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Monday, April 1, 2019

Story Structure Explained: Pinch Points, Midpoints, Plot Points, and Middles (Wanderer Phase)



Some writers find the middle of a story very difficult to write. They know the beginning. They know the end. But they don't know what comes in between. After this article, you should have the information you need to start filling in that middle! And filling it in, in interesting ways.

As a quick recap from my post on beginnings, this is my (hybrid) structure I'm following:

(Prologue)
Hook
Setup
Plot Point 1 (or "Inciting Incident")
Pinch Point
Midpoint
Pinch Point 2
Plot Point 2

Climax
Resolution/Denouement
(Epilogue)

This is influenced by Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, the Seven Point Story Structure, Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, The Hero's Journey, and even the basics of Freytag's Pyramid.

And I'm taking the heroes through these stages:

Orphan
Wanderer
Warrior

Martyr

The bold words fit in the middle.

I'll also be including character arcs and themes and talking about escalating stakes and costs.

So let's do this. 😈

Middle (or Rising Action)

We've covered the beginning. Made promises to the audience through the prologue (if you have one). Opened with some juicy hooks that get the audience looking forward (thereby enhancing anticipation and therefore tension). Introduced key characters, arcs, themes, and established a sense of normalcy. Shown how the protagonist is a figurative (or literal) "orphan." And then confronted him with a moment that will change his direction and disrupt said normalcy: plot point one/the inciting incident.

After Plot Point 1: Reaction



Plot point one changed something. It changed the story from setup to reaction.

Something happened, and now your character has to respond to it. Life is no longer "normal." He may even try to pretend it is, but it can never be quite the same. A new conflict has been introduced, and it's taking shape. It is threatening his old way of life, his safety, or it is introducing a new dream or opportunity. What is he going to do about it?

The character has a new need or goal.

And he's going to react to it. He will be in a state of reaction up until the midpoint. That doesn't necessarily mean he's not trying to solve things; it doesn't necessarily mean he's reacting passively either (though in some stories he might). But he doesn't yet have full grasp or control of what just entered the story. It's beyond him in some way.

How he responds may convey a great deal about that character.

In Spider-verse

Plot point one happened when Miles got bit by the spider. He literally will never be the same after that. So what does he do? He reacts to his changing body.

He wakes up and his pants are too small.

Reaction: "I must have hit puberty."

So he has to go to class in clothes that are too small for him.

He's reacting to all his changes--his thoughts are too loud, he's sweaty, he's become more perceptive

He runs into Gwen and gets his hand stuck in her hair. They both are reacting, a lot. Miles is trying to get unstuck, but Gwen must shave her hair. As the morning goes on, Miles is sticking to everything: walls, ceilings, clothes, even pigeons. (Notice how this section also introduces us to his new powers.)

He realizes that this is just like Spider-man, so what does he do? He reacts by trying to get more answers--retracing his steps to find the spider he actually got bit by. Which leads to the first pinch point.

Pinch Point 1



Nobody likes getting pinched. Not even those obnoxious kids who didn't wear green on St. Patrick's Day to instigate pinches. You know the ones. You pinch them, and they reveal they are secretly wearing green so they could pinch you 10 times. 🤦‍♀️ (Talk about antagonistic forces.)

A pinch point relates to the antagonistic force. It's what you would imagine. It's the equivalent of the protagonist getting pinched by the antagonist. It might be a small pinch or it might be one that leaves a nasty bruise. Whatever the case, it reveals to the audience that the antagonist is a legit force and foe.

Typically, the pinch puts pressure on the protagonist, forcing her into action.

If the antagonistic force has already been introduced, this moment heightens the sense of pain, pressure, or tension and reveals the antagonist to be worse or "more" than what the we gleaned prior.

If the antagonistic force hasn't yet been introduced, then this is his/her/its introduction.

In some pinch points, the hero may not actually be present, but the audience perceives that the antagonist is going to be a legitimate problem for the hero, even if the hero herself is unaware.

In Spider-verse



Since the antagonistic force hasn't yet been introduced, the pinch point does that, while also illustrating that Kingpin is a legitimate foe to be reckoned with.

After finding the dead spider, Miles's spider senses (which he is still discovering/reacting to) lead him toward the collider, where he finds Spider-man fighting off villains.

We see the collider in action. We see Spider-man in action. And we see Kingpin in action.

And what does he do? As soon as Miles has someone to talk to and get help from (Spider-man promises to teach him), Kingpin kills him. If that's not a pinch, I don't know what is.

But we aren't done yet.

Kingpin sees Miles and sends Prowler after him to kill him.

Now we have seen the antagonists, and we know how powerful and formidable they are. They just killed THE Spider-man.

Miles is now the only who knows about the collider, and it will destroy all of Brooklyn if he doesn't stop it! The pinch point puts pressure on him and forces him to act.


Escalate Stakes and Costs (Broaden and Deepen)




In the middle of a story, stakes and costs should either broaden or deepen or do both (you've heard me talk about this before.)

The stakes are what the protagonist has to lose; it is what is at risk in the story. The costs are what it takes to save that. And both need to escalate through the middle.


In Spider-verse

In the beginning of the story, all Miles had at stake was his academic future and his relationship with his dad. But now the stakes have broadened. If he doesn't stop Kingpin and the collider, everyone in Brooklyn will die!

And it's going to cost a lot to stop that from happening. As we just saw with Spider-man, it may even cost Miles his life. At the very least, he's going to have to learn to harness his spider powers.

But the stakes also deepen. They become more personal. His family lives in Brooklyn, so they could die too. And right now, his relationship with his dad is becoming more strained. Miles feels more alone now than he did before. Because he knows his dad hates Spider-man, he feels he can't turn to him for help.

As the middle continues, you will see that the stakes and costs become more and more personal, and even broader as he learn this conflict not only affects the people here, but the other spider people (and therefore by extension, their dimensions).


Wanderer State


Complementary to the reaction part of the story, is the "wanderer" phase. A wanderer doesn't really know what she is doing or where she is going. She's going in some direction, because she is in motion, but she's largely responding, like we talked about. During this state of being, the protagonist often accumulates sidekicks, mentors, friends, partners, and anyone else that is going to help her on her journey, as she's wandering around trying to make sense or fix everything. If these characters were already introduced or foreshadowed in the setup, we'll now get to know their "true identities" (figurative or literal) and "magical abilities" (figurative or literal). This section is particularly common in the Hero's Journey story structure.

In Spider-verse


Even after Peter Parker's death, Miles is still reacting, but now he is not only reacting to his abilities, but to everything related to Kingpin. He is trying to makes sense of what is going on and how to solve the problem. He is trying (dismally) to learn to use his spider abilities. But it's not enough. He needs more help. He needs more knowledge.

In steps Peter B. Parker, from another dimension, who becomes the reluctant mentor.

But that's not the only person Miles meets. He gets to meet Gwen Stacy . . . the real Gwen Stacy.

And he also accumulates a number of other side characters who have abilities that can help him.


Thematic Threads and Character Arcs



In the beginning, we introduced the theme and the main character's arc. Those two things almost always go hand in hand. The arc demonstrates and validates the theme. The theme puts words to the character arc and provides the takeaway value of the story.

In Amanda Rawson Hill's fabulous article on theme and character arcs, she explains that the protagonist starts in a state that is the opposite of the theme. They start with a "false theme statement." (Note: in some rare stories, the character can start with the true theme statement, but probably 95% of stories start with a false theme statement, and starting with the true theme statement is extremely difficult to write, in part because the character can't have that arc. In either case, the middle is handled somewhat similarly.)

So what happens through the middle?

The story forces the protagonist to question their "false theme statement" (what they falsely believe to be true or right). So the middle should be dealing with theme by getting the protagonist and the audience to question and explore different points of the theme topic. It will test theme statements.

One of the biggest problems I see happen here with writers, is that they start implementing correct thematic answers too early. Those should come at the end of the story. Right now, in the middle, we need to see characters struggle with the theme. We need to ask real questions about the theme topic. Sure, the thematic statement can be mentioned, but it shouldn't fully fit or be realized yet, for the protagonist.

The theme statement is only really meaningful when it's realized after there is a struggle--just as with most parts of storytelling.

One of the best ways to include thematic questioning and exploration is to have characters with different perspectives on the theme topic. Another is to include more plot elements that explore it. And since those often go hand in hand, you can do both. (You can read more about that here.)

In Spider-verse



Like I talked about last time with beginnings, the theme in Spider-verse is not quitting. It's getting back up no matter how many times you get knocked down.

But what does Miles believe in?

He wants to quit. In fact, his teacher even calls him out on the fact that he's trying to quit school.

In the middle, he's still wanting to quit. He asks his mom if she's ever thought of moving out of Brooklyn. What does his mom say? "Our family doesn't run from things, Miles."

But Miles hasn't fully embodied the theme yet. He doesn't fully, really believe it yet, because he hasn't experienced it yet.

And guess what, there are other characters who have different perspectives and interactions with the theme that call the thematic statement into question.

At the collider, Spider-man can't get up. Miles asks him if he can. What does he say?

"I always get back up." --this is the same Spider-man from the prologue.

But what happens? He literally isn't able to get back up, and he dies.

That definitely calls some things into question.

Then we get Peter B. Parker. And his whole introduction is a perfect antithesis to the thematic statement, in fact, they literally overlap. While he's saying that he never gives up and always gets back up, his actions are saying the exact opposite. He failed his marriage. He failed at his finances. He failed at personal health. He failed at personal fitness. He doesn't really thrive off being Spider-man. He's literally crying curled up in his shower and eating pizza. He's interacting with the theme differently than the other characters.

Gwen Stacy. Failed to save her best friend. Unlike other characters, she hasn't quit completely. She's still Spider-Gwen, in a band, doing dance and school, but she quit making friends. She sorta got back up--with limitations.

Uncle Aaron, dying in the alley, what does he say to Miles? "I just wanted you to look up to me, and I let you down." Aaron didn't live up to his expectations and potential either. And when he's dying, what does he ask Miles to do? "You're on your way. Just keep going." aka, don't quit.

You can see similar things happen with other thematic statements in the story, like about choices and faith.

But the middle asks us to question the theme topic and demonstrates real struggles with it. The theme isn't simple. And it's not easy.


Midpoint

At the midpoint, new information enters the story that changes the context. It moves the protagonist from reaction to action. He stops being a wanderer and turns into a warrior, ready to fight back and attack.

And again, there is just too much awesome to fit into one post! So next time, I'll continue talking about middles and go into more with the midpoint.


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