2) “An Education” – the First Plot Point

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?

You couldn’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.”


Filed under An Education-- the series

11 Responses to 2) “An Education” – the First Plot Point

  1. Too funny. I knew PP1 was at the dinner table when she smiled at him in a way to say, “I’ve totally been taken by you,” but I failed to see the other implications that you mentioned (skipping a school day, David knowing this, and what that means to her overall Oxford plans). I was concentrating exclusively on the emotional weight of this moment and not the broader implications.

    I am learning. Thanks.

  2. Larry,
    I wanted to say how much I’m enjoying this deconstruction. Not that I didn’t love the other ones too, but “An Education” is more typical of the type of story I would write myself.

    The first time I watched this movie was just for an overview, but the second time I took detailed notes on the structure. It’s one of those movies you get more out of each time you watch it, so I’ll probably watch it a third time soon.

    If “An Education” were a novel, would you call it mainstream-literary?


  3. So glad you’re into this. I actually thought of you when I chose this
    movie, as you are one of several writers I thought might appreciate this story. It’s terrific… when I saw it I couldn’t believe how good it was, and that perception was validated with all the award nominations. Nick Hornby is a world class writer. And yes… I’d call it mainstream adult contemporary fiction. A reviewer would call it a “coming of age tale with rich historic resonance.”

    Thanks Suzannah, appreciate your comment.

  4. As I read your opening comments about the first plot point, I thought of the movie “Thelma and Louise.” To me, the first plot point happens outside the bar when she (I forget which one) kills the guy, which happens within the first ten pages of the script, because this is the event that the protagonist decides to change her world. But by your explanation, this occurs too soon to be the plot point. How do you interpret the movie?

  5. @Bailish — well, good question, but your timeline is off. Go here —
    http://thestorydepartment.com/structure-themla-louise/ — to see an analysis and a scene by scene breakdown. The film runs almost exactly two hours, so the target for the 1st plot point is 30 minutes at the max.

    It actually happens at 31:30… close enough. And it’ s NOT when they shoot the guy outside the bar. That moment happens at 19:30, followed by ten minutes of the women trying to figure out what they do next.

    As I said below, what is this story ABOUT? It’s not “about” the murder. It’s about them RUNNING AWAY from it. The murder is just a set-up for that moment.

    The story really begins when they begin to run, now outside the law. Their goal is set, their obstacles are obvious, as are the stakes. After they kill the guy at 19:30 there is no goal, there are no stakes, there is no meaning. All of that is the job of PP1. When they run, all of that falls into place.

    This is an example of getting fooled by a “big” scene, versus the true plot point that actually ignites the story fuse. It’s often a decision — as it is in “An Education” — in response to a “big” moment that came earlier.

    Hope this helps. It’s a great question, with a chance to further define and clarify through example. Check out the link above for a scene-by-scene breakdown of Thelma Louise, you’ll see the entire structure unfolding precisely as it should, and labeled for clarity.

  6. nancy

    Excellent so far! Thanks.

  7. Larry, Okay. So in the hopes of better understanding PP1- and BTW thanks for coming to Wenatchee for WOTR last month! – have you seen the movie Waterworld? I just watched it recently (yeesh) and I have question about the timing of PP1 or the actual antagonist in PP1 of this film.

    5:00 Mariner has his first run-in with drifter
    7:20 first chase scene begins
    10:00 he pulls up to the atoll – what we’d call crossing a threshold, no? He’s in a new place and there are threshold guardians.
    10:30 he pays an entry fee to get into this place – dirt.

    14:00 love interest and a shadowy antagonist show up – antagonist not fully developed
    15:40 the little girl with the map on her back shows up
    18:16 his gills are discovered – he’s a genetic mutuant.
    20:00 he’s stuck in a cage and again we see the map.

    21:34 we see the people talking about the map, they can’t leave because they can’t figure it out. They decide to ask the mariner. We discover in their talk with him that he doesn’t like humans very much.

    25:25 Dennis Hopper’s group starts their attack.
    27:25 Dennis Hopper says his first line.
    32:35 the mariner is freed from his cage
    36:30 the woman and the girl hop on board – their threshold crossing in this case
    38:40 the siege of the atoll ends

    So….my question is – since Dennis Hopper doesn’t appear until minute 27, I take it he is NOT the main antagonist in this story, but the entire human race is, since that’s who was indicated at 21?

    If that’s the case how does that meet the requirements of changing his journey? It doesn’t necessarily force him onto a new course. Of course, one could argue that the presence of the woman and the girl on board his ship work to fulfill that requirement – to make him do what he otherwise wouldn’t do. But it’s not a direct, high stake, do-or-die command. So how does that fly as a plausible PP1?

    Am I the only confused about this film?



  8. Well, as a neophyte to this writing thing I’ve been hitting as many ‘how to write’ sites that I can, when ever I can.

    There are very few that actually *explain* story structure.

    There are NONE that explain it as clearly as you.

    Thanks a bunch. Seriously.

  9. Gill Hill

    I have been reading these for a while, but this is my first comment. I thought I had got the hang of this structure, from reading your posts, but couldn’t find it in the outline of the story I am writing. And I didn’t get it when I watched An Education last night either. Now it seems so obvious! Must keep practising – although your explanation here is SO helpful, that I feel I will get it soon. Thanks so much, Gill

  10. Susan Kelly

    This is so very helpful! I’ve been kind of winging it writing a very long novel, and your advice is helping me fix some things that I knew were not right, but I didn’t know how to fix them. Your parameters give me the tools I need.

    Question: if you’re writing a trilogy, each book would have a first plot point and a hook, etc, but does the trilogy as a whole have sort of a meta-structure? Which might mean that a first plot point for the whole trilogy would probably fall somewhere between a half and two thirds of the way through the first book? And it would have to be subtle, so as not to overwhelm the structure of the first book as a standalone, yes?

  11. Christine Bloom

    I love how you deconstruct movies and this is one of my favorite movies. Since it seems more literary, which I think is my style of writing, I really appreciate seeing how An Education fits into the story structure framework. I am still a newbie and struggling to recognize Plot Points–so inciting incidents should happen at the same time or close to PP1 and hooks are different–I have to remember that.