It has been pointed out that I tend to linger over my set-ups, both here on Storyfix and in my new book. To pre-sell the point, ad nauseum.
So let me get right to it today:
The First Pinch Point in “The Help” occurs on page 184 (of the trade paperback), which is the 35th percentile mark in the story. It’s when Miss Hilly casually announces over coffee and cards that she’s going to publish her “Home Help Sanitation Initiative” in the local newspaper.
It’s when she intends to institutionalize and legitimize racism in the community by imposing standards and consequences.
Not only is this Pinch Point very nearly perfectly placed (the optimal target placement is at the 36/37th percent mark, smack in the middle of Part 2 of a story), it’s a classic example of its narrative mission.
A pinch point allows the antagonistic force of the story roaring onto center stage to announce itself and remind us of its dark intentions and inherent threat to the hero’s quest. To stick it right into our face so that we may fear and loath that which the hero fears and loaths.
Everything else stops for a moment so the darkness can have the podium.
Let me say that again: the definition of both Pinch Points (the second is targeted for the 62/63rd percent mark, in the middle of Part 3) is to show the reader the threat, to show us what still stands in the way of the hero’s intentions.
To allow us to comprehend what the hero must conquer and/or overcome.
Pinch Points Seem to Puzzle People
(Note: I like the way that sounds. Popping Ps all over the place.)
Or at least, they puzzle writers. Readers get them right away, because they are as organic and natural a moment within a story as any in the narrative. And because they are so natural, they tend to blend into the organic flow of a story… which, by definition, leaves it up to chance.
Not good. You absolutely need to show us the bad guy’s power and intentions, and it needs to happen in the right place at the right time in the story.
Maybe it’s confusing because it’s a movie term. Or because First Pinch Point so closely alliterates with First Plot Point, which is a completely separate story milestone.
I first learned about pinch points in Syd Field’s iconic book, Screenplay, and it’s been easy to spot in both books and movies ever since. Like, every successful book and movie.
One of the reasons pinch points – once you know what they are — become easy to spot is that they can be, and often are, everywhere in a story.
In fact, they should be everywhere.
Every story has a hero. Every hero has a journey, a quest, a problem to solve, a need to fulfill. There are obstacles in the way of that quest, often (usually) embodied in the character of an antagonist, or the bad guy. A pinch point is when the primary opposition to the hero’s quest comes front and center in the story, showing itself to the hero and to us.
The suggested optimal placement is merely a guideline to allow you to optimize pacing and dramatic tension.
If the hero is being chased by a bear, the bear will show up at the pinch point. If the story is about an airplane crashing, something that reminds us we’re about to crash will show up at the pinch point. If the story is about trying to win back lost love, the pinch point is when the departed lover turns up in the arms of another.
The context for these moments is up to the author. It can be virtually anything, and long as the core essence of it is there.
Such is the case in “The Help.” Pinch Points abound.
There’s another pinch point a few pages before the “official” one described above. Thus illustrating that you can pepper your story with many moments of antagonism… but regardless, you should still shoot for the whopper of a pinch point at the suggested target percentile mark.
A preliminary pinch point occurs when Miss Skeeter confesses that after several interviews with Aibileen she only has 12 words of transcription to show for it, all of them “yes ma’am.” A classic Pinch moment — it calls forth the primary challenge or risk of the hero’s journey (Skeeter needing to get at least 12 maids into her book). Skeeter’s inability to get the maids to play ball is precisely what she’s up against in Part 2, in contextual response to the First Plot Point (where the book project is born).
Another minor pinch occurs as Skeeter mails the first draft of the interviews to the editor in New York, prompting fear-driven nightmares. It reminds us of what’s in her way.
But, when you compare these examples, all of which appear in Part 2, it’s easy to see that the most dangerous and meaningful of them is Miss Hilly’s racist diatribe. It’s the highest level of antagonism in the whole story… and thus, it’s not a coincidence that it appears very near the optimal target moment, which is in the middle of the story’s second quartile. It is THE First Pinch Point, architecturally-speaking.
The Rhetoric of the Pinch Point
Could you argue this is simply storytelling, that the mechanics and rhetoric of calling them pinch points, or anything else, is needlessly confusing or overly formulaic. Sure, you could argue that (you could also argue that surgeons don’t need a name for anesthesia, too, it’s just “part of the process”).
Then again, not every writer can rely on their dramatic instincts and sheer raw talent to build tension and generate pace optimally. I’m hoping that all those who protest are, in fact, purely and rawly talented to the extent that they don’t need to think about getting this done properly in their stories… but I doubt that’s true. Which is a shame, because it becomes an example of how limiting beliefs can hold you back.
Like everything else about story architecture, the intention isn’t to make anyone right or wrong, it’s to give you another way to think about how to make your story the best that it can be.
The rest of us… welcome to the next rung on the learning curve, where seatbelts and intuitive luck aren’t necessary, and where your awareness of story architecture just might cut a decade or two out of your apprenticeship before you get it.
Because this is something you can learn and pursue, every bit as much as you can discover through blood, sweat and the tears of rejection.
Go ahead, pinch yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
Want more story architecture? Check out my book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.”
Thanks to Shane Arthur for the prompt that resulted in today’s post. Check out his website, Writing Prompts, for some hands-on creative storytelling fun.