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.

The Three-Act Structure

Novelists can learn a lot from scriptwriters who have developed a number of tools for story development. One such tool is the three-act structure.

Screenwriters often use “Acts” – a concept more familiar to staged drama – to breakdown the structure of their movies into major parts. Of course there are no curtain calls in movies, and the audience need not have an understanding of the structure the screenwriter is using to appreciate the movie. It is simply a model screenwriters use to develop their story.

The simplest and most widely used structure is the three-act structure. One of the strongest advocates of this approach was Syd Field who put forward a story paradigm composed of three acts defined by their dramatic purpose: story set up (introduce the characters and set up the story), confrontation (where the main character starts his quest and the action occurs) and resolution (the climax and end). Syd Field noticed that there were two important plot points at the end of act 1 and act 2 where the story is thrown in a new direction. These he asserted were critical plot points holding the story together. He also identified that the mid-point of the movie was also often an important point of revelation, that often broke the second act into two separate sub-dramatic contexts. Most movies are two hours long and correspond to a screen script of 120 pages (one minute per page). Syd Field’s story paradigm can be mapped out as follows:img_0022The three-act structure is widely used in Hollywood, but it is not without its critics. John Truby in an article referred to it as “the biggest myth ever foisted on writers.” He argued that the division into three acts is arbitrary, and that successful Hollywood movies have a lot more than two or three plot points and quotes one film as having twelve. Truby’s answer is to have twenty-two building blocks.

However, to be fair to Syd Field, he never claimed that his two plot points were the only plot points in a movie, just that these main plot points were critically placed at the end of Acts one and two and held the context of each act together.

Robert MCKee stated that “when a story reaches a certain magnitude– the feature film, an hour long TV episode, the full length play, the novel –three acts is the minimum…If the writer builds a progression into a major reversal at the half way point, he breaks the story into four movements…” Robert McKee also claimed that Raiders of the Lost Ark  had seven acts.

The problem is that there is no universal definition of an Act. Try googling it. The best I got was “the major divisions of a play”.

Take Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first three sequences of the movie show Indie in the Peruvian jungle losing a gold idol to Baloq, Indie teaching at college where he is told the Germans are seeking the Ark, and in Nepal recovering the medallion. In my view these are all part of the ‘set-up’ process of Act one introducing us to Indie’s character and rivalry  with Baloq. The real quest starts  at Act two with Indie and Marion flying to Cairo to find the Ark. Others, however, might see these three sequences as acts in their own right.

The same problem applies in identifying  the second plot point and the content of Act three. I would say that Act three consists of two sequences; the first with Indie onboard the freighter with Marion where he loses her and the Ark to Baloq; and the second on the island where the Ark is opened and the nazis are destroyed. Others may treat these two sequences as separate acts.

Not all movies are as difficult to dissect as Raiders of the Lost Ark. In most movies, the three-act form is quite easy to identify. But does knowing that a story has a beginning, middle and end make writing a script or novel any easier?

One solution is to put more flesh on the bones of the three-act structure. Blake Snyder, for example, uses a fifteen step beat sheet to fill in the plot elements of story. This approach was first discussed in my  earlier blog and later simplified to a four part structure  here. Beat sheets can be helpful, but they have been criticised by some for being too mechanical and not giving sufficient weight to the character transformation elements of a story.

Both Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler have sought to bring the action story and the character arc together. In Christopher Vogler’s case his model is based around the twelve steps of the mythic Hero’s Journey. Michael Hauge’s approach is simpler and more general. He maps both the inner and outer journey’s of the protagonist in six stages onto the three-act structure.

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By treating the inciting event (called the “opportunity”), mid-point (called “Point of no return”) and climax as turning points with the two existing act turning points (called “Change of Plans” and “Major Setback”) he ends up with five turning points.

Most of the captions of the ‘Outer Journey’ are self explanatory. The setup is the opening scenes introducing the main character in his ordinary world. Then something happens that changes his life: an opportunity/problem (sometimes referred to as the inciting event, catalyst, or call to adventure).  The main character finds himself in a new situation and has to figure out how to respond. He might initially be reluctant to respond, or seek counsel from a mentor, or he may be pushed into action by some further event (e.g. In Star Wars Luke finds his aunt and uncle are slaughtered), but at turning point two he moves into the new world and starts his quest.

In Act two the main character encounters obstacles but makes progress to the mid point where there is a setback or revelation such the main character realises what he is up against and resolves to continue (the point of no return). The obstacles and complications escalate as do the stakes and a Major Setback arises at Turning Point 4. Again the main character resolves to go forward with a new and, sometimes, crazy plan to reach the climax.

Much of this is familiar territory for writers using the three-act structure. What is different is that Hauge shows six stages of the main characters character arc, from “living within an identity”to “living within his essence”. In Star Wars terms, Luke moves from a frightened farm boy at the beginning to a Jedi knight at the end.

In my view, Hauge’s approach is a refreshing restatement of the three-act model. It’s sufficiently high level and generic to cover most story genres. But bear in mind, that any model is only going to provide the foundations of a story structure. A story is more complex than that. Hauge provides the protagonist’s inner and outer stories, but there are other stories that need to be weaved into the narrative: a relationship story, a nemesis’ story, which will have their own turning points, and then there are the subplots relating to the theme of the story. Each sequence and scenes will also contain turning points, which although not at the same magnitude as the turning points listed are important nonetheless to maintain dramatic tension.

As a writer should you use a structure like this? The answer is if it helps, use it or adapt it to your own needs. There are no perfect answers. Every writer needs to find what works for them. Tell me what you think.

Story structure and story beats

In some of my previous blogs I’ve talked about the importance of story structure. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me since I first started writing fiction. Some great writers ridicule the idea of an underlying story structure as being too formulaic. They say it’s based too much on the ‘hero’s mythical journey’ or it’s not appropriate for their genre. Yet when we look at their work we see the familiar patterns of story structure are there. For them story structure is instinctive and organic. Obviously, for lesser mortals, following a pre-set story structure will not guarantee the success of a story. But a story without any of the normal structure elements will almost always certainly fail.

At school we learnt to write essays and other narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. However, when writing a 70,000-90,000 word novel, it doesn’t really help to know that we should have a beginning, middle and an end. We need a more detailed breakdown of the underlying story pattern. And to get to this breakdown we need to understand the elements that are common to all stories. In their simplest form, stories are about people and how they react and adapt to a life changing event(s) in their life. The plot is the series of events, actions and revelations that occur in the story; but the real emotional content of the story is how those events, actions and revelations affect the main characters and those about them.

Much of the detailed analysis of stories has been directed at screen writing and the movie industry, but is equally important to all forms of storytelling, including novels. Syd Field, for example, took the classical three-act structure to emphasise the importance of the main turning points that naturally occur at the end of Act 1 and Act 2; and he discovered that something important always seems to occur at the mid point of Act 2. But as Blake Synder later commented in ‘Save the cat goes to the movies’, knowing the need for these turning points  still left a ‘lot of empty space in between’ when writing his scripts. Snyder therefore came up with a more detailed fifteen-point ‘beat sheet’, which he then illustrated by applying it to a number of popular films in each of ten of the most common movie genres.

Blake Snyder is not the only movie guru to look at story structure this way. Each guru seems to have a slightly different way to look at structure, although their differences seem less important than their similarities. For example, John Truby in the ‘Anatomy of Story’ talks about twenty-two step story structure, although not all the steps are considered necessary. Truby emphasises that the steps will not tell you what to write in the way formulas or genres do, but they show the most dramatic way to tell your story. Truby tends to focus on the main character’s development during the course of the story; including the psychological needs and desires of the main character at the start of the story, and how these change with revelations that occur at the turning points of the story.

In the structure below, I have taken the Snyder beat sheet, added some of the flavour of John Truby’s steps, and fused it into my own simplified analysis of the three-act structure. It’s not significantly different from Snyder’s, except I have reduced the number of captions to 11 by combining some. The reason that I do this is more for practical reasons than anything else. I am experimenting with some screenwriting plot software at the moment that will organise my scene cards under these 11 basic plot captions. For reference, I’ve numbered the original 15 Snyder beats so you can still see which ones I’ve combined. The text in italics is there for further explanation.

ACT 1

Opening scene (1)

* Should hook the reader's interest from the outset.

Setup (3)

* Introduce main character in his/her normal story world.
* Reveal main character's weakness/ghost and personal desires.
* Foreshadow.
* Hint at theme of the story (2).

Catalyst (4)/ Inciting event

* Opportunity/problem arises that changes everything for the main character.
* Sets in motion the chain of action and reaction that becomes the story.
* Provides the main character with his principal goal and motivation.

Initial response

* Debate (5). 
* Main character tries to avoid dealing with problem.
* May seek help from ally/fake ally.

Plot Point 1 (6)

* First revelation and decision to act. No going back.
* Thrust into a new world.
* First clash with the primary obstacle in the story.

ACT 2

Act 2 part A

* Sequences of obstacles and challenges for main character. 
* Some 'fun and games' as main characters encounters some success (8).
* Introduce B story (often the love story) (7).

Midpoint  (9)

* May or may not have overcome the primary obstacle.
* But an even larger problem looms, and/or stakes rise.
* Main character's desire/commitment increases.

Act 2 part B

* Sub plots (related to theme of story).
* Bad guys close in (10). Opponents plan finally revealed.
* All is lost (11). Possible betrayal.
* Darkest hour (12)

Plot point 2 (13)

* Epiphany moment. Finally the main character knows what to do.
* Main character now has obsessive desire to see it through.

ACT 3

Climax

* The  finale (14) or final battle

Resolution

* Main character has changed. 
* The world is back to normal

End scene (15)

I’ve said structure is important. It is. But it’s also a very basic required writing skill, like grammar. It won’t write your story for you. Many good writers may have a natural instinct for organic structure without consciously thinking about it. But if you’re like me, and still learning the craft, thinking about structure, both at the planning phase and completion phase of a project, provides an opportunity to step back and look at your story from a high level viewpoint. If a story doesn’t make sense at this level, then it probably doesn’t make any sense at all.

So what is your view of story structure? Do you think it is something intuitive and natural that you feel you don’t need to think consciously about? Or do you think the idea of a beat structure is helpful?

Does your middle sag?

I don’t mean your waist line that might be suffering from that late night snack attack. I mean that author’s graveyard – the middle of your story when enthusiasm wains and your characters wonder what they’re doing, and you wonder why you ever started the story. Unless you’re one of the literary giants like Stephen King, Dan Brown etc. most authors experience some self-doubt about at this stage. You’ve done the easy introduction bit, now it’s all uphill and hard work.

In one of my previous blogs, I discussed the three-act story structure and what happens in the first Act. The first Act is all about introducing the main character in his/her normal world, and then hitting them with some problem or opportunity that will change their world forever. At the end of Act one, something happens to propel the main characters forward towards a goal (the first turning point). Think of Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan and Hans Solo escaping from the space centre in the millennium falcon – now they are committed to a course of action: there’s no going back and its onward to rescue the princess. In other types of stories the first turning point may be less spectacular, but just as important in propelling our main character along a course of action towards their goal.

The middle of the story (Act two) is all about what our main character tries to do to overcome that problem or exploit the opportunity to reach their goal. Each obstacle he/she encounters should make it more difficult for them to succeed, and the stakes of losing should become increasingly more severe. By the end of Act two, the main character should have grown in character and learnt what he/she is doing wrong and commit to a new course of action (the second turning point). Act three is then all about the final confrontation and climax to the story.

It all sound so very simple; it’s not. If it were we would all be writing best sellers. The middle section of a 300 page novel is probably 200 pages. Knowing you’re in the middle doesn’t help much unless you have some kind of plan. What are the obstacles you’re going to throw at the main character? How will he/she cope? How does the character need to change during the course of the act? Think Skywalker, from farm boy to jedi knight; think Scrooge from miser to reformed philanthropist. In most stories (but not all) the main character or one of the main characters need to change in order to reach their goal. What is the cause of that change? How does it affect them?

Most supporters of a three-act structure accept that something  important happens at about the Mid-point of Act two to ratchet up the stakes and force the main character to commit to a new plan. The Mid-Point therefore effectively splits the second Act into two parts.

The first part covers the initial attempts of the main character to deal with obstacles in his/her way. This may be a period which Blake Snyder describes as the ‘fun and games’ period where the main characters seem to be succeeding or making progress. It may also be a period covering the B-story (for example, a love story). But the main character is usually brought back to reality by the Mid-point event. This may be a false victory or a false defeat, but it should provide new motivation for the main character to move forward.

The second part of the second act is usually featured by matters getting worse: the ‘bad guys close in’. There may be an ‘all is lost moment’  followed by ‘the darkest point’ where the main character appears to have lost everything. At this point he/she learns something new (an epiphany) or finds a new way forward that sets him/her on course for the confrontation of the final Act.

Syd Field in his book, ‘The Screenwriters workbook’, says the three elements Plot Point 1, Mid-Point and Plot Point 2 are the structural foundation that holds the second Act in place. He offers the following advice to screenwriters, but it is just as relevant to any storyteller:

1. Decide your ending first

2. Choose your opening

3. Choose Plot Point 1

4. Choose plot Point 2

5. Then determine the Mid-Point

Syd Field also talks about two important story progression sequences that often occur in the middle of the first half and middle of the second half of Act 2 called pinch points.  Pinch 1 drives the story forward onto the Mid-Point event; Pinch 2 drives the story forward towards Plot point 2 at the end of the second Act.

Syd Field’s Three-Act Paradigm:

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Maybe you’re a writer that thinks the three-act structure is too formulaic and doesn’t follow your genre, such as romance or comedy. It’s for action type stories isn’t it? You may be right; but analysts have mapped the main turning points onto many of the most successful films and books of all genres. Having a three-act structure isn’t the main reason for their success; to be successful they need to be dam good stories, and dam good writers. But not having a solid structure may be the cause of why so many other stories seem to fail.

If you’re a good writer you might not consciously think about structure when your writing. You’re in the moment. Structure maybe something you notice only when your story is complete, and you want to edit and analyse what you’ve got. It doesn’t matter as long as you get it right.