Or… “How To Give Your Story a Better Middle”
Get ready to go deep.
This story structure stuff is hard. It’s also the key to getting your story published. So we must accept hard, and step into it with keen hunger for a competitive edge.
Hard, because it’s like throwing a ball or singing a song. Anybody can do it. Few do it well enough to get paid for it.
Hard, because the difference between good and great is a mushy, less than precise pair of variables called context and nuance.
Context… being one of the most layered, complex and empowering of all the tools in the writer’s quiver. Nuance… being an evolved sensibility that is the outcome of combining those basics with that context.
A mouthful, granted… but work with it. Because the key to everything is in there.
Today I had the opportunity to go deep into this issue – both context and nuance – with one of my story coaching clients. I’d analyzed his story plan, and my feedback landed on his Part 2 quartile (which follows the all-important First Plot Point, leading up to the story’s Mid-Point), telling him it felt flat and contextually off.
He wrote back stating (I paraphrase): “But Larry, in your book you say that Part 2 is when the hero should be RESPONDING to something. And that the First Plot Point CHANGES the story. My story does that. He responds to that change in the story. So I’m confused… can you explain?”
In that explanation I realized how important this particular issue is. Because at a glance, they are one thing – the story changes, the hero responds – but under the harsh light of analysis, and in the hands of a master storyteller, there is so much more to it. More enough to be something else entirely.
In short… if your First Plot Point is off, your Part 2 doesn’t stand a chance. Which is why – I say again – that FPP is the most important moment in your story.
Here’s the easy – the surface – interpretation:
The First Plot Point does indeed change the story. It launches the core story spine, in that it initiates the hero’s story-quest (key nuance here: story-quest is different than life-quest), by igniting or shifting the hero’s current life plan and direction, giving her/him a problem to solve, a goal to strive for, a quest to embark upon, a battle to fight, or whatever twist on these notions fits your story.
Getting a new job changes your life. But only when you realize that you must change to keep the job does that shift ignite a near-term story-quest. A subtle but critical differentiation. The latter launches a journey. A story. The former only serves to set-up that journey. A non-writer might shrug and call that semantics… but as a writer, you need to know and command the context and nuance of that differentiation.
The contextual mission of your Part 2 scenes is to show what your hero does next. How she/he RESPONDS to this new direction, this sudden or shifted quest. RESPONSE is the target context of your Part 2 scenes. Your hero becomes, in essence, a wanderer (drifting through choices and options)… a victim (they can’t yet fight back with any success)… a flailing and desperate example of prey (things just keep getting worse for them).
Here’s the scary part: You can get all that right… and still end up with a story that doesn’t work. What’s next explains why. And it has everything to do with the nature of, and the relationship between, the First Plot Point and the Part 2 scenes that follow it.
Get the first one wrong, and the other is stranded without a compass.
What will make the First Plot Point work:
If your First Plot Point changes the story (which it should), even significantly, but does not launch your hero down a new or shifted path, facing a problem or the pursuit of a goal, with obstacles and antagonism in play, and clear stakes hanging in the balance… if those requisite pieces aren’t there, then chances are your “Big Story Change Moment” was really an Inciting Incident.
And if that happens, your Part 2 scenes are screwed.
Because the primary contextual mission of the First Plot Point is to imbue the story with those newly ignited layers: problem, goal, quest, opposition, stakes and a narrative journey that combines them into a dramatic sequence.
This can be tough to nail down. It demands that the author know what the CORE STORY is, and that right there at the FPP is where THAT is launched.
An example: the core story is about a man whose wife and children have been kidnapped. Our hero is instructed to rob his own bank, where is the branch manager, and bring back the money without alerting the authorities, or bad things will happen. A thriller. With a problem, a goal, opposition, and something for the hero to DO about it.
But… the core story isn’t the kidnapping. The core story here is how he responds to the journey placed before him – robbing his bank, keeping the kidnapper from doing bad things, and to create an outcome from all that.
The kidnapping, as huge a change as it represents, isn’t the First Plot Point here. Because it has no story-defining meaning yet. The hero has no idea what he must do… which IS the core story.
It’s an easy mistake to make: have the kidnapping BE the FPP. But if the First Plot Point was simply to show the family kidnapping… yes, that may technically change the story… how can the hero react fully to just that? No story is on the table yet. If you made that mistake, you would find yourself continuing to set-up this story well into Part 2, resulting in a flawed, unbalanced structure that takes too long to find its wings and its pace.
The kidnapping here is an Inciting Incident, a key part of the setup of the story (meaning, it should be prior to the FPP in the latter stages of Part 1).
The optimal First Plot Point, then, should be the moment when his story-mission, his new quest, his highest level of problem, the newly hatched goal… when all of that hits the page, then that is the FPP. Appearing after the kidnapping/Inciting Incident. That is what launches the core story, and thus, is the FPP in this story.
Why is this important? Because the placement of the FPP is critical. Too early and the setup is thin. Too late and the story launches too late. The FPP has a target optimal location: the 20th to 25th percentile. If you select the wrong story beat for your FPP, then the better/best FPP will be in the wrong place.
Which can kill the whole thing in the eyes of an agent or a publisher. They won’t tell you: “Sorry, your first plot point is off target” – they don’t think that way, even though you need to – but they will say, “things got slow, it takes too long for anything to happen, the story is too internal for too long, not thrilling enough.”
Bottom line: It’s easy to insert what is actually an Inciting Incident at the intersection of Parts 1 and 2, simply because the story changes, and call it your FPP. But in that instance, your FPP won’t be good enough. Change, without core-story-launching meaning, isn’t enough to fulfill the mission of the FPP.
What will make your Part 2 scenes work:
Two things: First, a properly empowered First Plot Point. Because that defines everything that happens in Part 2. Get the FPP wrong, your Part 2 scenes won’t be what they should be. Then, be careful how you define and implement the contextual mission of your Part 2 scenes, relative to the mission of RESPONSE. This is where nuance comes into play.
There is passive response… and there is active response. The first is usually mistake, at least if it lasts too long… the second is what jacks up the tension and pace of your story.
I see this one a lot in my story coaching work. A First Plot Point is in place. Maybe it’s solid, maybe it’s more of an Inciting Incident. Either way, too often I see a protagonist who, in the intended context of responding in Part 2, simply does nothing at all.
The story has indeed changed. Which means the hero’s situation and experience of each ensuing moment has changed with it. If your hero sits there and simple notices it all… that’s not a good Part 2.
The mistake here is to simply show/describe the new story world, the new environment, the sudden change in the hero’s near-term life… all that the hero now exists within… without having the hero DO anything as part of her/his response to it.
Example: our bank manager gets the news about having to rob his bank in order to save his family. He goes to work, is quiet that day. Can’t call the cops. Can’t say anything. Can’t get any work done.
We see that situation and this dark new environment… scene after scene.
And nothing happens. The guy DOES nothing. He’s frozen with fear.
It’s even worse if the author made the mistake of having the FPP be the kidnapping, without the ensuing instructions for the hero. Part 2 then becomes an extension of the Part 1 setup, causing the core story to delay in its launch… which is bad.
The author thinks – because they understand the contextual mission of Part 2 only at a surface level – that the hero shouldn’t really do anything. So we get 10 to 15 scenes where his fear and his helplessness is front and center… but nothing happens.
Fleeing is doing. Swinging back is doing. Begging for your life is doing. Going to the cops is doing. But thinking about it all, observing the darkness around you… that’s not doing anything.
You get one or scenes of that at the most before your story suffers for it. Even then, the story has been put on hold. Frozen. The author’s finger is on the Pause button.
A better Part 2 might show a quickly passing period of this frozen shock and awe, but then the hero must RESPOND to his new situation. He must DO something. And because this is only Part 2, where he shouldn’t yet be overtly heroic or successful in what he tries, these well-intended actions and decisions don’t work. Even running away – which is doing something – doesn’t solve anything.
The hero’s moves in an effective Part 2 should serve to deepen and complicate the problem.
Because while it’s true that in Part 2 the hero is RESPONDING and REACTING… it’s also true – here’s the empowering part – that the TENSION and PACE of the story should be INCREASING here… things are getting more dire, more urgent, more complex… through the sequence of these Part 2 scenes.
Again, none of this works if the First Plot Point itself isn’t sufficiently expositional and clearly the launch of a quest for the hero. If all it does is change the story. If the FPP isn’t strong, the hero is responding to things that are actually still part of the story’s setup context… meaning your core story won’t launch until the Mid-Point arrives… which is WAAAYYY too late.
From the 101 to the 404
There it is. The 101 class introduces you to the First Plot Point and the contextual mission of all four parts of your story. But what seems obvious and easy here… isn’t. There is much more depth and layering to both of those definitions.
The 404, where the professional author must operate, is all about a deeper context and nuance. The hero faces a newly shifted near-term story-journey… a problem or a goal has been put into play, even if not yet fully defined… a pathway opens up, sometimes forced upon the hero… there are obstacles in the way and a lurking, manipulating antagonist with opposing goals and a selfish moral compass… and there significant stakes hanging in the balance.
What the hero DOES will define the consequences for both she/he and the antagonist blocking their path toward the goal.
These are the tools. The sensibilities. The 404.
The outcome of the work they do are what makes a story powerful… or not. They shape the story physics that will result in a desired reader response: a compelling premise… dramatic tension… optimal pacing… empathy for the hero that results in rooting for the hero… a vicarious experience for the reader… and a narrative strategy that puts in all into play with – wait for it – empowered context and artful nuance.
Need a little more 101 before this 404 level of execution works for you? Check out my book, “Story Engineering,” and my new book, “Story Physics” (June 2013). Or feel free to use the Search function at the right of this column.
For $35 — “The Conceptual Kick-Start Story Analysis.” Make sure your Square One opens the right doors to the potential for powerful story physics.
For $100 — “The Amazing $100 Story Coaching and Empowerment Experience.” The highest value story feedback opportunity… ever.
For $400 — NEW: The First Quartile Analysis program (your Part 1, up through your First Plot Point… 100 pages maximum, same basic Questionnaire format used in the $100 level analysis, applied to your executed Part 1 scenes). Those first 100 pages are the most critical in your story… get this right and the rest will be empowered to work.
For $1500)… I will do a Full Manuscript analysis of your novel or screenplay, with in-depth feedback against a 12-point criteria-based framework (the Six Core Competencies, and the Six Realms of Story Physics).
Use Paypal to get started (payee: firstname.lastname@example.org, or email me if you’d like an invoice first (which doesn’t require a Paypal account and will enable your credit card for payment).