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.