Can the First Plot Point Happen Without the Hero Knowing?

A Storyfix reader recently asked me this intriguing question.  At first I thought, no way.  Then I thought, maybe.  Then I wasn’t so sure.

I’m still not so sure.  But I do know this — you still need “a” first plot point, even if you manage to pull it off.

Below is my response, buffed up for publication here, and augmented with a caveat or two.

Can the first plot point happen without the hero knowing about it?

In my opinion, it can.

Sort of.  Sometimes.

But only if do it right.

And by doing it right, you still need a Part 1 set-up of approximatley 20 to 25 percent of the story, followed by a Part 2 response.

Nothing about the principles of story structure changes.  Ever.  Even in this case.

Response to what?  Answer: the first plot point.  The thing you were setting up back Part 1.

Remember, the question here is whether the hero needs to know about the FPP, or not.  Not whether you can skip the FPP altogether.

You can’t.   You still need an FPP solidly — and functionally — in place.

If your hero isn’t aware of a sudden (though perhaps subtle) shift in the story at the proper First Plot Point milestone, then your reader absolutely needs to be.

Because the criteria for the First Plot Point milestone remains in place. 

Did I say that already?  I think I did.

I’m so glad you didn’t ask if you can skip the FPP altogether.  The answer to that one is… loud.

The story shifts in a new direction at the FPP, even if the hero isn’t aware of it.  Which means it changes.  The thing that changes is the hero’s near-term need, direction, quest, journey, objective… name your favorite term.

The story really begins right there, at the FPP.  Everything before that moment is a set-up for it, everything after a response to it.

Even if the hero is kept in the dark.

There needs to be stakes involved and defined by the FPP milestones.  The hero has something to lose or gain, with consequences attached.  The reader needs to empathize with those stakes and root for the hero.

Even if the hero is in a coma.

We still need to have a newly defined antagonistic force suddenly in play, and in a way that defines a new life-dirction for the hero. 

And, most importantly (okay, just as importantly)… the hero is now in response mode. 

She or he is now, in Part 2, reacting to something that is suddenly pressuring her or him, opposing her or him or otherwise stands in her or his way.

Does the hero need to know about it?  Not necessarily.  It can happen behind the curtain of the hero’s awareness.  But when it does unfold this way, the audience absolutely needs to experience and understand all of the above.

Or it won’t work.

That said, the hero should have a visible shift in their journey at the First Plot Point, as well. 

It’s just that — in context to the aforementioned Big Question — they don’t yet have to be made aware of their ultimate need or quest, nor do they need to have even the remotest clue as to the nature and goal of the force that opposes her. 

Or him.  Or it.  Whatever.

We do… the hero doesn’t.

This is a non-traditional way of unleashing a story, and with unconventional strategies come unique challenges.  It won’t be easy to pull off, to be honest, but if that’s your story… that’s your story.

When this dynamic is in place, you do need to finally let the hero in on the true nature of what their story — their need and quest, as well as that which opposes them, and with a full awareness of the stakes — at some point. 

That point, almost without exception in such a rare dynamic, is the Mid-Point milestone.  It’s made for such a moment, because its mission is to part the curtain for the hero and/or reader and thus create a new context going forward.

Nothing says new context quite like a hero who suddenly wakes up to what’s really going on around them.

Good luck with this… and I don’t mean that sarcastically. 

It’s an example of taking a risk, and with great risk comes great opportunity.  Just don’t make the mistake of creating what is, in effect, a set-up that lasts for 40 to 50 percent of the length of the story, with nothing that smells like a plot point anywhere in view beforehand.

Give us what is, in effect, a false (or at least minor) Plot Point One for the hero, and in the right place, while also delivering a contextually valid Plot Point One for the reader.   They can be different narrative twists, but both need to be in the proper FPP location if they are.

If you can pull that off, you just might have a winner on your hands.

I wish that for you.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

15 Responses to Can the First Plot Point Happen Without the Hero Knowing?

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    This thought was bugging me after seeing the comment, and my biggest… concern with the idea is how can the character go into response mode if they don’t know their world has changed.

    However the flip side of that argument that I finally struck upon was part of the reaction mode might be LEARNING they need to be in reaction mode, but maybe not the why. Case in point a romance where the main squeeze is off having an affair. Changes the whole story, but he/she doesn’t know it yet. But you could, at least in theory, begin making the cheater begin to act more distant, causing the MC to have to figure out what’s up, AKA response mode.

    Can’t speak to anyone else, but I doubt I’d be up to the task of pulling that one off (in general, I couldn’t write romance to save my life).

  2. Bailish

    This also bothered me, for the same reason. The way I have rectified this is that the hero knows there has been a change, but he is unaware of the actual change. The path he is embarking on is different from what the reader knows.

    Take the example of Don Quixote. He is setting out on a quest for the fair maiden on his noble steed, but the reader sees that he is mad and living in an imaginary world.

    Or take the example of an unreliable narrator, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The reader is constantly kept unbalanced as to what is actually going on. (I’m sure there’s a better example of unreliable narrator, but I couldn’t think of one right off.)

  3. kelly

    Larry. Kelly here.
    I must be tired, because I’ve read this over several times and can’t think of a situation– short of a coma– where the protagonist would not be aware of the FPP event. Even a subtle FPP has to cause a shift. Can the protagonist’s world change without him/her being aware of it? How can they run/hide/regroup/plan if they don’t know they need to?
    This is the point at which the old ‘if a tree falls in the forest, but no one is there to hear it, did it really make a sound’ thing started to grate on my philosophical nerves.
    Going to get more coffee…

  4. @Kelly — I hear you. In a way, this is an end-run on the notion to try this. You really do have to have a plot point, and if the hero’s perspective on it changes (from naive and under-informed, to fully informed) then it’s still a plot point, a response, then a Mid-Point that throws the curtain of their awareness all the way open.

    Semantics, perhaps.

    Patrick and Bailish both cite an interesting take on this. It happens… it’s just that the hero’s FPP shift is slight, they stumble and wander into the response mode of Part 2 (they aren’t really sure what they’re responding to), which makes for some nice dramatic tension. WHen the audience knows what the character doesn’t — think haunted house, here — it can really grab a reader.

    Ironcially, and intentionally, one of the best old stories that did this was the novel and movie (out on DVD) entitled “Coma.” The hero has no idea what she’s up against, and yet there’s a clear FPP which launches her down a path she doesn’t really comprehend.

    Tough stuff. Keep chewing on it. Wherever you land on this, it’s a good thing, as it boosts our awareness of how to handle these parts and milestones contextually.

  5. Patrick Sullivan

    One thing I thought of after my original comment. If you’re going to try something along the lines of what I mentioned before, it might be a good idea to put it closer to the 20% mark than the 25% because you can use those couple thousand words to start setting up the character realizing something has changed, even if they do not know what it is, yet, without short changing the reaction portion of the story too much/at all.

    In a way it’s almost a form of extending the FPP. The one particular moment is THE FPP, but the scenes right after it build the context from the character’s PoV and begin to show the reader AND the character the consequences of that moment, ramping things up for the run to the mid point.

    Hm, I may have to see if I can come up with a way to play with this, either in my next Novel (current one is already past the FPP, and the rewrite necessary to try that would wreck the work, so no way ;)) or the one after, depending on how the next idea would take to such a gambit.

  6. kelly

    Larry. And Patrick.
    Sounds like a first plot line segment instead of a first plot point! 🙂
    How ironic that the movie “Coma” could be used as an example. As I read that when it first came out (and it wasn’t yesterday) will go peruse bookcase. Not sure I ever had DVD.
    More caffeine, and perhaps chocolate now, too…

  7. Elizabeth

    This is my WiP! The Antagonist, believe it or not, is an 8mo baby, & my MC has detemined babies are not in her life. Anyway, this set-up (a FPP that isn’t a FPP, but it is, etc) fits my story exactly! Thanks for the validation (& lots besides). 🙂

  8. Might be an interesting way to work with a sub-plot. Probably depends a lot on the POV (1st-person, third-person all-knowing, etc.).

    I can see situations in which the environment actually changes (PP1) and the protagonist doesn’t really know it. Congress does this all the time by passing far-reaching laws which affect a lot of our lives. We, the “ordinary characters/citizens” don’t realize the consequences until much later, and often don’t even know the law was put into force.

    The stakes actually do change whether or not the protagonist knows they have.

    The key is that the reader has to know. We (the reader) knows the monster is lurking in the basement, yet the protagonist doesn’t know. She still investigates the noise in a diaphanous nighty and with a candle. “Didn’t know the gun was loaded” applies.

    PP1 needs to be exactly where it belongs so the reader knows things have changed. If the protagonist doesn’t really know, he may have to start reacting to unknown circumstances. Part of the response needs to be him figuring out what’s really going on so the MidPoint shift to attack works.

  9. Reminds me of Who is Harry Crumb and the Pink Panter Movies.

  10. Monica

    Thanks for this, Larry. I’ve had the same question bounce around my head a number of times. Good to know.

    Maybe after FFP, you can talk a little about Midpoint? A few examples maybe? My MP is sucking wind big time. Just in case you’re taking requests. 😉

  11. Well what about a misleading PP1? The hero thinks X just happened but we all know that Y just happened. Hero sets off into response to X mode and we shudder, knowing that Y is going to come and kick his silly arse to Tuesday.

  12. This is so interesting that it makes me want to try it. If I wasn’t knee deep in editing and writing already I think I would.

    I’m glad you worked through this because my first reaction would have been a clear-cut no.

    But then…isn’t a story like A Beautiful Mind an example of something like this? Or..then again…maybe not…. maybe it further confuses the issue.
    The hero and the audience wasn’t let in on the real story for quite some time. Hmmm. Back to coffee.

  13. yvette davis

    Wendi, Your reply reminded me of something. I’ve never seen A Beautiful Mind (gasp! I know!) but what about the Diving Bell and the Butterfly? What if the first plot point – the game changer – is something that the protag can do absolutely nothing about?

  14. Monica Rodriguez

    So, don’t know if anyone sees comments from earlier posts, so here’s to finding out.

    I’m reading Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. First time reading it. Haven’t seen the movie. Don’t know the plot or the end.

    I now mark off the pages where a Plot Point should happen when I start a new book – to see if it follows the structure. I was really stumped w/ Salem’s Lot’s First Plot Point. (I’m not even half way thru the book, so I’m not looking back w/ hindsight yet.) I thought maybe the FPP was off a little bit, but there was nothing else close enough.
    Something does happen at the Plot Point point. It’s when the son of one of the villagers dies. He’s the brother of the boy who had disappeared only weeks before. It was a very quiet scene. Which is fine. But the protagonist IS NOT aware of the FPP, not aware of his change in mission. And NEITHER IS THE READER – because I’ll be damned if I know what’s going on yet. I can’t see how the boy’s death changes anything. I’m sure it will be shown later to be a harbinger of …everything, perhaps. But where I’m at, coming up at the First Pinch Point spot, I’ve got nothing.

    So, is this a rare example of a FPP that happens w/o the reader OR protagonist’s knowledge?

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