Quick opening comments:
Today’s entry in the series covers what, in my experience, is the most commonly misunderstood, fumbled or ignored principle in long-form storytelling.
Even proven published professionals get this wrong, even though they may DO it right (or close to right) in their work… because their story instinct pushes them to execute this story milestone in roughly (that’s all you need, to come close) the right place and in the right way, but they don’t have a name for it or realize what they’ve done. (Interestingly, working professionals don’t, as a rule, study craft, so this fresh take on story structure may elude them.)
This is proof of the validity of the mission of the First Plot Point, it is the most important element of the story physics that empower a story to work. And, almost without exception, you must get this right. Without the awareness that today’s post imparts, it may take you many drafts and much pain to get there… better to shoot for it from the starting gate, even if you’re a panster.
Pansters and planners alike share the same goal: to pants or plan the highest level of story execution possible, as early as possible.
Also, if you’ve been following my continuing efforts to make you aware of a massively career-changing working coming up in April, please click (or re-click) the links below, because the price for this has been massively reduced. Jennifer Blanchard, with whom I am sharing the podium for this (equally, we’ll both be holding microphones for the entire four days) is The Up and Coming story guru in the business, so this will truly be an elevator ride to an empowered level of craft for everyone in the room.
One other note: the post just prior to this one – an interview with author Carrie Rubin – is garnering a lot of attention (the most reader comments here in years). The reason is the author’s depth of thematic passion for her work, and her credibility as both an author and a working physician, someone who discovered the power of craft and experienced the bliss of her work going ballistic almost immediately. And, she’s one of the coolest people I’ve met in this business.
On to today’s installment…
Part 5 —
The First Plot Point: Welcome to the Most Important Moment In Your Story
It’s called The First Plot Point, and it is not only essential, it is inevitable. As such, it requires careful and enlightened placement within the sequence of your story, at a location that is as non-negotiable as it is essential.
Why? Because every story requires several key essences and contexts, and all of those are launched and driven by this single story milestone. Your hero has something to do, a problem to solve, a danger to flee or an opportunity to pursue (sometimes all three at once). In the first quarter of your story (roughly), if you’ve done it right, you’ve set up all the dominos that will give this hero’s quest stakes, risk and meaning.
But – also if you’ve done it right – you haven’t yet fully launched the hero down that new and/or twisted path of pursuit and reaction. The First Plot Point is the moment that happens, thus defining the core dramatic story and arc itself, actually launching it fully into play.
If you’d like to see this in action, watch a few movie previews (which you can get in abundance on Youtube, or, there is an entire network with nothing other than previews available on all smart TVs). Without exception, you will see two things in these valuable (as a learning tool) two minutes of preview action: how the story is setup (which is the content of the first quartile), and then, a dark and/or extreme moment at which newly visible danger and risk and darkness changes everything, thrusting the hero down the path of the story’s core dramatic exposition.
That is the story’s First Plot Point.
You can’t miss it. If you do miss it, then seek to immerse yourself in a study of this essential story milestone, which every person writing about storytelling (including myself, on my website: Storyfix.com) describes under a variety of names (like, “the doorway of no return” from my friend James Scott Bell… it’s the same thing exactly).
As for location, the optimal place for the First Plot Point in a story is within the 20th to 25th percentile range relative to total length (either via page count or word count). If you launch it too soon you may not have given enough focus on the story’s setup (thus compromising reader empathy for your hero, as well as short-changing the establishment of stakes), and if you do it too late your story risks reader impatience with a narrative that is taking to look to get off the ground.
And if you’ve written an entire draft and realize your FPP doesn’t land within that range, it’s a deadly mistake to say, “well, that’s how to goes, there are no rules, this is my story…”, when a revision to push it back to that placement will, almost without fail, make your story better.
If this sounds formulaic, it’s not.
Not even close. Gravity is not formula, nor is it a choice. The sidelines in football game is not formula, it just is. The cooking time of a turkey is not formula, it simply dictates whether the end product is edible or not.
All of this – story included – is simple the physics of what works and what doesn’t. It’s natural law. It’s proven human experience. It just is.
Every story that works becomes an example of the mission and placement of the First Plot Point itself, even if the author denies any knowledge of it. Because that placement is the very embodiment of story sensibility, often the product of feedback (like, “your story takes too long to get going”) that leads to a more optimal placement and expositional-content of the FPP.
You can cut years off your learning curve by mastering this one element of structure.
Because to gain that mastery, you’ll also need a firm command of dramatic theory and character arc, the two pillars of story in the first place. And when you get there, you’ll be in command of a collective awareness that exceeds the sum of their separate parts… every time.
Join me and story coach Jennifer Blanchard in Portland April 3 through 7, for a deep dive into the full realm of story craft – definitions and criteria included – covering this and many more elements and essences of a successful story… a story so powerful it’s almost as if it’s on steroids… all presented in context to your writing process, whatever that might be.