This is the 9th installment in our series on story structure. Prior posts are available in the Story Structure Series tab in the Categories menu.
#9 - Pinch Points
Must be the name: pinch points. People struggle with getting their head around it. Sounds like some ancient far eastern therapy. Or something kinky, maybe.
Actually, it’s the most simplistic and efficient of the story structure milestones.
By now it’s clear that your story must have an antagonistic force – a bad guy, if you will, though bad girls are much more interesting to this writer, which if you’ve read my books you already know – and that its first full frontal appearance in the story occurs at the First Plot Point, which closes out Part 1 of your story.
That antagonistic force defines the nature of the hero’s ensuing need, quest or journey. It needs to remain, at least contextually, front and center in the story at all times after Part 1.
But sometimes context isn’t enough. We need to see that ominous force in its purest, most dangerous and intimidating form. Or if it isn’t dangerous and intimidating, then at least we need to feel it for ourselves, rather than through the eyes of the hero.
Pinch Points, defined.
Definition of a pinch point: an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience. We see it for ourselves in a direct form.
There are two Pinch Points in your story. The only difference between them is where they appear in the sequence of the story.
Let’s say you’re writing a love story. At Plot Point One, the hero’s girlfriend dumps him like an empty can of Red Bull. A nice buzz, now she’s done. We’re not sure why she’s running away, but the hero’s need and quest from that point forward is to win her back. And because he doesn’t know why either, his first mission is to find out.
The antagonist here is the girlfriend. The antagonistic force is her disinterest in him.
Through the narrative sequence we experience the antagonistic force through the perceptions of the hero. We feel his pain, we empathize with his confusion and we invest in his hopes. We’ve all been there, and it sucks.
At the Pinch Point, though, we need to see and experience the antagonistic force for ourselves. So a good pinch point might be a quick cutaway scene showing us the girlfriend in Aspen, wrapped in the arms of another lover against a backdrop of falling snow through a picture window in their suite at the Ritz-Carlton.
Yeah, we would feel that one. Especially if the writer had done a good job of getting us emotionally invested in the hero and his plight.
Location is everything… in real estate and with story milestones.
Pinch Points can be very simple and quick. It can be one character reminding the other of what’s going on. A glimpse of an approaching storm – take that literally or metaphorically, one will apply to your story – and the havoc it is capable of bestowing on all in its path.
It can be a kidnapper beating the captive just for the fun of it. Or to play the screams over the phone to pressure the person paying the ransom.
The simpler and more direct it is, the more effective it is.
The first Pinch Point comes squarely in the middle of Part 2. The second, squarely in the middle of Part 3. The 3/8ths and 5/8ths marks, respectively.
A pinch point may require a set-up scene, it may not. That’s why this isn’t a formula, it’s a format. You get to choose.
In the movie Top Gun, the antagonist force was Tom Cruise’s backstory: he’s trying to live out from the under the disgrace of his father in the military, and in doing so he becomes a “Maverick” (his pilot nickname) who plays loose with the rules, sometimes at the peril of his peers, not to mention his career.
In the set-up sequence for the first Pinch Point, we see a flying exercise in which Cruise screws up by being careless. The actual Pinch Point moment occurs in the locker room afterwards, with a simple 30 second conversation in which Val Kilmer, wrapped in a towel, says to him: “It’s not your flying. It’s your attitude. You may not like the guys flying with you, they may not like you… but whose team are you on?” Then he just walks away.
Cruise and his co-pilot discuss this, admitting that, yeah, this is the problem all right. It’s also the Pinch Point – we’ve just seen the antagonistic force in its full glory, and we are reminded of what it is capable of doing and the stakes of it doing so.
Tomorrow’s post: #10 — The Final Act
Photo credit: Roy Montgomery