“Side Effects” (deconstruction #4) – The Debatable First Plot Point

(NOTE: this post is loaded with links that will take you back to basic introductions to the story structure concepts being referenced here… I encourage you to go there if you’re new to, or foggy about, any of these terms.)

Relative to my last post, my wife said, “You sound like a whiny little bitch.”

Some of you may have thought the same thing with regard to my announcing that the “Side Effects” deconstruction is over.

Okay, she didn’t say that… but I realized that’s how I may have sounded.  But the blow-back was clear, and on two fronts — you really did appreciate this (a Sally Fields moment for me), and, you want more.

With the Beat Sheet (scene log) and the summary of the story milestones up and available,  the structural stuff about this story has been covered.  But just as valuable is a discussion of some of the finer points of the story, especially when they translate to an upward view of the learning curve.  So I’m delighted to continue on that track, intermittently with posts on other stuff, over the next couple of weeks.

The finer points are what separates the published from the unpublished, so this is where the gold is.

The movie (“Side Effects”) is still out there.  I encourage you to see it, and warn you that after reading this deconstruction you’ll want to see it again.

The FPP in “Side Effects”

Some stories give us a First Plot Point that is as obvious as spotting an NBA center at a convention of jockeys.  But when a story is peppered with Part 1 Inciting Incidents (“Side Effects” has two, possibly three, depending on what you are about to read), and when the agenda of the story is mischievous and cloaked in stealth (totally the case in “Side Effects”), the FPP can be slippery.

Which is perfectly okay.  Brilliant, even.

This film has a highly debatable First Plot Point (the link here is different than the one above), in terms of what story beat represents it, and where it falls.  In my deconstruction I suggested that the FPP was when Dr. Banks prescribes Albixa to Emily (the anti-depressant drug that becomes the McGuffin of this story), thus lighting the fuse on the whole caper.  He’s been manipulated into doing so, and thus it represents the transition from setup to response.

Debate potentially enters the conversation, though, when you look at what I have already labeled as the first Pinch Point — when Emily stabs her husband to death.  Clearly this is the more dramatic story beat, certainly one that changes the story for the hero (Banks) in a more visible and actionable way than does the Ablixa prescription moment (my FPP nomination) described above.

Compounding this potential confusion is the location of this murderous moment within the story.  The optimal position of the First Pinch Point is the 3/8ths mark (37.5 percent in, squarely in the middle of Part 2).  In “Side Effects,” it happens at the 33rd percentile point.

Which is early.  In this case, perhaps confusingly so.

Which poses the question… is the husband’s murder an early Pinch Point, or a late FPP?

Could be either, and by either standard, since it actually does fit the definition of both milestones.

If the murder is the FPP, then the earlier prescription of Ablixa (which also fits within the classic definition for the FPP) becomes another (the third) Inciting Incident.  Given that (per definition) the “quest” launched by the FPP is that of the hero, and that the earlier (by about ten minutes) Alibxa prescription moment doesn’t visibly begin the hero’s quest in terms of his own awareness (in fact, we don’t even realize that was a potential FPP until later)… gray is cast on which point it was.

Certainly, the husband’s murder fills the FPP bill (as well as the Pinch Point criteria), other than its location (it’s quite late for an FPP, even in a film; a book FPP target is optimally at 20 percent, in a film it’s 25%).  It visibly launches Banks’ problem and the quest that springs from it (classic FPP criteria), it is defined by the conflict it injects into the story (ditto), and it clearly separates a Part 1 setup context from a Part 2 response context.

Just as clearly, in this story, it does everything a Pinch Point is designed to do.

It can’t be both.  A story needs both… and they are always separate story beats.

So which is it?  What’s the point of this discussion?

My answer: it doesn’t matter.

Until Scott Z. Burns weighs in on this, we’ll never really know what he intended in this regard.

Which is my point: we may not ever really know, the audience won’t care from a technical point of view… but THE WRITER MUST KNOW.

The writer needs to be clear on this.  Because success — the optimizing of story physics — depends on a clear contextual shift from Part 1 (setup) and Part 2 (response), with the FPP — like a 21st birthday separating adolescence from adulthood — being that story-changing milestone.

We can be sure Scott Z. Burns was clear… even if we’re not.  Even if he gave us a handful of killer Inciting Incidents that may or may not muddy the water in this story.  The muddiness is by design… it is the narrative strategy (one of the six key realms of story physics) of this film.

And that is the other tasty morsel of learning here.  

As writers we have options.  We always have the latitude, freedom and creative leeway to do it however we want.

Up to and including self destruction, if we don’t understand these structural/contextual principles and apply them purposefully and strategically.


Need more basics? Use the SEARCH FUNCTION to the right, enter “First Plot Point” to link to over 100 posts that cover this and related topics (including those linked within this post).  The further back into the archive you go, the more basic and introductory these discussions will be.

Or you could just buy my book, “Story Engineering,” which covers story structure in depth, as well as the other five of the Six Core Competencies of storytelling.


Filed under Side Effects Deconstruction

54 Responses to “Side Effects” (deconstruction #4) – The Debatable First Plot Point

  1. Sara Davies

    I’m going to continue to be a pain in the ass here and ask:

    IF the FPP can be any one of a number of possible turning points, why choose one over another? What makes that a strategic decision (especially if the audience can’t tell the difference)? Strategic in relation to what? The resolution? How would the choice affect the writer’s decisions from then on?Sorry.

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t think it came across as bitchy or whiny to ask why zero response to the beat sheet post. You obviously invested a huge amount of work in it. Seemed like a valid, reasonable, and constructive question (in my rarely humble or solicited opinion).

  2. Robert Jones

    Thank you for continuing this deconstruction, Larry. Even if you have other postings in between 🙂

    I need to scrutinize your scene log more fully, but I’m going with your first assessment of the prescription being given as the intended FPP. I think your first impression holds true because everything after that is a reaction to the drug. Emily’s devious waiting for the drug to build within her system, the fierce sex, all of which are in response to receiving the prescription.

    Yes, the murder brings on a stronger response, but a continued response nonetheless. And a stronger response would be exactly what is implied after any pinch-point that the main character is aware of–even if that character is faking it and not who she is purporting herself to be.

    The only other explanation is that the writer intentionally placed all of those inciting incidents in the set-up to keep the audience interested because he knew the FPP (in this case the murder) would be running a bit late. And whereas, that might be an interesting way of building/keeping interest up to a late FPP, I just don’t like that explanation here. It doesn’t fit as well with the criteria, or the timing of the scenes that portray a response.

  3. @Sara – let me clarify, the FPP is NOT just any ol’ plot twist. It has SPECIFIC things it needs to accomplish (and in the case of this story, there are TWO points that indeed do them both, and well), so we can’t compromise on function. Not to say OTHER story beats don’t also do those things…but the one that appears AT THE RIGHT PLACE (the 20 percent target shift, and the one that shifts the story from SETUP into RESPONSE… THAT is the real FPP. The one the author needs to understand.

    The only confusion would be on the part of the reader, because so many intense story beats are unfolding in a short period of time. But the reader will never care what it’s called… and frankly the writer doesn’t either, other than a label… what the writer NEEDS to care about is DOING THE RIGHT THING TO THE STORY AT THE RIGHT PLACE… and that is the FPP. Hope this clarifies. L.

  4. Sara Davies

    I think Robert makes a good argument…but why isn’t the first plot point when Emily meets Banks for the first time? If that were to occur at the correct point in the story (it doesn’t, but if it did), given that the story is about Banks and not about Emily, couldn’t everything after their meeting be considered his response to her?

  5. @Sara — with regard to Emily meeting Banks for the first time… that’s not even close to fufilling the requirement of the FPP, either in terms of function or placement. I think you need to access these links and go back to square one to understand the CRITERIA for an FPP, how it differs from a hook, how it differs from an inciting incident, and how it differs from a Pinch Point. Until you really get that (and it’s all here, in these links), it’s too easy confuse them all, because they all shift the story, move it forward, they are all important story BEATS. But the FPP has SPECIFIC things it needs to do, even when the others do it in other places, in a different context.

  6. Sandy

    Yippppeeee! Thank you Larry. I’m at work and have not read anything past the first paragraph. But I wanted to comment by saying “Thank You” and look forward to this evening when I can dive in to your latest post.

  7. Jan Kerr

    This is the first time I post Larry & I have purchased your book and look forward to your work….I really want to thank you for continuing the deconstruction of “Side Effects”.

    Thanks so much,

  8. Emilie

    I’m really new to your site. In fact last week was the first time I’d seen it. Just wanted to say that the Side Effects break down looks like it will be extremely interesting and helpful especially for me that I’m studying all of these concepts for the first time. I have avoided everything you’ve written about Side Effects so far because I haven’t seen it and therefore don’t want to know what happens, but I will definitely be looking forward to reading every post once I’ve seen it. For now, I’m looking at everything you wrote about The Help.
    Thank you for doing these posts!

  9. Okay, so you did come across as a little whiny but that’s the pitfall of being a writer. When we don’t feel appreciated we whine, it’s kind of like the next law Newton would have discovered had he lived a little longer.

    Glad to see your wife kicked your butt, we can all use a level headed support system like that.

    Regarding your deconstructions? Consider me one of those people who find them to be invaluable (I still quiver over what you did with Shutter Island.) I print them out. I mark them up. I read and then reread them.

    I have fellow writer and screenwriter friends who I point to this site all the time. I reference your posts and your writing approach on a writer’s blog.

    You’re doing a good thing here Larry.

    I appreciate the work that goes into your posts, I really do. You’ve helped me grow as a writer.

    So now you know.

  10. Lynette Robey

    Thank you Larry for continuing the deconstruction. Now I can breathe again. I have Story Engineering on my Kindle and in paperbackand follow your every word.

  11. nancy


    Thanks for continuing. You had me HOOKED, and I was using this information as a parallel to my project. I needed the rest.
    After your last post, I realized that the discontinuation was all my fault! I didn’t leave a comment. My negligence was the FPP. I commented to everyone else–but, of course, you couldn’t see that. I sent the link to all of the members of my writing group and to others, people on the street, my dog, you name it. I’m sorry they didn’t comment either.
    But thanks to your wife for her intervention. Now I’m off the HOOK.

  12. “the audience won’t care from a technical point of view… but THE WRITER MUST KNOW”

    Aw, keep reminding me of that, eh? I find myself slipping into “viewer” mode as I read, and think I’m supposed to turn into a film analyst. “What if I see the wrong FPP?”

    I’m so early in my study of the craft that just having some awareness of all these possibilities and necessities is powerful.

  13. Oh, and Sara? I’ve started considering your conversations with Larry an expected part of these posts. Keep asking good questions.

  14. Olga Oliver

    Larry, roared with laughing this morning when my eyes revealed that you had a swish of wimpishness. Glad to learn about the three inciting incidents in Side E. before the FPP. Counted those in my WIP. Found four. All are important to the FPP. Think that’s too many?
    A “thank you” is remote and insignificant in giving appreciation for all that you send our way. There is a story hidden in your “giving.” Maybe I’ll learn how to find that story. Bushels of “thank you’s.” Everything is measured in bushels in this part of Texas.

  15. RS

    Just some quick thoughts on a lunch break (and I’m paraphrasing some of Larry’s wisdom here). The writer must know, but what the audience/reader feels is equally important. I watched the movie per Larry’s recommendation, not really knowing much what it was about. Thus, for me, as a viewer, the murder was the FPP; because it was the moment everything changed, that Jude Law was metaphorically, on the run. (It also felt late, by the time the FPP came at 33%, I felt the movie was dragging, which harks back to the importance of FPP placement). Perhaps, the writer intended the prescription of Ablixa to be the FPP, but as a viewer it just seemed like a prescription of another of a long line of medications. It was too subtle for me to “get” (not knowing what the movie was about in advance), and I didn’t feel that everything had changed/Part II reaction phase had launched.

    Thanks for continuing with the Side Effects deconstruction — very helpful. Keep them coming.

  16. Robert Jones

    @Sara–I’ll play. I learn by participating and writing these things out for myself…something I would recommend others give a try. Nothing helps more than being interactive, sort of like class participation. And if you’re afraid of getting it wrong, just read how I came close but missed the boat on narrowing “concept” down to a single sentence. I’m not afraid of being wrong, because that cements the correct answer in my brain even more. Then I just say, “Looks like I blew it there,” and move onward. No saving face required. If I learned something, I’m already better for it. So either way, I’m winning a prize and piling up points.

    On to Sara’s question, which I read as two pronged: Could Emily’s first meeting with Banks act as the FPP if it happened in the right place (percentage-wise), and if not, why?

    I would say no, but that’s a given since Larry already said that above. So let’s dig a little deeper and see if we can determine the “why.” And here we find several things that don’t work. Let’s start by looking at the actions that follow it. Emily has certainly targeted him as the guy she can use to get stronger meds. However, she hasn’t played her situation out yet, proving (be her own actions) that she needs stronger meds. She hasn’t introduced Banks to Dr. Siebert yet either. All of these things still need to be established, and are also scenes that fall under the category of set-up.

    I can hear you asking, “But couldn’t that first meeting with banks still be pushed forward, taking place after all the other set-up scenes and still have it work as a FPP?

    Let’s say that Emily goes forward with her antics, proving she needs stronger meds. She still needs to find a sympathetic doctor to take the fall. She also needs to get Dr. Siebert to recommend the Albixa as something that might solve Emily’s problem. And if Dr. Siebert has that meeting with Banks before Emily gets assigned to him, what reason would she give for seemingly passing a former patient on to Banks? Why not just prescribe the drug herself? Then she would have to take the fall, so it doesn’t work. Dr. Siebert is planning this with Emily. Banks had to be assigned to her seemingly at random so they have their patsy. Then he can check with her former doctors (as is customary) and Siebert’s recommendation of the Albixa comes across very naturally, innocently. So Emily has to meet Banks as part of the set up scenes in order for all this to play out as it did.

    I have checklists I began compiling on FPP, and part one, set-up. I began these when going over various posts prior to purchasing SE and haven’t updated them since, so they are bound to be incomplete. They do encapsulate some of the basics, as well as important things I found up to that point. Others can add to these checklist, but I’ll copy both here to help folks get some of they key points at a glance.

    First Plot Point:

    –Comes at the end of part one of story, between the first 20-25 percentile, or first quartile.

    –It changes the story. In many ways it actually commences the story. Because everything that preceded it, no matter how dramatic, was there to set it up.

    –Everything changes at that moment. The story, one with stakes and conflict, really begins here.

    –The FPP defines–at least for the time being, until something else changes–the impending need, the quest, the journey of the hero, in context to established stakes.

    –It isn’t complete until it also defines, or at least introduces, the obstacles that will stand in the way of that need.

    –All prior scenes exist to set up this moment.

    –It must be what the heart of the story is really all about.

    Some of these things seem a bit repetitious looking back on it, but I copied them out anyway since people need to usually hear the same things said in slightly different ways. These are all direct quotes from previous posts, so to see them in context, you’ll still need to do some research. These were key moments that jumped out at me when I first began this stuff.

    Part one of a novel needs to get across the following:

    –Introduce the hero, expose his, or her, life status and goals and current (pre-plot point) direction, vales, and needs.

    –Establish the dramatic premise, in context to what’s coming.

    –Set a dramatic hook within the first five minutes of film, or 20 pages of a novel.

    –Show us the hero’s inner landscape, including the demons that reside there (fees, phobias, scars of childhood trauma, values, world view, etc.) and how it aligns with their exterior persona.

    –Foreshadow the story to come, including the FPP.

    –Move the audience toward caring about, and rooting for, the hero–even though we aren’t yet sure what’s ahead. It should plant the seeds of a sub-plot and, in so doing, establish a sub-text for the story.

    –Establish, or at least introduce, the stakes of the story.

    –Do what is necessary to set up the FPP–for the characters and for the reader, or viewer.

    Again, some interesting bits, but taken from other posts that explore these issues more fully. If some of these things raised more questions than answers, or you want to read the full articles, cut and paste the key words from these quotes into the search engine where you’ll be both enlightened and inspired 🙂

    Hope this helps. Or at least gives more food for thought.

  17. Morgyn

    Larry, I’ve been mulling over the Second Plot Point in this deconstruction — “But this one, the one that is the Second Plot Point, changes the game from Banks’ POV, creating a new context for his quest… which is the mission of the Second Plot Point.”

    Again, with the context. OK, take a bad thing and make it worse, that I see, but suspect there is yet another layer of understanding to be had from this. ???

  18. @Morgyn — I think the second layer of understand is twofold (for me).

    First, these things (story milestones) are imprecise and a matter of DEGREE. They are like flavor in food, or alcholol content in a drink. A weak margarita and a killer margarita are both still margaritas. When Sara asks (legitmately) if the Emily-Banks initial meeting could have been the FPP, the answer is… yes… it could have.. .but it would have been tepid, because all of the criteria that add STORY PHYSICS to it wouldn’t be in play.

    The other thing to understand is… this is why and how this craft becomes ART itself, the art of storytelling. It’s why we all can’t get published (executing the structure is NOT the benchmark… executing them with high art IS the benchmark. And yet, they are essential, even entry level. That said — like a golf course — they continue to challenge even the most experiencedp professional, every time out. And they don’t win the tournament every time out. Neither do we. So we are left to make our best choices.

    One note about your comment… the discussion here is the WHICH of these story beats is the FIRST plot point… the second one in the sequence, however is NOT the “second plot point,” that happens WAY later in the story, when Banks tricks Emily into helping him frame Siebert.

    Hope this helps.

    @Sara — Robert’s breakdown is stellar.

    @Robert — ditto. Thanks for your take. L.

  19. Sara Davies

    @ Joel – Ha, thanks. I like to think I provide a public service by being willing to make an ass of myself so that others will feel less inhibited about participating. Glad it’s working.

    @ Larry – Thanks, yes, that does help. I went back and looked at your statement of the Side Effects concept and notice that the first plot point (prescription or murder, either way) ties directly into that statement. This leads me to believe that creating a clear and functional statement of concept should generate equal clarity about what a first plot point needs to address.

    It’s tough stuff. I’m not a professional writer. Haven’t even tried to be. I started writing because I wanted to teach. I learn something, I get excited, I want to tell someone – that’s about it. Essays, non-fiction.

    Never tried to write a novel or even much fiction before I got the goofy idea that writing a novel would be a meaningful and enriching way to spend my time. I’m writing a novel for the purpose of learning how to write a novel.

    Sometimes it is depressing and discouraging that there are so many people who want to shoot down beginners – and for what? Even professionals had to learn how to write their own names at some point.

    I greatly appreciate Larry’s patience, generosity, and willingness to share what he knows without being a dick about it. That’s a refreshing and rare quality.

  20. Morgyn

    Only reason I winged the Second Plot Point musing in the middle of this discussion was that the rest of the deconstruction went down like water, emphasizing everything in Story Engineering. Really looking forward to Story Physics!

  21. Robert Jones

    LOL@Sara–I find your questions force me to think (see above response). So they certainly help–I suppose that could be considered a service.

    BTW, been meaning to ask if the picture with the birds is a photo or one of your paintings?

  22. Sara Davies


    This is Larry’s statement of the concept:

    “What if a wife and her lover conspire to create the illusion that her use of prescription depression drugs is responsible for the death (at her hand ) of her ex-con husband, for the twofold agenda of eliminating him while making millions in the market from the resultant scandal, all the while diverting blame on the shrink who gave her the drug in the first place?”

    The first element in this dramatic scenario is the illusion that prescription drugs cause a frightening change in Emily’s behavior. (I hate it when unstable people chop vegetables). Knowing that Banks is the hero of the story, that is the first time in a concrete and direct way that the game changes for HIM. We could also say it changes for him when Emily kills her husband. In either case, the prescription and its effects are active forces. When they meet, nothing much is happening – there’s no conflict or problem yet. Emily becomes the source of the problem, but until the problem itself comes into focus, her arrival in Banks’ life is still set-up. The problem begins for Banks when he prescribes Ablixa…or when Emily kills her husband. I’m leaning toward the prescription, because that’s what enables her to do the killing. It’s the first cause of what goes wrong for Banks going forward.

    I’ve had to go back and review my original notes from SE to see how the FPP functions. It seems to define and launch the main conflict. The conflict is the “real” story. The conflict determines the trajectory or mission of the storytelling. The mission / conflict is part of the concept, and points to the FPP. If you know your concept, you will know what your FPP must do.

    Words like “stakes” are about as meaningful to me as words like “community,” “spirituality,” “comprehensive,” and “thing.” Too vague. I can’t wrap my mind around “stakes.” The set-up is not concerned with what the hero has to lose in general (lunch money, bad haircut) but what the hero has to lose IN RELATION TO the stated or implied goal embedded in the concept (before it happens.) Up top where I was asking about decision-making strategy, the answer seems to be: decisions are strategic in relation to the concept / mission / core conflict. I’m not sure yet, but I’m thinking that all of the other major milestones are also meant to be defined in relation to the dramatic conflict embedded in the concept, which explains why a solid concept is critical.

  23. Sara Davies

    @ Robert: Yeah, the little birds is just a decorative thing I did once to relax, and chose for an avatar somewhere – I don’t even know where, but it follows me around the internet – because it’s so banal. My “real” paintings are dark, huge, disturbing, and cause mothers to weep and shield their children.

  24. Robert Jones

    Sara–it sounds to me like you understand a good deal of this, but not everything is as concrete you would like it to be. And since a large part of this story is an illusions, a deliberate set-up to trick the mind, that feeling of sinking into wet cement becomes all too palpable. Setting aside the illusion, the basic plot and pinch points still fall into place. It’s just that early on they have more to do with Emily than Banks–who, as the hero, would normally be the one responding directly to the FPP. It almost makes banks appear to be secondary until he has something to react to. Hence the fact that he, like the viewer, has also been tricked. He is unaware of what is initially happening to him.

    But that doesn’t change the criteria. The FPP does drag him into the fray. And though he is currently unaware of it, marks the point where his journey begins. Once the “response” factor kicks in during part two, we are still keeping on track–though the initial response is not from Banks. We are, in fact, still seeing a response to the “core dramatic thread.” It just happens to be from Emily’s POV. So the writer is adhering to all of the criteria, but he’s plating games with it, doing it his own way. But the base mission for each part still holds true.

    Stakes, in this context, would be exactly as you described your darker paintings: huge disturbing, perhaps dark and causing mothers to weep. In a nutshell, the stakes are the dangers resulting from that FPP. The moment Banks handed Emily that prescription, he handed her a loaded gun. He was just unaware at the time that one of the bullets had his name stenciled on it. Again, this is part of the writer’s design to mislead since the trap doesn’t leap off the screen with huge teeth and claws, but in hindsight you can see what the dangers (stakes) are for Banks the moment that FPP sucks him in. There’s teeth, they are just cleverly concealed. And those are the stakes, once they are revealed.

    Simply put, stakes are the dangers, pitfalls, threatening minutia that surrounds your hero–whether they are aware of them or not–once the core dramatic story hits that great ceiling fan in your great fictional sky. All hinted at during set-up, however stealthily, but becomes fully launched by the FPP.

  25. Robert Jones

    P.S. Do you have a site displaying these darker paintings?

  26. @Robert – so well stated. Thanks – L.

  27. Robert Jones

    Thanks, Larry. Good to know my constant babble and going over things a million times is beginning to pay off 🙂

  28. Sara Davies

    @ Robert:

    That’s another confusing issue. Does the hero have to be present for the plot point to occur? Sounds like the answer is no, as long as the plot point affects the hero’s journey.

    What would help is a chart of all the plot points. I kept trying to draw it out as a straight line, but I think it’s more like a pentagram or diamond with a line coming out of the top, or at least an L, where the concept, hook, inciting incident, and set up fall on the vertical, and take a turn (right angle or otherwise) at the FPP, Midpoint, & 2nd PP. The pinch points would be like dots on those lines.

    Re: Stakes – the risks, dangers, mayhem, challenges, etc. have to be in relation to something. I’m guessing in relation to the core dramatic conflict.

    Another question: Does the FPP define the other major milestones, or does the concept define them? If you visualize the story structure as a diagram, would the later milestones be drawn from the FPP or from the concept?

    (No, no art website. That stuff is way old, 1990-95. Don’t know when or if I will think about art again)

  29. Robert Jones


    Your challenging me with some of this, especially your final question, which is good. I have difficulties when it comes to learning and plotting my own story at the same time. For me, there’s a time for learning, and a time for applying what you’ve learned. I’m currently attempting to go back and fourth, applying what I’ve learned with each step, going over my plot, making adjustments as I go. That way I’m not leaving my plot for long periods to go stale on me.

    I would agree with your answer to your first question, the hero does not have to be present for the first plot point. One of the reasons this deconstruction has been so valuable to me–and why I’m grateful to Larry for continuing it, is because in my story, the hero isn’t present when several of the major milestones go down. They are from the villain’s POV. The hero is always thrown off balance, not certain who is behind it, or even if it can be pinned on one person (the villain) as his world just seems to fall apart around him. This continues right up until PP2, when everything changes. And I was pretty nervous about not having him present during those milestones, especially the mid-point, when I kept wondering if the great parting of the curtain should reveal more to him, have the hero directly involved.

    “Side Effects” has shown me that as long as these milestones are coming from the core dramatic plot, and as long as they directly involve either hero, or villain, the stakes are still elevated in the reader’s mind. They will always be saying, “Oh my god, the hero is going to die before he finds out who this villain is.” It has long been my personal philosophy, as far as story telling, that the hero be kept in the dark as long as possible, stretching out the suspense until the last possible minute. Structurally, whether the hero is responding to something being thrown at him, or in attempting to get into hero mode, the hero is going to keep getting knocked back, twisted, thrown in a different direction.

    And this brings me to your second question, concerning the shapes and twists in the plot line. For my mind, if the writer knows, and has planned ahead, then the plot is always a straight line with each of the milestones clearly marked along the path. However, we are creating the illusion of twists. Every time our hero is faced with a decision, set-back, new disaster, he is either faced with a choice, or spun off, spiraling, in a new direction. To the reader, it might look as if the character is hopelessly lost in a maze (my preferred image), but to the writer, that path is always clear and straight because we know. By route of planning, or drafting, the path is eventually carved with a mental machete from start to finish. Once it becomes clear, we are only fooling the audience, not ourselves. It’s a tough route during the process though, and we can easily become lost in the maze, tangled in our own weeds. But by the time our story is ready to be put out there for an audience, we’ve traveled that maze until we’ve made it our own.

    As far as the whether the FPP defines the other milestones, or the concept…I’m going to say that the FPP could seriously influence whatever milestones follow it, depending on how you want to play it and exactly what it is in a given story. But my best answer here answer would be: If the concept is your core drama defined, then this also defines every milestone along the way, including the FPP.

    If your core dramatic story can be boiled down to a contest, or conflict, between your hero and villain, then the FPP is a declaration of war, the pinch-points exacerbates that conflict, the mid-point reveals just how far your villain is willing to go, and PP2 is the moment your hero turns the tables, or makes a significant discover that allows him to mount a counter attack–trumpets blaring as he rides towards the final battle, live free or die.

  30. Sara Davies

    @ Robert:

    Great explanation. It feels a bit weird to navigate the path of the story (what it needs) alongside the path of the hero (who may or may not be present at major milestones).

    Your last paragraph completely throws me, however, because that’s not what I thought was supposed to happen at all. Yes, the FPP launches the conflict, but is it a declaration of war, or just the revelation of the conflict? Do the pinch points have to make the conflict worse, creating a new obstacle that directly impacts the hero, or just show how rotten the bad guy is? Does the mid-point reveal how far the bad guy is willing to go? Isn’t that what the pinch points are meant to do? I’ve struggled with the midpoint, assuming it was just another “things change” marker – meant to move the story toward the ending, to shift the situation so that the hero is forced, freed, or inspired to engage with the problem in a new, more effective and direct way. Not quite so intense as you’ve described, although what you’ve said sounds dramatic. How to write an effective Part 4 eludes me. By the time I get to Part 4, I feel like I’ve run out of story and there is only resolving and cleaning up to do (not much fighting, not much of a dramatic payoff).

    Interesting what you say about your hero being kept in the dark. My story is set up to revolve around what the hero knows and how she grapples with it. A secret is revealed at the FPP that brings the fight into focus. The way I have it right now, there are some things she doesn’t find out about at all (2PP) but the reader knows. So there is that question again between the plot points as game-changing events needed for the story, and how much direct participation comes from the hero.

    You sound like you have a good grasp on all of this. If plot points are game changers, I feel like I need a better understanding of how they are meant to change things. So far, it seems that the FPP introduces the conflict, the midpoint marks the shift between reactive and proactive, and the 2PP introduces a larger issue or concern that causes the hero to surrender in some way for the greater good. And then what?

  31. Susie

    I just saw the movie “Seven Psychopaths”. I would love to see that one deconstructed. I happen to like quirky, weird movies and that was one weird movie. Comments, Larry?

  32. Robert Jones

    @Sara–I believe what you’re saying is correct concerning the milestones. It depends on how you want to play them, either dramatically, or subtly. For example, a declaration of war might be made during a heated argument, a whisper in someone’s ear–a prescription being given that will be used as an aliby for murder. The hero can know about it, or the villain can plan it and keep all knowledge private. Especially if they want to take the hero down without their knowledge, or hang the blame on a scapegoat.

    How you play it is entirely your choice, but from the reader’s POV, the trouble–that core dramatic conflict–has begun. And as stated prior, this is the core conflict you pinned down in your concept statement, so everything stems from there.

    Pinch-points: (I’m refering to my notes and checklists here, so give me a second) Okay, several bullets coming up…

    –Brings the antagonistic agenda to the surface, or center stage.
    –May, or may not, involve the hero.
    –Keeps the story centered on the hero’s jouney and what opposes him/her.
    –Increases tention.
    –Focuses on what the drama is all about, and perhaps the stakes (note, this is coming back to the core of you conflict, and possibly making it appear more dangerous for your hero).
    –Might introduce new information for the hero to act on.
    –Pinch-points exist to make sure the story doesn’t slow down too much.

    I think all of these things can be taken in many different directions. But for me, that last bullet is key. No matter what is happening with your hero, the pinch points are going to either slap him down harder, or give him something new to act on. This is to keep him/her from wondering around that maze too long without something happening that draws them back to the core conflict. Or, in a case where the hero isn’t involved, show the villain marching forward. It might be as dramatic as the murder in “Side Effects,” or it might show the villain lining up his rubber duckies in a row, revealing something that will effect the hero in future scenes, thus, amping up the stakes/threat. To me, it’s a reminder that as the clock keeps ticking, the bomb (whatever the villain’s master plan might be) is that much closer to going off. Or that while the hero is blind, or lost, the stakes are growing, being sharpened.

    Mid-point: (my personal favorite, because it gave me the most trouble) More bullets from notes…

    –May be subtle, or not so subtle.
    –May, or may not, involve the hero (a big relief for my story).
    –Adds new information to the story that chenges the context of the hero’s experience and journey.
    –The new information parts the curtain (gives superior knowledge) for hero, or audience, or both.
    –It turns the hero’s actions from response to attack.

    This parting of the curtain and going from response to attack was a nightmare for me because I was lost on how the hero’s mode might change if they weren’t directly involved directly in the reveal. The answer (at least as my story is currently shaping up) is that the hero needed to be involved indirectly. The villain needed to do something that got the hero out of the way, which still sends a message that the hero is being used for some larger purpose, and therefore needs to step up his game in order to find out.

    Subtle, or not so subtle, is another way of saying it’s your call, but remember that all these milestones are stemming your dramatic core (concept). So this shift, whether it brings new knowledge to the hero, or just the audience, is going reveal something fresh about that dramatic core conflict. If you’ve been clever and fed this to your audience in small doses, or clues, this might be the time to reveal a larger piece of the puzzle. It might be your villain’s master plan unfolded in all it’s diabolical personality, or just enough of it to launch the hero into attack mode and amp up his journey to the next level.

    Part 4 really needs to be dismantled an anylized. I think that some stories will dictate pretty much what needs to happen in order to resolve things, other times, not so much. I’m really trying to study endings myself. I believe that many people can’t end a story to save their skin. And much of this is due to so little being said on the subject. I was reading an old Writer’s Digest article on “writing articles.” I had to laugh when the author stated that almost nothing has ever been written on how to end an article. Endings seem to have been a problem across the board for a good long time now.

  33. Sara Davies

    My notes on pinch points:

    A reminder or demonstration of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force, NOT filtered by the hero’s experience. The reader sees it in direct form. A full view of the antagonist doing something dastardly. Occurs at 3/8 mark in story.

    My notes on mid-point:

    New information enters the story that changes the contextual experience of either the reader, the hero, or both. Has to empower the hero to become a warrior. Activates new decisions that stem from a new perspective.

    My problem with that is that I don’t understand what “contextual” means in this context. Ha. That’s another one of those non-words I tend to grapple with.

    No one says much about endings. I agree that endings fail quite often. It’s very frustrating to invest in a story and then wind up without: A) answers to important questions, B) emotional resolution, C) logical outcomes.

    For example, I saw a movie about a reporter who refuses to reveal her source (around something a president did, or whatnot)…and ends up in a year-long battle with the justice department, during which time she loses her husband and family, and a liberal attorney rallies to her noble cause while she’s stuck in prison. At the end, we find out the “source” is the 8 year old daughter of a now dead CIA agent. Huh? It made no sense. May as well have been the family dog. What otherwise might have been an interesting drama about freedom of the press vs. national security completely falls apart at the end. Pffft.

    You want the ending to be powerful.

    Often it seems that part of the problem is that writers don’t realize what they have promised the audience in their set-up. If you don’t understand what you’ve promised, how are you going to fulfill it? Maybe you think you’re promising one thing, but you’re not able to be objective enough about what you said to know that you’ve promised something entirely different. Happens all the time.

    One trick I’ve considered, but haven’t used, is to get someone to read my set-up, and then tell me what they think I was promising. Then use that information to deliver those things in Part 4. That wouldn’t necessarily mean writing a predictable ending, because there are many paths to the same destination, and the essential character of that destination might be expressed a number of ways, with a few surprises thrown in.

    In an article, I think it’s much easier. Presumably you know what your premise or central argument is. When I’m trying (instead of just going through the motions)…I will usually try to end by presenting a range of thoughts to consider, or come right out and pose an open-ended, “what if” question that ends the article with an actual question mark. A rhetorical question maybe, or one that encourages the reader to come up with his own answers. I think that tends to result in a stronger article than telling people what to think. Another way I might end, if it’s a personal story, is to suggest some kind of emotional resolution – at the beginning I had a problem, but by the end, I’d come to a state of peace with whatever the issue was.

    Did you ever see the director’s cut of “Blade Runner”? The theatrical release suffered from unnecessary voice-over narration and concluded with a pat, “they lived happily ever after” ending. The director’s cut was much stronger. It left the situation a little more up in the air, because we don’t SEE the happy ending, we just assume that for the time being things are more or less OK. The movie ends with “Too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?” Only this question has a much greater sense of danger and urgency in the director’s cut than in the theatrical release, where it comes across as kind of hokey.

    It would probably be a useful exercise to look at successful endings and try to figure out why they are emotionally satisfying. What are your favorite endings?

  34. Robert Jones

    @Sara–What you’re saying about ending an article is pretty close to what I’ve been seeing in terms of satisfying endings in movies and novels. I think leaving something for the reader/viewer to fill in makes them think about what might happen next. Also, as I stated in a previous post, something ironic.

    The ending to the novel “Touch of Treason,” one of Sol Stien’s best, possibly THE best on certain levels, has an ending the envelopes both of these scenarios. It’s a politcal thriller set back during the big Communist conspiracy days. A student murders his professor, who is working on a book about communism for the secret service–or some such defensive branch of the governement. The kid thinks if he kills the prof. and steals his book, the head honchos of the Communist party will take him in. But he’s sloppy and becomes a liability. The kid gets a good lawyer, and after going through a legal song and dance, he gets off on the murder charge. But as the kid leaves the courthouse, a big, black car pulls away from the curb and follows him down the street. Sort of a “Communist justice” ending, but the writer doesn’t show us more than the car, leaving the rest to the imagination, even though it’s implied. The irony is, the kid is going to be killed by the very people he killed because he wanted to join their cause so badly. Satifying because the kid is smart, arrogant, he beat the system, but his victory, and the way he put himself (and his cause) too much in the spotlight, becomes the catelyst for his ultimate defeat.

    I haven’t seen the director’s cut of BR, but have it around here some place. One of those things I just haven’t gotten around to yet.

    I have seen the movie about the reporter protecting the little girl as her source. It has been a few years since I watched that one, but I recall some pretty good tention as the agent (or whatever his actual title in the movie was) percecuted the reporter and made her life miserable. But the kid, though it might make the reporter look noble, is a kid that age even considered an objectively verifyable source? I can’t remember if there was anything life threatening, or if the agent guy would even have legal reason to expose the child. I would have to watch it again to see what, if anything, was being aimed at that made sense. I just know the ending showed the little girl and gave the impression the reporter was protecting her. Don’t recall if they gave a concrete reason, or threat.

    The Writer’s Digest article was a trade paperback format, a sort of “best of” collected edition. I was going through every writing book on my shelves looking up anything to do with “endings.” It’s a subject no one seems to want to tackle.

    Larry? Future post? You’ve already said more than most. How can this be taken a step further?

  35. Dave H

    I purchased the script ($15 on scriptfly.com) and I’m enjoying the ways that it intertwines with Larry’s decomposition and the running commentary here. For example, down the to little hints like Emily securing her seat belt before driving to the wall – not just baked in during the shoot, but right there in the script. During that scene the script also has her glancing down at the speedometer for another telling hint.
    I’m also finding it interesting to see the many little things in the script that the movie left out. Even though the script seems pretty ‘tight’, it does seem that the extra or extended conversations or even short scenes were dispensible in the interest of time.
    All in all, it seems to be a nice adjunct to the great decomp and discussion that’s been building up here around the movie.

  36. Sarah Brabazon

    I read your previous post (it comes via email) and had to respond to the plaintive/pissed off tone. I’m not yet following the Side Effects deconstruction yet because the darn movie hasn’t come to Tasmania yet, and I don’t want to go off half cocked (so to speak). I devoured your Hunger Games deconstruction, although I didn’t agree with every point, I did learn tons about story.
    I love ‘Story Engineering’. As an engineer, your ideas make perfect sense to me, and as a writer, they give me specific, manageable areas to work on. I recommend it to all my writer friends.
    So thanks, for your books and for your effort, although I don’t comment much, I read and recommend. And if I ever run into you at a conference, I’ll stand you a beer at the bar.

  37. Norm Huard

    I haven’t seen Side Effects yet. The cost of driving 100 miles to see an English language version isn’t worth it. I’ll get to it when it hits the local video stores and it will be with my eyes wide open thanks to Larry. Just the same, I have enjoyed Larry’s deconstruction. As usual he does it with passion and the patience of a great teacher speaking to us as “authors with professional aspirations”, as “story architects” working on our stories, novels, screenplays, and manuscripts, all the while challenging us to achieve “the skill set of the professional author.”

    Larry’s blog is one of the greatest places on the net to hang out to learn about the craft of novel and screenplay writing. His open classroom is populated with great students such as Sara and Robert. Sitting in on how they question themselves as learners is a pleasure to behold, not to forget Larry’s feedback to them. I doubt it gets any better than this in a MFA class. @Sara, keep those questions coming. They help so much more than you can imagine. You might want to read Larry’s post of SEPTEMBER 20, 2012. It might shed some light on those “non-words” that bother you.

    In deconstructing Side Effects, Larry has given us links and explanations on how to search his blog to help us get up to speed on understanding the concepts he discusses. This is especially important to anyone new to the Storyfix blog, but, I’ll tell you, even those of us who’ve been hanging around here for a while benefit from re-reading, re-studying, and re-questioning our own understanding of these concepts.

    Below, in Larry’s blog posts mentioned in A), B), and C) I personally found information that resonated with the Side Effects discussion. I’ve given a few pertinent snippets from those posts and encourage readers to check them out.

    @Larry, please consider a further deconstruction post or posts that deal with D) and E) below.

    D) deals with the layers of stories within the story. You did that for the Da Vinci Code. Seeing that for Side Effects would be interesting. How many of these story layers does Side Effects hit and hit well?

    E) deals with the “Trifecta elements” of storytelling. To what degree does Side Effects hit the Trifecta?

    Perhaps by looking at those two aspects of Side Effects will shed some light on why it has had a “cool reception” so far.

    Keep up your great work and thanks for never giving up on us.


    A) From JULY 27, 2012 POST: …The First Plot Point is the most important – and the most heavily imbued with purpose – moment in your story. Screw this up and everything in your story suffers for it…Story trumps prose. Story trumps character. Story trumps theme…

    B) From JULY 23, 2012 POST: …Is this an effective First Plot Point?
    That depends. What you’ve just done is change your story, you’ve moved it forward. Everything is different from that point forward, which you’ve read (here and elsewhere) is the mission of the FPP.

    The primary mission of the FPP is not just to change the story.
    There is so much more that an effective First Plot Point must deliver to the story.

    Sure, the FPP changes the story, but it does so in a specific way. And that’s what’s too often missing, or at least vague and weak.

    This connects to the most basic truth about fiction: it is based on conflict. On dramatic tension. You need to know your core story, what the story is ultimately about in terms of dramatic tension, before you can craft an effective FPP…

    Let’s look at a thriller concept. You’re on vacation, and your wife disappears. Inciting Incident. Soon, you get a ransom note. Inciting Incident. Then, you get your marching orders – you need to rob the local island bank.

    That’s the First Plot Point. Because it FULLY introduces the nature of the conflict, with stakes in place, and thus creates your hero’s goal…

    The higher mission of the First Plot Point is this: to alter or launch the hero’s story-specific journey, by introducing or expanding a problem and/or a specific goal, and ALSO showing the presence of an ANTAGONISTIC force that promises obstacles that the hero will face…

    The FPP launches a problem-solving, goal-specific quest or journey. There is a bad guy (or force) that will block that path. And – this is CRITICAL – this all happens in the presence of STAKES and consequences…

    C) From OCTOBER 15, 2012 POST: …There are three aspects of the writing mindset– what you need to know and what you need to be able to do – that define the skill set of the professional author…

    Here they are: Your craft head…Your story physics head…Your story sense head…These three become a sum that exceeds the parts…When a story works the author has gone three for three…

  38. Norm Huard

    D) From FEBRUARY 2, 2012 POST: …Consider your favorite novels and movies, and you’ll discover…there is A foreground story…A background story, A character-driven story, A sub-plot story, A sub-textual story, An arena story, An emerging story, A departing story, A thematic story, A surprising story, A touching story, A gripping story, A story of empathy, A story of emotion and meaning…

    The context and intention of the above is not to be considered as descriptions. As adjectives. No, I’m saying that these stories – like different people occupying the same room, all exist and unfold as discreet storylines within the pages of your manuscript…

    As authors with professional aspirations, it’s easy to focus on one or two of these stories in context to our Big Idea (whichever of the four elements that it initially emerges from. { (character) (concept) (theme) (structure, possibly inspired by something that actually happened)}) and let the others take care of themselves. But as story architects, we always benefit from a view of the nuances of all the stories that are unfolding in our novels and screenplays, because only with this proactive knowledge can we manipulate and optimize them…

    Sorry about the previous partial comment.

  39. Norm Huard

    E) From JANUARY 9, 2013 POST: …Your concept, however tricky or original or interesting, isn’t compelling until it lands on one or more of those three powerful forces: intrigue… emotional resonance… vicarious experience…Until you juice it with some combination of the Trifecta elements. Until that happens, that’s all it is: a concept. And in this business, concepts are commodities.

    Which is why a “compelling premise” is only one of the six realms of story physics.

    It functions as the stage, the landscape, upon which these truly powerful essences can emerge to transform a story into magic.
    Or better stated…into art.

    When these three essences become the goal, the criteria of your concept and your craft, then you have a real shot. Because now you’ve risen above a bevy of concepts — rehashed, reheated and retreaded — crowding the inboxes of agents and publishers out there.

    They’re not looking for the next great “idea.” Or even the next great voice.
    They’re looking for the next great story. And intrinsic to that definition you’ll find The Trifecta… three compelling story essences that are waiting to make your story work.

    And when it does, it really is art, after all.

    Again, sorry about the partial.

  40. @Norm — thank you for the significant time and effort you’ve put into these three comments, which extend and elaborate upon this conversation and deconstruction. I appreciate you calling out the content on the linked posts, I think that’ll really help people navigate this.

    TO ALL READERS: Norm has given us three extended comments here that address this deconstruction from the user side. It’s very clarifying and will help take us deeper into what this film offers in the way of modeled teaching. I encourage you to check it out. And by the way, I’ve seen Norm’s work in the story planning arena, he really gets it and is obviously a generous resource for all of us to hold this common interest. Thanks again to Norm for his generousity.

  41. Sara Davies

    @ Norm: Great comments. The site’s search feature has been tricky to navigate. Will look for Sept 20. About the lukewarm reception of this particular film: Writers often reveal their prejudices in their work. People don’t recognize what doesn’t challenge their assumptions. Skilled writers manage to find the universal in the particular. I wouldn’t assume that the general movie-going public is just too dumb to follow the plot of Side Effects. Story may trump theme when it comes to gaining exposure, but story alone can’t make a message acceptable to everyone.

  42. Sharon C.

    Wow, thank you everyone for such great posts. Your observations, insights, and explanations are outstanding. I got away from this for a week or so, and I was trying to catch up today. I’m so blown away by the deep thought here that I had to print all the comments so I could absorb them properly. Just know that I appreciate all the time and work you put into your posts.

    And Larry, count me in as one of your grateful followers … this deconstruction has been enormously valuable – and the scene log was brilliant. Brings the movie back to the forefront of my mind while showing me specific examples of your points. Words cannot express how truly thankful I am for the time and effort you put into this, for us all, for free.

  43. Sara Davies

    Did I say Sept 20? I meant Feb 2. Yes, that is an excellent article.

    An issue that repeatedly comes up in popular culture is the occurrence of an unintended, accidental theme. Any time someone decides to tell a story, he or she is sending a message about whose story is worthy of being told. Who lives? Who dies? Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? Who are the players? What are they doing?

    As a product of the culture, a writer comes up with ideas that reflect his or her place within the culture. One person’s “every man” is another person’s unique circumstance. The dominant culture determines which stories are heard, and the value system governing their interpretation. Not on purpose, not because there’s a conspiracy, but simply because of the numbers. If there are more of “you,” you’ll be making the decisions. There are more people to write from a shared perspective and more people to respond to that same perspective without having a reason to question it. People write what they know from who they are – the sum total of their life experiences.

    For members of minority cultures and perspectives, the absence of awareness of minority perspectives is glaring. We know what they’ve left out. We know who’s being ignored, dismissed, or judged according to standards we don’t share. We know what they don’t know about us. I recognize that the problem is somewhat unavoidable, but when I read or see work that goes against my value system or worldview, or makes assumptions about a class of people that I know to be incorrect or incomplete, I don’t care how great the craftsmanship is. I’m simply done with that author, probably forever.

    The stories I love may contain elements that may well offend someone else, but because I agree with them, those elements are not visible to me. A controversial idea might be interesting instead of offensive if I have no dog in that particular fight. Dan Brown’s book about the Catholic Church didn’t bother me. I’m not Catholic, and have no personal investment in what happened in the life of Jesus. For me, Dan Brown gets a free pass. Many people did not appreciate that book, and I can guess a few things about why not, but I don’t know enough to know all the reasons.

    I give authors the benefit of the doubt when I can’t be certain whether the opinions they express are theirs or those of their characters – when they’ve left some ambiguity. In other cases, it seems clear that the elements of a story could not and would not have been included at all if the author didn’t hold a certain set of opinions.

  44. Robert Jones

    @Norm–Thank you very much for your comments and for bringing forth these pertinent aspects of what makes a great story. It’s not only valuable, but timely for me. I set all my plotting scenes aside last week to come to terms with Larry’s questionnaire. Having gotten my answers in reasonable shape at last, it’s time to come back to plot and write up my synopsis portion of the story-coaching. Looking at your posts, as well as checking back to the posts they were taken from, is going to be extremely helpful this week.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you as our discussions continue.


  45. Robert Jones

    @Sara–Good points about the author making assumptions. That’s often a mistake. I think a story needs to come form the POV of the characters involved within the context. They may not always be 100% correct as far as their world views, but they are acting on what they believe, whether right or wrong–or fifty shades of gray. People fight for all the wrong reasons every day, but it’s THEIR reasons. When the author speaks out from his own POV, or even the god of his little universe, people are going to notice. It isn’t about the characters any longer, it’s about the views of the author who decided to get preachy with his/her views.

    As far as Dan Brown goes, I have no problems with the that kind of story because the author is still asking a legitimate “what if” question. It doesn’t matter if real evidence exists, or if it’s merely theories and speculation. It’s fiction. If we relied on scientifically verifiable facts, there would be no dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. And if we worried about offending people, none of would ever write a word.

    I have a scene that takes place in an 1800s factory that had unsanitary conditions–such as an indoor privy. This offended someone I allowed to read that scene. And though my story is fictional, the fact that a factory during the industrial revolution could have in indoor privy is very true. The person told me they stopped reading at that point and refused to go on reading. People will, or might be, insulted over just about anything. Especially until something is either officially in print. Maybe even then.

    I tend to think if anyone is making a fuss over something they don’t agree with, this is still a strong emotional response. A plus for the author.

    I knew some people who thought “The Da Vinci Code” was something being passed off as total fact. I was talking to a guy somewhere who was actually all up in arms over it, as if this were something someone was attempting to impliment to destroy his religion. When I said, “You realize this is a fictional story,” he went blank. The rumormill had become that huge. And I’m probably offending someone out there by simply saying this, but when an author’s “what if” question takes on proportions of such magnitude, that is rare. I doubt Dan Brown thought it would have such a reaction when he was writing it. But if he did, should he have stopped writing it?

    More importantly for all the budding authors reading this, would you have stopped writing it? If so, you better not write about a factory with an indoor privy. Just don’t bother to ask any “what if” questions because who knows where that could lead. Hang up your creative hat right now. And don’t forget the baggie and poopie-scooper when you walk your doggie later (I actually wish more of the jolly, decently normal people around here would remember that last one 🙂 ).

  46. Sara Davies


    YOU ARE YOUR STORY. You can’t not be your story. In that sense, any writer is always going to be a god in his or her own universe whether s/he wants to be or not.

    I find it easier, as a reader, to accept questionable ideas if the writer attempts to maintain a distinction between his/her own voice and the voice of the narrator. Paradoxically, that seems to work best when a story is told in the first person.

    If I suspect, but don’t know for certain, that an author holds views I find morally repugnant, then I might be able to see the work as a study of a morally repugnant character. If the author screws up and reveals that those morally repugnant views are actually his own, I never read his books again. If he wants me to read his books, maybe he chooses the first approach consciously and tries to cultivate some ambiguity. If he’s a hater who’d be just as glad if I fell off the face of the earth, maybe he comes right out and tells me how he feels. His choices determine the scope of his audience.

    Fiction doesn’t get a free pass just because it’s fiction. Not even scientific fact gets a free pass for being proven, if people feel threatened by it.

    In my opinion, the best writers find ways to address challenging subject matter without pissing everyone off. An interesting idea is compelling because it’s interesting, not because it’s controversial. Controversy generates buzz – it doesn’t generate substance.

  47. Norm Huard

    @Sara-I think that if a writer creates a story to try to make a certain message acceptable, they are setting out on a difficult road because they will most likely be appealing to the readers’ ability to think in abstract terms. Unfortunately, here’s a “COGNITIVE SECRET: We don’t think in the abstract; we think in specific images. STORY SECRET: Anything conceptual, abstract, or general must be made tangible in the protagonist’s specific struggle.”

    And that struggle must appeal to our emotions.

    Another “COGNITIVE SECRET: Emotions determine the meaning of everything–if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious. STORY SECRET: All story is emotion based–if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.”

    @Sara-Seems like you are generating a lot of “feeling” from your reader(s).

    The above quotes are from Lisa Cron’s book Wired For Story, which I find is an excellent companion to Larry’s Story Engineering, validating so much of what Larry is teaching.

    A final quote from Lisa’s book: “MYTH: Write what you know. REALITY: Write what you know Emotionally.”

    I believe she is right and when writers do so, they are doing as you say above, Sara: “Skilled writers manage to find the universal in the particular.”

    What can be more universal than emotions?

    @Robert-“I tend to think if anyone is making a fuss over something they don’t agree with, this is still a strong emotional response. A plus for the author.” Right on.

    And, Robert, Ms Cron’s book has a checklist of questions at the end of each chapter. Like Larry’s questionnaire, they truly get you thinking about your story. Worth looking into. You’ll see the validation of Larry’s Story Structure.

  48. Robert Jones

    @Sara–You’re correct, of course. I’m not saying that a writer isn’t going to ebue his fictional world with his/her beliefs–most do. But in the narrative, it all has to come from a character’s POV. Or a narrator, who is either one of the characters, or a third party relating the tale. But it shouldn’t come across as the authors speaking.

    A good example of what I’m trying to say, or saying it another way, is that everything in a fictional story should be filmable. A narrator might have voice overs (like them, or not), but no scene in a movie is going to stop the story so the author can speak. And unless there’s an author’s commentary on a DVD, the narrator will not say, “Hi, I’m the author, and let me give you my personal views right here because I feel they are quite important.”

    But some authors do. Which is what I thought you meant by writers squeezing in their messages. I’ve heard people say that they’ve read a story where the message, or emotion, seemed forced. Whenever I hear that, what immediately comes to mind is that the writer (either good message, or bad) was probably very passionate about the subject, but forgot to instill those passions through the circumstances of the characters. Or sometimes they’ll even have a character go off on a tangent that discourses their views as if it were a thirty minute lecture happening inside their head.

    It is still the author speaking. Why, because they stopped the story to explain. The author had to say, “Hi, here’s my views, thinly disguised.”

    I’m not saying the character wouldn’t have these thoughts/views, if they were planned to have them. I’m not saying your characters shouldn’t think on the page from time to time either–sometimes for several paragraphs even, if it’s called for.. Sometimes it’s required. But there’s usualy something happening while these thoughts are going on. The thoughts are broken up by some type of action. It’s not a speech for the sake of a speech.

    Let’s look at this from yet another view. Your character is visiting a historic city. The writer has done a lot of research into the city, finds it all very fascinating. So the author decides the character needs to take a walk to clear his head of all the “conflict” going on from the “core story.” And while walking through the city, the character suddenly finds himself caught up in a narrative that tells all the fascinating things the author discovered during research on the history of the city We’ve all read things like that. But if that history goes on for half a dozen pages, or more, it’s the author speaking, not the character. Because the character would not be going on at length about the city. Or maybe I should say, the character SHOULDN’t be going on at length concerning setting. The setting is background, not the story. Although the character might have a stray thought or two, certainly, but mostly that character is thinking about the problems that sent them on that walk–the core dramatic conflict. Otherwise it’s a travelogue.

    Okay, now transpose that to any other views the writer wants to put in the story. Let’s say the novel is a political thriller. The main character is a United States senator running for his life because they’ve discovered a plot to murder the president. And while hiding in a hotel room, the character decides to think about his job. Then we get twenty pages on the duties of a US senator. First off, this might be his job, but why the hell is he telling himself something he already knows? Is that realistic? Is it even for the sake of the audience? If the writer has done his/her job, we’ve already “seen” the guy performing some of those duties during the set-up. We don’t need to waste the reader’s time filling space with things that don’t relate to the current story, especially if they leap out during random moments like that. The character would be trying to think of his next move. Anything job related would be within those contexts that support the core conflict. He wouldn’t just sit down and think up a disertation on the Clinton era because he disliked Bill Clinton–or because perhaps the writer did.

    See what I’m getting at? It’s all part of the whole, or it’s extraneous.

    Anyway, that’s basically what I was getting at. That and the a writer shouldn’t be afraid to piss people off, if they believe in their story–or at least love the subject matter. Hard to say whether Dan Brown believes what he wrote, or just thought it was one helleva story idea. Either way, he liked it enough to finish it, and no doubt he is glad he did. I don’t believe one should write to get rich, so few make it. You have to do it for love, or you probably won’t get very far. But when something like that does happen, it has to be a great feeling to know your efforts sparked that many people to think about your book, have that sort of emotional response.

    Personally, I’m sort of old-fashioned. I may write characters that piss people off, but there are always consequences. Sometimes my characters will ignore those lessons and keep marching forward (just like people do in real life). But it’s pretty clear in the context that if they hadn’t acted they way they did, the results would’ve been a lot more possitive.

    Oh, one more good example of the author speaking, and what it does to the audience, came from a comic book I read several years ago. The writer, who was also the artist, drew an arrow pointing at this guy on the page. The text said, “This is so-and-so, remember him. He’s a real bad guy that will be doing some pretty aweful things in the issues to come.”

    Dumb? Just a comic book? Yet, this is what the author does whenever they “tell” us too much, or stop the narrative to discourse their views.

    We’ve certainly gone a bit far afield here. Now back to your regularly scheduled program…or not.

  49. Robert Jones

    @Norm–never read Lisa Crom’s book, but I’m going to put it on my list of future writing books. Thank you!

  50. Sara Davies

    @ Norm:

    Art that is emotionally honest is About Something and is compelling on that level. I’m not saying it’s necessary to do work that is safe, because that would be boring. I’m saying that IF a writer doesn’t want to offend people through the accidental use of stereotyping and cultural ignorance, s/he might avoid that by using the technique of blaming his/her opinions on his/her imaginary friends, the characters in the story. And that by doing so, s/he might maintain a broader audience. That’s all I’m saying. If a writer wants to be blatantly culturally insensitive, that’s his/her First Amendment right.

    When I was a painter, I painted images that were emotionally honest for me, offended A LOT of people, yet spoke to other people who said they were moved. Some were visibly moved. They got it. I’m not saying don’t risk offending anyone. I’m just saying that IF you do, there ARE consequences. Maybe that’s OK.

    When I did it, I felt uncomfortable. I struggled with it the entire time I was doing that work. [shrug] An argument could be made that it would be a good idea to get over those kinds of inhibitions. Maybe that’s what art is for, but it can still be painful.

    @ Robert:

    I’m not suggesting that you would want to interrupt a narrative to give a speech. I don’t read a book to argue with the author. I read a book to have an experience. It takes me out of the story if I have to stop to deal with the writer’s personal agenda. So maybe we agree on that.

    The unfortunate reality when it comes to offending people is that those who are offended may or may not get the intended message. They might be so busy being offended that they completely miss the point. I didn’t paint disturbing images for the purpose of offending anyone. I painted them because I had something to say, and determined that that was the best way to say it.

    If you’re going to shock your audience, it helps to have a mission, especially if the cost is emotionally high for you. Fights that bring about a shift in the way people think about an issue are probably worth engaging in, if you believe in them. But I wouldn’t get into a fight like that just for the sake of entertainment. I think Dan Brown might have, but I’m not in his head.

    Anyway…enough about that.

    I’m glad you guys weighed in on this. Same old issue rearing its ugly head in yet another creative arena. It just never stops.

  51. Robert Jones

    @Sara–I get exactly where you’re coming from. My circumstances may be a bit different. I don’t know of anyone who had the sort of fearful people that I grew up with. They gave me a lot to write about. They also gave me a lot to overcome.

    As artists, we are constantly bombarded with views that what we are doing is not what society expects from us. We are riveted to the floor with statistics of the few who make it, no even stating the fewer who do well, or make what the so called “real world” views as “real money.” We want to be understood, accepted, because the line has been drawn in the sand–pretty much since we uttered the words that we wanted to be artistic–that accentance isn’t going to happen.

    If we paint dark and scary, it may just be that that is the image the world gave us, something that needed to be released. If we write about the cruelties of man, perhaps it is because we want to show people how their actions look on paper.

    The world will watch murder, on top of atrocities, on top of conspiracies that it has all been planned by cruel people who want to scare us into staying within the walls of the box they’ve constructed. Yet, those same people will look at us, as artists, and wonder if we are not the very terrorists they’ve heard about, or at the very least, morally corrupted if we write anything one-tenth as ugly as what the media marches before them every night. What they’ve been made afraid to miss.

    I don’t worry about people like that any longer because I’ve seen where their overly insensitive sensibilities lead them to. On the other hand, if you ever write a best seller that someone like Oprah says is okay to read, they’ll line up to buy it.

    For what it’s worth, I think what I read in your posts make you sound like a good person with decent values, but you have something to say that might not make prah’s book club feel warm and fuzzy. I can’t tell you that everyone who reads it will understand where you’re coming from. I can tell you that you should write it for yourself and let it touch those who DO understand it. Because there are probably more than a few people who feel exactly as you do about the world and need a little confirmation they are not alone in thinking such things.

    Aside from that it’s therapy, it’s learning a new craft, it’s expressing what you need to express. Learn to format it and put it in the best frame you can construct, then release it, let it go. Then begin another story.

    It’s your life. Circumstances have placed you in a position to see what you see, the way you see it. And you’ve been given a longing to pursue creative venues to express these things. You are on a path that is yours and no one else’s. One might tend to think you were given these thoughts and circumstances for a reason. One might also say, no matter how good you become at craft, no matter how nicely fluffy your work turns out, that some will love, while others hate it. But maybe some will be inspired to be brave enough, encouraged enough by what you did, to move forward and have the courage to do what they know they should be doing with their lives. You may meet some of them, eventually, you may meet none of them. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about them. It’s about honoring your path. Whatever good might come from it will happen because you were true to yourself. Not some statistic, or preconceived notion, or something someone once told you.

    Become your own truth. That’s what life is all about, Charlie Brown 🙂

  52. Norm Huard

    @Sara & @Robert– I think I see where you two are coming from. Yes, there are CONSEQUENCES to the choices we make as artists.

    I think that here at Storyfix Larry has made it abundantly clear that we have come here, to his arena of learning, as aspiring professional authors who want to write novels and screenplays that sell. And, he also makes clear that there is an art to writing pieces that sell. Larry constantly makes us aware of the CONSEQUENCES of ignoring laws of story physics when we create our stories.

    Ignore them, even one, and you risk not selling your story.

    Again, I would point you to Larry’s post of January 9, 2013 The Trifecta of Storytelling Power. Honestly ask yourself how the story, which you are passionate about writing, will strike those three chords, or at the very least one of them. What is it about your story that will make it COMPELLING for your readers?

    As readers, “… we are looking for a reason to care. So for a story to grab us, not only must something be happening, but there must be a consequence we can anticipate. As neuroscience reveals, what draws us into story and keeps us there is the firing of our dopamine neurons, signaling that INTRIGUING information is on its way.” From page 13 of Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story.

    Yes, when we read a good story we get a dopamine fix. Functional MRI scans of readers’ brains show that the same areas of the brain light up when reading descriptions of events (vicariously), as those areas of the brain in people to whom the events are actually happening.

    If this is not happening, readers are going to find something else to read fast. It’s not the reader’s responsibility to “get it”; it’s the author’s responsibility to communicate it. That’s where an author’s knowledge of story physics truly comes into play.

    In this vein you might want to read Angelique Chrisafis’ February 10, 2004 article in the Guardian, “Overlong, overrated and unmoving: Roddy Doyle’s verdict on James Joyce’s Ulysses” http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/feb/10/booksnews.ireland

    And in contrast, today’s Guardian blog post, “Gone Girl: what makes Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller so popular?” “Well: the straightforward answer is that it’s pretty GRIPPING. It immerses you almost instantly in a mystery…” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/mar/19/gone-girl-gillian-flynn-thriller

    If it is INTRIGUING… COMPELLING… GRIPPING , and, if what you write about ruffles some feathers, because it comes from your truth, then that just might be added value.


  53. Sara Davies

    @ Robert: Dude. You rock. 🙂

  54. Larry, I just posted a comment for the post on Deconstruction part 3 (b/c I’d just gotten to read it.) I wanted to reiterate how valuable it has been for me. No matter how many times I read these deconstructions, I always learn something.

    This time the lesson was *context.* I know, Larry, you’re saying, “But I talk about context ALL the time!” Yeah, but something about it wasn’t sinking in for me — until NOW. Your part 3 of the deconstruction made clear how context works for the milestones: “Notice that these milestones are less about what happens than they are about what it MEANS to the story arc.” Context! On goes the light bulb. I’m looking at my own Beat Sheet in a whole new light. Thank you a million times!