What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

You may have heard of these little darlings called “Pinch Points.” Of all the important structural moments in your story, they’re the most likely to be neglected. They get lost amidst all the excited chatter about their bigger, flashier brethren: the Plot Points. But Pinch Points–two of them, both occurring in the Second Act–are crucial to your story’s structure.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165I realized I’ve never written a proper post on Pinch Points, so today I figure it’s time to remedy that. After all, there is a lot of confusion swirling around the subject.

  • What are Pinch Points?
  • Where do they belong in the story?
  • What do they do?
  • And what happens when you neglect them?

Let’s find out!

Second Act Timeline

What Are Pinch Points?

Pinch Points are (comparatively) small turning points that occur at the 37% mark (halfway between the First Plot Point and the Midpoint) and the 62% mark (halfway between the Midpoint and the Third Plot Point).

At their most basic level, Pinch Points are nothing more or less than a reminder of the antagonistic force’s power to stymie the protagonist’s goal. They provide new information to the plot that begins setting up the major events in the Midpoint and Third Plot Point. They also act as important foreshadowing for the confrontations that will play out during these Plot Points and during the Climax.

They’re a pacing trick that re-orients the readers’ attention during the long span of the Second Act. In some stories, you find Pinch Points that have no immediate effect upon the protagonist. The whole scene might take place in the antagonist’s POV, with the protagonist never even gaining any specific knowledge about the happenings in the Pinch Points–as in The Empire Strikes Back‘s First Pinch Point when the Emperor tells Darth Vader to hunt down Luke Skywalker as their “new enemy.”

What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

However, the best Pinch Points are always those that offer more than just simplistic turning points or sneak peeks into the antagonist’s plans. To use your Pinch Points to their maximum potential, you need to make certain they each create very distinctive moments in your story, which can then influence every scene that leads up to their subsequent Plot Points.

The First Pinch Point

The First Pinch Point occurs at the 37% mark, a quarter of the way into the Second Act and halfway between the First Plot Point and the Midpoint.

Before the First Pinch Point: Reaction

The section of the story that leads up to the First Pinch Point is one of reaction. The character has just emerged from the dramatic events of the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act. His world has completely changed, whether positively or negatively, and he is scrambling to keep up with events. He’s in reaction mode–which is not to be confused with passive mode. He is aggressively pursuing his main story goal, but he doesn’t quite have his feet under him. He’s scrambling to understand the obstacles that are being thrown in his way by the antagonistic force, and there is a lot he doesn’t understand–about himself, about his goal, about the antagonistic force, and about the nature of the conflict itself.

The First Pinch Point: New Clues

Halfway through the First Half of the Second Act comes the First Pinch Point. This may be a major scene or a small moment, but it must be a moment that causes the protagonist to feel the “pinch” of the antagonistic force.

  • In Ridley Scott’s Alien, the alien detaches from unconscious spacer Kane’s face and disappears somewhere in the ship where the rest of the crew can’t find it.
  • In Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, the governess witnesses the ghost of her predecessor Miss Jessel.

But there’s more. This “pinch” needs to incorporate more than just a reminder of the antagonist’s power. It needs to set up the next 1/8th of the story, in which the character will slowly begin to grow into a new awareness of his story’s many truths–and specifically the truth about the nature of the conflict in which he is engaged.

Your First Pinch Point needs to provide your protagonist with new clues about the nature of the battle he is waging.

  • In Alien, the crew realize for the first time that the creature they are facing is entirely beyond anything they were expecting.
  • In Turn of the Screw, the governess not only witnesses the ghost but recognizes that her young female ward can also see the ghost and is completely unconcerned by it.

Turn of the Screw Henry James Miss Jessel Ghost

After the First Pinch Point: Realization

Thanks to these clues as much as, if not more than, the pressure asserted by the antagonists themselves, these Pinch Points act as turning points that swing their stories into a new direction and set up the epiphanies that will occur at their Midpoints. In itself, the First Pinch Point does not reveal the true nature of the conflict to the protagonist. Rather, it foreshadows it by providing a peek at facts the protagonist has barely grasped as yet.

In the section of story to follow–between the First Pinch Point and the Midpoint–the character will still be in reaction mode, but he will also begin to move beyond it. As his realization grows, his reactions will become more and more informed, leading him right up to the Moment of Truth at the center of the story.

Midpoint: Moment of Truth

The Midpoint splits both the book itself and the Second Act. It lands at the 50% mark and is the most dramatic turning point in your story. It is a major Plot Point, not a Pinch Point, but it’s crucial to any discussion of Pinch Points, since the Pinch Points are centered around it.

The Midpoint’s primary function is to present the Moment of Truth. This is the moment when the character finally realizes the central truth about the nature of the conflict. It’s instructive when watching movies to observe the protagonist’s facial expressions prior to the Moment of Truth and then afterward. Before the Midpoint, he’ll often look baffled as he struggles to keep up with the conflict. Then the light dawns in his eyes at the Midpoint, and from that moment on, there’s a look of knowing determination on his face.

  • In Alien, the matured baby alien bursts out of its cocoon in Kane’s chest, and the crew realizes for the first time the true nature of the creature they are contending with.
  • In Turn of the Screw, the governess discovers her young male ward outside in the middle of the night and realizes the ghosts are controlling the children.

The Second Pinch Point

The Second Pinch Point occurs at the 62% mark,  three-quarters of the way into the Second Act and halfway between the Midpoint and the Third Plot Point.

Before the Second Pinch Point: Action

Armed with the new understanding he acquired at the Midpoint, the protagonist charges into the Second Half of the Second Act. He’s no longer in reaction mode. He now understands what needs to be done to defeat the antagonist, and he aggressively takes action in pursuing his goal. Thanks to his new understanding, he begins making headway against the antagonistic force.

The Second Pinch Point: What’s at Stake?

But lest everything seem to be going too well for the protagonist, the clever author then sticks in the Second Pinch Point. Once again, this moment acts to bring the antagonistic force front and center, to foreshadow the coming Third Plot Point, and to break up the remainder of the Second Act.

Also once again, the Second Pinch Point has another, equally important job to fulfill. This time, it serves to remind both the readers and the protagonist of exactly what is at stake.

Alien Dallas Death Tom Skerrit Ridley Scott

  • In Alien‘s Second Pinch Point, Captain Dallas is captured by the alien and killed. His death leaves his crew without a leader, not only showing them what is in store for them but also leaving them to the chaos brought about by his lack of direction.
  • In Turn of the Screw‘s Second Pinch Point, the governess’s ward announces he knows the governess suspects him of being in league with the ghosts, and he tries to coerce her into allowing him to return to school. More than anything, the governess wants to rescue her young charges from the influence of the ghosts. She can’t do that if she lets them out of her sight, but she also fears the boy will be a bad influence on his sister if she allows him to stay.

The Second Pinch Point isn’t as much about revealing new clues (although they can certainly play a part) as it is about slapping the protagonist in the face with the question of just how much he’s truly willing to pay to defeat the antagonist and gain his goal.

After the Second Pinch Point: Renewed Push to Victory (and Defeat)

For the last eighth of the Second Act, following the Second Pinch Point and leading up to the Third Plot Point (at the 75% mark), the protagonist will be inspired to push forward in a renewed attack upon the antagonistic force. He’ll give it his best shot–and it will pay off. At the very end of the Second Act, he will reach a moment of seeming victory, in which he appears to defeat the antagonistic force.

But it won’t last. The Third Plot Point will turn it all around and land him in his greatest defeat yet–one foreshadowed by the emphasis on the stakes during the Second Pinch Point. From there, the character will enter the Third Act–the final quarter of the story–and its climactic final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonistic force.

Once you understand the role and timing of the Pinch Points, you’ll be able to navigate the lengthy Second Act with greater confidence and dexterity. Not only do the Pinch Points create important turning points within your story, they also influence everything that precedes and follows them. Pretty important, wouldn’t you say?

Tell me your opinion: What are the Pinch Points in your work-in-progress?

What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

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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. I don’t know, but what would you say are the First and Second Pinch Points in Star Trek: Into Darkness?

  2. This was a great post, thank you! My question would be – Do both pinch points have to connect with the protagonist’s main goal? Or can one of them be simply a negative encounter with the antagonist?

    For example, in my WIP, the protagonist and antagonist (starting out as two friends) steal and hide a forbidden book that could cost them their lives if anybody found out. The protagonist does all he can to keep it a secret and eventually his life is changed by the book. He ends up giving his life for it. The antagonist, meanwhile, is afraid of being found out and has a falling out with the protagonist, blaming him for their troubles.

    I’d like to have one of the pinch points (possibly the first one) be the antagonist stealing the protagonist’s girlfriend as a means of expressing his anger over being coerced by the protagonist to steal and hide the book.

    Could this pinch point work, even though it doesn’t directly affect the protagonist’s main goal (that of keeping the book secret)?

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The pinch points are both major structural turning points within the plot, which means they definitely need to affect the main plot. As long as the girlfriend-stealing ties in with your main conflict (which it sounds like it does), you’re fine.

  3. How do pinch points work in a negative arc, particularly the Disillusionment one?

    (thanks so much for your help with negative arcs, btw – I was quite confused about my story until I read about them)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just the same. The pinch points emphasize the stakes and the threat of the antagonistic force to endanger the character’s plot goal, as well as introducing new clues about the true nature of the conflict.

  4. This post is just what I needed right now! I am working on the draft of the sequel to my first book and have the luxury of going back and cleaning up some things in book one to make the series arc more clear, and your post gave me some insights into both books!

  5. Chris S. says:

    K.M. Weiland,

    I love your blogs. I follow you on Google+, receive your emails, and I am reading a couple of your books. Of all the blogs I follow, I tend to re-publish/tweet/share yours more than any others across all of my social media outlets. Whenever I have a question about, say, “pinch points” I come to your blog to review as you are clear, concise, and use the best examples (I’ve seen the movies and read the books you reference).

    Having so said, I have a question for you that came about while reading this blog, “Creating Character Arcs”, and another of your posts on the Inciting Incident:

    How would you recommend writing the inciting event as part of the backstory (not a mystery or thriller novel) so that the character is already in the world in the midst of the Lie but not yet aware? Would this be best as a 1st Plot Point or a Pinch Point or simply a narrative flashback?

    • Chris S. says:

      As a “grammar nerd”, please allow me to correct my post above by saying:

      “Whenever I have a question about, say, “pinch points”, I come to your blog…”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So glad you’re enjoying the site! Even if you’re staging the literal Inciting Event prior to the story, you still need to create another Inciting Event within the structure of the book itself. This will be the Call the Adventure happening halfway through the First Act around the 12% mark.

  6. Thank you so much for this article. I am writing a choose your own adventure computer game and structure has been extra hard. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds when you are staring at a 500 page computer program.

Trackbacks

  1. […] reminders can also present new clues about the conflict at large. (FYI: Some writers call this a pinch point and recommend it occur around the 37% […]

  2. […] as a free PDF online here.  And for this blog post I consulted a web page on plot and pinch points here.  To clarify basic terms (which is good for me to clarify for myself), plots points are […]

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