging me now. How are you supposed to calculate where the 25% mark is? As in, looking at these comments, I’m seeing 33% and 61% marks and feeling baffled because I don’t know where these are in a book. Are these estimates? Apologies for the ignorance – I am a new writer who has never heard of plot points. Your blog has been so helpful!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not a stupid question at all! It’s one I receive a lot and one I plan to do a post on soon.

      Ultimately, you can only estimate the timing in the first draft. Outliners have a decided advantage in doing this. I usually calculate the timing of my plot points by counting the number of scenes in my outline and estimating how many scenes I want to include overall to reach my target word count. But there is always a bit of jimmying in the actual first draft.

      Instinct also plays a role. Most writers time their plot points surprisingly well–even before they’re even aware of the principles of story structure.

      • I got so caught up in the “How to structure scenes” series that I didn’t notice your reply! Thank you.

        Would you recommend doing a full outline of the book beforehand and then seeing where the 25-50-75% marks lie or doing the first draft and calculating to see whether you’ve placed plot points suitably?

        Also, would you recommend counting scenes or chapters to see where the plot points should go? I picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and counted chapters instead of scenes. From this I got that the first plot point was when Harry and Hagrid first meet; the second when Harry and Snape meet (and Harry finds out about the Gringott’s break in); the third when Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised. Sound about right to you?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Although outlines don’t work for all authors, I personally recommend them highly. (Wrote a book about outlines, actually.)

          In my outlines, I count scenes, not chapters, since scenes are the structural building blocks, while chapters are just arbitrary divisions. Also, in finding the plot points in books, it’s best to divide the page count, rather than the chapters. You’ll get a much tighter approximation that way.

          I’ve never read Harry Potter books, but you can find my structural breakdown of the first movie here, which I assume is similar to the book’s structure.

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