Story Structure Series: #8 – The Second Plot Point

This is the 8th installment in our series on story structure.  Prior posts are available in the Story Structure Series tab in the Categories menu.

#8 – The Second Plot Point

Back in entry #4 of this series we introduced, defined and explored the First Plot Point, which is without reasonable argument the most important and pivotal – literally – moment in your story.  We’ve been referring to it ever since, as all things dramatic and wonderful flow from it.

One might assume that the Second Plot Point (SPP), then, is the second most important milestone in a story.  And while a case could be made for that opinion, the SPP doesn’t always pack quite the same narrative punch.  But it is a major milestone, and as such it deserves our rapt attention and utmost writerly respect.

Because our stories will tank without one.

The definition of the Second Plot Point: the final injection of new information into the story, after which no new expository information may enter the story, and which puts a final piece of narrative information in play that gives the hero everything she or he needs to become the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion.

Man, that was a mouthful, I know.  Nobody said this was easy.

Here’s a better one: it’s when the chase scene starts.

The USP of the SPP

Something about the information delivered at the SPP changes the story (it has that quality in common with the First Plot Plot) in such a way that the hero’s quest is accelerated.  There are new doors opening, new strategies to be hatched, new risks with more immediate rewards.

At the SPP you can smell the ending just around the corner, whereas in the scene before you  couldn’t.  And yet, you’re not sure what it will be.  At least, if you’re the reader… if you, the writer, aren’t sure yet, then you’re in a deep pile of trouble at this point.

The SPP separates Part 3 from Part 4, at about the 75th percentile of the story.  Which means the hero transitions here from an attacking warrior to a selfless, heroic and even martyr-like champion of all that is good.   At least in terms of solving the inherent dramatic problem the story is portraying.

At the SPP the hero learns something – or not… the reader may be privy to new information here that the hero doesn’t yet know or understand, but which surfaces later on in Part 4 – that will take them one step closer, the final step, in fact, toward doing whatever needs to be done in Part 4 to bring the story to satisfactory closure.

The pre-SPP lull.

Here’s a little screenwriting trick that works great for novelists, too.  Even if you’ve been going to movies for years you may not have noticed this, but you certainly will now going forward.

There’s an all-hope-is-lost lull right before the SPP appears.

In the movie Tombstone with Kurt Russell, a favorite of many, Wyatt Earp (Russell) and his crew are basically being run out of town by the Clanton Gang, lead by Powers Booth (who does a great bad guy).  There’s a tense goodbye as they ride away in wagons with long faces, after which the Booth sends a scruffy henchman out to finish the job.

The pace draws slack.  The lights dim, the music goes all fugue in D minor.  All is lost.  This is the pre-Second Plot Point lull.

Then, next scene at the train station, we see only the elder Earp brother on the train waving to brother Kurt standing on the platform.   But wait, wasn’t Wyatt leaving town, too?  Could it be that something is up his heroic sleeve?

The scruffy Clanton arrives with an accomplice , but Earp takes them from surprise (shooting one in cold blood, wounding the other), and informs the downed baddie that there’s a new sheriff in town – literally, I kid you not – and that the poor schlubb is to go back and tell his cronies that hell’s a comin’.  Again, literally.

They may as well be flashing a graphic saying: Plot Point Two!  Plot Point Two!

In Titanic, Plot Point Two was the moment the ship sank.  Clean out of sight, leaving Leo and Kate floating among a field of debris and screaming survivors.  Everything that happens after that is Part 4 of the story, which becomes a burning fuse leading to the inevitable conclusion, followed by an epilogue that bookends with the movie’s Prologue.

Planning for the SPP

If you write organically, the SPP can give you fits.  You really need to know what new information you’re saving for this moment in your story exposition in order to make this milestone both powerful and meaningful.

It’s the last piece of the puzzle, the final ingredient.  You can still surprise the reader in Part 4, you just have to use what’s already in play rather than insert new information.

Part 4 is the beginning of the end of the story.  You have 10 to 12 scenes to wrap it up, using your SPP as the springboard for those sequences.

The SPP can be difficult to describe, even generically, because it can be just about anything.  In a love story it could be the hero quitting a job that cost him his marriage, and now he has to find his long-departed ex before she hitches herself to a new 401K.

In a thriller it could be the arrival of the fleeing hostages at a port in the storm, where they are able to place a call to the authorities, leaving Part 4 to the business of keeping them alive until help comes.  Which won’t matter, because the hero will dispatch the baddies by herself before they get there, anyhow.

The SPP is one of those three major tent poles – along with the First Plot Point and the Mid-Point – that are supporting the weight of the story.  Everything else sags from one of those poles or rises toward one.

Spring it on the reader too soon and the tent becomes lopsided.  Wait too long and the suspense and dramatic fabric of the final act (Part 4) is compromised.

Tomorrow’s post: #9 – Pinch Points Explained

20 Comments

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

20 Responses to Story Structure Series: #8 – The Second Plot Point

  1. You’ve made me want to re-read a Grisham or Patterson this weekend to see how these fit. I need to see the tent superimposed on something soon, or it’ll start to feel like maths again.

    Just out of curiosity, because I know you like stuctures within structures, are there any famous short stories that leap to mind that your architecture fits over, too?

    I’ve just been over to Men With Pens. Nice guest post!

  2. ‘Spring it on the reader too soon and the tent becomes lopsided. Wait too long and the suspense and dramatic fabric of the final act (Part 4) is compromised.’

    Pacing, isn’t it?
    I second Janice’s good question too.

  3. Ed

    I’ve also been wondering if this structure would work in a short story. Perhaps elements that would encompass several scenes in a novel or screenplay would be manifest as just single paragraphs, or a couple lines in a short story? (For instance, Part 2 “The Response” = the Hero thinking about the problem for 2 paragraphs.) Would ALL of the various milestones and pinch points be necessary though?

  4. The nice thing about short stories is that they can basically be anything you want them to be in terms of structure (can’t say that about a novel or screenplay). Which means you absolutely can take this entire 4-part stategy and shrink it down, or you can take a microcosm of it and build a story or vignette (which passes as a short story) from it. If you do the latter, however, you need some sort of resolution, or an ending that leaves the reader gasping without much resolution.

    In short stories, though, there needs to be some semblance of the basic criteria of storytelling, even if you don’t use the entire 4-part model. That is, there needs to be a hero, they need to want or need something (in a short story you can cut into that need sequence without showing us the plot point), and there needs to be opposition to it (often in the form of the character’s inner demon).

    About pacing… these major story points are all really more than pacing devices, since the sequences and scenes between the plot points required escalating pacing, as well. These major plot point tent pole milestones (maybe I’ll throw in some more adjectives for them soon ) are as much the elements that the pacing drives toward and from, as they are factors of the pacing itself.

  5. O.K. Ready for 9 and 10 now!

  6. I was just wondering how to construct a short story using these principles. I guess things happen quicker. You are right, I will never watch another movie the same way. Because of your examples, I can pinpoint areas in other movies where these points are strong and where they get obscured. The last Star Wars movie used this structure pretty well. The last Transformers movie didn’t do as well with this structure….but the action and great robots made up for that.

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  8. Mike

    Where does “the final twist” fall in this structure? The Saw series comes to mind as an example. At the very end, there’s a final reveal of information that changes the viewer’s perspective of the whole movie, and in fact the preceding movies. But if no new information can be revealed in Part 4 – where does this fit?

  9. @Mike — you ask a good question here. First, “new” information in the fourth part (a “final twist”) can work if there is context and basis for it, including foreshadowing. What wouldn’t work, for example, is some unexpected new rule of ESP physics that suddenly, at the end, explains everything. That’d be a cheat. I love the Saw films, they really push the line, but be clear — the concept and the juice of that film isn’t literary. This is the risk area where very commercial Hollywood movies push the lines and take liberties with the principles that you and I cannot take.

    Just make sure your final twists are based on groundwork you’ve established — including the rules of the world you’ve created — and you’ll be solid. Hope this helps.

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  11. Carol

    Hi,
    I have your book and have been trying to re-work my novel. Most of it fits right where you indicate, but I’m having trouble with the Plot Point 2 vs. the climax, where everything has come to a head. Doesn’t the climax come very late, and then it’s get out soon with the denouement? If then I have some surprising (new) news in my climax, wouldn’t that come too late to be a PP2? (In a 400 pg book, pp2 by pg 300 latest, but the climax comes around p. 380.) I’m confused now between the terms.

    Carol

  12. @Carol — the 2nd PP, the climax and the denouement can — and often should be — different things occuring at different places in the sequence of your novel.

    Working backwards… the denouement – which CAN also be the climax — is when resolution is achieved.

    The climax (when it isn’t the denouement) is the action or occurance that results in resolution, which in this case is punctuated with “meaning” by the denouement, which is the close.

    All that said, none of this is the 2nd PP. That occurs at about the 75th percentile, and is the last Big Twist, the final insertion of new information, the thing that lights the fuse toward the countdown that ends up at the climax and/or the resolution. (Check out my deconstructions here on Storyfix, expecially “Shutter Island,” then rent the DVD to see it unfold before your eyes.)

    For example, in the film “Tombstone” (I use films because they’re quicker to analyze and easier to spot the milestones, and yet, offer the same structure as novels), the 2nd PP occurs (at the right place) when Kurt Russell deputizes himself. That changes everything (a hallmark of both PPs). But it’s not the climax or the denouement, nor is it any type of resolution (in fact, the 2nd PP is NEVER resolution)… it’s what enables, starts and empowers the story — THROUGH THE INSERTION OF NEW INFORMATION — to begin heading toward those moments.

    Hope this helps. L.

  13. Carol

    Thank you for clearing up some of this for me. It’s a little clearer, anyhow! See, I do have this new information that comes in (a friend’s betrayal). Prior to this info, the heroine only knows SOMEONE has betrayed her, and at this point, she only has suspicions it’s her best friend, not a sure thing yet. Will that qualify then as the pp2? Or is it the moment she actually confronts her (which I currently have as a climax, a big showdown.) Between those points her suspicions grow–so is that considered even MORE NEW info?
    Thanks,
    Carol

  14. @Carol — sounds good. It would also make a good mid-point (new context for the story), but certainly seems to be a great 2ndPP, as well. Just make sure you have enough story left after that point, giving your hero (a genderless term, in this case) enough to do (chase down, conquer, whatever) and demonstrate both courage and character arc in doing so. Remember, the hero ALWAYS the primary catalyst (force) in the resolution of the story.

    Hope this helps, wishing you great success! Don’t hesitate to ask anything, anytime. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll give ’em a shot. L.

  15. Carol

    L,
    Thank you for answering with my persistence! But I asked if that suspicion (that it was the heroine’s friend betraying her) would qualify as the pp2 or the actual confrontation (when she is more sure). I’m assuming you meant in your answer that I had it right, then, that the first suspicions of her friend would qualify as the pp2?
    Yes, I have an accelerating story to the end, but I have a subplot I’m trying to deal with also so that it comes together with the main plot at this point. It’s getting complicated for me, as I have several elements regarding the themes in the story. I don’t even know for sure now if that pp2 is most important because the “real” theme is my heroine’s ability to put her past behind her to gain the freedom to live the life she really wants to live. So I don’t know if I should be looking, instead, for the sentences I used to that idea.?? The subplot actually deals with this, though. I may have it all backwards! (My midpoint was that she found these love letters, by the way, with no idea who wrote them at the time–no name on them.) Meanwhile, with all this going on, she has been seeing a male friend, and that friendship has grown to love by the end! And yes, she does solve her own problems.

    Am I making any sense? I’ve started reading your deconstruction of Sutter Island, and that is helping, too. Thank you for being so open to helping me. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to answer, but I sure do appreciate your comments!
    Carol

  16. Anne

    Hi Larry,
    I’ve read your story engineering book, going over the section of FPP, pinch points, middle, SPP in detail, but now I seem to have it muddled as to where does the point where all seems lost come in? You say it’s right before the SPP, but how soon before? Is it immediately before? Say at 70%, or even a bit later? I have a part in my novel where it looks like the heroine is losing, like she won’t move forward and will give up. Where does that come in? And does her transition to Martyr to part 4 where she learns something, can it be where she learns that transition of what’s been holding her back? Where she overcomes her fears?
    I think I’ve just been running around in circles trying to figure out my outline.
    Thanks,
    Anne

  17. @Anne – a good question. The “lull” is positioned just before the 2nd PP, as you suggest (70% being a great spot for it). But… none of this is set in stone. For example, you can have as many “lulls” (seemingly hopeless moments) as you like, and the one right before the 2PP (which is optional, as is all of this; that said, it’s also “optimal,” so we depart from that if not at our peril, then hopefully with informed confidence in the exception) can last well beyond the 2PP into Part 4. It’s the blending and balancing that becomes the “art” of storytelling… the architecture paradigm is there as a baseline and an optimal default, something we can use, tweak or otherwise change as we see fit. Thing is, for the most part, the best stories usually don’t. Hope this helps — L.

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