The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 4: The First Plot Point
Stories are a series of scenes. Some of those scenes are expected, some of them are even purposefully repetitious for the sake of emphasis. But some scenes change everything. These game changers are the plot points. They introduce significant elements and events that alter the subsequent course of the story. Your story can have any number of plot points, some relatively minor, some shockingly huge. Plot points are what keep your story moving forward. They mix things up, keep the conflict fresh, and propel your character far away from any possibility of stagnancy.
The first major plot point (which occurs around the 25% mark in your story) is a bit of a misnomer, since your story may have any number of plot points within the first quarter of the story. For example, in the film Changeling, we have several cataclysmic plot points (including the kidnapping of the heroine’s son, the return of the wrong boy, and the police department’s insistence that she accept the child anyway) before her decision, at the quarter mark, to fight back against the corrupt police department. Following, we’ll take a look at what differentiates the 25%-mark plot point from any that preceded it.
The first major plot point changes everything. This is the point of no return for your characters. Often, this plot point will be the Key Event. The first plot point is the moment when the setup ends, and your character crosses his personal Rubicon. But this isn’t just an event that happens to him (such as the kidnapping of the heroine’s son in Changeling). This is an event that either incorporates or is directly followed by the character’s reacting in a strong and irrevocable way (for example, Changeling’s heroine’s decision to fight back against the police). We’ll be discussing the reaction in more detail in a future post.
Where does the first plot point belong?
The first plot point marks the finish of the first act, and the character’s reaction to it marks the beginning of the second. In a sense, the first plot point is the climax of the first act, and, as such, it should be placed approximately around the 20-25% mark. Generally, the exact placement of plot points in a novel allows more flexibility than what we find in a film. If you pay attention while watching a movie, you can time the major plot points down to the minute (which makes film an especially valuable medium for studying structure, since we can view the entire story structure in one sitting and identify the plot points with precision by dividing the total running time into fourths).
So what’s the reason for this seemingly arbitrary placement of the first plot point? Why the 25% mark and not the 10% or 40%? Simply, because this is the point at which a reader’s innately human story sense tells him something big is supposed to happen. If you’ve ever watched or read a poorly plotted story that skipped or postponed the first plot point, you probably instinctively sensed the story was dragging. Likely, you grew bored and got up to do something else without finishing the story. No first plot point means no turning point means the first act drags on too long—or, conversely, if the first plot point takes place too early, the second act drags on.
Examples from film and literature
As one of the most dynamic moments in any story, the first plot point is both one of easiest to spot and one of the most exciting to study. So let’s take a peek at what happens roundabout the 25% mark in our four example stories.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813):After the ball at Netherfield Park, Darcy and Caroline Bingley convince Bingley to return to London and forget all about his growing affection for Jane. Much has happened in the story up to this point. Lydia and Kitty have become enamored of the militia. Wickham has turned Lizzy against Darcy. Jane and Lizzy have stayed over at Netherfield during Jane’s convalescence. And Mr. Collins has proposed to Lizzy. But everything changes at the 25% mark when Darcy and the Bingleys leave. This is the event that breaks Jane’s heart and infuriates Lizzy against Darcy. Character motivations and reactions aside, it also changes the landscape of the story, since several prominent characters are no longer in the neighborhood for the Bennets to interact with as they did throughout the first quarter of the book.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): Throughout the first quarter of the story, George Bailey’s plans for his life have progressed uninterrupted. Despite his various misadventures in Bedford Falls, he’s on the fast track to a European vacation and a college education. Then the first plot point hits, and his life is forever changed. When his father dies of a stroke, George’s plans are dashed. As in Pride & Prejudice, the standards that have already been established in the story are dramatically altered. This is no longer a story about a carefree young man freewheeling around town. From here on out, this is a story about a man forced to take responsibility by working at the Bailey Brothers’ Building & Loan.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977):The quarter mark of Ender’s Game finds Ender graduating from his launch group to Salamander Army after a victorious confrontation with the bully Bernard. Aside from Ender’s personal assertion of brains, tenacity, and leadership qualities, with which he claims his spot at Battle School and makes it clear to himself, the other children, and the watching instructors that he will do whatever he has to do to survive, this first major plot point also changes the game (no pun intended!) by once again moving Ender to new surroundings. As a member of Salamander Army, he’s dropped into a new place, a new social stratum, and a new set of challenges.
Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): After refitting the Surprise and heading back out to sea to look for their opponent, the French privateer Acheron, Captain Jack Aubrey is confident everything will go according to his plans. But he (and the viewers) are thrown for a loop by the first major plot point. Instead of the Surprise finding the Acheron, the captain abruptly wakes to discover the enemy bearing down on his much smaller ship. Suddenly, he’s not only not assured of an easy victory—or any victory at all, for that matter—he and his crew are also in dire danger of being captured. They scramble to escape, and the game of cat-and-mouse that will comprise the rest of the film begins in earnest.
So what do the masterful plot points in these books and films teach us?
1. The first major plot point occurs almost on the dot at the 25% mark (Pride & Prejudice is the only one that was late and even then it was only by a few pages).
2. The first plot point is an event that changes everything and becomes a personal turning point for the main character.
3. The first major plot point almost always changes the story so irrevocably that even the character’s surroundings (either the physical setting or the cast of supporting characters) alters.
4. The first major plot point is something to which the main character must be able to react strongly and irretrievably.
The first major plot point is one of the most exciting moments in any story. Milk yours for all it’s worth! Choose a strong, cataclysmic event to which your character has no choice but to react with everything he’s got. Hit readers so hard at the end of the first act that they won’t even think about closing the book.