The Two Halves of the Third Plot Point

Like all the major structural turning points, the Third Plot Point is made up of two halves—which work together to create a scene arc (even though, technically, the entire arc of the beat might be told over the course of a scene sequence made up of many scenes). The halves that create this arc are important because only together can they create the realistic resonance of cause and effect. If the  Third Plot Point is where the character sinks into a reverie on mortality (or at least the potential failure of his plot goal), there must first be a “high place” from which he falls. The higher this place, the more striking the plight of the Third Plot Point will be.

The Third Plot Point also signifies the “descent” into the following Climax. Regardless the character’s travails up to this point, everything is about to get much worse, at least in the sense that the conflict is finally coming to an irrevocable head. At the Third Plot Point, the protagonist descends into the abyss of the Third Act. This symbolic underworld could be as “heavy” as imprisonment and torture by the enemy or as “light” as nerves before a school dance recital. Whether or not the protagonist makes it out depends largely on how she copes with the two halves of the Third Plot Point.

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Once again, here’s a big-picture look at the beats we’re exploring:

What Is the Third Plot Point?

In many systems dealing with the Three-Act Structure, the Third Plot Point may also be called the Second Plot Point (in which case, the Midpoint is not considered a “major” plot point in its own right). Really, though, it’s just semantics; in both cases what is being referenced is the threshold between the Second and Third Acts, which takes place roughly 75% of the way into the story.

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This beat is a crucial transition point and should not be confused with the beginning of the Climax which takes place later on, halfway through the Third Act (at approximately the 88% mark). You may notice that in many stories—especially action-oriented movies—the Third Plot Point may be either skipped or its functional death/rebirth role is moved up to the preceding Second Pinch Point (taking place at approximately the 67% mark). This is usually done to create more story space for big set-piece climactic action scenes. But from a structural—and particularly a character-arc—perspective, it risks weakening one of the most important thematic beats in the entire story.

As we discussed last week, the Midpoint and its Moment of Truth is when the protagonist will accept the thematic Truth as true and begin trying to adopt it as a guide for his actions within the plot. However, the protagonist did not yet reject the Lie. For the remainder of the Second Half of the Second Act, the character will try to straddle both thematic paradigms or mindsets. And this is ultimately what brings him to the disaster of the Third Plot Point—and his final decision of whether he will fully “die” to the old Lie and be “reborn” in the new Truth. Depending on the nature of the story, this is a battle that may be waged down to the very depths of the character’s soul. It may even, literally, be a life and death decision.

The Third Plot Point will prove that the consequences for retaining the Lie are costly. But the beat itself will also force the protagonist to confront the reality that rejecting the Lie will also be costly. This is important. The temptation to keep the Lie instead of the Truth should be formidable. (Otherwise, why did it take the character 75% of the book to figure out that the Truth will clearly serve her much better?)

The Third Plot Point is also an important beat simply within the external conflict, since it sets up the Climax to come. In essence, the defeat at the Third Plot Point creates the final big obstacle between the protagonist and his plot goal. It is what creates the ultimate conflict between the protagonist and the antagonistic force in the Climax. Part of the “dark night of the soul” in the Third Plot Point is the question to the protagonist of whether or not he really wants the plot goal enough to tackle this final and most fearsome obstacle.

The answer, to one degree or another, will always be yes, since otherwise the story ends right there. This is true even if the character fails to choose properly between the Lie and the Truth. If she fails to utterly reject the Lie and be “reborn” into the Truth, she will proceed into the final conflict but with the wrong motives and/or tactics. She will either fail in her plot goal for lack of the Truth, or she will prevail but discover it is a hollow victory (or at least the audience will witness the harm it engenders for the rest of the story world).

>>Click here to read about the Negative Change Character Arc.

Recognizing the Arc Created by the Two Halves of the Third Plot Point

The Plot Revelation at the Midpoint gave the protagonist the ability to see the conflict more clearly and “take it to” the antagonist in a more proactive way. Even if the stakes are higher than ever in the Second Half, the protagonist at least now has a plan for reaching the plot goal. This section of the story will last from the Midpoint at the 50% mark all the way to the Third Plot Point at the 75% mark.

And then, all within the span of the two halves of the Third Plot Point, this course of action reaches what seems a dramatic victory—only to then plummet the protagonist into the worst fix yet (existentially if not physically).

The two halves of the Third Plot Point are the False Victory and the Low Moment.

The False Victory

The False Victory is somewhat misnamed in that it very likely will be a true victory of some sort. Perhaps the protagonist attacks the enemy stronghold and gets what he wants, only to discover it was a trap or that his own army’s base was destroyed in his absence. It is a Pyrrhic victory.

For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke and his friends escape the Death Star—but with a tracking beacon aboard their ship that will lead the bad guys to the Alliance’s base.

In Jane Eyre, Jane is about to be married to her one true love—only to have the ceremony interrupted with news that he is already married.

What is important is that the protagonist either gains or seems to gain what she is trying for. The problem is that she is trying to push through to the end from a place that lacks total integrity. This lack of integrity doesn’t have to be strictly moral. It could simply be the result of not fully understanding what she’s doing, why, and what the ramifications will be.

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From a thematic perspective, the victory turns out to be incomplete simply because the character is trying to “push it through” while being compromised in some way because she hasn’t fully rejected the Lie—and therefore can’t fully utilize the necessary Truth. It’s like trying to cheat to win a game of cards instead of doing it honestly through true skill.

Even if the False Victory is just a single moment in which the protagonist thinks he has triumphed, this emotional beat is important for setting up the fall into the subsequent Low Moment.

The Low Moment

When we contemplate the Third Plot Point, the Low Moment is usually the part that comes to mind. Within the overall psychological arc of the story, the Third Plot Point always represents death. Intrinsically, this death is that of the Lie—and thus of the protagonist’s Lie-based paradigm and ability to identify with it.

However, externally within the plot, this death can be portrayed in many ways. This is very often where an important supporting character literally dies (such as Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope).

But the death can also be that of an occupation or relationship (as in Jane Eyre).

It can also be represented simply via the threat of death to the protagonist herself. Or it might be glimpsed in a larger way via a world at war or even just careful symbolism in the background (e.g., ravens or black umbrellas).

It’s valuable to think of this beat as representing “death” both because of the thematic significance and also because “death” emphasizes the severity of this moment within the story. Even if what happens to the character here is not the “worst thing that could happen” (i.e., actual death), it is the worst thing that can happen in the context of the story up to this point.

It is a common misconception and source of confusion that the Third Plot Point must be the worst thing that happens in the entire story. What happens in the Climax may indeed be much worse: the protagonist may indeed die at that point. But whatever happens in the Climax will happen within the context of the protagonist’s new Truth-based perspective. So, for example, even if the character must sacrifice himself in the end, he will do so in the belief that his death is important and meaningful. In a Positive-Change (or Flat) Arc, he may die for the Truth. Symbolically, his soul will be at peace even if his body must be destroyed.

Of course, in many stories, this is portrayed much less dramatically. Actual death may not be part of the equation at all. Back to our dance-recital example, a young student may grapple at the Third Plot Point with fear of humiliation—aka ego death. If she rises from this struggle and carries on into the Climax with her dance routine, she will be thematically and existentially victorious whether or not she “wins” or “dies.”

But what if the character fails in his thematic grappling and refuses to “die” to the Lie? This failure at the Third Plot Point may well prove fatal in the final confrontation with the antagonistic force in the Climactic Moment. Or it may be that the character pushes through to his plot goal, only to find it an empty victory because he “gained the world but lost his soul.”

The external conflict will not be fully decided until the Climactic Moment. But the internal conflict will be largely resolved during the Third Plot Point and its subsequent scenes. The protagonist may not fully make up her mind (or realize she’s made up her mind) until the Climactic Moment. But whatever happens at the Third Plot Point determines whether or not the character “wins” her character arc and its internal thematic battle. The outcome of this beat is what provides context for the ultimate success or failure in reaching the plot goal in the following the Climax.

When both halves are utilized, the Third Plot Point has the potential to be one of the most moving and thought-provoking moments in any story. The key is creating the necessary emotional (and rational) shift from the high of the False Victory down into the depths of the Low Moment—and then, hopefully, back up again into a victory of true personal integrity.

***

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll conclude our series by taking a look at the two halves of the Climax: Sacrifice and Victory/Failure.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you identify both the False Victory and the Low Moment in your story? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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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. Eric Troyer says

    Great post! You got me thinking about and tweaking my WIP again. (Sometimes I have a hard time concentrating on reading your posts because they get me thinking about my WIP!)

  2. I had to put my WIP away for a while because I wasn’t feeling it. With my most recent book, I think the false victory is a big lead in the murder case, and the low moment is the lovers might not get back together.

  3. “The Third Plot Point will prove that the consequences for retaining the Lie are costly. But the beat itself will also force the protagonist to confront the reality that rejecting the Lie will also be costly.”

    I don’t recall ever seeing this described in such clear terms. Thank you.

  4. Grace Dvorachek says

    Yet another enlightening post! I liked this one especially, since the Third Plot Point is probably my favorite. I think, out of all of the plot point halves, I understand the False Victory/Low Moment the best. I really love the dynamic it brings to a story!

  5. This series is particularly well timed. I’ve finished my revisions for my first book, and I’m starting to plan the second while working with an editor on the first. Anyway, I’ve got a number of possible lead characters. I’m thinking looking at options for these five key points is a good way to noodle through picking the best lead character and gaining insight on the Internal conflicts.

    Thank you again for your relentless torture of this old man’s brain.

    May your words grant you sweet dreams on many a starry night.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely! The major structural throughline will tell you a lot about what a story is *really* about.

  6. Thanks for another helpful article. Do you think it would work if pretty much everything that happens after the 2nd pinch point in Act 2 up to the False Victory at the end of Act 2 was generally positive and optimistic (My 2nd pinch point is a mini low point which foreshadows the big Low Point)? In other words the False Victory is the culmination of the steps put in by my protagonist in the latter part of Act 2.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I can only answer generally, but, yes, there’s no reason this can’t work, especially in light of the fact that the second half of the Second Act is a major “active” period, in which the character is making headway toward the plot goal.

  7. Hi Katie–Once again, you brought out the importance of a plot point I was content to let go in a weakened state. You clarified a crucial moment in my WIP: to get specific, the two hostages have escaped safely, but my main character/detective learns that the mom of one hostage was the original target of the kidnappers–which means she is still in danger. (He’s in love with her.) This confirms his theory of the case that will force him to confront the dragon who ordered the kidnapping–but if he’s correct, exposing that man and his reasons could be even more damaging to the mom. So the 3rd plot point has two halves: 1, the triumphant escape of the hostages, and 2, the renewed danger to the woman he loves–and knowing that confronting her enemy could be just as bad for her as if her enemy had succeeded in kidnapping her in the first place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love Third Plot Points in which the only choice offers serious consequences on either side. 😀

  8. The third Plot Point is the main character’s big moment of change for which we’ve waited an entire story. But what about “Flat” character arcs. I realize in such arcs the Main Character and the contrasting characters stances toward the Truth/Lie are generally flipped, but it seems to be that there will be some other subtle differences to how these stories play out for non-changing characters.

  9. Hi,
    The Third Plot Point in the story I’m currently working on has ended up being from 63% – 69% of the book. The Midpoint and First Plot Point are virtually at the right places. It’s just the Third Plot Point that’s early. It’s led up to by a kind of false victory – the protagonist getting deceived into thinking the antagonist is on her side and distracted from what she’s supposed to be doing until she realizes what’s really going on. (She had been warned what the antagonist was up to but he tricked her into thinking otherwise.) That realization and refusal to do what he actually wants goes straight into the Third Plot Point, which is very important for the character thematically and spiritually, as it’s a low point for her in renewed guilt over some sins she’d committed before the book began. The element of death comes in, death of the Lie etc, but also in contrast, because she realises in retrospect how close she just came to death, but her life was saved. Then she finally accepts that God is willing to forgive her.
    But the Third Act (Third Plot Point + Climax + Resolution) ended up going longer than I thought it would (63% – 100%). It’s absolutely vital to the plot and theme. But do you think this Third Plot Point is too early for a story that isn’t ‘action-orientated’? (It is an adventure/fantasy/science fiction children’s novel.) Could this effect how the readers process the story and its meaning?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Timing isn’t an exact science, and ultimately what it always comes down to is pacing. Bottom line: if it works, it works. But I generally like to see the timing of major plot points land within *at least* 10% of the optimal, if not less.

  10. Suppose the lie is the main character thinking that money is the way to happiness does the theme also have to be connected to this? Themes are confusing. One of the themes can certainly be this, that money is the root of all evil. Therefore when you say that the character starts to accept the thematic truth, but not the lie…I am not sure I get it.

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