Story Structure Series: #4 – The Most Important Moment in Your Story: The First Plot Point

The following is the 4th installment of our series on story structure.  Prior posts are available under the Story Structure Series tab in the Categories menu.

 #4 — The Most Important Moment in Your Story: The First Plot Point

Any time you label something the most important of anything you’ll get folks crawling out from behind their keyboard to argue the point.  And they may be right, especially in the avocation of writing fiction, where hard and fast rules about the rules are always up for grabs.  It is art, after all.

But I’ll stand hard and fast behind this one: the First Plot Point of your story is the most important moment in it. 

Because the First Plot Point is the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance.  It may be the first full frontal view of it, or it may be the escalation and shifting of something already present.  In either case, nothing about the story is the same from that moment forward.   

There is a time and a place to introduce the reason your hero/protagonist sets off down the appointed path of your story – at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile.   That moment is the First Plot Point (FPP), sometimes referred to as the Inciting Incident.

It is the bridge between Parts 1 and 2.  Which means, everything that comes before is a set-up for it, and everything that comes after is a response to it.

The Role of the First Plot Point

Without conflict there can be no story.  And since the core conflict shouldn’t enter the picture until the reader is a quarter of the way into it, it can be said the story doesn’t really even start until Part 1 concludes with the FPP.

This is absolutely true.  The FPP is when your story really begins.

The purest definition of the First Plot Point is this: the moment when something enters the story in a manner that affects the hero’s status and plans and beliefs, forcing her or him to take action in response

Inherent to that moment is the call for the hero to do something they weren’t doing before – react, attack, solve, save, speak out, intervene, change, rebel, grow, forgive, love, trust, believe, or just plain run like hell…, etc.  Those actions commence upon the arrival of the FPP, which defines the hero’s journey and need, as well as her/his actions, for the remainder of the story.

The Essential Introduction of Conflict

Just as inherent to this sudden new journey is the presence of opposition to whatever the hero now needs or wants or does in response to the FPP.  And that becomes the story’s conflict.

The FPP is the moment when everything changes .  We meet our protagonist early in Part 1, dropping into her/his life to see where they are and where they’re going.  What their agenda is, their inner demons, their dreams, their world view.

We understand what they have at stake in their life.  When the FPP arrives, all of it is suddenly up for grabs… and you now have stakes in place.

If the antagonistic force was already in the story during Part 1, something happens at the FPP that makes it darker, more urgent, or more deadly, thus forcing the hero to take action.  Because something important to the hero is now in jeopardy.

Or, from a more positive spin, the FPP makes things more real and meaningful, — as in, a forbidden love story – thus forcing the hero to go after it.

But in either case, something must stand in the hero’s way moving forward.  Better yet something within them holds them back (the conquering of which becomes character arc) in addition to the exterior conflict at hand.

The Nature of the First Plot Point

The FPP can be huge, like a ship hitting an iceberg, a meteor striking the earth, or a murder.  It can be personal, like getting fired or catching your spouse having an affair or your child dealing drugs.  It can be devastating, like a terminal diagnosis or a sudden kidnapping.  Like the roulette ball landing on black when you put it all on red.  It changes everything, and in a huge way.

Or it can be subtle, like the sudden chill in a lover’s kiss.  Like the hiring of a worthy foe in the battle for a promotion.  Like the offer of seduction on the night of your wedding rehearsal.  Again, it changes everything, not necessarily in a huge way, but in a way that alters the course of the hero’s actions.

Tension and stakes can be present from the outset.  Happens all the time in thrillers.  But notice that the nature of the FPP doesn’t change, because at roughly the 25th percentile or earlier, everything changes when something new and even more sinister spins the story in a new direction.

In the movie Collateral, for example, Jamie Fox’s taxi driver discovers his passenger, Tom Cruise, is a contract killer.  This happens in the middle of Part 1.  Lots of sudden tension, and certainly Jamie’s near term plans changes.  It looked and smelled like the FPP, but it wasn’t.  It was too early.

It isn’t until Tom Cruise informs him that he’s not finished with the evening’s killings, and that Jamie must drive him from victim to victim if he is to survive, that the full nature of the conflict is revealed, again changing the protagonist’s need and ratcheting the stakes to unthinkable levels of urgency and risk.

What the First Plot Point Means

The arrival of the FPP means that what the hero thought was true may not be.  It means safety is being threatened.  It means everything must stop until this problem is addressed.  It means dreams go on hold until this is solved, or it can mean that new dreams are suddenly within reach. 

It means survival, or not.  Happiness, or not.  Justice, or not.  Stakes.

The FPP begins the hero’s new journey in pursuit of this new need.  It begins a response to whatever the FPP brings to the party.  It means the sudden need for safety, for understanding, for relief, for an answer, for a new approach, a new paradigm, a new set of rules.

Once you know what a FPP is and what it means to a story, you’ll never again read a book or view a movie in quite the same way.  It’ll pop off the page or off the screen and slap you silly with awareness.  It’s always been there, but now you’ll sense it coming and see it appear before your eyes, and the wonders of story structure will suddenly manifest in a way you’ve never comprehended before.

Because you’ll see it.  You’ll finally understand that everything that happened before the FPP moment was a set-up for it.  And that everything that happened after was a response to it, and the launching of the hero’s new quest. 

In Titanic, the FPP was the ship hitting the iceberg.  It was foreshadowed in Part 1, right when Leo was flirting with Kate.  After the FPP, everything about what the characters needed and wanted and believed was completely different and urgent. They needed each other as much as they needed survival.

In The DaVinci Code, the stakes are plenty high early in Part 1.  But at the FPP, when we see that someone is out to kill Robert Langdon before his investigation leads him to the truth… that is when the story really begins, the moment Langdon’s need and purpose changes and shifts into an even higher gear.

In both stories, the real conflict doesn’t show until the FPP arrives.  Which is classic story architecture in full glory.

What is the First Plot Point in your story?  Does it meet the criteria?  Does it appear in the right place?  Does it define and shift the need and quest of the hero from that point forward?  Does it create high stakes and sudden risk and consequence that wasn’t there moments before?

All this for one moment in your story.  One scene.  Amazing.
Tomorrow’ s post: #5 – Part 2 of Your Story… the Response

 Like what you see in this series?  Please tell your writer friends and invite them to subscribe to Storyfix.  There’s much more to come, in this series and beyond.  And really… are you getting this level of depth anywhere else?  I’m just sayin’.

At the end of the series I will expand on these posts with further detail and the use of examples, which I will then publish as a new eBook.  Available only here on Storyfix.


Filed under Story Structure Series, Write better (tips and techniques)

31 Responses to Story Structure Series: #4 – The Most Important Moment in Your Story: The First Plot Point

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    This series (as well as your book, already finished it) have given me a lot to think about writing, since I’ve only within the last year picked it back up after discovering the need again.

    Also broke down and bought Screenplay by Field to give that a try. Been interesting what I’ve read of it.

    Thanks for all the great tips so far, they’ve really been helpful in breaking down what I’m doing and looking at it with my programmers brain as well as the writer’s side.

  2. Shirls

    Well no wonder so many of my novels went phutt around Chapter 7. Having somehow got the notion that one should begin in the middle of things, I see I was introducing the conflict way too early. This is writng advice way beyond “The Secret”. This is THE SECRET!

  3. Well, I either linked away to another page before pressing Submit and lost the long, gushing comment I left here yesterday, or I’ve been blacklisted already! 😉 (I just came back to see if you’d replied.)

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  5. I really want to thank you for this series and this post in particular. After reading this, I went to Blockbuster and rented a low key indi movie to give it a test. The movie “The Guitar” has a lot of set-up events that could be the FPP. The character is told she’s got cancer, gets fired and dumped. But it’s none of these events. The FPP is when a telephone installer arrives early. Very cool.

    (If I’m wrong, please correct me)

    I’ll be back to explore the rest of the series and the films I study to understand it. Again, thanks!

  6. J. Seltzer

    My FPP is shortly after the opening hook. Must it be delayed? It seems , if delayed, the action will lose some verve.

  7. J. Seltzer

    Just read thru everything twice. Learned more than in any course, seminar, etc. ever! So grateful!

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  8. Welcome to your first reality check. A FPP that occurs very near the beginning of the story is a HOOK, and it is indeed a major element. But… it can’t be the FPP if it shows up before the 20% mark. This is an inflexible law of structure.

    Go back to the reason that Part 1 exists in the first place. It’s primary mission is to set things up, to show us the stakes for the hero, to show us the hero’s backstory and inner demons (the things they must conquer internally to achieve their goal).

    Then, at the real FPP, the story must experience a major shift. Something new enters that picture that defines the quest, need and mission of the hero going forward, as well as showing us the “bad guy” (antagonistic force) and what they want and need, too. This gives us the drama and tension, in context to stakes, that will make the story fly.

    But you knew all that. It’s just that you want it all to happen too early in your story. Let me show you an example.

    In the movie Collateral (rent it to see how this example plays out), there’s an unexpected huge twist about halfway through Part 1, which is too early to be the FPP. It looks and smells just like an FPP, as it certainly changes everything and presents the hero (Jamie Fox) with a new problem and thus a new quest/need.

    It’s just that this is, we soon learn, just a major element of the “set-up” and not the plot point itself. Which means, major stuff CAN happen in the middle of the parts without them actually being one of the required major milestones. In fact, that’s a good thing, it makes for a powerful, swiftly moving dramatic story.

    But it’s not the FPP. It could be, if it was in the right place, but this writer had bigger plans. It’s all about to get more dramatic, with even higher stakes. At this too-early faux FPP, the stakes are simply Jamie surviving the night. We don’t really know the nature of the bad guy or what he wants, or what it means to Jamie.

    At the real FPP, though, something much less dramatic happens, but it nonetheless is the real FPP, because now we get a much more dramatic understanding of what Jamie’s need and quest will be, and what the bad guy (the source of the conflict, played by Tom Cruise) really wants. We didn’t know that before.

    In a scene with nothing but dialogue (in the back of Fox’s taxi), Cruise tells Jamie what it all means. He’s a hit man with several assignments to make that night (we didn’t know that). He wants Jamie to drive him to each hit (we didn’t know that). If he does, he’ll survive and be paid $700. If not, he’s dead. This is all new information that ratchets up the tension and stakes, a much more interesting and dramatic new quest and need for Jamie. The entire story spins in a new direction as a result of that moment. THIS is the real FPP.

    So the FPP doesn’t have to be huge, it just needs to be in the right spot, and do the right things: define the hero’s quest going forward, and show us the nature of the conflict and the goal of the antagonist that opposes the hero. None of that works if you haven’t taken the time (the entirety of Part 1) to set it all up correctly.

    Trust me, you do not want to monkey with this forumla. Newer writers who are married to a “structure they made up for themselves” rarely sell their stories… because it’s this tested paradigm that results in the best stories. It’s what agents and editors expect, even if they don’t call it all with the same word.

  9. Larry….you are wonderful! I have been looking for this type of in depth leadership and explanation for years! I’m am plowing through these lessons like a sprinter in the 400 meter relay. I am going to pass your site on to others. Keep giving us this great advice! Bless you!

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  11. Larry,

    I recently decided that I was going to write my first novel, no matter what it took. I have a habit of coming up with ideas I think are great only to get started and then hit the wall and have no idea how to proceed. I fall victim to “good starts”. This is what’s plagued my screenplays as well as my motivation for writing a novel.

    Then, I stumbled upon your site yesterday afternoon. Every moment I’ve been home, I’ve read article after article. I’m finding so much of the content to be incredibly fascinating that I’m struggling to get back to my work or get some much needed sleep.

    This series in particular is very clear and helpful and may just be the thing that finally gets going from good starts to good stories.

    I appreciate all you’re doing. Keep up the good work!

    Take Care,

  12. I’m wondering how you handle plot point 1 and other landmarks when you have both a heroine and a hero and spend roughly equal time in each of their heads. Might the catalytic event be different for each of them? (although both occurring approximately 25% of the way into the book) or is plot point 1 a single event and only their responses are different? I’m probably trying to overly regiment something that’s supposed to be a guideline, but I’m still struggling to wrap my head around how to apply this to my book (which desperately needs this type of structured approach!)

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  16. JUDITH

    This is simply wonderful indepth teaching. Thank you so much. I have been writing a novel for about 3 years. I actually got stuck in the middle, (after 37,000 words). I did not know what the problem was, now I can lay my hands on it and I believe I can proceed now. Thank you so much LARRY

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  18. I’ve been researching parts of stories/novels and when things should occur and what’s needed to pull off a great novel people will actually read and love. Which is odd for me, because I’ve never done this before.
    I’ve finished one novel and I have four fulls out right now (I have to wait until January to hear anything … gotta love it ;)) and, of course, I had an idea of what would happen in the story, but I really only had the ending solidified in my head. Everything else, I just let happen. I watched it happen in my head and I wrote what I saw.
    I had no clue what was supposed to happen when. The odd thing is, everything is matching up with what you (and other articles) are saying.
    I did the math — my first plot point is right where it should be. Was I just lucky to have everything work out so well in the first novel?
    That’s why I’m researching now. I’m trying an outline for the next novel I’m starting. I don’t think I can pull off what I just did (well, it took a LONG time and a lot of revising, but never with story structure in mind — only pacing and voice and things like that, really … as far as revisions…)
    Anyway, I’m rambling now.
    Thanks for this — I’m off to read some more!
    Too bad I’m scared to death now to write the second book. I feel like the first was a fluke to work out so well and to get the requests it has :/
    Am I a one hit wonder? lol

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  20. M. A. Latimore

    Larry, yet another ingenious post. I think now I’m officially obsessed with the first point plot. For the last two months, I’ve been editing a novel and had been trying to put into words what the author was missing.

    His first draft was a multi-hero story (which from reading another of your posts, won’t work) that just had the characters just existing, just living, feeling their way through the plot. Without this essential catalyst, there was no motivation for them to move anywhere, let alone get there with a sense of urgency. Thanks.

    This hit the nail on the head – which is exactly what the FPP is. Every nail and hammer is just a nail and hammer until the hammer connects with the nail head and drives the nail into whatever surface.

  21. @Marshall – sounds like you’ve got this concept cold. For many — like me — this was like a flash bulb going off in a very dark room. And I like your hammer analogy, too. Thanks for commenting, hope to hear more from you. L.

  22. I have what may seem like a silly question. I am plotting out a new novel, and I’m not clear on the exact nature of the FPP. At the most basic level, the hook is that this girl’s father goes missing, and at some point she has to decide to set out on a journey to try and find out what exactly happened and bring him back.

    So is the FPP her decision to leave or her actually leaving??

  23. Martha

    This is fabulous, Larry. Thanks for emphasizing it so clearly. I hope all your readers who want to study your structural model in more depth will consider coming to Portland, OR for the Oregon Writers Colony workshop you’re presenting on November 29 and 30. They can learn more at

  24. Adam

    @Nora – I’d say that the decision to leave would be your FPP. If you reveal that choice to your reader, than the adventure has begun–your character has mentally already begun the journey, even if the first step is packing up to actually walk out the door.

    If your hook is the father’s disappearance, then I think your FPP will be the moment you reveal the information that compels your character to decide to leave. Up until then, I’m guessing your character will be mourning the loss of her father. What one bit of information will make your character go from passive mourner to active investigator?

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  26. Shane Johnson


    Great advice. I finished my first sci-fi a few weeks ago and your articles are teaching me so much. Its been especially helpful with a completed work to look at and analyze. I especially liked looking for the FFP in my piece. It was 25% into the story! THAT was exciting to see!


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  30. Let me try this again — apologies if you have the same post multiple times on part 3 —

    I’m not a writer by any stretch of the imagination, and I am trying to build a story-based game (adventure game). You may not end up answering but then again maybe someone else can chime in in the comments (3-4 years later).

    You say that the inciting incident is known as plot point 1 in the movie biz. As I’ve studied a bit of screenwriting, and as I understand it, the inciting incident is something that sets the story in motion. Usually unbeknownst to the protagonist. (The Star Destroyer chasing the rebel Corvette in Star Wars, E.T. missing his ride home in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, I would even argue the opening scene in the Indiana Jones films even if they don’t directly influence the main story, are really inciting incidences).

    Plot point 1 on the other hand (also as I understand it, so forgive me for being a layman for the most part), is the turning point in the protagonist’s story, and one that sort of locks him into the adventure, or as someone else said ‘the point of no return’

    So am I incorrect?

  31. @ Keith – you’re not incorrect. But… the whole story isn’t represented in your counterpoint. The “inciting incident” can become a generic term, contextually, depending on where it occurs. For example, when a story opens with an “inciting incident,” that’s also a HOOK. The “hook” is a more precise description of both placement and function. Also, the FPP definitely IS an inciting incident… but that’s not to say that Part 1 can’t be full of other inciting incidents… that AREN’T the first plot point precisely because of placement and function.

    It’s like the nine players on a baseball field… they are ALL “baseball players.” A generic term for someone in the lineup. But each position is different, so more precise tags are good when one is looking to analyze the game itself.

    So it is with structural terminology within stories. Some teachers, including me, stress the FPP, and because it’s also an II, the terms get mushed together. And when they do, it’s not “incorrect,” it’s just not correct ENOUGH because it isn’t as precise as it could be, and should be when the writer is looking for differentiation.

    Hope this helps. Larry