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Monday, May 17, 2021

How Each of the 5 Major Plot Points Turns a Story


I recently had an epiphany on structure that I wanted to share. When I first realized this, it felt pretty significant (at least to me), but as more time has gone on, I've realized, in some sense, it's actually kind of obvious--I just hadn't seen it from this perspective before 😆 I'm willing to bet a lot of others haven't either, so it's definitely something I want to share. But where to start? I think I'll start with a problem I ran into: midpoints.

Midpoints happen in the middle of the story (usually around the 50% mark, give or take). It's a moment when new, significant information--or at least a shift in context--enters and turns the story in a different direction. To put more simply (or in some ways, vaguely), it's when the protagonist gets a sense of what's "really going on" in the plot. 

For example, in the movie Interstellar, the midpoint happens when the characters learn that there is no Plan A--everyone on Earth is destined to die. 

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the midpoint happens when Harry overhears the professors in the Three Broomsticks and learns Sirius Black is the reason his parents are dead.

The midpoint moves the protagonist from reaction to action. It enables them to go on the attack--at least a more informed, aggressive attack than before.

This is what I was first taught midpoints were, and I was introduced to them in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.

But as time went on, I ran into a different definition.

In Blake Snyder's Save the Cat!, he says that midpoints are events--a "false win" or a "false lose."

It's near the middle, and it's when the protagonist seems to win or lose what he or she wants. 

For example, in Mulan, the midpoint happens when Mulan retrieves the arrow on the post, proving herself worthy of staying in the army with the men (a seeming victory).

In Stranger Things Season One, the midpoint is recovering Will's body (a seeming defeat). 

So which is it? Is a midpoint new information? Or is it an event?

Personally, the more time goes on, the more I think both definitions are right. So these days, I prefer to combine them together:

The midpoint is a significant event and/or revelation that is either a seeming victory or a seeming defeat for the protagonist. It often provides a broader understanding of what's actually happening in the plot, enabling the protagonist to become more proactive in their goals. 

The midpoint almost always happens right in the middle of the story. 

And it pivots the story into the second half.

(Of course, this is not to say some rules can't be broken.)

Okay, now I'm going to talk about something else, and come back to this. 

I've talked about the next section a few times, so if you are already familiar with it, feel free to skim the next few paragraphs. 

In a well-structured story, nearly everything makes this shape--whether it's a scene, sequence, act, or whole story. And it can even fit, in smaller pieces, inside a scene. It's essentially like a nesting doll or a fractal. 

The climactic moment is sometimes called a turning point because it "turns" the direction of the story. 

This moment can only be one of two things (well, or both of them): a revelation, or an action. 

Why? Because these are the only ways to turn a story.

This is most obvious in the overall plot level because that is what we are most familiar with. THEE climactic moment will either be a revelation or an action and often it's both. 

Whatever it is, and in whatever it is (scene, sequence, act, or whole plot), that's the turning point. 

I do want to add one thing: it doesn't necessarily have to be the protagonist who has the revelation or takes the action to create a turning point. It just needs to be someone significant, so that it turns the story. For example, a turning point may be the audience or an important side character having a revelation. Or it may be someone else (likely the antagonist) taking an action. 


In the structure of a whole story, there are usually several major turning points:

1. The Inciting Incident (sometimes called the "Catalyst" or "Call to Adventure")

This is when something new enters the story and disrupts the established normal. The inciting incident will either be a problem or an opportunity. In The Hunger Games, Prim having her name drawn out at the reaping is the inciting incident--it's what turns the story in a new direction, leading us into the main conflict. Without that problem, the books wouldn't exist. In Harry Potter, the inciting incident is Hagrid telling Harry, "Yer a wizard" and inviting him to Hogwarts. Without that opportunity, the books wouldn't exist. 

2. Plot Point 1 (sometimes called "Break into Two" or "Crossing the Threshold")

I hesitate to use the term "Plot Point 1" because I've found it to be rather ambiguous, as some people consider it to be (or at least include) the inciting incident, while others consider it to be the moment the protagonist chooses to move forward irrevocably, to address the new problem or opportunity. This is usually a transitional segment that takes us from the beginning of the story to the middle of the story. (Today, this is what I mean by "Plot Point 1.")

In Interstellar, this is when Cooper blasts off into space. That can't be undone, and it takes us into the main conflict of the story, the middle. 

In Mulan, Mulan cuts her hair, takes the armor and horse, and goes to the camp in her father's place. Once she arrives as "Ping," her decision can't be undone (at least not without big ramifications, such as dishonoring her whole family). This takes us to the main conflict, the middle of the story. 

The inciting incident and Plot Point 1 put the protagonist into a reactionary state. They are reacting to new obstacles. 

3. Midpoint

I already talked a lot about midpoints, but just to keep things even, I'll repeat. 

The midpoint is a significant event and/or revelation that is either a seeming victory or a seeming defeat for the protagonist. It often provides a broader understanding of what's actually happening in the plot, enabling the protagonist to become more proactive in their goals. 

The midpoint almost always happens right in the middle of the story. 

And it pivots the story into the second half.

You can see examples above. 

4. Plot Point 2

At the end of the middle, a few things usually happen: 

The protagonist faces the antagonistic force and experiences a defeat. This leads to what's called an "all is lost" moment--where it feels like (as you probably guessed) everything is lost, like there is no way the protagonist can succeed.

Soon after this, though, the protagonist gains something empowering that allows them to move forward toward the climax. 

Some writers call the "all is lost" moment Plot Point 2, while others call the moment of empowerment Plot Point 2. What matters is that you understand that these things happen. This can get a little more complicated (for example, instead of experiencing a defeat, the protagonist may get what he wants and experience a hollow victory), but I'm gonna stop here for today.

Like Plot Point 1, this is a transitional segment that turns the story toward the climax--it moves us from the middle of the story to the end of the story.

In Mulan, Mulan is discovered to be a woman and dishonored. She thinks of going home, when she learns that the Huns are still alive. This propels her to the climax. 

In Spider-verse, Miles watches his uncle die and gets tied up. After his dad visits, he gains a clear understanding of perseverance and faith, busts free, and heads to the climax.

5. Climax

The climax is the most pivotal turning point. It will either hinge on a revelation or an action and often it's both. 

It might be a revelation that leads to an action. Or it might be an action that leads to a revelation.

For example, the protagonist may have an epiphany (a revelation, and often a thematic one) that informs him how to defeat the antagonist, so the protagonist takes that action. Alternatively, the protagonist takes an action to defeat the antagonist, and the result leads to a realization. If the latter happens, often the revelation will be further explained after the danger has passed. 

For example, in Interstellar, Cooper realizes that love is indeed part of a higher dimension, and through it, he can communicate to his daughter Murph. He then takes the required action to reach her across spacetime and save the human race (and therefore defeat the antagonistic force). 

In Harry Potter, Harry takes action against Quirrel. This leads to a revelation: Quirrel can't touch him. Later, Dumbledore explains Lily's sacrifice left Harry a magical protection: love. 

(Love doesn't have to be the realization, of course, I just happened to pick two examples that share that in common 😆)

Now, this is all generally speaking, and it will be different if you are working with negative character arcs, but talking about all the variations is beyond the scope of this article, today. 

Let's start tying these topics together! 


So, generally, there have been two different definitions of the midpoint. Significant information. Or significant event. 

Well:

Information = Revelation

Event = Action

Revelation is just another word for "new information," while "event" is just another word for action. Right? 

Guess what? The midpoint and the climax are similar in this way. They turn on revelation or action or even both. 

What about the other major turning points? 

Every story structure I've looked at, emphasizes that at Plot Point 1 (or "Crossing the Threshold" or "Break into Two"), the protagonist chooses to move forward--that means taking action. The protagonist doesn't just want to move forward, he has to do something. So Plot Point 1 turns on action. 

Let's look at Plot Point 2. After the "all is lost" lull, the protagonist almost always learns ("gains") something. This may be plot-focused--such as Mulan learning the Huns are still alive. Or it may be thematic, such as Miles Morales now understanding and embracing perseverance and faith. But it's essentially new information, a new understanding. So Plot Point 2 turns on revelation. 

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking of stories that maybe don't fit this. You are thinking of stories where Plot Point 1 hinges on revelation and Plot Point 2 hinges on action. Like many writing subjects, this can become a chicken vs. egg conundrum. After all, when we act, we learn new things. And when we learn new things, we act.

A protagonist may learn something new that leads him to take action for Plot Point 1. 

And the "all is lost" moment usually follows a big event (read: action), so we may have an action that comes before the revelation of Plot Point 2. 

It's also not impossible to have two actions in a row, or two revelations in a row. 

But Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2 are transitional segments. They turn us to the middle and to the end, respectively. And that turn is usually an action and a revelation, respectively. 

Of course, I'm not going to go as far as saying that no stories exist that break these rules. But most stories turn in these ways. 

It's also worth noting that sometimes you have moments that blur the lines a little--for example, a character may take a big action that reveals something significant simultaneously.

Recall how earlier I said not all turning points are focused on the protagonist. For example, a turning point in a scene, may be an antagonist taking an action. A revelation may be a side character learning something. In a well-structured story, there will be lots of turning points of action and revelation. And of course, you can slice and dice stories in different ways (which is why learning structure can be so confusing sometimes). 

But when it comes to these four major turning points, they usually focus on the protagonist. 

At Plot Point 1, the protagonist takes a forward action.

At the midpoint, the protagonist takes a significant action or learns something significant.

At Plot Point 2, the protagonist gains valuable information.

At the climax, the protagonist has a realization and/or takes an action that thwarts the antagonistic force.


Now we have the inciting incident. The inciting incident is a little different than the other major turning points because it's what kicks off the story. It's the first turn that starts the story--it's disrupting an established normal, not changing up the main conflict. 

Unlike the other four major turning points, the inciting incident sort of . . . How do I want to say this? It sort of comes from outside the protagonist more? In the other major turning points, it's the protagonist who is acting and gaining information on the journey. 

The inciting incident hinges more on an outside source. I mean, it has to, because it disrupts the protagonist's life. The protagonist hasn't hit the main conflict yet. 

For example, Effie in The Hunger Games and Gandalf in The Hobbit, are the ones bringing the inciting incidents to Katniss and Bilbo, respectively. In Legally Blonde, Warner is the one breaking up with Elle. 

This isn't a perfect concept, but it is a generality. Perhaps the idea I'm trying to convey is that the inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist. (Usually, there are exceptions.)

Notice that the inciting incident can also hinge on an action or a revelation. 

Peter Parker getting bit by a radioactive spider is an action. It's the spider's action--an outsider's action--against Peter.

Harry being told he's a wizard from Hagrid is a revelation. It's information that Harry didn't even know to consider--completely unexpected.

So let's map out the five major turns:

Inciting Incident: Disrupting Action or Revelation

Plot Point 1: Primarily Turns on Action

Midpoint: Turns on Action and/or Revelation

Plot Point 2: Primarily Turns on Revelation

Climax: Turns on Action and/or Revelation

Now you will have a clearer understanding of how to handle the five major turning points in your own stories.

And should you have a protagonist who does not want to take action at Plot Point 1, as is sometimes the case--well, I have something to help with that

That pretty much sums up my epiphany . . . or should I say, revelation? 😉

(And to those who have been asking more about steadfast/flat-arc protagonists, I do have more on that in the works.)

2 comments:

  1. Wow! What an amazing analysis/synthesis of information. Thank you so much!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jen,

      Thank you! Hopefully it will make things clearer for everyone. :)

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