Story Structure Series: #9 – Pinch Points

has written 628 posts on Storyfix.com.

You can follow Larry on Twitter, or Google+.

Email the author

by Larry Brooks on August 8, 2009

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

clothes-pin1Must 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 experienceWe 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

Shirls August 8, 2009 at 7:28 am

It’s hard to believe, that after all those years of studying the novel in college and all the thousands of books I’ve read, that this structure has never jumped out at me. The structure of poetry was examined in detail so why did our professors never call our attention to this? Maybe they didn’t know it either?

Shirls August 8, 2009 at 7:34 am

Hey I like the picture of the clothes pin. I’ll be walking round all weekend muttering “Hook, tentpoles, pegs”…

Larry August 8, 2009 at 8:24 am

The craft of screenwriting gets this structure stuff, it’s entry level. Novelists and creative writing teachers focus on character and theme, and structure seems to be a softer issue. You’re right, many don’t get it at all, they don’t see it this way, or won’t admit that they do. What’s interesting, though, is that when you not only deconstruct stories to discover this all in place, you’ll also find this structure architecture at the heart of virtually every writing workshop, book and lecture, only with a different set of clothing and wording. We’re all saying the same basic thing, because it is what it is: a story flows in a certain way, period. All the conversation about character and theme and arc and dramatic tension and inner vs. outer conflict… it’s all valid and good, but it’s also the meat that hangs on the bones of these structural foundations. Even though an agent or an editor may not get it, they’ll get your story if you build it this way.

janice August 8, 2009 at 9:42 am

Writing books and coaches may all say the same thing in different ways, but not all writing mentors get us visualising Ice Man swaggering/waddling off in his towel!

There’s something about pinch points in novels and films that makes them memorable. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen something unpleasant we can’t share or control or help with. Loads of them just flashed into my mind as I read this.

Syhalla August 8, 2009 at 12:58 pm

I am loving this whole series. Having these concrete milestones is making me reexamine some of the concepts floating around in my head in a much more practical manner. I’m starting to feel like these stories might ACTUALLY happen! Thank you for that.

I’d be interested in you thoughts on story structure as it relates to to more episodic content with an epic scope. As an (albeit nerdy) example, the television show Babylon 5 was written as a five year epic. 22 episodes each season which all had to fulfill their own stories, while also slowly conveying a greater story arc for the season and the show as a whole. Does the story structure become some sort of fractal, showing the same shape at each level of zoom? Or does the greater scope allow for more flexibility?

Larry August 8, 2009 at 1:53 pm

With a series, you have two concurrent “plots” going at all time — the primary focus of the book-in-hand or the episode, and the larger overriding context of the series itself. Each episode must deal with, structurally, and resolve the conflict you’ve introduced at the First Plot Point of that specific entry. So the structure is the same.

You ask if it’s more flexible… it’s always very flexible, there is a world of options for the writer. But in term of creating your own structure, of if there’s a special structure for series… the answer is no. Each entry must stand on its own.

But what of the overriding story arc of the series? Well, think of that as a sub-plot in each entry. But this sub-plot doesn’t get resolved. You move it forward to keep interest up, but you leave it hanging, hopefully with a twist.

Remember that old TV show The Fugative? David Jansen was always seeking out the one-armed man, and he was always being chased by the cops (because he’s an escapee). That never changed. But it was always contextual, a sub-plot (with sub-text). The specific episode always focuses on another, more compact dramatic through-line, which was resolved (with the same criteria as for stand alone stories). The, next week, on to the next episode-specific story, and on to the evolved overriding series context, which takes a back seat (as a contextual sub-plot) to the drama at hand.

Hope this helps. You may see this in a post on Storyfix soon, as you’re not the first to inquire about it. Good luck with your writing!

Derek March 14, 2012 at 6:40 am

Short time reader, first time caller….poster. Just wanted to say, I thoroughly enjoy this blog. This blog and Randy Ingermanson’s newsletter have given me some very clear insights into the craft and the writing world.

I am not new to writing but I am new to extending what I do know in my craft. I am a table-top roleplayer (D&D, and other type games as an example) and I have found that the story structure you describe fits very well for the story arcs I run. After all, it is all storytelling to some degree. I found I was doing most of these points through intuition.

Since I’ve started reading this blog, and more specifically, this series, I have been getting great input from my players on both my story arcs and my writing.

Thank you!

Keith Weatherby II February 6, 2014 at 10:46 am

You know, I think there are ‘pinch points’ in both the first part and the 4th parts.

Firstly the hook, in fact it shows a little bit of the antagonistic force in some cases for instance Vader capturing Princess Leia in Star Wars, Belloq stealing the idol from Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.

Secondly you didn’t address it, so maybe it’s not in a novel, but in a lot of movies there’s what is known as the “third act twist” which is usually a bit of luck for the protagonist, you know Han Solo coming back to shoot the tie fighter so Luke can finally destroy the death star, or Marty Mcfly pounding on the steering wheel in the delorean where he finally hits his head on the dash and everything lights up. So this is actually kind of a pinch-point as well.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 11 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: