Monster post today. Set aside a couple extra minutes to soak this one up.
I’ve heard from several readers on this sticky little issue. Some quote books and workshop gurus who say you should present something early-on in a story to grab the reader. To get the story moving quickly.
In doing so, they seem to be challenging the notion of the location and even the viability of the First Plot Plot. Or at least, seeking clarification. Fair enough.
Let me say at the outset — I couldn’t agree more. The sooner you grab your reader, and the more firm that grip, the better. This goes for all genres, and happens in all sorts of ways.
Now let me say this — if you’re one of those challengers, then perhaps you don’t understand the nature and mission of the First Plot Point. Because that early grip on the reader’s throat — or if you prefer, their mind and heart, or perhaps some other body part — isn’t at all a contradictory principle.
What you’re talking about is called a hook.
And it’s a completely different, separate and narratively unique animal altogether.
At the end of this post I’ll give you a link to an opening chapter that buries a narrative hook deep and hard. And because it happens on Page 4, it cannot be confused with a First Plot Point in any way.
At least if you know the difference.
For now, though, allow me to continue to differentiate.
The First Plot Point is not totally dependent on what happens before it arrives (meaning it can come out of the blue… or not), other than the foreshadowing and ramp-up you give it. In other words, you can put all the hooks, twists, surprises and stakes-defining moments into the first quarter of your story that you possibly can, that you could possibly desire, and it still wouldn’t change the placement, nature and mission of the First Plot Point.
A great hook also doesn’t excuse the omission of a First Plot Point. If you omit that milestone you are committing a fatal storytelling error, even if your plot twist on Page 14 was the most dramatic thing to happen in a story since Titanic hit the iceberg.
The hook is a promising first date. The First Plot Point is the wedding.
The rest of story is what happens after that.
The First Plot Point is like a 21st birthday.
Doesn’t matter how many birthdays came before. It changes everything. It is a transition. Because it means new things are possible.
To take that deeper, imagine that you are graduating from college on your 21st birthday, the metaphoric equivalent of a First Plot Point. Your college experience — indeed, all your scholastic and even life experiences thus far — have been leading up to this point. On this day you make a shift from student to a full-fledged adult. Your goals change. Your future shifts, along with your priorities, stakes and the nature of your life’s path.
Your life begins now. Who you are, what you bring to it, was the opening act of your life. Not the story of your life.
No matter how many times you were surprised, knocked to the ground, failed, embraced, laid or otherwise led to change your mind in all those years leading up to this day. Doesn’t matter. It’s all been a set-up for what happens now.
It could be said that your life, your real life as a functional adult and citizen, actually and officially begins on the day you turn 21. (If you’re looking for a way to defy this analogy — hey, it happens — “21” in this context can mean the day you move out, the day you get married, the day you go into or get out of the military… or some other transition between child and adult. Just trying to pound home a point… go with me on this.)
If you declared your intention to go to medical school at age five, for example, that may be a hook, an unexpected plot twist, it may indeed change the course of your childhood… but it doesn’t change the timing, impact, implication and transition that occurs when you turn 21. The real story remains to be written… and read.
Your story turns a corner at the First Plot Point. The road it heads down is the spine of the story you set out to tell.
Which is why, if you don’t know that intention when you begin a draft — any draft — you’ll never really get there… or anywhere. You have to know what you’re setting up — the FPP and what follows it — before you can do so successfully.
Examples please, she said.
In Nelson Demille’s 2004 bestseller Night Fall — the first book to knock The DaVinci Code out of the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list, albeit for just a week — the reader sees a hook in the first few pages. Two couples are making love on the beach on Long Island. They are videotaping it. In the background, out over the water, they notice something unusual. A streak of light zooms up from the horizon. Then, moments later, a huge fiery explosion occurs.
The next day the world knows that TWA Flight 800 exploded 12 minutes after taking off from JFK. But, in this fiction at least, the world has no idea the whole thing had been caught on tape.
This is a hook. A plot twist, if you will. But it’s not the First Plot Point, in the official-milestone sense, in this story.
Does it begin the action early? Does it launch the story? Does it provide stakes?
Yes, yes and yes. But does that make a First Plot Point? No. If nothing else, because of where it appears. And because, at that point, it really doesn’t mean all that it needs to mean to launch a story. It simply happens.
You can’t mess with where a First Plot Point appears in your story. Sorry if that offends your artistic sensibilities, but if you want to publish commercially-viable novels and screenplays, you need to adhere to commercially-viable standards, principles and expectations.
It’s critical to be clear on the nature, mission and placement of your First Plot Point, and its relationship to however you’ve attempted to impart a hook early-on. Because no matter how you’ve done so, or how well, you still need a well-thought-out First Plot Point to appear at about the 20th to 25th percentile of your story.
Or, you can send your kid to med school at age five. Good luck with that.
In the fundamentals of story structure, this is non-negotiable.
Because, for the most part, the First Plot Point is the most important moment in your entire novel or screenplay.
The key to understanding this is realizing that it is the mission of the First Plot Point that separates it from simply being just another plot twist.
Write this down: The First Plot point, which may or may not have been foreshadowed in previous pages, and may have even begun to appear in some form or fractional proportion, is the moment when the hero’s near-term priorities and goals change, either in the form or a need or a desire — such as survival, understanding, truth, justice, love, health… a long list of near-term goals — and it includes the presence or implication of an antagonistic force that seeks to oppose that journey.
This definition is, in fact, what your story is all about. It’s not about what happened, as a primary thrust, before this point, because everything that happens before the FPP by definition appears for the purpose of setting-up this transitional moment.
The moment works in a dramatic sense precisely because you have set it up.
In Night Fall, the First Plot Point is when someone comes forward to try to stop the hero from discovering the content and location of the video showing that the airliner was blown out of the sky. Everything about the hero’s quest changes at that point, it has stakes and purpose, and we understand that there is now an antagonist involved with goals that are contrary to those of the hero.
To see this in play, rent virtually any DVD. Something big happens — or not; not all stories have hooks — in the first ten minutes. That’s a hook, if it’s there at all. Then, with the criteria for the FPP in mind, begin looking for something to change at about the 20th percentile mark. A new wrinkle. A plot twist, but one with meaning.
Something that either initially or further defines the hero’s journey going forward, something that changes the hero’s life and path, gives it meaning, gives it stakes, and does so in context to the presence — for the first really understandable time in the story — of an antagonistic force. Or for lack of a better generic term, a bad guy.
Watch Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Fox.
About 12 minutes in, a recently dead body will fall onto hero Fox’s taxi. Everything changes, drastically and certainly.
But it’s not the First Plot Point Point. It’s a late hook, perhaps, and it’s absolutely a plot twist. One that looks and smells like it could be a plot point… but it’s too early. And, it doesn’t tell us enough.
Remember, you can stuff all of those moments you want into Part 1 of your story, provided it fits in with the mission of Part 1.
No, the FPP occurs at about the 25 minute mark, right where it should, during a taxi ride. Nothing remotely as dramatic as the falling body. This demonstrats that a FPP doesn’t have to be visually or dramatically huge, it just needs to meet the mission-driven criteria established for it.
The FPP in Collateral occurs when Cruise tells Fox what’s going to happen next, the stakes of Fox doing it well, and the reasons behind it. The dramatic tension changes completely at this point. Fox’s story journey truly, in the biggest and most front-and-center sense, begins at that moment. It’s a course-change from how it changed before, when the body fell and Cruise exposed himself as a bad guy. Fox’s quest and need going forward has only now been fully defined.
Everything prior to that moment has been a set-up for that moment.
To read a killer hook in play in a novel — quickly– click HERE.
That’ll take you to the Amazon.com page for a novel I like a lot (because I wrote it, which means I’m pretty sure about the author’s intentions and strategy where the hook is concerned)… put your cursor over the book cover image at the left… click on “First Pages” in the pop-up window you’ll suddenly see; it’s the middle of three choices there… then you’ll be taken to the first page of a Prologue.
Click forward as you go. It’s only slightly over three pages long, and at the end you’ll be treated to what is precisely intended to be a hook. A killer one at that.
Oh… if you want to see where the FPP in this story is… you could always buy the book and find out. (Insert massive wry grin here… of course I’d like you to buy and read the book, but I’m not holding the the FPP hostage to that, I’ll cover ithere soon — the point today is to know a hook when you see it, and master it when you write one.)