The Link Between Your Story’s First Plot Point and Third Plot Point

I often talk about cohesion and resonance as being two of the most important qualities of great stories. Many factors are involved in achieving these effects, but one of the subtlest and yet most powerful is found within the structure of story itself. This is the hidden “circle” of story structure, in which all the important beats in the first half can be seen as foreshadowing for their “partner” beats in the second half.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been examining the idea that story structure can be viewed not just as an arc but as a circle.

So far, we’ve talked about the link between the Hook and Resolution and the link between the Inciting Event and the Climactic Moment. Today, we’re going to examine one of my favorite pairings—the powerhouse structural beats known as the First Plot Point and the Third Plot Point.

In some ways, these plot points are less partners and more part of a triangle, along with the Midpoint. The First Plot Point marks the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second Act, around 25% of the way into the story. The Midpoint halves the story and the Second Act at the 50% mark. And the Third Plot Point ends the Second Act and begins the Third Act, around 75% of the way into the story. In short, these three major plot points mark the quarter points within the story, with the Midpoint acting as the central fulcrum between all of the structural pairings.

These three plot points are the “big money” moments in your story. They are the set-piece scenes/sequences in which the biggest and most important action takes place. Although all the main structural beats are important and act as significant turning points within the story, it is the plot points that carry the most weight.

Because we are talking about “linked” structural beats and because the Midpoint has no actual partner, we’ll discuss it in a post of its own at the end of the series. For today, we’re going to specifically examine some of the parallel functions of the First Plot Point and the Third Plot Point.

Structurally Speaking: What Is the First Plot Point?

The First Plot Point is the first major turning point within the story in that it signifies the end of the Normal World in the story’s First Act and the beginning of the main conflict in the Second Act. It occurs approximately 25% of the way into the story.

The First Plot Point is preceded, halfway through the First Act at the 12% mark, by the Inciting Event. As previously discussed, the Inciting Event is where the protagonist first “brushed” with the main conflict by receiving a Call to Adventure. But this Call to Adventure was resisted in some way. For many possible reasons, the protagonist wasn’t willing or able to immediately accept the Call.

In short, the Inciting Event initiates in the protagonist a growing awareness of the desire that will become his plot goal, the obstacles presented to him in chasing after it, and the stakes for him whether he pursues it or not. The protagonist, however, has not yet committed himself. He can still walk away from the Inciting Event. Indeed, for the remainder of the First Act, he may be trying his level best to do just that.

And then comes the First Plot Point. The First Plot Point is what Joseph Campbell called a “threshold.” More popularly, we often refer to it as a Door of No Return. It is an event that forever alters the protagonist’s world. Whether of her own volition or not, she commits to her plot goal—and thus the main conflict. When she takes this step out of the Normal World (perhaps literally and physically, or perhaps just symbolically), she is taking a step she will never be able to reverse. Even if she is to physically return to the Normal World later in the story, she will find that either herself and/or the world is forever altered in some way.

Writers sometimes get confused about the different roles of the Inciting Event and the First Plot Point, since both seem to initiate the main conflict. They are, of course, both inherently related to this initiation, but the one leads into the other. The best way to understand the difference is to think of the Inciting Event as setting up the irrevocability of the First Plot Point.

First Act Timeline

Structurally Speaking: What Is the Third Plot Point?

Just as the First Plot Point begins the Second Act, the Third Plot Point ends it—and begins the Third (and final) Act. The Third Plot Point should take place at approximately the 75% mark. It signifies a final major turning point, this time into the ultimate confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonistic force to decide the outcome of the conflict and whether or not the protagonist will gain his plot goal.

(For clarity’s sake, you’ll want to note that many writing instructors refer to this as the Second Plot Point—while giving the “Midpoint” no other title. Either way, what is being referenced is this gateway to the Third Act at the 75% mark.)

The Third Plot Point signifies a major raising of the stakes, usually by way of a “low moment” for the protagonist. The Third Plot Point is often a defeat of some kind. Symbolically, it represents Death—with the opportunity for Rebirth. Within the character’s arc, the Third Plot Point is a Dark Night of the Soul in which the character is asked to finally and fully confront the full consequences of the Lie She Believes as well the sacrifice she will have to make if she is to embrace the thematic Truth.

Even within plot-centric stories, the symbolism inherent within the Third Plot Point represents the protagonist’s struggle to come to terms with his actions and losses in the Second Act and to determine what he is willing to do to gain his plot goal in the Third Act.

Third Act Timeline

(This article doesn’t discuss the Second Act, but here’s the link to the corresponding Second Act Timeline graphic if you’re interested.)

Recognizing the Parallel Functions of the First Plot Point and Third Plot Point

You can think of the link between your story’s First Plot Point and Third Plot Point in a few different ways:

  • Doors of No Return

Although we often reference only the First Plot Point as a Door of No Return, the Third Plot Point is a threshold as well. In many ways, the Third Plot Point is simply a deepening—a “further up and further in”—of the First Plot Point’s departure from the Normal World, but it is also a clear threshold of its own, specifically in its representation of Death/Rebirth.

The Third Plot Point is an entry point to not just physical transformation (as when the Hero leaves his home on a Quest), but personal transformation as well. The First Plot Point may take the protagonist to a new place, but the Third Plot Point makes him into a new person. The First Plot Point engages the protagonist with the main conflict in a way he cannot disengage from, and the Third Plot Point pushes him into a final confrontation which he has no choice but to play out to its end.

For Example: In 3:10 to Yuma, the First Plot Point sees protagonist Dan Evans leaving the Normal World of his ranch on a dangerous mission to deliver outlaw Ben Wade to the train station in the town of Contention (from which Ben will be returned to the Yuma penitentiary). Once Dan agrees to escort Ben, he can’t take it back—both because of financial stakes and because of the danger represented by Ben and his outlaw gang. The Third Plot Point then offers an even more dire threshold when Dan and Ben arrive in the new setting of Contention, only to discover it is a lethal trap which Dan must fight his way through in order to get Ben to the train.

  • Death/Rebirth Symbolism

The Third Plot Point is traditionally thought of as symbolizing Death/Rebirth, but in fact the First Plot Point represents this too. Sometimes the First Plot Point may feature death just as literally as the Third Plot Point, since some sort of death (whether of a loved one or a former way of life) is often the catalyst that raises the stakes and propels the protagonist into stepping through that first threshold and into a commitment to the main conflict in the Second Act.

For Example: In Children of Men, the protagonist Theo’s estranged wife is shot while escorting the girl Kee to safety. This death of a loved one permanently engages Theo in the conflict which he had previously resisted, as he carries on his wife’s mission. The Third Plot Point doesn’t feature a significant death, but it features the threat of death, both via Theo’s scheduled execution and Kee’s kidnapping.

  • Thematic Pivots

The First Plot Point represents the protagonist’s departure from the Normal World. Thematically, the Normal World might be thought of us as The World Where the Lie Worked. From here, although the protagonist will still try to live by this outdated life philosophy, the conflict will progressively force her to face a new reality. The Midpoint will offer a Moment of Truth, and the Third Plot Point will follow it up by mirroring the First Plot Point in another thematic pivot, this time into The World Where Only the Truth Works. If the protagonist can accept and integrate the new life philosophy (via the Third Plot Point’s Death/Rebirth), she will emerge at least personally triumphant from the main conflict.

For Example: In Jane Eyre, the titular protagonist spends the First Act in a world governed by her Lie—that “love and security can only be bought at the expense one’s free will and personal sovereignty.” She then enters the Second Act—which takes place entirely at Thornfield Hall, where she is employed as governess by the mysterious man with whom she will fall hopelessly in love. There, she begins learning the Truth about true love. But not until the Third Plot Point forces her out of Thornfield Hall, via her lover’s lies about his previous marriage, is she forced to fully claim her Truth that “I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart!”

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me- I am a free human being with an independent will Jane Eyre Ruth Wilson BBC 2006 Wallpaper

3 Questions to Strengthen the Link Between Your First Plot Point and Third Plot Point

1. How Do the Events of the First and Third Plot Points Create “Doors of No Return” That Will Forever Change Your Protagonist?

The best plot points are plain in their irreversibility. They create turning points that are dramatic simply because they cannot be easily undone. Examine your First Plot Point for ways to create a definite threshold between your story’s Normal World and Adventure World. This does not necessarily mean the protagonist must leave one setting and enter another. But if he remains in the same setting in the Second Act, his relationship to that setting and the people in it should be be dramatically changed in some way.

Same for the Third Plot Point. Make sure this is a dramatic turning point that forces the protagonist into the final confrontation of the Third Act. What about the Third Plot Point gives the protagonist no choice but to face the antagonistic force and decide once and for all what he is willing to do to gain his plot goal?

2. How Do the First and Third Plot Points Feature, Foreshadow, or Symbolize Death/Rebirth?

The Death/Rebirth symbolism of the First and Third Plot Points is foundationally grounded within the irreversible transition of the Door of No Return. The protagonist’s old life has died (however subtly), and a new life has arisen. Consider how you can deepen this important symbolism. Is it reasonable to feature an actual death at either of these plot points? You may also choose to utilize “lesser” deaths, such as the death of a relationship, job, or even ideal. The “death” that occurs at the First Plot Point will foreshadow the more final “death” at the Third Plot Point.

3. How Do the First and Third Plot Points Pivot the Protagonist’s Relationship to the Thematic Lie/Truth?

Consider how the Lie the Character Believes can function as a catalyst for the protagonist’s full-on engagement with the conflict at the First Plot Point. It could be that this is where something about the Lie subtly proves itself ineffective, or it could be that the protagonist chooses to engage with the main conflict in order to defend the validity of the Lie.

Likewise, how will the Third Plot Point represent the death knell of the Lie—either because the protagonist rejects it in exchange for the Truth, because the world around her rejects it, or because she insists on holding onto it even though it has proven its ineffectiveness?

***

Next week, we’ll take a look at the important similarities that link the First Pinch Point and the Second Pinch Point. Happy writing!

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are some important parallels between your First Plot Point and Third Plot Point? Tell me in the comments!

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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. In my First Plot Point, the protags discover a means to escape their world and the people chasing them. In the Third Plot Point, that means is destroyed by some sketchy allies. I can see how the beats are related, but I need to figure out how my MC’s Lie plays into this.

    • After pouring over your links, I’ve discovered my character’s actual Lie is: Love should be easy. The Thematic Truth is: Love requires trust and sacrifice.

      So, I can see how “trying to find a safe place to love” in the plot points sort of symbolizes the theme. I’m worried that’s inadequate. I don’t really have the MC realizing anything except that they’re trapped now.

  2. Good post, Kate! Loving this strategic approach to my story. I have a question. My WIP (first novel) has nine main (four not-so-main, but integral). Also, two other non-human characters: a freak snowstorm and a bear. Between my human main characters, there are actually several protag/antag relationships. Husbands/wives, father/child. Two relationships are what I’d consider main. (Am I making sense here?) I’m excited that when I mapped out the Inciting event through to the climax, the positioning of each one is almost spot-on. The question: How do you map if there are multiple relationships going like this? I forgot to mention that five of the characters have POV scenes (one has only one scene of his POV). The themes are reconciliation and Reconciliation, and each relationship has subplots which play into this. Any thoughts? Do you have enough information to answer? I should mention I’m in the last round of editing/revision with my editor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The short answer is that you can handle this in two ways: either use the same plot point to drive the plot in all POVs or time it so each POV/subplot gets its own structure-advancing plot point near to the proper time. In the vast majority of cases, the first is preferable, since it will contribute to a much tighter story.

  3. Olga Oliver says

    Oh, my brain is spinning . . . right now, if I could take all my writing stuff to the dumpster yelling all the way . . . “get out the easel and paints . . . visit with Van Gogh!” . . . or dig a big hole in the backyard, fill it with writing stuff, drop in a few lighted matches and dance, dance, dance. Has anyone ever done this?? just toss this writing stuff it in a big hole? If there are others, let’s start a trail of tears and quietly get a cup of coffee saying to the ceiling . . . “oh, shut up, you’ve tried that before . . . you’ll love all that info from Katie in the morning.”
    Olga

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haha. I’ll join you in the bonfire. Winter solstice, shall we say? :p

    • I’ve trashed enough writing to make ten books instead of one. It’s just part of the process, like a cabinet maker. The first cabinet is usually pretty rough, but as time goes by the cabinet maker gets better, honing his skills until he becomes a master cabinet maker.

      I see this as a right of passage, a journey to improve my new skills, and an exciting opportunity to remake my creation.

      The problem with perfection is that it is easy for one to never stop. As they say in the engineering world from where I come; how do you finish a project for production? You shoot the engineer.

  4. “The First Plot Point may take the protagonist to a new place, but the Third Plot Point makes him into a new person.”

    Love that. Also the idea of the Third Plot Point being the death of something. What a catalyst! Thanks for the post.

  5. Ms. Albina says

    I am writing a journal/story. The journal being of each chapter my current wip.

  6. Thea T. Kelley says

    Katie, I have a question about what you wrote above: “Writers sometimes get confused about the different roles of the Inciting Event and the First Plot Point…think of the Inciting Event as setting up the irrevocability of the First Plot Point.”

    Why does the irrevocability need to be set up in advance?

    Also, why is it important/necessary that the hero resists the first call to action (Inciting Event)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Technically, *everything* in a story (except the first chapter) requires set up, since one scene always leads into the next. That said, the major turning points of the three plot points particularly require foreshadowing. This is done in ways large and small, but their preceding “smaller” beats (Inciting Event, First, Pinch Point, and Second Pinch Point) are particularly important for developing the evolving perspectives that will allow your character to make his major decisions at the plot points in a convincing way.

      As for the resistance to the Inciting Event, this is to create an emotional arc. There are many ways to think about this, but the essential idea is that every scene and every beat must create an arc from one “value” to another. If the character says, “yes, yes, yes” to every opportunity, there is little variety within the action and little convincing character development. Because the character’s answer (willing or not) to the First Plot Point is always a “yes,” the rhythm of the story requires at least a nod to a “no” prior to that. That “no” is the initial (or sometimes proxy) refusal of the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Event.

  7. Howdy,

    Good one. This is right on the money. I recognize this in movies. Even in the last two Blade movies! The cohesion and resonance is remarkable. *Spoiler alert*
    The lie was found in Blade’s motivation for becoming a Vampire killer in the first act. His mother was bitten by a vampire while pregnant changing his DNA. He survived, while she supposedly died. He became part human and part vampire. He blamed the Vampirez for his mother’s death and making him what is.

    On mission to kill a vampire he attempts to walk past a hematologist who’s been bitten…but when he tries to walk away, he sees his mother crying out for help, so he decides to rescue her with anti-viral meds.

    In the third act, he discovers his mother is not only still alive, but is working hand in hand with the same vampire that infected her! BAM!!! Surprise! What a lie buster, right? His mother was even used as bait to trap him. It’s here he has a kind of death moment and is defeated…But the hematologist helps free him from shackles, offers her own blood to save his life. Now invigorated, he confronts his mother who attacks him. He disarms her, but she tries to appeal to his weakness as her mother. He says, I’m freeing you” kills her from the curse of being a vampire. Yet it seems he was actually freeing himself from something. It wasn’t the main conflict, but it enabled him to confront the main antagonist etc.

    This is awesome. It’s like studying storytelling in 3D.

  8. Thank you for your excellent synopsis of structure. So, if I am understanding this correctly, there is a critical link between acts I and II with respect to the lie that the protagonist lives by. I’ve been struggling with understanding this for some time, but I might be on the precipice of either an epiphany or a tall cliff.

    I think what the big lie for my protagonist is that she believes she making her own choices in life, but the truth is that she is being setup and used as a pawn in a power struggle she knows nothing about.

    Act I in my book should set up her up for being dragged into this trap—which it does at the end of Act I.

    Act II Midpoint is the point of where the protagonist learns the actual truth, but is only privy to some of the truth.

    Act III should be the point where the truth is fully exposed, or at least enough of the truth for the protagonist (that whiff of death & dark night of the soul moment) to reach deep down to marshal her forces for the battle for the climax.

    So, would the protagonist’s unwitting belief that she is not a pawn work as the lie and therefore its theme, or do I need to do something different?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The character’s belief that she not a pawn is, on its surface, a plot Lie–which is great. You can leave it at that and allow the thematic Lie to rise by implication. But you can also dig deeper for a more universal Lie/Truth that is motivating her willingness to believe the plot Lie–e.g., some sort of universal Truth about the nature of power.

  9. I am loving this series of posts. Great information to further my understanding of structure.

  10. The ‘death/rebirth’ idea clicked for me… I think my 1st plot point is when my protagonist’s view of himself ‘dies’ when he learns what he really is. I’m guessing my 3rd plot point is after my protagonist learning his inner lies must ‘die’ if he is to succeed and he must face the conflict from which he fled (door of no return). Is that about right? I had originally labeled this 3rd plot point as the 2nd pinch point… perhaps that was a little out?

  11. Rolena Hatfield says

    Really enjoying this series and it’s making things click in my head (yay!). Looking forward to more posts!

  12. David Snyder says

    Katie,

    Really great stuff as usual.

    I just sent my brother a copy of Structuring Your Novel for his birthday.

    That says it all, I think.

    🙂

  13. Tomas Bergström says

    I don’t really use this story structure model for my entire story but I use something very similar for each plot and subplot in my stories. My romance plots as well as my mystery plots follow a structure very similar to this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Story structure is quite instinctive. Writers often think story structure is something arbitrary imposed on stories, but really it is simply a recognized pattern gleaned from observing what’s happening in successful stories.

  14. Abigail Welborn says

    “Thematically, the Normal World might be thought of us as The World Where the Lie Worked. From here, although the protagonist will still try to live by this outdated life philosophy, the conflict will progressively force her to face a new reality. The Midpoint will offer a Moment of Truth, and the Third Plot Point will follow it up by mirroring the First Plot Point in another thematic pivot, this time into The World Where Only the Truth Works.”

    MIND BLOWN 🤯 This is so awesome. I’ve been studying story structure for years, but there’s still always more to learn! For some reason this just really spoke to me clearly today!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Don’t you love it when that happens? 🙂 I think this is why writing is so rewarding–there’s always more to learn.

  15. I find it fasinating how when you divided the ways to see the parallel functions of the First Plot Point and the Third one into three parts, that at ‘1. Doors of No Return’ the difference seems to be that the Third Plot Point has a death symbol in it where the First Plot Point has not, but in the second way of seeing the First/Third Plot Point connection ‘2. Death/Rebirth Symbolism’ the death symbol is exactly that what is similar.
    Like there are two polar opposites ways to look at this link between these points.
    Did I see this correctly, or did I misinterpret this?

Trackbacks

  1. […] we’ve also talked about the link between the Hook and the Resolution and the link between the First Plot Point and Third Plot Point. Although most of these links aren’t immediately obvious, the Pinch Points are different. The […]

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