Plot points and pinch points

If you are a writer, there’s a lot you can learn from the techniques used by scriptwriters in story design. The media are different; but they are both about storytelling. In previous blogs I have discussed the three-act structure, sequences, and the mythic structure. All these approaches use plot points in one way or another. In this blog I want to look again at what plot points are and why they are important to story design.

So what is a plot point?

Syd Field was one of the first to emphasise the importance of the three-act structure in screenplay design.  He defined a plot point as:

“any incident, episode or event that ‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around into another direction.”

He also explained a Plot Point can be anything you want it to be. It is a “story progression point”. It can be an action, a line of dialogue, a short scene, an action sequence, or dramatic sequence.

So why are they so important?

Syd Field placed particular emphasis on what he described as Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2, which occur and the end of Act 1 and Act 2. These two plot points break a screenplay into three separate acts with three very different narrative effects. A two-hour movie will normally require a screenplay of about 120 pages (one page per minute). Novels are longer but the proportions between the Acts are broadly the same.

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Act One  is all about setting up the story: introducing the main character, establishing the dramatic premise (what the story is about), creating the dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action) and the relationships between the characters. Act Two is all about confrontation (the hero wants something desperately and he is frustrated by the antagonist forces that oppose him/her). And Act Three is all about story resolution. But the plot points are more than just Act separators, they are major dramatic moments in the story where everything changes.

Plot point 1 is perhaps the most important plot point of all. It’s the event that forces the hero to take up his quest and starts the story rolling. In Star War’s a New Hope,  it’s the moment when Luke discovers his uncle and aunt have been murdered by the stormtroopers and their farm torched.  He says to Obi Wan, “There’s nothing for me here now.” He has made his decision to go with Obi-Wan and take the Death Star plans to Alderaan.  And so starts his quest. In Thelma & Louise it’s sequence where a brief stop at a bar turns into an attempted rape and murder setting the women to go on the run. As can be seen from these examples, it’s a decisive moment that forces the hero to take up the quest. This plot point has a number of different names: Crossing the threshold, Lock-In, First Door, Point of No return, Stunning Surprise. All these describe aspects of the effect of this event on the hero.

Plot Point 2 at the end of Act 2 is the incident episode or event that hooks into the action and leads the action in Act 3, the resolution. In Star Wars a New Hope, it’s when Luke, Leia and Hans witnesses the death of Obi-Wan at the hands of Darth Vader as they escape from the Death Star. After which Act three is all about the rebel fight back and attack on the Death Star. Plot Point 2 is often a low point for the hero: a defeat from which he has to find the courage to rise again for Act 3. Plot Point 2 is sometimes called the Act Two Culmination, Major Set-Back, Second Door, or Second Stunning Surprise.

According to Syd Field, the Mid Point of any movie normally has a ‘centrepiece’. It is often the culmination of an action sequence, a major new revelation, or reversal that forces the hero to look at himself. It is a point where the stakes rise and the hero resolves to see the quest through. It also neatly splits the long Act two into two usually separate sub-dramatic themes. For example, in Star Wars a New Hope, the startling new revelation is that Alderaan has been destroyed and they are caught in the grip of tractor beam from the Death Star. The first half of Act 2 is all about Luke and Obi-Wan finding a ship and taking the droids to Alderaan. The second half of Act 2 is all about rescuing Princess Leia and escaping from the Death Star. The Mid Point is certainly an important point. It is so important that James Scott Bell wrote a whole book about it.  Bell believes it is a single moment of truth for the hero when he finally understands what he/she is up against and where his/her attitude and resolve stiffens. Others believe the Mid Point is a sequence rather than a single event or reversal. It certainly can be spectacular – Titanic hits the iceberg. But it is also has an internal emotional dimension – when and Rose chooses her future is with Jack over her fiance.

So are these the only plot points?

No. While Syd Field believed Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2 were the most important plot points to hold the context of the story together they were by not means the only ones.

It should be noted here that there can be many Plot Points in your screenplay but at this stage in the writing process, the preparation, we are focusing on Plot Points I and II; they are the anchor points that hold elements of your story in place.

So what are the others? It will of course depend on the story but any any incident, episode or event that is a key component in the chain of events that make up the plot is essentially a plot point. So there could be many. However the major ones are likely to include at least the following:

  1. The opening scene.
  2. A hook scene or sequence designed to capture the curiosity of the reader/audience to read on.
  3. The Catalyst / Inciting incident
  4. Sequence climaxes (each main sequence may have its own climax)
  5. Pinch points
  6. Third Act Twist (if any)
  7. Third Act Climax
  8. Final scene

Most of these are obvious, but the Catalyst and Pinch Points require some further explanation.

The Catalyst is the first time the Hero is confronted with the problem or opportunity that will become the central focus of the story. It is called a variety of different things: the catalyst, the inciting incident, the opportunity, the call to adventure. It usually arises in the middle of the first act, but may occur earlier, in which case it also serves as a hook to pique the audience’s interest. Or it may occur later, at the same time as the First Plot Point. For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen finds her sister’s name is drawn for the hunger games and she immediately volunteers to take her place. In Star Wars it is when Luke receives the message from Leia “Help me Obi-Wan…”, but Luke chooses not to act until  later when he discovers his murdered  uncle and aunt (Plot Point 1).

Pinch points also require some explanation. Unfortunately in screenwriting the term is used in two different ways to mean different things about things occurring at broadly the same time in the script. This is confusing.

Syd Field used the term to describe two key sequences in the first half and second half of Act Two that holds the sub-dramatic context of each half in place. To take the Star Wars as the example, the sub-dramatic context of the first half of Act Two is about Obi-Wan and Luke finding a ship and travelling to Alderaan with the droids. The second half is about rescuing Princess Leia and escaping from the Death Star. Thus if you could write one sequence about page 45 and another about page 75 that reflects these contexts it would hold (pinch) the script  together. Syd Field’s approach is therefore about the practical aspects of writing a long Second Act. So if you know Plot Point 1, the first pinch, the mid-point, second pinch and plot point 2, all you need to do is fill in the gaps. It is a writing technique that gives you a series of stepping-stones through Act 2. Perhaps a better term for this would be an anchor sequence.

The other meaning and more common meaning of pinch points is a cutaway scene that reminds the audience/reader of the power of the antagonist.

Larry Brooks defines them as follows:

An example, or reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonist force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience.

An example of a pinch point from Star Wars A New Hope is when Grand Off Tarkin and Darth Vader use the Death Star to blow up Alderaan while forcing Princess Leia to watch.  The scene of course could be cut without affecting the story line at all. Luke and Obi-Wan would still have found Alderaan destroyed. But from an emotive point of view it shows the audience just how nasty the antagonists are.  Oddly enough these short cutaway scenes tend to arise at the same timing point as Syd Field’s pinch points.

Not all screenwriting gurus use the same terms. As we have seen in this blog there are many different names for the different plot points. Some use other terms for plot points: Milestones, Story Beats, Steps. But basically they are the same things. For example, Larry Brooks uses the term milestones and explains them as follows:

Milestone scenes are critical, not only because they are the tent poles that support the weight of your story; they are also the lynchpins for most of the other scenes in your novel or screenplay. Without them you have no plot.

I couldn’t agree more. Whatever type of writer you are, having an idea of the key milestones or plot points of your story before you write the story is a critical element of story design. If you don’t know the main plot points, you don’t know your story. Some writers, of course, will say they write in order to discover their story and some such writers may be blessed with the talent to do that successfully. For the rest of us though finding our story is difficult enough without some element of planning. Understanding the main plot points is part of that process.

What is a ‘story’ anyway?

Recently I was thinking about the essence of what a story was about, and what made the story good or bad from the reader’s perspective. My starting point was various dictionary definitions of story. The best I could find was ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment’. Well it’s a starting point, but it doesn’t really explain the essence of story.

Another description I found was ‘a sequence of events in a work of fiction as we imagined them to have taken place, in the order which they would have occurred in life’. This is distinguished from ‘plot’, which is concerned with how events are related, how they are structured, and how they are designed to enact change in the main character. There may be just one story, but many different ways of telling it. For example, consider the story of an Robin Hood, an outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. It would read quite differently if written from the perspective of the law enforcer (the Sheriff of Nottingham) rather than the outlaw (Robin Hood).

Delving a little deeper into the realms of structural analysis of English literature I found that that stories are part of the wider structural classification of ‘narrative’. Narrative can be analysed into what is told, namely the ‘story’ (events/actions and characters and setting); and how it is told namely ‘discourse’, which includes ‘plot’, ‘narrative voice’ (who speaks), ‘focalisation’ (who sees), ‘narrative mode’ and ‘style’ etc.

Looking at story this way, without considering how the story is told, leaves the definition of story as a cold and lifeless object: a sequence of events without causal relationships. Unless you’re and English graduate that wants to dissect English literature in this way, it’s not a very helpful definition of story. More importantly, it misses the magic or chemistry that brings so many good stories to life.

Some in the film world take a different view of ‘story’. Martin Scorsese defines ‘plot’ as the bare bones of what happens in a movie – the outline; while story includes lots of things: characters, cinematography choices and all the emotional content portrayed by the actors. Others have used the term ‘plot’ to describe the physical events of a film and the term ‘story’ to describe the emotional journey the hero/heroine makes during the course of the film. This seems a more about character arc of the main character –  important, but not story.

Yet again some confuse the meaning of ‘story’ with ‘theme’. For example, would you describe the film Rocky as a man’s journey to find self-respect, or is it a movie about boxer’s opportunity to box for the world championship? Was Schindler’s List a film about one man’s effort to make a difference, or a film about rescuing people from the threat of Nazi concentration camp? Don’t get me wrong. Theme is very important; it’s the subtext of what a story is about. But it’s not in my view ‘story’.

The more I looked, the more I realised that the term ‘story’ means different things to different people. For the purpose of this blog I would like to put forward the notion that story is what the reader or audience experiences from reading a novel or watching a movie. It’s the whole experience in its entirety. It is only after reading the story, or watching a movie that the reader or audience can relate what the story means to them. By focusing on the reader’s/audience’s reaction it’s easier to determine what makes a good story.

Why do some readers like certain stories and not others? We all have preferences for genre and story type. I don’t particularly like horror stories (sorry Stephen King); but that’s me. But even within genre, to be successful a story has to be interesting, different and capture the imagination of the reader. This is the most difficult challenge for any writer. In ‘Save the Cat’, Blake Snyder analyses movies into ten genres or story types which he claims covers almost every movie ever made. The trick is to make the story look different. He quoted a studio executive, during a development meeting saying, “Give me the same thing… only different.” Finding the difference is the challenge.

Most good stories are about a character (the hero or heroine) that the reader can empathise with, facing a crisis, problem or opportunity that disrupts their life, and which leads to relentless escalation of tension until it reaches a satisfactory climatic ending and resolution. Sounds simple, but of course it’s not.

At the heart of all good stories is conflict between the hero’s/heroine’s goal (what he wants, or wants to avoid as a result of the problem or opportunity they face) and the obstacles in his/her way. This raises the story question: will he/she succeed, fail, or abandon his/her goal. And what will be the consequences?

In his book, Story Physics, Larry Brooks, says the impending collision of the hero’s goal and those obstacles is what creates dramatic tension. In Brooks’ view, without conflict there is no story.

One of the great masters of dramatic tension was Alfred Hitchcock. One of the tricks he used was to let the audience know, or hint that something was about to happen, which the characters themselves did not know about. Do you remember the shower scene from ‘Psycho’? You knew something was going to happen before it happened, but it still makes you want to jump out of your chair. Another device that the movie makers use to build dramatic tension is a ticking time clock. Something dreadful is going to happen if the hero/heroine doesn’t get there in time. Remember those old black and white movies with the damsel tied to the rails and the train coming along. Well, perhaps you’re too young for that. Dramatic tension is an important quality that makes the reader want to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s a page-turner.

Another example of good dramatic tension is in the Hunger Games. After volunteering to take her sister’s place at the Hunger Games, Katniss is perpetually in fear that at some stage she will lose her life in the games. Only one contestant can survive. In one scene she is trapped up a tree with her would be killers on the ground below her with their spears and bow and arrows. What is she to do? If you’ve read the book you’ll know the answer. If you haven’t I won’t spoil it for you. Dramatic tension.

The other factor that makes a story enjoyable from the reader’s perspective is hero empathy. If the reader doesn’t empathise with the hero then he/she is unlikely to want to read on. Generating reader empathy is all about the writer’s characterisation skills. Brooks’ suggests that the most compelling way to suck the reader into the story and root for the hero is to show how he/she feels about and responds to the challenges you’ve set for them as those events happen by wring from the hero’s point of view. Thus we can see into the hero’s head and see what he is thinking and feeling at the time.

Another reason why the reader may find a story enjoyable is what Brooks describes as vicarious experience: taking the reader to a place, time or situation that they couldn’t otherwise experience in real life, that’s inherently exciting, dangerous, titillating, forbidden or impossible. Why else would vampire romance and historical romance novels be so popular, not to mention science fiction and fantasy?

Dramatic tension, hero empathy and vicarious experience are three of the six realms of story physics that Brooks identifies in his book. You might be wondering about the other three. The first is a compelling narrative premise, question or promise at the heart of the story. That is a big subject in its own right and best left to a later blog. The other two are: exposition/pacing, and narrative strategy, which are more to do with the way the story is told.

In conclusion, the term ‘story’ might mean different things to different people. But if we look at story as the experience of the reader or audience from reading a novel or watching a movie, it is possible to identify those aspects of story that make it more enjoyable to the reader. In this respect dramatic tension from potential conflict, hero empathy and vicarious experience are all important factors for a writer to consider.