Hook vs. First Plot Point — Don’t Get Fooled

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 more about First Plot Point mission and criteria, click HERE, HERE and HERE.

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.

Read it. 

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.)

37 Comments

Filed under Story Structure Series

37 Responses to Hook vs. First Plot Point — Don’t Get Fooled

  1. “Welcome”

    That was better than any explosion could have achieved. Well done.

  2. You trickster you. 🙂 And, next you will be writing copy telling folks how to get cynical types like me to click HERE now. Go. Read. They won’t understand why I did click HERE . But I did. And, I read.

    And, then bingo. The pay off. The first sentence of the first chapter. “On the first day of the rest of his life, Gabriel Stone wept.”

    You want to tell me writers don’t die every day of their lives they don’t come up with a first sentence like that? I don’t care what the genre. They want the power of that first sentence. You nailed it.

  3. Oh. One more thing. Now you have hooked two of your blog readers into creating curiosity for your book. NOW that takes some doing. Ya did it. Congrats. You’ve got us writing copy for you. LOL…

  4. Had I read this post prior to April 1st it would have made good sense. It would not have shown me the whole picture. April 1st I bought your book, “Story Structure – Demystified”. I was blown away. My ducks were at last, in a row. Previously they were scattered from hell to breakfast. The day, moment if you will, a Writer says, “Now I get it,” is one they never forget. I am writing with enthusiasm, desire, and structure. Thanks for the post, your book, and my moment. David M

  5. Hey, great article, but I disagree on one thing. That the first plot point should always be 20-25% into the novel. Not that this number is bad or anything but I feel that a ratio based location is not necessarily a good rule of thumb.

    It works for your average novel that is 3-600 pages but say your writing something much longer. (Which I am sure in itself is another issue that probably should be avoided if possible) If you wait until 25% into the story to provide your first plot point your reader is going to be bored out of his/her mind.

    Instead as a rule of thumb I think it may be better to aim for the first plot point in the first 2-3 hours of reading by the average reader. Which comes out to be about 24,000 to 30,000 words.

    Just my opinion though 😉

  6. Patrick Sullivan

    @Ryan: a) part 1 shouldn’t be so boring they start snoozing.

    b) the longer the rest of the book is, the more is going on, so the more stakes/background you need to set up first. It’d be like only putting a foundation under the first half of the house because “oh hey, it’s 20,000 sq ft, we don’t want to waste time on the foundation for ALLLLLL of the house.”

  7. Steve

    I read this post last night (and the links) and came to the realization that my “hook” might not be good enough. Not after reading the excerpt from “Seventh Thunder.”

    I was never confused about the difference between hook and FPP simply by remembering to ask the question “did everything change?”

    I have a girl that gets hit by a car and gets up and runs away. I have a girl walking seductively down a hallway being “accosted” by an older man. I have a creative exposition of the geography of the story world. Is that “hooky” enough? Is it ok to have several little hooks rather than one big one?

    “Welcome.”

    I agree with Shane here. Kind of a head fake that piqued my interest.

  8. @Steve — I think your three hooks sound great. Plenty to pique the interest there. Hooks are a wild card… something is better than nothing… more is good, unless less is more (your call)… whatever it takes to nail the reader to the page. Sounds like you really get it. Congrats on that, and best of luck.

    @Ryan — in movies that placement of the plot is non-negotiable (before editing; film editors can change the timeline dramatically). With novels, it’s simply good business. The longer your Part 1, the more hooks and twists and context you’ll need. You could even argue for a few plot points… but I maintain that if you’ve done a good job of escalating tension, foreshadowing and characterization through a series of narrative surprises and fascinations, then even in a long book you still will benefit from a true Plot Point.

    When you look at the mission of the plot point, and throw in that it doesn’t preclude a prior plot twist from doing the exact same thing, you can more easily see how important this story milestone is. It’s all soft and mushy, with guidelines and lifelines.

    Hope this helps. L.

  9. Pedro

    I’m ready to go with you on this, but sometimes your arguments are flawed. Take this:

    “But does that make a First Plot Point? No. If nothing else, because of where it appears.”

    Somehow, I think you should give a reason for the FPP to appear at 25%. When you explained what the FPP is, when you gave a definition to it, the place where it appears wasn’t a part of the definition. The FPP is something that changes everything so that the protagonist has a new set of goals whose resolution is what the story is about. You always said it should appear at 25% of the story. But that wasn’t a characteristic inherent to the plot point, but rather, an advice as to where the plot point should go. Therefore, saying that an event is not the plot point just because it doesn’t happen at 25% is not a very convincing argument.

  10. Pedor.

    Larry did give a reason for the placing of the First Plot Point.

    “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. ”

    I translate that: The people who will write you a check for your writing are expecting to see the First Plot Point at that 25% marker. If they don’t, they will assume the work is flawed. It is what commercial publishing wants. They your customer. If we refuse to follow their guidlines for preparing manuscripts plan on a form rejection slip. If you sent an SASE with your manuscript.

  11. @Curtis – thanks for this. Really good writers with really good stories who, in the name or art or lack of clarity or an unwillingness to revise or conform, and who play fast and loose with the principles of story structure (and not just the FPP), comprise that huge demographic of folks who get rejected and — because they write so well — they or those who know and love them can’t figure out why. Often, this is why.

    It’s not unfair, and it’s not clueless editors. It’s a choice writers make.

  12. *Larry. Your welcome.

    I’ve noticed that writers tend to persist from one decade to the next in thinking because they can create a world on the page with a stroke or two of a pen or a few clicks on a key board that they can manage the people who actually publish and sell their writing in the same way. NOT.

    And, what they haven’t figured out.— their refusal to conform as you stated, actually cuts down on the competition. For which I am grateful. 🙂 Sorry. But, it is true.

    It is real simple. If an editor wants a 1200 word article and I send him 2500 words it is not going to be published — Period. I don’t care if it is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Who will know? It will never see the light of day because I got my nose out of joint about the length of the piece. There is no difference with story structure.

    I will say it again. Like it or not, when I write a piece, my customer is the editor. At the point of submission He/She rules. If I don’t want to play that way I need to self publish.

    grace and peace

  13. Very helpful, Larry. And I loved your hook! I think I had a pretty good understanding of the difference between a hook and the FPP, but was having difficulty explaining it to others. Anyway, SSD and your blog are definitely changing how I write. Hopefully for the better! 😉

  14. Pedro

    I think you guys missed my point, probably my fault. Let’s forget for a moment what I said about Larry needing an argument for the FPP to be at 25%. That wasn’t my main point.

    My main point was this: Larry was explaining why a scene in a book by Nelson DeMille was not the FPP. What I meant was that, in order to conclude that this scene was not the FPP, he had to say what feature of the FPP the scene didn’t have. I don’t think it’s right to say that the scene is not the FPP just because it’s not at 25%, because, although the FPP should be at 25%, that doesn’t mean it always is. Indeed, if it always were, there wouldn’t be a need for Larry to tell us where the FPP should go. All stories would automatically have the FPP at 25%. Right?

    Of course, I might have misread the phrase: whereas it says: “But does that make a First Plot Point?”, I read “But does that make *it* a First Plot Point?”. So, maybe Larry was not analyzing whether the scene is the FPP, but was analyzing whether it would make a good FPP.

    I never said Larry was wrong about where the FPP should go. Now, going back to the other point I made: I understand perfectly Larry’s argument that if the FPP is not at 25%, the writer won’t be able to publish his novel. Presumably, this is because only stories that have the FPP in that place work (or, at any rate, most stories that don’t have this structure don’t work). What I say is this: shouldn’t Larry explain why this is so? Or is this just a pattern he found in all stories that work? Still, like I said, this wasn’t my main point.

    Mine was a constructive critique, not a mindless rant. I didn’t even say I disagreed. I just said pointed out what I thought was a flaw in the argumentation.

  15. @Pedro – dude… chill. We’re on the same team here. The point is to explore and debate, and I love the way you’re diving in. If I didn’t make my rationale clear — which obviously I didn’t — that doesn’t change the rationale. But on this issue, it’s like trying to rationalize gravity or taxes. It’s just a fact of life. If you plop your plot point into your story too early, it won’t work well enough to sell.

    You seem to be asking me to defend this truth. I didn’t make it up, and like gravity and taxes, any defense is just rhetoric. Those who don’t buy it, and can even prove they’re right and the rest of the world wrong, are DEAD right. And unpublished.

    The reason the FPP needs to come at about the 20th to 25th percentile is that the first part of the story has several things it needs to accomplish. It’s like foreplay — ask any woman if a guy who skips or shortens or doesn’t excel at foreplay is a good lover. I’m just sayin’.

    You can have all the huge, dramatic plot twists and surprises you want, and they can meet all the criteria of the FPP, but if you short-change the mission of Part 1 and decide to call a 15th percentile twist your plot point, then chances are your Part 1 isn’t deep enough yet.

    This isn’t an exact science. These are principles and guidelines to keep you safe and sane and in the game. You wouldn’t teach your kids to dive into the deep end without knowing how to swim, you’d teach them to do it the RIGHT way. That’s what this is about.

    In “Night Fall,” that huge opening twist absolutely cannot be the FPP, by definition. Which means, one needs to understand that definition well to get this. The centerpiece of that definition is this: the FPP changes, shifts and probably starts the hero’s focus, goals, needs and journey going forward. Doesn’t mean all that hasn’t happened, in addition, earlier in the story (as it does in the film Collateral), but it does mean you need to add to it, shift it and explain it with some new piece of information at a properly placed FPP. In the Demille novel, the hero hadn’t even been introduced in the story yet! So how could anything shift his journey? There was no journey. You can’t change what isn’t yet there.

    Keep digging in this, and try not to worry about who is right and who is wrong here. It just is. Thanks for engaging. I value your input and participation.

  16. Pedro

    “In the Demille novel, the hero hadn’t even been introduced in the story yet! So how could anything shift his journey? There was no journey. You can’t change what isn’t yet there.”

    That’s what I thought too (though I didn’t read the novel, so I could only guess the hero hadn’t appeared). That’s the kind of argument I was asking for.

  17. Hi Larry,
    I try NOT to read thrillers at night simply because good “psycho” writing keeps me awake. (I often have wondered how creepy Stephen King or Dean Koontz must be, lol.) So, I almost thought that your website wouldn’t have an affect on my writing, (or an effect on me either), because you write Thrillers. How short-sighted of me!
    Of course I can’t wait to get my hands on Whispers of The 7th Thunder, (and …SS Demystiified) either.
    I just wanted to say thanks here. Your in-depth explanations of story architecture have provided timely encouragement (what a relief to find that I’m doing the right things as I go about my own writing -but it has been like writing in the dark for 10 years)!! I knew there was more… it never crossed my mind in a way I could ask questions about or do a ‘Google’ search on. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for sharing your insights, and encouraging strangers like me.
    If I end up published, you’ll be the one writer mentioned in the credits.
    ~Laureli

  18. @Laureli — thanks so much for your very kind words here… you’ve totally made my day, and I’m delighted you’re getting so much out of my small contributions here.

    May you become ridiculously successful!

  19. Hey, just found your site througha link at the Witer’s Hole blog….great post on hook vs. plot point. That can all be so confusing. You spelling it out great and I feel like I learned a lot.

    Thanks!

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  24. I learned about your website from my daughter, who is following up on your deconstruction of The Help on her website, http://www.ladymyerswordsmithing.com. I ended up buying your book Story Engineering.

    I’m not out to write a great book, just to help my nephew write a good story. (He’s 21 and has autism). He has many wonderful ideas, and I’m trying to help him organize them into a logical order. I skipped over to your chapter on Story Structure, and have already been able to figure out his hook, and have a good idea of what his FPP should be.

    He’s just writing for himself and his family, but it will be nice to have a story that has some structure underneath his architecture (which he’s pretty good at).

    Thanks for making this so clear!

  25. Sean

    Speaking of hooks, you mention grabbing the reader with a hook in the first 20 pages. Shouldn’t the hook be on first page? For example, I can’t imagine a hook being on page 19. What about the previous 18 pages? How do you get and keep the reader interested if the hook doesn’t appear until page 19. I’m not sure I understand or if I’m just making it more complex than it really is.

  26. @Sean — I think it’s tough to set a deep hook on page one. I do think you can “grab” a reader there (perhaps only a subtle difference) through the power of voice or the quick presence of a killer idea, but a true hook requires some set-up of a circumstance that attaches stakes and some initial character empathy, all of which take a few pages. A grab and a hook both, that’s a great target.

    Take a look at your favorite thrillers and mysteries (where hooks are most evident), I’m betting you’ll see that there is indeed a grab and then, a bit later (but not that much later), the hook is set, the moment when there’s no turning back for the reader, they HAVE to see how this will turn out. Hope this helps clarify, or at least present some options. L.

  27. Sean

    I always thought the “grab” was the hook. So that helps a lot. Thanks for the clarification. Appreciate it.

  28. Adam

    Hi Larry,

    I have a feeling I already know the answer to this question, but does a prologue affect the position of the FPP?

    A prologue often seems like an intentional hook to me. It’s placed there to give a quick glimpse of the exciting implications of the story you have created. Then, presumably, the “real” story begins with Chapter 1.

    I haven’t read Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, but I’ll use your prologue as an example. The prologue gives us a glimpse at the stakes, but it focuses on a character named Mordecai. The first chapter then shifts to Gabriel Stone. I’m willing to guess that the story is really about Gabriel and not so much about Mordecai. Does the FPP come 25% into the book if you’re counting from page 1, or does it come 25% into the book if you’re counting from the beginning of Chapter 1–when the development of your main character actually begins?

  29. Brianna

    Wow! what an insightful article. This was certainly the FPP in my journey as a writer. I’ve been writing my first novel, and several chapters in, have been slightly distressed as to where to place what and where to go from here (though I do have tons of scenes plotted out) This article was like an absolute lightbulb, as it is now crystal clear to me which event is my FPP and where exactly it should go. Thanks so much for this fantastic blog! (I’ll porbably have to buy Whisper of a Seventh Thunder now) 🙂

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  34. Toby

    You may as well write a historical chronology without the fpp. I know that Tolkein did without one, for example Tolkein’s creation story in the Silmarillion.

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