(Refresher or Breaking News… this is essential, 101-level, can’t-hear-it-enough story coaching.)
Part 1: The Make Or Break Moment in Your Story
It’s not the ending.
And it’s not the opening.
The entire realm of story architecture is complex, and therefore challenging to discuss without a Big Picture view. It’s like talking to an engineer about weight-bearing stress points on a bridge… it’s all in context to the Big Picture of building bridges that will never fall into the water. To someone new to bridge building – even if they’ve driven over a million bridges in their life – they can’t really get it until they’ve gone through Bridge Building 101 and learned the physics of it all.
Storytelling has physics, too. Nearly every unpublished story ever submitted has been compromised, to some degree, by the author’s less-than-full grasp of those physics. Many times those stories were simply winged, written from the author’s intuitive, been-reading-novels-since-I-was-a-kid sensibility, which rarely is enough.
So, as I launch into a little rant about what I believe to be the most important moment in a story – any story – I realize that what I have to say is indeed in context to that Big Picture called story architecture. Or, a four-part, three milestone, six core competency-dependent framework peppered with dozens of lesser but nonetheless important features, all of which are weight-bearing stress points within a story.
When one cracks, the whole thing falls into the river.
That Most Important Moment is the First Plot Point.
It’s sometimes called the Inciting Incident, but that’s only valid when the FPP and the II occur at the same moment (which they can and often do, but don’t have to; sometimes a killer II can occur as part of the set-up, prior to the FPP).
Confused yet? If you’ve already wrapped your head around the principles of story structure (which is a subset of story architecture), then probably not. If you haven’t, then that’s the most empowering, urgent and magical tip you can receive: go out and find that knowledge. It’ll change everything about your storytelling experience.
Once you do – or if you have – then you know that the First Plot Point is the milestone that transitions a story from the opening (Part 1) “set-up” scenes, and thrusts it into the reactive (Part 2) scenes that are all in context to it.
The First Plot Point usually occurs — it should occur — between the 20 and 25 percent mark of the story. Prior to that moment, the scenes have introduced the players, shown us their world view, established stakes and reader empathy, and either planted or foreshadowed the elements that will come to bear on the dramatic tension.
The launching of that dramatic tension is the mission of the First Plot Point.
Not to say there can’t be significant dramatic tension (the hero’s goal in opposition to an antagonistic force with an opposing goal) prior to the FPP. Even so, the FPP needs to be there, because it changes the entire story by expanding it and/or shifting toward a new path: the hero suddenly has a problem or a quest or a need or a challenge… there are stakes already in place that hang in the balance… and there is opposition (either visible or implied) that stands between the hero and the achievement of that goal.
This is a universal structural principle. It applies to any story, every story, in any genre. It happens in a moment, within a scene, sometimes in a single sentence, at approximately the same place in every novel or movie you’ll read or see these days.
If the FPP happens too late, you risk losing the reader and diluting the pace.
If it happens too early, you risk a low level of backstory, weak reader empathy, thin stakes and a flat middle. An opening “hook” (a very early moment that grabs and holds) isn’t a First Plot Point, it’s a powerful part of the set-up of that milestone.
If the story was a circus tent, held in place against the elements by strong poles, the FPP is the tallest and most important of those weight-bearing poles. Because everything that happens before it is a set-up for it, and everything that happens after occurs in context to it.
Next up: #2: The Great Seductive and Fatal Temptation of the New Writer