There are two ways to look at your story: Up close and far away. Magnified and in landscape.
MAGNIFIED: The words on the page.
LANDSCAPE: The arc of the story and the points that get you there.
The landscape view is what plot is all about.
The mechanics of plot
A plot timeline look like this:
- He came. He saw. He conquered.
- Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.
- Beginning. Middle. End.
Each section has a purpose. If you’re like me and get lost in the moment to moment of your stories, understanding the purpose of each section will help you differentiate between essential scenes and fluff.
beginning } introduction
middle } development
end } resolution.
Notice the frames which enclose these three parts? There are four of them, right?
These ‘frames’ are your writing tools.
The five mechanical parts of a plot are:
- Inciting Incident (ii)
- First Climax (I)
- Second Climax (II)
- Third Climax (III)
You may know the term ‘climax’ under a different name: ‘Turning point’, ‘Plot point’. They’re the same thing. Use the term you feel most comfortable with.
Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each.
Inciting Incident (ii):
The event that incites the action of the story. The catalyst that sets the question or engine of the story, in motion.
- Aunt Mary, who lives two thousand miles away, walks in your door, plops down her bags and says “I’m moving in,” and that’s when it all begins.
- Romeo & Juliet: Those Montague boys crash the Capulet party.
- Star Wars: Princes Leia places her request with the droids.
- Wizard of Oz: The neighbourhood witch takes the dog away, but the dog breaks loose and comes back as a tornado wreaks havoc.
- Blindness: A motorist instantly and inexplicably becomes blind and causes an accident (Saramago’s Nobel Prize winning book of 1997).
In film there’s a rule that the inciting incident has to appear in the first twelve minutes. For thrillers it comes in the first scene: a bomb explodes, secret documents are stolen, someone is murdered…
Until the inciting incident happens the audience doesn’t know what the story is about.
Climax: A general definition
The good guy and the bad guy (protagonist versus antagonist) have a stand-off. The result: win, lose draw.
As a result something happens. The story spins in a new direction.
First Climax: a decision
In the first climax, the main character has her first run in with the antagonist. She makes a decision that commits her to the story until the end.
- Star Wars: Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, he decides to join the rebel forces.
- The Crying Game: Fergus can’t kill the British Soldier and lets him go.
- Romeo & Juliet: They’re getting married!
- You decide that Aunt Mary can have the spare room for as long as she needs.
The decision is not announced, it’s shown through action. The decision your character makes and the actions that follow reveal something about their character.
When Luke discovers his dead uncle and aunt he could have crawled into a bar and ordered a beer, or he could take action. Because he decided to join the rebel forces, it reveals something about his character. If he chose the bar route it would have revealed something else.
With the decision the character is committing themselves to the story. The only way out of their commitment is to go through the rest of the story.
With Luke, he’s leaving his planet and is on a ship travelling across the galaxy. Try and get out of that easily.
The first climax occurs one third of the way into your story. In a feature film it’s about 30 minutes in. Next time you watch a movie, see if you can find this point.
Another characteristic of this climax, it sets up the action for the second act.
In the case of Aunt Mary, suddenly she’s moving in. A truck shows up at your door with all of her furniture, she’s doing yoga in the living room and serving wine to your children at dinner. In other words, she’s turned your world upside down. Mayhem ensues.
The second act
From the first climax to the second is the hardest part to write. If the first act is getting your character up a tree, the second act is throwing rocks at them. By “rocks” I mean the little complications that are forcing them to get what they want. Relationships are developing and changing in little steps.
In an overcoming the monster story, this is when our hero is travelling to meet the monster, learning as she goes.
In a romance, this is the back and forth of wanting and not wanting, dating and misinterpreted actions.
All of the steps lead to the…
The midpoint: I hadn’t thought of that!
A sideways barrel roll of the roller coaster is an apt metaphor for the midpoint. The antagonist is not present, but something happens that skews the story in some way. The midpoint provides a change in pace and often causes your main character to look at their situation from a new perspective.
In many story types, new information shows up or old information resurfaces and it changes everything.
In a murder mystery, perhaps a small fact leads the detective to think in a different way. In a voyage and return story our heroes race toward what they think is the doorway out, but it’s a dead end. In a romance, the girl is about to give up on the relationship when she learns something (old or new) about the guy, and it turns her attitude around. Or a character is reminded of a past event, and it changes everything.
Midpoints are sometimes non-events pretending to be events. In a quest story, the adventurers survive a waterfall. In a horror story, a rumbling in a closet turns out to be a kitten.
There is only one thing story geeks can agree on regarding midpoints: They happen in the middle.
Second climax: deep doo-doo
At the second climax your main character battles the antagonist and either loses or the result is a draw. Why? Because if they win the story is over.
Stories are, in essence, about transformation. Your character has to change by the end. It is in the second climax where they try to win but can’t because they haven’t quite changed enough.
As a result of this battle, they realize that they need to change their approach the situation. Through this shift, they grow and change.
In Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobe dies, our heroes escape the Death Star, but just barely. Romeo is misinformed, told that Juliet is dead and he returns from Padua.
The hero fights the final battle and wins or loses. If it’s a comedy or morality tale, the hero wins. If it’s a tragedy, they lose.
For all stories, the third climax unravels the story. Luke destroys the Death Star, Romeo dies; You start taking Aunty Mary’s yoga classes.
I need to make a correction to the graphs I used above.
The purple line is a timeline. The green boxes show the placement of the inciting incident and climaxes. The black line is the action. Note how the action falls slightly after a climax before you enter the next section of the story. Roller coaster!
Also note the proportional differences between beginning – middle – end. In a movie, the beginning (first act) is 30 minutes; the middle (second act) 40 minutes; the end (third act) is not over 20 minutes. This is formula. But a very flexible formula.
Next time you go to a movie, time it. See if you can figure out the different plot points. Doing this with each story you encounter will help you to find these story components in your own work.
How to use this knowledge
Figuring out plot points takes practice, especially with your own work. And even harder if your struggle isn’t good guy v. bad guy. Don’t sweat it. This is a tool. It gives you a different way to look at your story. The more you use the tool the more useful it will become.
"Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself." - Truman Capote "It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them." - T.S. Eliot