The Moment That Makes or Breaks Your Story

I’ve been reading a lot of story outlines and summaries lately, as part of my new coaching service (more on that soon).  And I’m noticing something.  Something sad and disturbing.

Sad, because the story might otherwise be awesome.  But it isn’t working as well at it could, as it should, because the author doesn’t get it.  The author thinks they can write their novel or screenpaly any way they want, in any order, with any sequence of exposition… and you can’t. 

Not if you want to optimize its power and get it sold and read.

It’s disturbing because the solution is out there, too often ignored, just as often misunderstood. 

There is a principle you can use to optimize your story in a structural sense, and the centerpiece of it is what I’m ranting about today.  Success is a function of understanding one of the key structural milestones in your story, or maybe just the willingness to accept that its there, ready to make or break you.

Mess this one up, and it will break you. 

It’s the MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT in your story.

It’s called the FIRST PLOT POINT.  Which is something different, something more, than the better understood concept of an inciting incident. 

A review is in order.

I’m seeing writers who are students of story architecture getting this wrong.  Or at least, not fully grasping it.  You can get it sort of right, but not really nailing it. 

Which is why, if you think you get it, you should keep reading.

The First Plot Point is often a matter of clarity and degree, which means if you haven’t delivered on its full and highest mission, you’re leaving some of the raw power and potential of your story on the table.  You’ve just compromised story physics, especially in terms of dramatic tension and pace. 

That’s what the FPP does: it allows you to optimize, rather than compromise, the story physics of dramatic tension and pace.

Even if you think you have a First Plot Point in play and in the right location, if you don’t fully harness the nuances and missions of this milestone, you may just be writing an Inciting Incident in its place. 

And an Inciting Incident – which can occur anywhere in your Part 1 set-up quartile – isn’t a First Plot Point… unless it is. 

Let’s say you’re writing a love story.   

You spend the entirety of Part 1 introducing us to the characters, making us empathize with them.  Root for them.  Foreshadowing the love story to come.  And then, at your FPP, you have them meet.

Is this an effective First Plot Point? 

That depends.  What you’ve just done is change your story, you’ve moved it forward.  Everything is different from that point forward, which you’ve read (here and elsewhere) is the mission of the FPP.

But unless OTHER things are ignited here, it may simply be just that: a change.  A step forward.  A mission not yet full realized. 

It may just be an inciting incident.  Necessary, thrilling, effective.  But not the First Plot Point… unless other things suddenly manifest in the story, as well.

That’s the problem, in a nutshell, that I’m seeing.   

Writers are simply twisting and evolving their story at the FPP, with the intention of it being the FPP.  But they’re not meeting the criteria.  They’re writing an inciting incident instead.

The primary mission of the FPP is not just to change the story.   

There is so much more that an effective First Plot Point must deliver to the story. 

Sure, the FPP changes the story, but it does so in a specific way.  And that’s what’s too often missing, or at least vague and weak. 

This connects to the most basic truth about fiction: it is based on conflict.  On dramatic tension.  You need to know your core story, what the story is ultimately about in terms of dramatic tension, before you can craft an effective FPP.

In our love story example, even though the two people meeting is indeed a change for them, it may or may not introduce conflict.  The stakes of their relationship may not be in play yet. 

Both of those things need to be put in play, via the FPP.

Let’s look at a thriller concept.   You’re on vacation, and your wife disappears.  Incidint Incident.  Soon, you get a ransom note.  Inciting Incident.  Then, you get your marching orders – you need to rob the local island bank.   

That’s the First Plot Point.  Because it FULLY introduces the nature of the conflict, with stakes in place, and thus creates your hero’s goal.

If you have the wife getting kidnapped as your FPP, then your setup is too long, and it compromises pace and tension.   

The higher mission of the First Plot Point is this: to alter or launch the hero’s story-specific journey, by introducing or expanding a problem and/or a specific goal, and ALSO showing the presence of an ANTAGONISTIC force that promises obstacles that the hero will face. 

The FPP launches a problem-solving, goal-specific quest or journey.  There is a bad guy (or force) that will block that path.  And – this is CRITICAL – this all happens in the presence of STAKES and consequences. 

The goal, and the stakes, can be survival, attaining love, attaining riches, finding justice, finding answers, discovering truth, discarding old baggage, solving a crime, preventing a crime, winning, losing.

Leaving for Australia with the family is an inciting incident.  Having the plane go down on a remote island near Bora Bora is a First Plot Point. 

Meeting the prospective love interest is an inciting incident (in the romance genres this happens in the first scene or two, but it’s an inciting incident when it does, the best romances give us an FPP that presents a higher level of problem and need).  Finding out they’ve just been engaged to your brother is a First Plot Point.  Or not… maybe that’s an inciting incident, too, but then at the 20% percentile that engaged prospective lover confesses they’d rather be with you, and your brother now wants to kill you. 

That’s a First Plot Point.  Because there’s a problem.  A goal.  Stakes. 

Not writing a thriller or crime novel? 

Writing a character-based, wannabe Jonathan Franzen slice-of-life novel?  Know this: you are not immune to the need for conflict driving your story.  And the first and fullest reveal of that conflict – often in the form of the hero’s situation getting more complicated – is at the FPP. 

The FPP launches the story journey because it presents a problem and/or a goal.  It doesn’t just change the story.  There are stakes now, there is opposition now that has its own conflicting agenda, and is prepared to block your hero’s path (that path being the spine of your narrative from this point forward).  There is pressure, urgency, perhaps a ticking clock. 

In the film “500 Days of Summer,” a love story, the FPP occurs when the girl casually informs the guy she isn’t interested in a long term thing.  The whole Part 1 was showing us that he IS looking for that, and believes he’s found it with her.  Her comment launches his journey, defines the stakes, and exposes the antagonistic force… all with a simple comment. 

It doesn’t just change the story, it DEFINES the core story.

If your FPP isn’t right, then your story may be weak on dramatic tension and pace.    

The FPP shifts the context of the narrative from the Part 1 SETUP to the Part 2 RESPONSE.

Response to what?  To the First Plot Point.  To the newly defined or elevated problem or goal.  To the pressure and opposition at hand.  And in light of the stakes you’ve shown the reader (this being the source of hero empathy, which is another essential element of story physics). 

If an inciting incident does the very same things, only earlier, then you still need an even more dramatic, more urgent and shifted scenario at the FPP.

Look at your story.  Look at that point in your story… what happens?   

What changes for the hero?  Is it simply, and only, a change, or it is a change imbued with a quest and journey for the hero?  With problems to solve, foes to conquer (including the dreaded inner demons), obstacles to navigate, with stakes in play?

For story planners, the First Plot Point is the most critical thing to understand before you craft the rest of your scenes.  Not only does it have these criteria in place that will lead you toward a powerful dramatic architecture, it also informs the scenes in Part 1 (which are all leading up to the FPP) and then in Part 2 (which are all responses to the FPP), as well as the entire second half. 

For more organic writers – who are just as bound by the force of story physics as planners – the First Plot Point is what you are searching for in your drafts.  Once found, it defines the revisions of your Part 1 and the very nature of the rest of your story.

The First Plot Point is the lynchpin of your story.   

It is its mechanical heart, that beats so the soul of your story can soar. 

The dead don’t have souls, and your story might just be dead, or on the verge, without a beating dramatic heart pumping the life-blood of your fiction into every page. 

If you want more on story architecture, please consider my bestselling book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” (Writers Digest Books, 2011).  And look for my new book, “The Search for Story,” coming from Writers Digest Books in 2013.

43 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

43 Responses to The Moment That Makes or Breaks Your Story

  1. Early Conner

    Good day,
    What if your FPP is at the end of the story?

    Early Bird

  2. Yes! I totally get what you’re saying, Larry. And it’s true, the inciting incident is definitely not the same thing as the first plot point, even if they coincide in timing.

    This is what Les Edgerton calls the difference between a surface problem and a story-worthy problem, in his book Hooked.
    The inciting incident is more often than not only the introduction of a surface problem, which moves the reader into the story and allows her to know the characters and their goals, but it’s not what the story will really be about. The first plot point is the introduction of the story-worthy problem, the deeper, underlying problem that the protagonist will try to solve until the last scene, and it’s an irreplaceable point of no return.

    I think I’ve achieved this in my WIP (more by instinct than deliberate plotting) but I’ll sure keeping an eye on this aspect when I revise it.

    Thank you for a really great and useful explanation! 🙂

  3. Great post. You’ve changed my understanding of the FPP. I still have one question. Does the character have to make a decision at the FPP, or is it OK for circumstances to assume a decision. In other words, do we need to know the hero will act heroically, or is it enough to know that he/she will need to act heroically?

  4. @Early — an FPP can never be fully functional at the end of a story. That means the entire story is a setup, making the reader wait for the story to really begin (the core function of the FPP). This may be an issue of semantics and true meaning… but a story needs a turn, with meaning, that kicks it from setup to conflict-driven resolution. Too early and the reader can’t be sufficiently invested, too late and you risk losing them.

    @Vero — thanks for chiming in. Some have accused me of making this sh*t up, but these are universal principles, given clarity by many using different terms. The closer you look at credible mentoring sources, you realize we’re all saying basically the same thing — the truth — in ways we hope will resonate.

    @Leo — great question… no, the hero doesn’t need to decide or take action, but by definition, when suddenly facing a problem or a need, one RESPONDS, which is the context/mission of Part 2. Doing nothing is a response, too (one that perhaps takes you closer to peril). The hero really doesn’t proactively, productively, begin acting heroic until Part 3, which has the mission/context of PROACTIVE/ATTACK, as opposed to Part 2’s of REPSONSE (to the new situation, as positioned by the FPP). Hope this helps, Leo. L.

  5. I keep hearing about the Story Engineering book so I’ll have to pick that up! This is exactly the kind of plotting detail I need to study. Thanks!

  6. I’m trying to better understand story structure in order to write better, more focused short stories. This post helped some, I think. I’m not entirely familiar with the 4 part structure you keep referencing, so I was a little confused at first. Looks like I have more research to conduct…

  7. Early Conner

    I understand it is important to hook the reader rather quickly, especially in a book. I should have been more specific. I should have asked: Does FPP work at the end in a short story?

    Early Bird

  8. @Kiya — just wanted to say, glad to have you here. There are dozens of posts in the archives about 4-part story structure, so if you’re up for going deeper, it’s all here. Let me know how I can help. Larry

  9. @ Early — structure is best unfolded in a 4-part structure: setup… response… attack… resolution. This model is everywhere, it’s hard to find a published example that drastically departs from it. Within that structure, the FPP (First Plot Point) is what separates Part 1 from Part 2, and occurs from the 20th to 25th percentile point. By definition then, an FPP can’t occur at the end of a story. If something huge does happen at the end, then it’s part of the resolution, and for there to be resolution, some dramatic conflict has to have been put into play earlier. Much earlier. That, again by definition (the moment when the setup gives way to the core story itself), is the FPP. If there isn’t one, if there’s 90% setup without any stakes or conflict or hero’s quest coming forward, then the story is, in all likelihood, very broken. You don’t see stories like that because they don’t get published. Pick up any contemporary commercial novel (or movie), and you’ll find the FPP very close to that target spot… every time. It’s just how it’s done, at least at a professional level (which is to say, at a publishable level). This is the learning newer writers need to absorb, these principles exists for one reason: to make your story better. We violate these principles at our own peril, at the cost of the effectiveness of our stories. Can you put your FPP at the end of your story? Sure you can. You can also tee off with a putter, speak instead of sing the national anthem, or hit your wife regulary (bad example, just trying to make a point here), but when you do these things, you aren’t playing the game the way its been designed to be played. And to get to a professional level, you need to. Hope this helps. L.

  10. Thank you for this insightful post. You nailed it. I needed to read this today as I knew there was something ‘not quite right’ with my ms and thanks to you, I think I know what that is. I do have a first plot point, but I wrote it in fairly accidentally (that is to say I didn’t realise what I was doing!), and, as a result, the rest of the story plays out unevenly, never fully utilising that first plot point. The problem is fixable at least. Thanks again.

  11. This post is why you are so good. Great job Larry. You make it sound so simple.

  12. Karen Cunningham

    Thanks again, Larry. I’m using your Story Engineering principles on my current WIP and was wondering exactly what the story’s inciting incident was. I got the FPP knowing antagonistic forces throw the hero into a response. The second plot point has been a little harder to figure out, but I think I have it now.

    Working in the frame work you describe in your book has been my writing midpoint. It’s taken me from flailing around like the Wanderer, and turned me into a writing Warrior by giving me the information I need to attack the problem. Huge “aha”!

    I’m looking forward to “The Search for Story”.

  13. Thanks for the slap in the head, Larry.

    I’ve been struggling with FPP on my WIP, I kept feeling like it was a Inciting Incident on steroids. Now I know what I was missing. Keep doing what you do, we’ll eventually “Get It”

  14. Martha

    This has always been a bit of a conundrum for me and others in my writing group as we discuss and debate structure in our stories. All the light you can shine on the issue is helpful. Thanks!

  15. Roni Lynne

    Thanks so much for this, Larry.
    I’m working with Story Engineering right now to deconstruct (to the best of my ability, which admittedly is nowhere near yours) Moira Young’s YA distopian, Blood Red Road. The back cover mentions that it was optioned by Ridley Scott and since I’m a fan of Mr. Scott’s work (and an aspiring YA author), I thought Blood Red Road would be the perfect story to deconstruct.
    I think I’ve had my first breakthrough because I think I found the FPP exactly where you said it should be, at about the 25% mark. Yay!
    I’m almost done with the first draft of my own story. Reading Story Engineering and doing this deconstruction is definitely helping me to see where I’m going to have to rework my story before querying!
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  16. Love this post, Larry. These are universal principles that warrant repeating until we writers get it. I’ve reevaluated and reexamined my novel 10 times making certain I understand my FPP, because everything else turns on that one moment. I’ve got the moment down, now on to the rest of the story. Thanks. Hope to meet you at the Willamette Writers Conference in August. Cheers, Mindy

  17. Of course! My God, I’ve been worried about taking away my “inciting incident” by starting my book later — but I think I have an FPP. I had been thinking that plot points were game changers, but all I was doing was adding another aspect of the story. Thank you.

  18. Rita Hornsby

    Hi Larry,

    Today a light bulb has been switched on in Italy! Thank you. I am so excited now to go back to my novel and pinpoint my inciting incidents and my FTP. So this is why I couldn’t go any further!

    I now need to buy your books. Thank you once more from Rita who writes in Tuscany.

  19. Larry, I’ll follow Rita who writes in Tuscany to say I write in Sicily with a copy of your Story Engineering at my side. Thank you so much for all the help, encouragement and insights you give. Your work is priceless. Grazie mille!

  20. Ah. Sweet synchronicity. You posted this at THE perfect moment for me. I have just written what I t h o u g h t was a great FPP and it’s a serial live event so would not have been able to change it, but, I have one more day to nail this – you have helped me spot what needs to happen. Bless you. Your generosity and commitment are phenomenal. Many thanks

  21. Early Conner

    Yes it does help. Thank you for taking the time to explain. I appreciate it.

    Early Bird

  22. Thanks Larry. It’s sinking in. Slowly. I am grateful you keep on about this. One day soon, I’ll nail it.

    Tessa

  23. I also wonder how this plays out in short stories. I mentally ran through a bunch of my short stories last night to see if I could identify the FPP in each. And I guess it’s the terminology. FPP is correct in a novel or novella length story but in a short story the FPP may just be the main plot point, as there won’t be a second plot point, right?

    I’m starting to think I need to look into story structure as well :). Thanks for this post, very valuable insights!

  24. EricN

    I have an MFA in Creative Writing, a BA in English Literature, and experience as a university composition instructor (teaching composition is, essentially, all about organization). I have been reading Larry’s blog and Story Engineering on and off for the last six months, and I just wanted to endorse his approach.

    As someone who has read many classics and other works generally considered fine literature, and has written many short stories (mostly failed, in my own opinion, though not necessarily in others’), I can assure you that Larry’s ideas about structure and organization do not lead to formulaic writing.

    Whether your aim is genre or literary fiction, the truth is here. You can write a wonderfully inventive work of art without adhering to these principles that appeals to a small number of intellectual readers, but if you want to make a living, or just appeal to the broadest audience possible, then try to wrap your head around what Larry says.

    Structure (in the form of plot points, etc.) may seem limiting at first, but it’s really just a container that doesn’t define its contents. Think of a porcelain cup; it can be filled with odious crap, sweet nectar, intoxicating liqueur or whatever you decide to put into it. The person who drinks the content doesn’t notice the cup, she evaluates her experience by what’s inside. Readers don’t really notice structure, only writers analyzing technique notice. Readers notice beautiful sentences and (unconsciously) the way the structure of a story tugs at their emotions.

    Thanks Larry! You have made me aware of concepts–in one small paperback and a few dozen Web pages–that six years of college didn’t teach me.

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  26. Larry, I outlined my WIP so that my MC getting abducted is the FPP, but I’ve since been wondering if her earlier action of running away from home (in response to the inciting incident) isn’t the FPP because it is a decisive action that she takes (not just something that happens to her) that makes her vulnerable to the kidnapping (if she’d stayed home, she likely would not have gone missing). My long-winded question being: is the abduction, in fact, the FPP?

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  28. Larry,
    Why did it take me so long for this to sink in? Thanks for a great post – it happened at the right time for me and forced me to re-identify which situation was my real FPP in my novel. So, I’ve re-outlined the story and found that it became breath-taking in its pace and tension and might actually be worth reading!

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  31. David Patterson

    Just finished studying, not just reading, Story Engineering. Earlier this year, I “pantsed” my way through a manuscript, but when finished I knew something didn’t “feel” right. Now I know my story needs structure. Your methodology is paving the way to a solid revision,(a process I plan to avoid in future writing by following the physics of storytelling you describe so clearly.

    Thanks for your interest in helping writers improve their craft.

    David

  32. To repeat others here, terrific post! I’ll admit, after the first few lines, I started skimming, thinking, ‘I’ve got this stuff,’ then I read: “if you think you’ve got this, keep reading.”

    I’m so glad I did! This really deepened my understanding of the FPP. You never fail to find another way to explain things and help those struggling to get it or further the understanding of those who do. Thank you!

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  35. Thank you this is just the article I needed to help me hone my stories better. I’m also helping another writer who could also benefit from this information. I totally agree if there is no plot then the story is dead in the water.

  36. Apparently still half asleep * if there is no conflict then the story 🙂

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  38. Kyla

    This is something I’ve struggled with at length in my current project. The story started off being planned too slow, because I allowed the backstory to cloud the beginning of the story, dragging it on and on. I’ve progressively sped things up, adding inciting incidents and beginning the novel when the antagonist and the protagonist meet, instead of before. But my First Plot Point still happens on page 97 of 258 pages. That’s about 38% of the way through the novel. Of course, that’s just the first draft I’ve written. There’s still plenty of revising to do.

    But the plot feels wrong if I try to change when and where the FPP is. Is that too late in a novel to have one (18% later in the novel than you suggest it to be, at the latest)? Or should I try to find a way to move it back?

    I have several inciting incidents that lead up to the FPP, by the way. Her father is murdered, she’s violently attacked, shunned from her village, chased by guards, and has several other incidents before she finally finds out where she needs to go to find the solution to her problems on page 97.

    Anyway, sorry to bother you. I know I shouldn’t bother you with this unless I pay you for consulting (which I plan to do, once I finish my revising process), but any input you can give me, I would dearly appreciate. Or you can ignore me entirely. 🙂 Have a nice day and happy writing!

  39. Great post, Larry! I’d love to see you do a full-length breakdown of 500 Days of Summer – love that flick.

  40. I must admit, when I read this post the first time (in 2012), I got what you meant right away. And I admired you for the way you explained it.

    Today I’ve re-read it because I’m in that place during a massive rewrite when I fully grasp where my plot doesn’t rise to its full potential, and this time, I really got what you meant with FPP, and it sank into my mind like a rock in a pond.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Larry.

  41. Thanks Larry for this post. I have learned through my own writing that the first plot point is crucial to the rest of the story.

    If Luke Skywalker didn’t find his aunt and uncle dead, where does that story go? If Harry Potter didn’t find out he was a wizard and go to Hogwarts — who cares? If Froto didn’t leave the Shire to escape the Ringwraiths, it would be a one volume series.

    First Plot Points setup the journey that lasts until the story is done.

    Thanks again!

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