Before you can pay something off, you need to set it up.
Before you ask someone to invest, you must make a promise.
Before there is a story, there is conflict.
Before anyone cares, there must be stakes.
Getting all of that in motion in your story is the mission of your first 100 pages. Or, the first 20 to 25 percent of the story’s length.
And if you do it right, you’ll need all those pages.
The whole Part One Set-up leading to the First Plot Point enchilada can be confusing, and for some, sound like something a mad rogue screenwriter is trying to jam down your novelist throat. As someone who is all three – a screenwriter, a novelist and completely mad – I assure you, this is equally valid thinking for both page and screen.
I’ve written at length about the First Plot Point, and won’t return to Square One here. Use the Search feature (top of third column) to go deep on this topic, then come back here for a new, clarifying and empowering perspective.
What’s in that enchilada.
A story unfolds in four basic parts. Some say it’s three, but because the middle part breaks down into two separate missions, four is more accurate.
The key word here is mission. Each of the parts has a different one. That’s critical to understand, it’s the difference between a writer who knows what they’re doing and one who is faking it or imitating what they’ve read.
The order of the missions of the four parts is, by virtue of the nature of storytelling, ordained. You mess with that order at your own peril.
Don’t do it.
Your story won’t work until it lines up with this contextual sequence.
The first part is called “the set-up.”
It contains a hook, one or more inciting incidents, an introduction of the hero, foreshadowing, the planting of narrative seeds (including sub-plot) and the establishment of context, arena, setting, time and voice.
The mission of this opening quartile is to invest the reader in the story, through empathy for the hero, both of which depend on the establishment of stakes and clearly defined dramatic question at the heart of the story.
Like… who did it? What will happen? How will it turn out? What will I experience if I (the reader) stick with this story?
It promises to answer another question: why will I care?
The last thing that happens in the Part One set-up is called “the First Plot Point.” Its appearance is a milestone in the story signals the end of Part One and the beginning of Part Two.
Don’t mess with that, either. Rather, learn what this all means, and discover the creative freedom that comes with knowing you are within the realm of what works.
Once you get this, you’ll see a First Plot Point at work in every published story. No exceptions. It’ll be like the parting of a curtain for you, and you’re now invited to come backstage and hang out with the writer.
Why this can be confusing.
It’s confusing because the terms can be confusing. Inciting incident versus hook. Inciting incident versus first plot point. Narrative exposition versus character development. Dramatic tension versus plot.
Back in the day, when the first storytellers were spinning tales over a fire and the carcass of a yak, the word rhetoric was pronounced blah blah blah. Which is what the unenlightened writer still hears.
Don’t be that guy.
To add to the confusion… a hook can be an inciting incident, but it can never be the first plot point. An incident can be the First Plot Point, but one can also appear in the middle of the Part One set-up pages (in which case it still isn’t a First Plot Point), or even at the beginning of it. In which case, it becomes a hook.
So let’s clear this up.
By any other description or nametag, when something really compelling happens in the first scene of your story, or the first ten pages if it isn’t in the first scene, that’s a hook. Big or little. Yeah, it may indeed be an inciting incident (something happens that connects to the forthcoming storyline)… or not.
Your hook could be unconnected to plot and entirely connected to characterization, like the revelation on Page 1 that the narrator of this story is a ghost. That’s a hook.
When it’s not connected to plot, it’s not an inciting incident.
Or, it could be huge, like someone murdering someone on page one, or leaving them, or hiring them, or painting them with stars and stripes, in which case it is an inciting incident and a hook.
If that happens on, say, page 45, that’s not a hook at all, but it is an inciting incident. But it’s still not the First Plot Point… unless it is.
Having fun yet? And you thought all these supposedly rigid paradigms and principles and structural guidelines would restrict you.
Fact is, you’re lost without them. Because your story will fail without them.
The moment you realize that they set you free … you’re empowered.
The key to understanding the First Plot Point.
Lots of stuff can and should happen in your Part One set-up. But not all of it connects to the hero in a meaningful and relevant way… to the forthcoming journey, quest or mission your story must give your hero.
Read that again. It’s the key to everything.
Your story must impart a journey, need, quest, mission, problem to solve or goal to attain to your hero. That’s precisely what your story is. A vicarious sharing, an unveiling, of that journey, need, quest, mission, problem to solve or goal to attain.
That said, the key to wrapping your head around this is understanding that this hero’s journey, need, quest, mission, problem to solve or goal to attain is, by intention and design, launched, fully rendered, put in motion and unquestionably underway…
… at the First Plot Point. At the end of your Part One set-up.
Sure, as I just said, lots of thing happen prior to the First Plot Point moment. Some of them huge. Massively dramatic. Things that seem, at a glance to be the focal point of your story.
But being the focal point isn’t the mission of the First Plot Point. Launching the dramatic tension, the movement toward answering the dramatic question it poses… is.
Here’s a really nifty way to get this clear in your head:
The First Plot Point is the moment the hero becomes involved, subjected to, in quest of or otherwise impacted by, the hook and inciting incident(s) that you’ve put into the flow prior to it. To the whole of your Part One.
At the First Plot Point (that concludes Part One), the hero (and/or the reader) is suddenly aware of what all the stuff that happens in the Part One set-up means. How it relates And because of the stakes you (the writer) have put in place prior to this moment, it’s also the point at which we (the reader) become fully invested in the story.
Prior to that, it’s all just ingredients set out on a counter and/or simmering in a pot, emitting an enticing scent, drawing us in… but not yet a meal to be consumed.
Until you serve it up on a platter for the reader. Until you connect it all to the hero’s forthcoming journey, need, quest, mission, problem to solve or goal to attain.
Serve the potatoes before the gravy is warm, and your dinner will suck.
In The DaVinci Code, a body is discovered in a museum. Hook? Yes. Inciting incident? Yes. But… it doesn’t yet connect to the hero and his (here we go…) journey, need, quest, mission, problem to solve or goal to attain the story puts before him. It doesn’t mean anything yet, at least in context to the story to come. It’s just stuff that comes into play later. This context alone – despite it happening too early – means it’s not yet the First Plot Point.
We (the reader) see that the police are out to pin this on the hero, who has been innocently called in to help investigate. This adds tension. We can smell what’s cooking. But is it the FPP?
Nope. Not yet. It’s just a cool inciting incident. Because it doesn’t yet connect to the hero (even though we see it coming), it doesn’t ignite, or otherwise launch or define, the hero’s journey, need, quest, mission, problem to solve or goal to attain.
Begin noticing this in the stories you read.
The movies you see. You’ll encounter dramatic moments early, you’ll see twists soon, you’ll get sucked in. The hero might actually begin a journey early on… but you can bet it isn’t the primary storyline to come. You can bet it will change, it will evolve. It will take on deeper meaning and stakes.
It’s all just part of the set-up.
Until it isn’t. Until – based as much on location and timing and mission – it changes everything, until it launches something, until it imparts meaning and direction and thrust and stakes…
… by revealing the real hero’s journey, need, quest, mission, problem to solve or goal to attain within the world this story creates.
Coming soon: the Top Ten Storyfix posts of 2011.
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