Pop quiz: what’s the most important moment in your story?
When we first meet our dashing hero? Nope.
That sky-is-falling plot twist in the middle when all hope is lost? Nope.
When everything comes together, that visceral oh-my-god resolution just before the credits roll, with tears flowing, hormones raging and adrenalin pumping like beer at a sausage festival?
The following could change your writing life forever.
The most important moment in your story is when everything changes for the hero. When what the hero believes is her reality experiences a sudden shift. Suddenly there’s a new deal on the table that sends your hero down an altered, unexpected path. And, as part of that new deal, the reader gets a sense of what stands in the hero’s way.
That moment changes your story. And in doing so, it could be argued that this is when your story really begins. Everything that happened prior to it was just a set-up.
It’s called the First Plot Point. And you can’t mess with it.
For many writers this is the single most illuminating piece of writing wisdom they’ll ever hear. Because you can’t write an effective story until you accept and understand this at the very core of your gonna-be-a-huge-bestselling-superstar self.
In the story of your writing life, your First Plot Point may be right here. Right now, as you read this. Because if you haven’t wrapped your head around this principle, chances are you’ll never sell a story. But when you do, you’ll have immersed yourself into the realm of story architecture, and that may be precisely the thing that gets you published.
A sudden shift. A new deal on the table. A new path for you.
And the only thing that stands in your way is your willingness to engage and understand.
Timing isn’t optional.
Here’s shocking news for psychotically organic storytellers: you don’t get to say when that happens. There’s a narrow little window of expectation as defined by accepted story structure principles – the First Plot Point needs to happen at about the 20th to 25th percentile of the story. Right after you’ve set it all up.
Too early and you’ve shortchanged your opportunity to do that. The more invested the reader is in the characters, especially the hero, the more the stakes of the story have been made relevant to those characters, then the more emotional vicarious empathy the reader will experience when that MMM (Most Important Moment) arrives.
That emotional investment is the single, most critical variable that makes your story work. Or not.
This requires ample set-up time. In fact, that’s precisely the mission of everything that happens in your story prior to the First Plot Point. If, in the definition of an effective First Plot Point, we need to shift the hero’s journey going forward, then we need to have introduced and defined – to have set-up – the stakes of that journey beforehand.
You have about 60 to 80 pages to make that happen. If something huge takes place earlier – and it certainly can – you’re still obliged to deliver an effective First Plot Point at the proper moment. Something needs to happen, and in the proper place, that creates a shift that defines a new hero’s quest.
If you raise the curtain on that moment too late, your story suffers serious pacing problems. It’ll lack a reason to be. You risk losing your reader, which in the case of an agent or editor means putting the manuscript in the return mail.
Blatancy is optional.
Usually, in defining the First Plot Point, I cite an example that’s as much in-your-face as it is true-to-life. But not every story likes it rough. You don’t have to smack into an iceberg or receive a blackmail threat or get a terminal diagnosis to have an effective First Plot Point.
Sometimes your hero’s world is rocked with a whisper. A few unexpected words, a meaningful glance, the seemingly random passing of two souls on a street.
Sometimes less is more.
The moment when everything changes.
Allow me to illustrate with a true story from my youth. I thought I was in love. Her name was Tina. We’d been dating about a month, and things were ramping up on all levels. I met her friends. She met mine. We shared our dreams. We liked the same things. Sexual chemistry ensued.
It was the first act of our emerging love affair. And then everything changed. Subtly. Seemingly without significance. But it completely altered my Tina journey.
We were walking in a park. Hand in hand, the whole sappy visual. I made some reference to the future, assumptively so. I saw her expression shift, her eyes grow distant.
And she said, “If I’m around, that is.” And she wasn’t kidding.
From that point forward, everything changed. My quest had a different context, a new goal. I had an obstacle to overcome, and it was my own inner demons that stood in my way.
Tina was gone a month later.
Life is a story sometimes. And even then, it has story architecture.
In the current movie 500 Days of Summer – which, by the way, is a sparkling example of storytelling creativity, one that adheres to the contours of story architecture in subtle and illuminating ways – the First Plot Point unfolds in almost exactly the same way, with nearly identical words, at precisely the proper point. Check it out, you’ll see.
And if you haven’t yet comprehended the nature and effect of a killer first plot point, you will. Without an iceberg in sight.
As for me, my love story concludes blissfully, though it took years to write that ending.
Her name is Laura.
We’re working on the sequel as we speak, and it’s a thriller.
CLICK HERE for a feature article about the Storyfixer on a prominent writing site, which also has a review of the new ebook, 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.