There are a million heroic stories that unfolded – true and fictional – in the era during which racism in America was exposed, called out, reviled, and when forces began to align to fight it and create a level and more moral playing field.
“The Help” is just one of them. Which happened to become an iconic #1 bestseller that will go down alongside To Kill a Mockingbird as a literary touchstone on those issues. As for the forthcoming movie (August)… hard to say. The trailer looks a bit light, in my view, but I’m hopeful. (The “movie-tie-in” paperback comes out June 28.)
In an earlier post in this series, tucked amidst a list of major story milestones and parts, we identified its First Plot Point.
You might want to reference that post if you’re new here, because the First Plot Point (which I believe is the most important moment in any story) always unfolds in context to the milestones, as well as the parts (blocks of exposition via scenes) separated by them.
In fact, it defines them, as well as igniting them. All of them.
Sometimes retroactively (which is why we need to know what a first Plot Point looks like before we can effectively write the scenes leading up to it)…
… sometimes preliminarily (because everything that happens after it is because of it).
Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help” is a great example of this playing out before our eyes.
The First Plot Point happens on Page 104 of the paperback edition, when, after 103 pages of setting up characters… creating a world and a culture and the expectations and restrictions within them…foreshadowing… introducing a sub-text of unrest and tension… and calling the reader to a level of emotional involvement…
… when all of those things are in place…
… on Page 104 Miss Skeeter realizes she needs to write a book about it all. One that interviews the black maids of 1962 Jackson, Mississippi and blows the lid off the façade of Americana to expose the inherent, heinous racism that defined the town and the people who lived there.
Prior to that moment the story was all characterization and, in effect, journalism.
But Miss Skeeters’s book changes everything, at least in a story-sensibility.
It creates danger and tension. It creates a journey for everyone involved in the project. It establishes a clear line in the sand, on one side of which are Miss Skeeter and the maids, and on the other side are the villains, led by the going-straight-to-hell-someday Miss Hilly.
Such a moment occurs, in some form (indeed, among a massive breadth of possible forms) in every successful novel or film.
A review of First Plot Point mission and criteria:
The First Plot Point is a new expositional element injected into a novel or movie, usually at about the 20 to 25 percent mark. It takes the story to another level, often in a new direction with a twist or an unexpected turn.
Somebody dies. Somebody wins the lottery. Somebody is fired or jilted. War is declared. The storm hits. The ship sinks. Hope is dashed. Dreams die. Lives are changed.
Sometimes the First Plot Point arrives with a whisper. Just a subtle and shaded nuance, albeit one that changes everything that follows.
“The Help” is of the latter flavor of FPP. Easy to miss if you aren’t aware of the nature and purpose of the FPP – in other words, if you’re a reader and not an author yourself. Nobody dies. Nobody kidnaps anybody. Nobody is in any danger… yet.
But it changes everything for everybody. It lights a fuse. And this story is about the bomb at the other end of it.
The First Plot Point is not to be confused with an inciting incident… though it can be one. Often there is an important preliminary inciting incident(s) that create(s) tension and launch(es) a certain level of dramatic tension and a path for the protagonist… but if it happens too early you can bet it’s not really the first plot point after all. Because something new lies in wait at the 20 to 25 percent neighborhood, and if a previous inciting incident changed everything for the hero, the true First Plot Point will do it again, and in a way that defines the remainder of the story.
Once you know what it is, and if you look closely, it’s always there.
There are exceptions out there (aren’t there always?), but take careful note: they’re pretty much all unpublished.
Rent a DVD tonight. You’ll see it happen. Start clocking the film, and then somewhere between 18 and 26 minutes or so, the story will shift. Change. Twist. Turn into something that has only been hinted at (foreshadowed) or promised prior to that moment. It might be huge, like the Titanic hitting that iceberg, or it might just be a subtle shade of doubt on a new bride’s face (which was the FPP in the movie 500 Days of Summer).
Either way, everything that follows will be defined by that moment.
The primary thrust and mission of the First Plot Point is to launch the hero’s story-specific quest or journey (sometimes an internal one), create a need or goal, or pose a problem, install stakes for it all, and expose an antagonistic force that creates obstacles the hero must overcome in order to complete the quest, solve the problem, achieve the goal, beat the bad guy, avoid bad things and/or allow good things to happen.
That’s always the case. If you doubt it or don’t believe it, you will struggle as a writer.
If you get it, if you master it, you will immediately be in the game.
I’m not saying you have to call it a first plot point… but you absolutely must engineer your story so that it has one, and in the right place for the right reasons. It’s as fundamental to long-form storytelling (novels and screenplays) as a hoop is to basketball and the net is to tennis.
Or antibiotics are to medicine.
The analogies are endless, and poignant. The best way to wrap your head around this principle is to begin to see it executed in the books you read and the movies you watch.
None of which do it better, or more clearly, than “The Help.”
The instant Miss Skeeter realizes she will – that she must – write her book about the maids of Jackson, everything about this novel changes.
The acknowledgement of the moral compass that drives her decision to write the book suddenly informs all of her relationships. To her mother, to her social group, to the maids, to her career plans, and to the prospect of a new romance. Even to the memory of her beloved childhood family maid, Constantine (which becomes a sub-plot in this story, one that links tightly to the theme).
These relationships are all different now, because all of these people in her life have a stance on this issue. And in Miss Skeeter’s mind, that stance defines them.
The maids, especially Aibileen and Minny, experience a shift in their world view. They evolve from fear and safety to courage and purpose. They suddenly have a ray of hope, never overstated in terms of changing the world, but on a higher level worthy – worth dying for, in fact – because it will expose the truth.
This opens the thematic can of worms that this novel represents. What is worth risking your job, your safety, even your life, to expose, champion and speak for? And does your answer to that question define you?
An immediate and multi-layered dramatic arc materializes the moment Miss Skeeter launches, in her own head, the intention to write that book.
The stakes become relevant the moment the First Plot Point surfaces.
Little Mae Mobley will grow up without love if Aibileen goes away, which she will if she’s exposed as part of Miss Skeeter’s project. Minny will continue to hide and face inevitable wrath from Miss Hilly if she’s exposed before she can shove her leveraged revenge in the woman’s face.
And man, do we ever root for that.
Notice how the roles of every character are defined by their contextual relationship to this central plot element – the book Miss Skeeter is writing. Everything about these characters appears in this story for one purpose: to enrich the thematic context of the primary thrust of the narrative tension: the book.
The novel is about the book, in a dramatic sense.
And the First Plot Point is the moment at which the book appears in the story. It changes everything. It creates context for everything. It defines purpose, risk, and points everything and everybody in a new or shifted direction.
As it always does.
If you doubt the power of the FPP in this story, even when rendered as subtly as it is, ask yourself how this story would change if…
… you didn’t have the level of emotional investment in Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter before that FPP moment arrives. Manifesting that investment is the primary purpose of a story’s Part 1 (putting all the elements in place before lighting them on fire, or if they’re by necessity already on fire, then before blowing them up).
And if you wait to long to show it, the story will lag and die before the reader gets there. Timing is everything in dramatic narrative. Without, the drama goes away.
Stay tuned for more posts in this deconstruction series about “The Help.”
Meanwhile, if you want more basics on story architecture, my book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” is available. In fact, Amazon is practically giving it away ($2.99) as a Kindle edition.