Every good novel has at least one protagonist, and every protagonist has a goal. Use H.R. D’Costa’s (Aka HRD) SMART technique to make sure your protagonist’s story objective is powerful enough to go the distance and keep your audience reading.
SMART is an acronym. Here’s how HRD desribes each component:
S – Specific (it’s concrete, not amorphous or abstract)
M – Measureable (it has a clear indicator of success or failure)
A – Actionable (even a brief description immediately conjures a few of the action steps needed to accomplish it)
R – Realistic (it’s credible for your hero to achieve it)
T – Time-bound (it must be accomplished by a certain deadline)
Keep in mind that other story characters also have goals. Use SMART to discover what your antagonist is trying to accomplish. Sometimes, you can start here and work backwards to discover your protagonist’s goal.
Here’s how I describe Lee Harding’s SMART goal in my current work in progress: S (he wants Ray Archer brought to justice for the kidnapping and murder of Kyle Bennett, Lee’s childhood friend who disappeared half-a-century ago); M (either Ray will be arrested or he won’t); A (there are multiple things Lee can do to investigate Kyle’s disappearance and Ray’s involvement); R (Lee is an attorney, thus he, along with allies such as a private investigator and the District Attorney, can marshall the skills and resources needed); and T (Lee arrives in Boaz in late November and has until February (the beginning of Spring semester at Yale Law School) to accomplish his goal).
It’s time to write. Use HRD’s SMART technique to discover your protagonist’s goal. Fifteen minutes invested in focused free-writing might stimulate your creative juicies. Start your session by asking yourself, “what question is my protagonist trying to answer?” Or, “what problem is he trying to solve?” After your time is over, write your protagonist’s SMART goal.
We’ve seen that the First Plot Point comes at the end of Act I, the 25% mark of our story. During the first half of Act II (recall, Act II comprises 50% of our novel) our protagonist and his allies react to the First Plot Point. H.R. D’Costa refers to the key scenes of Act IIA as try-fail cycles. This brings us to the Midpoint, AKA the Second Plot Point (the Third Plot Point comes at the end of Act IIB).
What should happen at the Midpoint? In sum, it’s a scene where everything changes once again. This is the end of our protagonist’s reacting. It’s the time his mindset transforms into a take-charge attitude. It’s the time his behavior pivots from reaction to action. Think of it as our second Inciting Incident.
Just as the first Inciting Incident causes the First Plot Point, the Midpoint follows the same logical, A causes B, pattern. It is a natural consequence of what has come before. Further, the Midpoint continues this causal chain by starting a chain of events that lead our protagonist to the story’s climax. But, the Midpoint is uniquely different from the many try-fail cycles of Act IIA.
It is important to keep in mind the one thing that doesn’t change throughout our novel until the very end: our protagonist is pursuing his goal. Whether you are writing Act IIA or Act IIB, our main character is on one key mission, whether he is in the reactive or active mode. However, the Midpoint is a dramatic and clarifying moment, one that will move our main character closer or farther away from accomplishing his goal. Either way, the event intensifies the protagonist’s commitment and determination.
D’Costa refers to the Midpoint event as the fulcrum. The Dictionary defines this word as “the pivot about which a lever turns.” The fulcrum event involves the protagonist or an ally (or both). It could be an attempted murder, a kidnapping, a near-fatal boating accident. The antagonist (or antagonistic force) has at least a minimum connection to the Midpoint event.
In my current work in progress, there is an explosion and fire that, on first consideration, appears accidental. It turns out, it’s not.
As a new writer, you quickly learn that Act II is the hardest part of creating a novel. Why? It consumes 200 pages of your 400-page book. It is where many a writer ‘hits the wall,’ and frequently tosses his manuscript into the trash. It’s the perfect place for your readers to get bored and grab another novel from their TBR (to be read) stack.
Having a dramatic and unique Midpoint is a key antidote for writer and reader.
In the three-act structure, pinch points come in Act II. Recall, Act I comprises the first 25% of your novel; Act II 50%; and Act III, the remaining 25 percent. Thus, Act II is twice as long as either Act I or Act III. The long wasteland of Act II cries out for help to avoid losing the reader in boredom and reading exhaustion.
Here’s a visual to locate both pinch points:
0 to 25%
26 to 36%
First Pinch Point
Balance of Act IIA
38 to 49%
51 to 61%
Second Pinch Point
Balance of Act IIB
63 to 75%
76 to 100%
Of course, these are approximations. It would be impossible to perfectly hit these marks.
Pinch points from the real world
The Dictionary defines a pinch point as, “a place or point where congestion occurs or is likely to occur, especially on a road.” It gives an example: “the planners have suggestions to ease traffic jams at ninety-two pinch points.”
In a manufacturing setting, OSHA defines a pinch point as, “any point other than the point of operation at which it is possible for a part of the body to be caught between the moving parts of a press or .…”
At one end of the spectrum, a pinch point can simply be an unpleasant and time-delaying experience. At the opposite end, it can cause injury or death.
Back to the Novel world
A pinch point, as defined by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering, is “an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force.”
A pinch point reveals to the reader some aspect of the antagonist’s power, something about his badness, which naturally reveals what our hero (our protagonist) is up against. Often, a pinch point reveals the hero’s weakness or flaw that will be a constant problem. Readers become more aware of the difficulty of the challenge the hero has taken on and what will happen to him if he cannot accomplish his goal.
Pinch points are minor turning points, directional signs, used as set-ups or foreshadowing for the next major plot point.
In Sanity Snippet #2, we began our book development journey by considering the importance of a solid idea, what we referred to as the story kernel. This idea/kernel has to be strong enough to carry the weight of the story for three to four hundred pages.
We learned that the kernel contains several key components: protagonist, goal, antagonist, stakes, genre, and hook. We ended Snippet #2 by writing our protagonist’s backstory overview. Today, we’ll continue developing our protagonist’s profile (the complete character profile will consume several Sanity Snippet’s).
First, a note about stories. To me, there are three broad categories of novels: 1) those where the protagonist has some external goal (winning the Super Bowl); 2) those where the protagonist has an internal goal (to forgive the man who accidentally killed his wife); and, 3) those where the protagonist has both an external and an internal goal (winning the Super Bowl and forgiving the man who accidentally killed his wife). The latter makes for a deeper, richer story. Experts refer to the external goal as the protagonist’s want or desire, and his internal goal as his need. Let’s focus on the third story category.
Every hero (our story’s main character, our protagonist) has a backstory that includes something that caused him great pain. Often, this is rooted in a particular event that caused deep psyche pain (example, a thirteen year old losing his only parent). Other times, the event could be a past mistake, something done in a moment of weakness, or be something caused by a general deficiency in our hero’s personality. Whatever the cause, we’ll call this the emotional wound, wound for short. Keep in mind the wound acts as active geyser, spouting multiple personality elements that negatively affect our protagonist including his primary fear, the lie he believes, his flaws, and other negative traits.
Personally, in the story kernel I’m considering, my thirteen year old protagonist, Billy Orr, recently experienced the death of his mother to cancer. This is Billy’s wound. It is his internal problem and will affect his journey to the end of my story.
Consider your protagonist and brainstorm his past and the various negative events he has experienced. Choose the one that caused him the most emotional pain and continues to negatively affect his life. It might be helpful to consider your story’s ending and how you want your protagonist to end up. This will determine whether you are writing a positive or negative character arc (of course, you can choose a flat arc but that dispels the need for the wound). Start writing your thoughts. It’s okay to ramble and to repeatedly ask ‘what if’ questions.
The First Plot Point is the protagonist’s point of no return (aka, ‘crossing the threshold’). It is a major event that changes everything, especially for our protagonist. He leaves his ordinary life and steps solidly into the world of the antagonist. Our main character has no choice but to react to what’s just happened.
Often the story’s setting changes during this event. For example, Harry Potter boards a train at Kings Cross station and leaves his ordinary world behind. When he arrives at Hogwarts school, he enters the extraordinary world and his life changes forever.
The First Plot Point belongs at the end of Act I (around the 25% mark). It marks the end of the setup of our story. It serves as a passageway to Act II.
Have you watched the movie Taken? It’s the movie starring Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent. He is on the phone with his daughter, Kim, when she is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers. This is the First Plot Point. This is where everything changes. This is Bryan’s point of no return.
How about Mystic River? Sean, a homicide detective, discovers Jimmy’s daughter, Katie. She’s dead, murdered. Everything changes for all the key characters. Their normal world has ended.
Let’s look at a couple of well-known novels. In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Nick’s wife, Amy, has gone missing. Is this serious? Or just her little treasure hunt? The First Plot Point is when the investigators discover Amy’s first clue. They trail along behind Nick.
Everyone has either read or heard of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The First Plot Point is when Atticus’ children learn he has agreed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the entire community is in an uproar.
In developing your First Plot Point it is imperative to create a causal relationship: A causes B, where A is your Inciting Incident and B is your First Plot Point. If you have trouble, consider working backwards. Say you know what event so entangles your Protagonist that he cannot walk away. Something solidly locked him into his point of no return. Then, ask yourself, what caused him to reach this point?
In my current work in progress, Lee’s point of no return is his decision to travel from his home in New Haven, Connecticut to Boaz, Alabama, his childhood stomping ground. The cause of Lee’s decision is his deceased wife’s diaries (and her parents request for Lee’s legal help). The diaries revelation is my Inciting Incident.
If you have a story idea in mind, engage yourself in a brainstorming exercise. First, list a few possibilities for your First Plot Point making sure your Protagonist is leaving his ordinary world and entering the extraordinary. Then, think of two or more Inciting Incidents that could cause each of these First Plot Points.
Your First Plot Point is a lot like your protagonist jumping off a cliff.
Next week, we’ll look at the First Pinch Point.
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I’ve been giving some thought to my Sanity Snippet project. I’ve gained some clarity and believe an alternative approach will provide more value to my beginning novelist readers.
As earlier described, the goal of Sanity Snippets was to provide encouragement and an opportunity for writing practice. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that the practice will be more logically fluent and provide a pathway to writing your first novel. Please allow me to illustrate with an analogy.
Think of the game of football. I recall football practices from my high school days. I still cannot believe that was over half-a-century ago. There definitely was a logic to what Coach Hicks had us players do: warmup exercises, breaking into groups by player type to work on skills and techniques (quarterbacks, footwork & throwing, and receivers running routes and catching), dividing into teams and scrimmaging, and finally, running wind-sprints to close out the practice session (fun, fun). These long and grueling hours were not merely for the sake of having something to do. They were for one purpose, that of preparing our minds and bodies to defeat our next opponent. Think of the ‘game’ of novel writing. It too requires many long and grueling hours of practice.
This analogy has altered my plans for Sanity Snippets. I think we must have a focused plan and not write something that may have nothing to do with our first or next novel. We need to better use the time we spend on the writing practice field.
In sum, our daily writing practice will be fruitful if we write a few words or sentences (more is even better). The extra benefit is that our efforts will move us positively toward our long-term goal: our self-published book.
Sound good? Great. Let’s get started.
All novels start with an idea, but not just any idea. It has to be one that will carry the weight of our story for 3 to 400 hundred pages. I can easily testify that not all ideas can perform at that level. I have many a manuscript that met its death somewhere early in Act II.
You may already have an idea. You may have already written a few notes. Maybe they concern an interesting circumstance, a character’s unique personality, a symbol or image, a few lines of explosive dialogue, or a complete scene or two. Many writers refer to these disparate thoughts as story seeds.
It’s critical to evaluate and develop your ideas before wasting countless hours and words just to find yourself lost in a dark cave with no hope of finding your way home. H.R. D’Costa refers to this evaluation and development process as “popping the story kernel.”
In her invaluable writing guide, Sizzling Story Outlines: How to Outline Your Screenplay or Novel, D’Costa teaches that once we isolate our story kernel (the story seed that appears to incorporate all or most of the others; usually involves a situation, a character, or a theme), there are six key components (protagonist, goal, antagonist, stakes, genre, and hook) we must address before we can determine if our story kernel can go the distance.
Now, to today’s Sanity Snippet. Start thinking and writing about your main character. This is your story’s protagonist. Here’s a few questions to answer: 1) male or female?; 2) age?; 3) name?; 4) physical characteristics?; and 5) what’s his or her backstory?
Here’s a backstory overview for my protagonist: Billy has grown up in New York City. He just completed the 8th grade at The Math & Science Exploratory School in Brooklyn. His widowed mother just died of pancreatic cancer.
The above five questions are all important. Don’t just think about your answers, write them down.
Remember, this is going to take a while. We are going to eat this elephant one bite at a time.
The second beat of Act I is the inciting incident. Good storytelling inextricably ties it to the key event.
We are familiar with the word incite and how it is used in a sentence: the murder of twelve-year-old Kenny Barnard by a police officer incited a riot.
Here’s how Merriam Webster defines incite: “to move to action: stir up: spur on: urge on.” Note, these words are verbs.
We can conclude that some action caused an incident or event (I’ll use these interchangeably without referencing the differences). Kenny’s murder caused the riot. The riot is an event. In sum, an inciting incident is an event that triggers the story. All stories have to get started; remember, all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The trigger is like a stick of dynamite. The event happens. It’s an explosion. Repercussions follow.
K.M. Weiland describes the inciting incident “as being the moment when the story ‘officially’ begins and the character’s life is forever changed.”
Of course, our trigger doesn’t have to be loud. It might not seem all that powerful. It could be as simple as Lee finding his deceased wife’s diary (taken from my current work in progress).
As expected, there is disagreement among writing experts as to various aspects of the inciting incident. What is it? Is it the hook? Is it the first plot Point? Where does it belong? Is it the same thing as the key event? And, on and on. And, yes, I have my own opinions.
I like this oft-cited example taken from crime fiction. A murder takes place. This is the inciting incident, the trigger, the event that gets the story rolling. Later, maybe the next scene, the victim’s sister hires private eye Connor Ford to investigate the crime. The latter is the key event. It’s the glue that connects the protagonist to the inciting incident. Simply put, there is no need for the key event without the inciting incident. The sister doesn’t need Connor Ford if her brother is not killed.
Again, Weiland (citing Syd Field’s Screenplay) provides clarity in defining these terms: “the inciting incident… sets the story in motion… [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.” This ‘drawing’ essentially forbids the protagonist from turning away. He cannot, not, go on this journey (not necessarily a physical journey).
“Robert McKee says humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into a story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and the fear, otherwise the story will never happen.”
Don’t think the inciting incident is always as tidy as my Connor Ford example. In fact, our trigger might come before our story, before our beginning. For example: what if Kenny’s murder took place fifteen years earlier when his son Kent was just a baby? Now, in our story, Kent has a schoolyard fight with the police officer’s son over the fifteen year old murder. This fight is the glue, the key event, what connects our current story’s protagonist (Kent) to the journey he’ll travel for the next 3-400 pages of our novel.
An inciting incident isn’t always logical, it’s not always predictable. Often, it is just a random or chance event, just a coincidence. No matter how it arises, there is a predictable element (not always, but mostly). The inciting incident creates or reveals a problem for the protagonist that transforms his normal self.
This quote from Masterclass says it well: “Make your inciting action cause a noticeable shift in your character. A compelling inciting action will make your character take actions [he] would not have otherwise. In The Fugitive TV series, Dr. Richard Kimble loses his wife to murder and, worse still is accused of that murder. These traumatic events change Kimble, and they launch him onto a quest so compelling that it sustained four full seasons of television.”
H.R. D’Costa, creator of scribemeetsworld.com, says the inciting incident has four key characteristics: 1) it’s passive; 2) it jolts the hero out of his everyday world; 3) it’s personal; and, 4) it’s causally linked to the first act break. If you want to go much deeper, read her writing guide, Inciting Incident. You can purchase it here in ebook format: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D9UQUXO/
Let’s end with a point of clarification. I’ve revealed this indirectly, but it’s important to see clearly. The inciting incident and the key event have a cause-and-effect relationship. The inciting incident causes the key event. Or, the key event results from the inciting incident. The killing of Kenny Barnard caused the riot.
Initially, I didn’t identify a protagonist, and here I’m referring to the murder taking place inside our current story. I’m sure you can see some possibilities for our protagonist. Maybe it is the police chief. Maybe it is Kevin, Kenny’s twin brother. The point here is the causal relationship.
In fact, this is a critical characteristic for the novel. Our readers look for causation. A causes B. B causes C, and on and on. Of course, our reader may be wrong, but causality is imperative. Few readers will spend time with a story that is simply multiple, “and then this happens.”
Cause and effect, it all starts with our inciting incident and key event.
Your protagonist has an external problem. It’s one he’s had for a while, or it’s something that just hit him out of nowhere. I apologize to all females. I use the male gender to avoid the burdensome ‘he’s had/she’s had.’
Give your protagonist a name and describe his problem.
Do not make this difficult. At most, this should take only a few minutes.
Grab your pencil and write. Just a sentence or two will do. Don’t fret about grammar and punctuation.
It could be as simple as: Fourteen-year-old Billy is losing his mother. He doesn’t know his father. Billy dreads moving in with his Aunt Melanie.
Or, here’s another approach: Billy’s problem is his Aunt Melanie.
Your protagonist name can be anything. His problem can be anything. Of course, if you already have a story idea, use it for this practice assignment.
You are in control.
Use this photo if you need to.
Start keeping a log of how many words you write per day (date/number of words). You can use a small notepad or a note-taking APP on your phone.
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