In Sanity Snippet #10 we determined our first-act break (AKA, the first plot point). Today, let’s consider the inciting incident.
This may appear backwards. For sure, you can plan your story, step by step, starting with the inciting incident (which normally comes around the 12% mark). The important thing to remember is these two key points in our story—the inciting incident and the first-act break—are causally connected. The inciting incident causes the first act break. So, if you know your first act break you simply ask yourself, “what could have caused X to happen?”
In The Boaz Stranger (my WIP), Lee (protagonist) leaves his job and home in New Haven, CT and returns to his North Alabama hometown. This is the first act break. Lee returns for two reasons. His in-laws asked for some legal help, and he wants to investigate something he just learned.
And what is that? Secret journal recordings Lee discovered in his deceased wife’s well-hidden diaries. This is the inciting incident. It causes Lee to take a break from teaching law and travel a thousand miles to his hometown to investigate a fifty year old cold case (disappearance and death of his high school friend in 1970), and the details concerning an abortion his wife had that ultimately caused her suicide.
Note, a physical change of setting often occurs as part of the first act break.
Even though Lee returned to North Alabama to assist his in-laws with a legal matter, his primary reason for doing so was to investigate what he’d discovered in his deceased wife’s diaries. It’s likely, without this discovery, Lee wouldn’t have been motivated to travel that far. He could have simply associated a local lawyer to assist with the required local court appearance.
Now, for your story. Whether you work backwards from your first act break or forward from your inciting incident, make sure the two events are connected. In fact, make sure that connection is causal. If not, your story won’t have the draw it needs to motivate readers to continue.
In the real world, humans look for connections. Often we conclude there is a causal link between A and B when there may be none. However, in fiction, causality must be more certain.
Take a pencil and paper and start doodling. Draw lines, stick figures, maps, and landscapes. Whatever, to brainstorm A causes B, keeping in mind that A (the inciting incident) gets the story going, and B (the first act break) is the point of no return for your protagonist.
It’s time to determine our story’s first act break. But first, let’s summarize.
We are using the three-act structure to develop our novel. Why? Because all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is well-established the beginning (Act I) comprises 25% of our story; the middle (Act II) is 50%; and the ending (Act III) fills the remaining 25%.
Act I is the setup, where we introduce our protagonist in his ordinary world. It’s where we learn a lot about him and develop a favorable attachment. He has an external problem and is called to do something about it. Even though, at first, he is reluctant, a mentor convinces him to go forward.
We are now at the end of Act I, close to the 25% mark. This is where our protagonist commits to the journey. In other words, he reacts to the Call to Action/Inciting Incident that occurred around the 12% mark. The first plot point is the point of no return. Some say this is when our hero crosses his personal Rubicon (Dictionary: “a line that when crossed permits of no return and typically results in irrevocable commitment”). Everything changes. It is a personal turning point for the protagonist. Often, it involves a change in physical setting.
Here’s an example provided by K.M. Weiland’s website: “It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): Throughout the first quarter of the story, George Bailey’s plans for his life have progressed uninterrupted. Despite his various misadventures in Bedford Falls, he’s on the fast track to a European vacation and a college education. Then the first plot point hits, and his life is forever changed. When his father dies of a stroke, George’s plans are dashed. As in Pride & Prejudice, the standards that have already been established in the story are dramatically altered. This is no longer a story about a carefree young man freewheeling around town. From here on out, this is a story about a man forced to take responsibility by working at the Bailey Brothers’ Building & Loan.”
Notice, the protagonist thought his life was on one path (European vacation and on to college), then his father dies and the family business lands in our hero’s lap, an inescapable personal turning point. George’s life will never be the same.
What about you? What’s your novel’s first plot point? Take out pencil and paper and do some brainstorming.
What first comes to mind? Fishing, no doubt. And now you broadly know why your story needs a hook. Without one, you won’t catch your prospective reader’s attention. Thus, she will never read your book.
H.R. D’Costa, in Sizzling Story Outlines, says story hooks come in a number of shapes and sizes, including: setting, character, origin of material, tone, title, book cover, reputation of the content creator, star power, word of mouth, and irony.
Here’s my first-thoughts about each of these eleven ‘shapes and sizes.’
Setting. The first permanent settlement on the other side of Mars.
Character. Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in the Bourne series. More about character below.
Origin of material. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, tells the true story of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. It obviously isn’t a novel in its purest form (fiction). Although it is based on a real life crime (non-fiction), it’s told in long-story form.
Tone. Per Google, tone “in literary terms, typically refers to the mood implied by an author’s word choice and the way that the text can make a reader feel. The tone an author uses in a piece of writing can evoke any number of emotions and perspectives.” How a novel handles bedroom doors, open or closed, may be the hook for some readers. Some prefer not to read about what happens, others want ever detail.
Title. The book’s title itself may hook the reader. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni, did it for me. Excellent story, and more details below when we look at character.
Book cover. D’Costa calls it, “candy for the eye.” You get the picture. You’ve been in a book store browsing around and been lured in by the photo, drawing, or other depiction on the front cover before touching the book. It might be the bold (or subtle) portrayal of sex. It might be a beautiful country scene, including a snow covered forest with cabin at the end of a long winding road with soft shafts of smoke rising from the chimney. You get the idea.
Reputation of the content creator. Seeing the author’s name can be all the hook a reader needs. Think John Grisham, Stephen King, or Nicolas Sparks. As for movies, the hook may be the producer. You ever heard of Steven Spielberg?
Star power. I’ve already mentioned Matt Damon. What about Julia Roberts? Tom Hanks? Meryl Streep? George Clooney? Of course, all of these are movie actors, but there are those we know from novels. Atticus Finch and Sherlock Holmes to name two (btw, if you’d like to try a great murder-mystery series, look no further than Hulu and Elementary. It’s about a modern day Sherlock Holmes and Watson, as in Joan Watson).
Word of mouth. You know all about it. The importance of a word of mouth recommendation. Hint, I just gave you one.
Irony. As D’Costa discloses, irony deserves a lot of ink. Succinctly, irony is the pairing of opposites, things we would never (or rarely at best) ever considering joining together. Here’s an example: a real estate mogul with a cloudy reputation (to put it mildly) and without any political experience, becomes President of the United States. Now, that would make a hell of a hook for a novel.
A hook is a lure. It’s like a magnet, drawing its prey closer and closer until there’s an inseparable connection.
Let me close with a brief look at the novel I finished reading yesterday: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni. I believe my experience illustrates an important point about hooks. As stated, it was the book’s title that lured me in. But, it’s not what kept me reading. Now, don’t get me wrong. The title, as a theme, no doubt was present throughout the book. However, there were a number of other reasons I kept turning the pages.
It should go without saying but, well, you know, I’m about to say it anyway. Dugoni is an excellent writer. One thing I liked was the minimal description and the short chapters. This doesn’t mean I couldn’t picture (or feel) what Sam was experiencing, but Dugoni doesn’t take a whole page detailing every chink in Our Lady of Mercy’s (the Catholic church just blocks from Sam’s boyhood home) front steps.
As an aside, if you think you like long and tedious descriptions (and explanations), I encourage you to read, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.
SPOILER ALERT. Let’s cut to the chase. It was Sam Hill, the protagonist, who served as the real lure for me. Sam (formally Samuel) was born to Maxwell and Madeline Hill in Burlingame, California (near San Francisco). He was born with red eyes, medically labeled, “ocular albinism.”
The story is told in two time frames: Sam’s youth and his adulthood (through, I think, his early to mid-forties). Of course, you’ve figured out that Sam’s red eyes (that’s where the ‘Hell’ comes from; he’s also called “Devil Boy”) are going to have an overwhelming affect upon his life. And, you’d be correct.
Sam’s story portrays a positive change arc. Thus, he starts one way and ends another. In between are scenes that move you from sadness and sympathy to uncontrollable laughter, with anger and more than a desire for vengence in between. They reveal what any school kid would experience if he’d been born with such a horrendous disability.
But, don’t tell Sam’s mother that her only child is disabled. She is a devout Catholic (recall, Our Lady of Mercy) who from Sam’s birth believed he is her gift from God and is destined for an extraordinary life. And, he is.
In a strong sense, I saw my own mother in Madeline Hill. She was Sam’s number one supporter throughout the story and her life, just like my dear, saintly mother. However, don’t believe Sam’s father wasn’t in his corner. He was, with his wisdom and tough love philosophy. And yes, like my own father.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two other folks who made Sam’s life worth living. His black friend, the athletic Ernie Cantwell, and the girl Sam loved from first site, the unorthodox Mickie Kennedy. Without them, the story would have been far poorer and Sam’s life would have been a bore.
Finally (sorry for such a long ‘snippet’), I encourage you to think about your own book. What type of hook will lure in your reader? Take some time to write down your thoughts.
Finally, we are at the end of our series where I’ve attempted to provide a thumbnail description of each component of the Three-Act Structure. Let’s look at the Resolution, where everything is finally resolved in one or a handful of scenes.
Technically, our story ended with the climax, where the good guy gets the bad guy (or the opposite if that’s the way your story goes). However, this isn’t satisfying to most readers.
Why? They are like you and me. After we’ve spent ten or more hours with an enjoyable character, we don’t want to walk away cold turkey. That’s too psychologically shocking. It’s akin to losing a good friend to a deadly accident. At a minimum, we want a glimpse of what the future holds for this wonderfully interesting character.
This puts him in a similar mental location as your good friend from college who returned to Italy after graduation and joined his family’s wine-making business. You know life goes on for him in a quasi-certain manner, and that you will probably never see him again. But that’s okay. You have wonderful memories of your college days together.
There’s another important aspect to the Resolution. Readers want to recognize and contemplate how the hero changed over the life of your story. Say, at the beginning, he is strikingly judgmental, even bigoted. He often made fun of people of color, gays, trans, you get it. Then, something happened (might be a series of ‘somethings’) over the story that changed his mind. He recognized why he held his former beliefs and how damaging they were, not only to those who heard his remarks, but to his own well-being. By the Resolution, the hero could be a primary leader supporting a Black Lives Matter protest. Readers register this positive change arc and believe, at least subliminally, they themselves can change for the better even if they are not judgmental or bigoted.
The scene or scenes that comprise the Resolution are usually short, but that depends on the number of loose ends that need to be tied off. Most writers say shorter is better—I obviously didn’t think so in The Boaz Seeker. Let me admit, it wound up being way too long but, to my elementary mind, needed.
Speaking of The Boaz Seeker. SPOILER ALERT. Several months transpire between the Climax and the Resolution. This timeframe correlates with the remaining months of Cullie’s pregnancy. The Resolution begins with an acknowledgment that her and Josh are married and little Katherine Aella Miller entered the world just a few weeks earlier. Everything seems great, despite an overhanging sadness left by Kate’s (Cullie’s mom) death.
Cullie and Josh are flying to St. Lucia in the Caribbean for a long-delayed honeymoon, and to celebrate their recent high school graduation. During the long flight from Birmingham, Cullie has plenty of time to think (while Josh reads Nick Saban’s book). She relays the resolution to several issues that haven’t been tied off.
Finally, the plane lands and the couple arrives at their private romantic villa on St. Lucia’s northwestern shore. Again, all bodes well for the young couple: two weeks in this gorgeous hideaway, and, at the end of summer, on to the University of Alabama where Josh plans to walk on as a prospective quarterback and Cullie puts her educational plans on hold to care for baby Katherine (nickname Kas).
After an enjoyable romp in the villa’s waterbed, the couple sets out to the beach for a long swim in the ocean. Cullie answers a phone call from sister Alysa, fearing something might be wrong with Kas.
Thankfully, Kas is healthy and happy. Unfortunately, there is some troubling news. Alysa relays a discovery that could alter Cullie and Josh’s plans. Forever. A body has been discovered that could connect to actions our couple engaged in to help Kate avoid prison.
In tragedy, it’s hard to find a good resolution; it’s not black and white: it’s a big fog of gray.
Of course, you’ll have to read The Boaz Seeker for the full picture. My point here is that not all stories end with, “and they lived happily ever after.” This isn’t the Resolution’s aim (although it can be). What’s necessary is that our readers ‘walk away’ knowing that our hero’s life goes on long after the book has ended.
This brings up the final characteristic of a good Resolution. Sorry, I’ve indirectly already said this. It’s the tone we want our readers to take away from our story. Happy? Sad? Bittersweet? We as authors decide, but it needs to fit. As you now know, The Boaz Seeker leaves readers bittersweet, but with a twist.
Cullie is bitter over what happened to her mom (again, read the book to properly grasp), but the young mother is happy to have Josh (he was the envy of every girl in high school!) as her husband, and darling Kas as her daughter. Yet Alysa’s news is foreboding.
The story ends with Cullie happy but anxious of what might lie ahead, remembering especially what happened with her mom.
In sum, we want our readers to ‘walk away’ satisfied with their investment of time and money in our story.
Today, I’ll continue outlining and describing the three act story structure. Next up is the climax.
Naturally, this takes place in Act III, towards the very end. It’s what our entire story has been leading to. This culmination should be both predictable and surprising. That’s a mouthful.
All good stories use foreshadowing: dropping morsels along the way that provide clues of what could be coming. But, the great novels throw in a twist at the end.
Although it’s surprising, it’s anything but impossible. In fact, it fits hand in glove. The stories that stay with us the longest are those that make us think about the ending. We prompt ourselves to mentally review the entire novel, searching for those telltale signs that we recall now but thought fairly innocuous earlier as we were reading. The climax with a twist leaves readers asking, “why didn’t I see that coming?”
The climax is where the story’s tension reaches its peak, the main conflict is resolved, and the protagonist finally accomplishes his goal. Or, doesn’t. It’s the final battle between our hero and his chief antagonist. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a fistfight or a shootout. It could be a contest, whether a chess match, a football game, or a race to become the first private citizen in space. It could be the inmate escaping prison. Recall, not all antagonists are human. The criminal justice system could be one man’s antagonist, although it seems even here, there are one or more people who personify the system.
It’s not error to consider the entire third act as the climax. Throughout, the action is rising, our protagonist is battling the forces against him reaching his goal, some are mere skirmishes. But, eventually, there must be that final red-hot scene were the war is either won or lost.
One thing we need to cover before ending. Many literary professionals believe the best novels have a protagonist who has both an external and an internal goal. Externally, he may be toiling to win a NASCAR championship or become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Internally, his goal could be to win the heart of Maggie May, or learn to forgive himself for not doing more to save the life of his childhood friend fifty years ago.
In these two-goal stories, it’s standard that the protagonist experiences some type of revelation either before, during, or after the climax. This triggers something in our hero that causes him to take some other action which might be a quiet (or loud) declaration that he forgives himself. It could be a walk across the street for our hero to ask Maggie May if she likes horses or would like to go for coffee.
The climax is the place where the opposing forces in your story finally clash. This is true whether those opposing forces are two armies or two values inside a character’s soul.
Novels are wonderful things. They don’t have to be complicated but they do need to stir our emotions.
Hopefully, next week we’ll look at the resolution, the final component of the three act story structure.
This structural event comes at the end of Act II. During the first seventy-five percent of our story, nothing is as bad for our protagonist. The third plot point is also known as the ‘all is lost’ moment, or the ‘black moment,’ to name two. The title/label I like best is H.R. D’Costa’s, ‘the trough of hell.’
Before looking at this final plot point, let’s step back and review. Recall that Act II comprises half of our novel. During the first half, what I refer to as Act IIA, our protagonist is reacting to what happened at the end of Act I (the first plot point). The midpoint changes everything by its new reveal and shifts our hero into action mode. Throughout Act IIB, he is aggressively pursuing his story goal and continues to battle the antagonist and/or the antagonist’s helpers. Our guy has had some success with the greatest one coming a few pages before he encounters ‘the trough of hell.’ After this event (series of events) is over, our protagonist is barely alive, assuming we have done our job. We have to make it the worst ordeal of his life. Why is that? To set-up our hero’s ascent to the climax in Act III.
In her excellent craft book, Story Structure for the Win, D’Costa argues the ‘trough of hell’ includes three key characteristics: pain, emotion, and paradox. Let’s look at each of these.
D’Costa quotes Kurt Vonnegut to describe our task as authors: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
D’Costa provides an excellent example where the heroine is hit with a multitude of “awful things.” In Bridesmaids, “[a] t the end of Act Two, Annie: is demoted from her position as Lillian’s maid of honor, wrecks her blossoming romance with Officer Rhodes, gets fired from her job at the jewelry store, is ousted from her apartment by her two comically creepy roommates, [and] completely ruins her friendship with Lillian.” Would you agree, Annie has had a bad day?
Now, let’s look at D’Costa’s example where the hero is hit with ONE ‘awful thing .” At the end of Act II in Speed, “Jack Traven experiences… [t]he death of [his] best friend and police partner, Harry….” Again, enough pain to knock Jack’s feet out from under him.
The ‘trough of hell’ must trigger an emotional reaction in our audience. But, it’s not just any emotional reaction; it’s one that perpetuates the audience’s love and support for our hero. Their desire for him to succeed is heightened. It’s important to choose the right type of tragedy, one that connects to our protagonist. Before looking at an example, it’s important to note that the events that comprise the ‘trough of hell’ can include bad things happening to others, not just our hero.
Look at D’Costa’s example taken from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009). “Toward the end of the second act, Watson is seriously injured in a factory explosion. Obviously, he’s in a great deal of pain. But Watson’s suffering doesn’t automatically produce a moment of emotional resonance for audiences. This event has resonance specifically because the film took the time to show how meaningful Watson’s friendship is to Holmes.” In sum, our audience has to care deeply about the well-being of our hero.
Let’s start with the definition. Paradox is “a statement that contradicts itself.” Here’s the example given by Dictionary: “’I always lie’ is a paradox because if it is true it must be false.”
Looking at the ‘trough of hell’ convinces us that our hero is in BAD shape. We are convinced he is the furthest he could be from reaching his story goal. But, D’Costa contends this is merely a paradox: “[i] t just looks like he is.” What’s just happened “is exactly what your protagonist needs to push past his demons; give up his crutches; [or] overcome his innate resistance to change.” Why? “… [because now] he’s desperate enough to take the path of most resistance—and confront the very thing he’s been trying to avoid….”
Authentically, fiction mirrors life. Each of us starts off in our ordinary world. I hope that you, like me, grew up in a loving home with two parents who sacrificed that I might have a better life.
At age eighteen or so things change radically. High school is over and it’s time for college, trade school, or maybe the military. Whatever it is, we leave our ordinary world and embark on a lifelong journey of pursuing a goal (might be a series of goals). One thing is for certain, the new world is radically different from the ordinary world.
For many, this next quarter of life (twenty or twenty-five years?) is a reactionary phase. We’re reacting to what happened when we left home. It’s a reaction to the college degree we earned. For example, it’s years of working as an accountant.
Then comes our story’s (our life’s) midpoint. This is our life’s second plot point. For me, it was a return to law school. For you, it might an early retirement and opening your own shop. It could be anything that sends you off in a new direction. The dominoes of your life turn hard right (or left). We’re now in Act IIB of our lives. The midpoint change, whether self-created or outside imposed, triggers our own need to be proactive. It’s time to investigate, plot, plan, a time to focus on giving your life meaning.
At the end of Act IIB (let’s say, around age 65 or 70) no matter who we are or what we’ve accomplished, our ‘trough of hell’ arrives. One word is all it takes to sum up this life event: BAD. It might be a bitter divorce, the terminal illness of a spouse or other loved-one. It could be a criminal indictment. It could be an investment loss (a BIG one).
But, there is hope. You and I will survive our individual troughs of hell. How do I know this? Because you are the hero/protagonist of your own life, and we haven’t gotten to the Climax. That’s the time you have to worry about, because, unlike fiction, you already know how your story ends.
I don’t say this to cause you sadness or depression. It’s a fact of life, we are all going to die. Here’s what a famous astronomer wrote, “[o]ur planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” ― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
Although I said the Climax of each of our lives is fixed and worrisome, this doesn’t mean we have nothing to live for. The world is full of beauty, wonder, and joy. And, it is meaningful, if we make it that way.
It is up to each of us to make our own meaning. It isn’t something given by some supernatural being. Yes, of course, you can believe differently, but for me, I’m interested in the truth. And, so far, there isn’t sufficient credible evidence that there is some being holding us in the palms of his hand. Rather, everything points to Sagan’s conclusion: “… there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us….”
But, in the meantime, you and I, as living human beings, and writers, have antagonists to defeat, so let’s get to it. We are in Act III you know.
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.
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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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.