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
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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.