The thing I like most about the First Plot Point in this story is the way it illustrates the absolute need for the 16 scenes that precede it. That set it up.
In An Education, it’s a subtle and delicate moment, indeed.
Some people argue that something huge and compelling that occurs within the first few pages or scenes is, in fact, the First Plot Point. Or at least “a” first plot point.
Know this: there can only be one First Plot Point in your story. You can have all the plot twists and surprises you want, but the First Plot Point is like a 21st birthday – everything changes, and you only get it once, at a prescribed time.
Others don’t argue this, they are simply confused by the difference between a killer hook, an Inciting Incident and a viable First Plot Point.
We’re deconstructing this story not so much to turn us into raving fans, but to learn from it. Toward that, I’d like to return to some fundaments about the First Plot Point to create context for our look at how An Education pulls it off.
As formulaic – and therefore distasteful – as it may sound, perhaps the primary criteria of a First Plot Point is where it appears in the story. If it happens too early, it’s simple not one and the story is already broken. No matter how dramatic such a false plot point is, and no matter how much it shakes things up.
That doesn’t mean you can’t insert a “big moment” in the opening quartile of your story. That you can’t change the game. Have at it. But it’s not the First Plot Point – also known as the Inciting Incident – unless it happens between the 20th and 25th percentile mark in the story.
Why? Because like a 21st birthday, your story isn’t ready to stand on its own legs until that point. Not enough foundation has been put in place.
If what you call your Inciting Incident happens on page 10, then it’s just a hook. You still owe the reader a First Plot Point at about page 80 to 100. And yes, you can have both, no matter what you call them, as long as you’re clear on the differences.
Of course, there are other criteria for the First Plot Point, and they substantiate both the timing and the necessity of the various Part 1 set-up scenes that precede it.
The First Plot Point has a mission to accomplish.
A specific set of things it must do.
It changes the story. In many ways, it actually commences the story. Because everything that preceded it, no matter how dramatic, was there to set it up.
Allow me to repeat. The mission of the scenes in Part 1 is to set-up the arrival of the Plot Point and the story that ensues from it.
Let’s look at an example that illustrates this.
Let’s say your story is about a guy who is in an irreversible coma after an accident. Your hero is the only one who refuses to pull the plug, believing that the strength of her belief and faith will pull her lover through. That’s the premise, easily converted into a “what if?” proposition: what if you could conquer death through faith?
Big-time theme in such a concept.
So what’s this story about? The accident, or the coma, or the theme?
It’s about the coma in terms of storytelling. It only becomes about the theme if you do the storytelling properly.
Which means if you wait until the 20th percentile to show us the accident, and if you’re calling it your First Plot Point, you haven’t nailed it. Because the First Plot Point is always what the story is about.
The accident is just a set-up for the coma.
In this example, the First Plot Point would be the moment the doctors tell the hero that no recovery is possible, and that they’ll need to pull the plug. Notice this isn’t as visual or even dramatic as the accident itself, nor does it need to be.
Without a proper set-up, such a moment wouldn’t be functional or effective.
We wouldn’t be as emotionally invested as we need to be, as established through a series of Part 1 scenes that show us the strength of their love and shared faith, and the stakes – part of the mission of the opening quartile – of a future together.
The accident, which is integral to the story, is better placed as a hook. Either in the beginning of the story, followed by a series of flashbacks that define their relationship, or a bit later but still early in Part 1, followed by a series of dramatic scenes in which the hero pushes the doctors toward the right outcome.
The First Plot Point defines – at least for the time being, until something else changes – the impending need, the quest, the journey of the hero, in context to established stakes. It isn’t complete until it also defines or at least introduces the obstacles that will stand in the way of that need.
If stakes aren’t yet in place, then it is the First Plot Point that defines them.
The fact that we’ve seen all three – the need, the obstacle, and the stakes – prior to this First Plot Point moment doesn’t change anything. When the First Plot Point arrives something new and urgent is always exposed, thus igniting the fuse and commencing the journey of the hero toward her goal.
In An Education, this moment meets all of this criteria in a subtle, easily-missed way.
In scene #17, we find Jenny sitting at a table with her friends in a dance club after an evening of music, dinner and dancing.
It is clear that David, her suitor, is moving fast. Assumptively so. And that this is a bit awkward for all, since Jenny is still in prep school and David is north of 30 and slightly slimy.
How do we know that? Because we saw it in a prior set-up scene that showed him sucking up to her parents. Among other foreshadowing that includes Helen’s (the other woman at the table) barely hidden inner bimbo.
The preceding Part 1 scenes also showed us Jenny’s burning desire to escape her dreary existence and jackass father for a life of sophistication and adventure. These define the stakes, the emotional investment, that make the First Plot Point work.
That moment arrives, both literally and symbolically, while sitting at that table.
It’s as simple as this: David invites Jenny to accompany him to an art auction. It’s on Friday.
Friday is a school day. David knows this, but suggests that it isn’t that big a deal. Jenny must skip school – this, in the midst of striving to get into Oxford with her grades and teacher assessments – to stay in this fantasy romance with David. To say no is to allow the reality of her age to sabotage her dreams.
This is classic temptation versus conscience. The apple has been offered.
Jenny says yes. And thus, the First Plot Point cometh.
Because everything changes at that moment. The story, one with stakes and conflict, really begins here.
Jenny has just taken a sharp turn in her life.
She’s heading down a new path with David, the devil in this scenario, at her side. She’s blind to his motives and his true character. Her challenge will be to conquer her own naiveté and desires before they ruin her. Before David takes her past a point of no return.
Notice how this moment fulfills all of the criteria for an effective Plot Point One.
Notice how it wouldn’t work as such had it not been preceded by those 16 set-up scenes. How, without our emotional investment and our growing sense of dread and suspicion, combined with our empathy regarding her attraction to him and her desire to leap aboard this dark train, the moment wouldn’t work had it come any earlier.
Now notice how this happens, in this same manner, in every novel you read and movie you see.
This is the physics, the law, of effective storytelling.
You don’t have to kill someone, blow something up or have the sky fall to introduce an effective First Plot Point. You need a moment that fulfills the criteria, yet melds seamlessly into the tone and established direction of the story.
A direction which you, as the architect of it all, are fully aware of long before this moment arrives. How else could you make it happen if you weren’t?
If you don’t plan your story ahead of time – if you’re an organic writer, or a pantser – rest assured that your first drafts will be a search for that direction and architecture. Which is valid if that’s your choice, it can and does happen. Rest assured, also, that if you don’t start over when it finally dawns on you, your story won’t work.
But… if you do plan your story with this knowledge and aforethought in mind – something that, once you understand story structure, is entirely possible to the point of necessity – you actually can make it work on the first draft you write.
Want more story structure? Please consider my ebook, Story Structure Demystified.
Next: Part 2 of “An Education.”