The Killer One-Two Punch that Launches Dramatic Tension in Your Story

You get that you need to setup your story.

You get that you need to present your hero with a problem and/or a goal.  Something to DO.  With something standing in the hero’s way, an entity with their own opposing needs and goals. 

And, with something at stake for both your hero and that opposing entity.

You may even get  — and I hope that you do –that there is a moment in your story (the First Plot Point) when the hero’s quest toward that goal fully really underway, when the first dealt hand is in play, even after what seems like a starting point but, in retrospect, was not fully informed. 

This Big Moment quest-launch arrives in context to the presence of an antagonist force, also known as the bad guy(s), which may have been off-the-grid earlier.

You get that. 

You need to get that.  Because that moment, the First Plot Point, is the most important moment in your story.  Everything that happens before it is a setup for it, and everything that happens after it is a response to it.

Do it too early and we don’t have adequate time and context to fully understand and empathize with the hero and the situation at hand.  And you need that empathy to be in play.

Do it too late and the story may be too slow, or overly complex.  You risk losing the reader to the dreaded response: “when is something going to HAPPEN in this damn story?”

You’ve been there as a reader.  You don’t want to risk being there as the writer, which is what happens when you mess up your First Plot Point.

That’s the 101 of it.  The 411 for freshmen writers.  Now…

Here’s the 202 of it, a way to make this strategy even more powerful.

Some writers hear the wrong thing when I rant and rave about the First Plot Point.  They think it’s merely a Big Twist in the story.  The unexpected happens.  A moment when everything changes.  They think that this is the criteria for the FPP, the moment when the story goes in a new direction.

That’s not wrong.  It’s just not right enough.

It’s potentially confusing because the First Plot Point IS those things. It does change the story.  It is unexpected (or can be).  

But it needs to be more.

One of the tools of dramatic tension we can apply to our Part 1 set-up quartile is the use of Inciting Incidents.  Which are, in fact, also all of those things: dropping a bomb into the story, changing it, twisting it, starting things moving.

Or, an inciting incident can be something nearly invisible, a whisper, an implication that changes everything, or means something.

You can do that multiple times in your story BEFORE you reach the First Plot Point milestone moment (at about the 20th percentile).  Your opening hook can be an Inciting Incident.  You can explode the story once or twice in the pages leading up to the FPP using other inciting incidents.

In fact, it’s a GREAT idea to do that.

But be clear. That pre-First Plot Point inciting incident moment, however huge and drastic and unexpected, may look like the FPP in the sense that it changes everything… but it’s NOT the FPP because it doesn’t do the rest of the FPP’s job.

Which is, to send the hero down a path.  A path with meaning.  With stakes.  With visible (to the reader, and often to the hero) antagonist.  And  most of all with STAKES.

That’s why the FPP is the most important moment in your story.  Because it actually launches the story by turning the corner from setup to a parted curtain.

Think of this as a one-two punch. 

You drop the bomb at, say the 15th percent mark, and then, at the FPP (say, the 22nd percent mark), you let the hero know what it means to them for the rest of the story.  By giving them something specific to respond to, to shoot for, to avoid, or to deal with.  Your hero now has a new purpose, something to deal with that has stakes attached.

The first bomb simply rocked their world.  But when the rest of it hangs there as a question posed, unaddressed and unanswered… that’s the first blow in this one-two punch strategy. 

Then comes the FPP moment, when – even if this ISN’T a bomb dropping – meaning and purpose and deeper implications are suddenly on the table. And because of that, now the real story is fully underway.

Here are Three Examples of what this looks like. 

ONE: You are writing a love story.  For forty pages we meet the players (setup), get to know them, and come to root for the hero.  Then, on page 45, the hero’s wife is murdered.  The new love interest – heretofore merely a chemical attraction with co-worker, comes forward to be our hero’s sounding board and shoulder.  Which brings them closer.

But that’s NOT the story you’re telling.  Which is why it’s not the FPP.  It’s merely the setup for it.  The first blow in a one-two punch strategy.  It’s huge.  Everything changes.  But we don’t yet know what it means… to the hero, and to the story itself.

Later, on page 70, we come to the actual, functional First Plot Point, which is the second blow in this one-two punch strategy.  Because now that first blow will suddenly take on new meaning and implication: the comforting co-worker confesses that it was who killed his wife, so they can be together.   She’s a psychopath.  She says that if he doesn’t love her back, if he goes to the police with this, she’ll kill his family, them him, then herself.

Now he has a problem.  A higher level of dramatic tension.  Much more so than when the original bomb dropped.  Now that bomb has fallout, now the story has a defined  hero’s problem and his journey is underway, with stakes and against a visible antagonist.

Bottom line: the writer needs to be clear on WHICH story they are telling.  The CORE story.  The spine of the story.  

The one-two punch strategy depends on a first blow that knocks the hero off his/her feet, and then follows up with a second blow (or a whisper) that threatens and sends the hero off on a journey toward survival, redemption or resolution. 

TWO: This is from the film Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Fox. 

Fox drives a taxi in Los Angeles.  He picks up a fare, Cruise, who says he needs to hire him for a few hours to make a few stops around town.

At the second stop, Cruise goes into a building, tells Fox to wait around back.  Fox does, studying his business plan for a new taxi company (backstory and our reason to root for this guy), when a body falls on top of the taxi.  Cruise had shot the guy, who then fell out of a third floor window onto Fox’s cab.

This is as huge as it gets.  Unexpected.  Out of nowhere.  A bonafide OMG. It changes everything.  It certainly implies that Fox has a problem.

But it’s just an Inciting Incident, even though it feels like a plot point, because it’s at the 15th percentile.  And moreover, because it poses more questions than it does answers… we have no idea what this really means to Fox.

Two scenes later, in a calm, action-void scene inside the taxi, Cruise explains what it all means (which is the very criteria for a First Plot Point).  He’s an assassin for hire, out mopping up the garbage of humanity for a fee.  He has more stops to make.  Fox will drive him around to make this happen, and if he keeps it together he’ll be paid $700.  If not, he’ll die.

NOW Jamie has a real problem.  He has a journey to take.  A goa to pursel.  With visible opposition, and certainly with huge stakes.  And, we’re going to root for him along the way.

This was a one-two punch in which the first blow was massive, and where the second blow, the FPP, was simply the exposing of meaning, stakes and implication for the hero.  A moment that launched the CORE story.  The murder and body dropping on the car, that was a just part of the setup.

THREE: This strategy doesn’t only apply to action stories.  The blows, both one and two, can be softer, more veiled. 

You’re writing a story about a 1930s family in rural Iowa.  The central thrust will be their challenge to keep the farm in a small town where the local banker is mercilessly scooping up delinquent loans.

In Part 1 we meet the family, including the hero (the wife), who must be strong because her husband is an alcoholic who has already given up.

The first blow, somewhere between the 12th and 16th percentile, is when the bank serves a foreclosure notice.  This is huge.  It changes everything.

But it’s NOT the story you are telling.  It is only a setup for it.

At the FPP, we learn that the banker has other options, ones that don’t result inforeclosure.  But he has a past with the alcoholic husband, something about the banker’s wife years earlier, and the banker is on a personal vendetta.  The story here is about how the wife steps up to save the farm by beating the banker at his own game, through her ingenuity in digging up dirt on the guy and forcing a stalemate.

The CORE STORY begins at the FPP, when the banker’s wife confesses the whole backstory vendetta thing to our hero (the wife) at church, and wishes her well.  Her husband is a horrible man, and she promises to help.  (Later, at the Mid-Point, she turns up dead, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.)   Our hero now has a problem, a quest, a goal, with visible stakes and on-the-table opposition.

A one-two punch that makes both the setup and the First Plot Pont even more powerful.  And we’ll be rooting for her along the way.

Not every story does this. 

But you can, if it fits your vision for the story, and if you’re looking for a way to take the tension to a higher level.  The key resides in knowing your core story (no matter how you come to know it, either through vetting expositional options in a planning phase, or a draft-writing phase). 

Once you know your story, then (and only then) can you create a sequence of scenes that OPTIMIZES the underlying story physics that dictate how the story plays.  If you’re looking to blow readers out of the water, consider a one-two punch strategy and watch it happen.

My next writing book, “Story Physics,” will come out from Writers Digest Books in 2013.  If you want a head start on how to craft stories that work, please consider my current book, “Story Engineering,” a bestseller in the writing craft niche.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

15 Responses to The Killer One-Two Punch that Launches Dramatic Tension in Your Story

  1. Martha

    Larry, this is a great post! Thank you for recognizing the need for it. Plot Point One has always been a bit of a conundrum to me — I confuse it with the inciting incident, which I know it ain’t — but this sheds more light on PP1 and I think I’m getting it. Between this and the section on PP1 in “Story Engineering”, which I read, read and read again, it’s becoming clearer. You’ve certainly done all you can to make it clear and to patiently explain what it is and how important it is, but it’s a tricky concept with more than one facet. Don’t get discouraged with us all — we’ll catch up (and on) soon. Meantime, keep up the great coaching job!

  2. Thank you for this post, Larry! It couldn’t have come at a better time. I am doing the story structure for the 3rd book in my series, and it is less action packed than the previous two. This extra step will give it that emotional punch I need to grab readers and yank them in. Finding your story structure has made writing a joy fo rme again – thank you for that, and all the fab advice you give out. It is so appreciated!

  3. Dona`

    Larry, this is the first post concerning FPP that finally made sense to me.


  4. spinx

    Larry, you just adressed the most important of problems new (me included!) writers tend to have with the FPP.

    We do not know what story to tell! Or rather, we cannot chose. Or, we constantly confuse idea with a true structured PLOT.

    One of the hardest parts for me, if not the hardest at the moment – is to find STAKES! And damn, I never thought that this could be such a problem, having witnessed so many problems first hand. Somehow, they just don´t come to you when you need them to be there.

    No STAKES, no FPP. Nothing to launch. Maybe you have some tips for me?

  5. More excellent explanation, Larry. Keep pounding the message into our (my!) brain(s).

  6. Wow, I’ve never really thought of it in this way before. You wrote it in a way that helped me to understand your meaning. No we’ll see if I can pull it off myself. x)

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  8. LadySaotome

    Thanks. You’ve made me take a closer look at my plots. Especially the 20th percentile part.

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  11. Boy, am I relieved you wrote this one! I’ve been banging my head against the wall over my current WIP’s FPP because there’s an element of delay before the hero realizes how far-reaching the consequences are (just like that eternal stretch of time between the moment you stub your toe and the moment the pain finally hits). I’ve been trying to do it out in a sequence of scenes and it wasn’t working out. Now I can try it in a one-two punch and hopefully it’ll make more sense.

  12. Thanks for this post, Larry. 🙂

    I love this thing about the Inciting Incident and the First Plot Point working together in this way. The idea that the First Plot Point EXPLAINS the Inciting Incident is particularly helpful. 🙂 Somehow, the penny hadn’t quite dropped about that before. 😀

    Can you please tell me, though – is there only ONE official ‘Inciting Incident’ or can there be several?

  13. @Athena — sounds like you get it. As us old guys still say, “you go, girl!” L.

  14. @Ruth — sure, there can be more than one Inciting Incident prior to the First Plot Point, which in itself is a Big Monster Inciting Incident, only with teeth, backstory and a launching pad. A killer opening hook is often an inciting incident. Meeting someone who will become a love interest is an inciting incident. Sometimes things that don’t seem to be relevant turn out to be inciting incidents. As long as they contribute toward the setup of the FPP moment, you can have several. That’s why this isn’t a formula, nor is it a magic pill, the author still has to craft something that works, and it’s often the context and the connective tissue between those pre-FPP inciting incidents that do it. L.

  15. So it looks like pretty much anything that starts a plot thread is an inciting incident. 🙂 Jolly good. I like to get these things straight in my head – thanks for taking the time to explain. 🙂