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On Story Structure: What is a Plot Point?

Yesterday I told a story about my rites of passage, about the moments in my life when I grew up. They were turning points in my personal history, and both of them significantly changed my plot.

Today I want to tell you a little bit about the ways writers capture that slice of the human condition and recreate it in their art. We use a device called a plot point, a discrete moment within a flowing tale, but to fully understand the interruption, you need to know how it fits into its context.

Narrative Arc and the Conflict Resolution Cycle

In the past, most everything I’ve said about writing plot has focused on the high-level story structure. The only real exception has been a brief look at the ebb and flow of the Conflict Resolution Cycle, which drives the story forward from page to page, scene to scene. Plot points create the bridge between those two structures — the microscopic process and the macroscopic arrangement.

Essentially, a narrative arc (whether it’s three acts or five) starts with an introduction of settings and characters, then adds a major disruption to the protagonist’s life. From there, the conflict gradually ramps up through a series of crises until it reaches a climax. After that, the character is free from the conflict (in one way or another), and the narrative tension rapdily drops down to around the place it started. Thus, in nearly every story, you could chart the plot as an asymmetric arc.

It’s also often an irregular arc. In most cases, there will be three to five major turning points in a story (generally evenly spaced at the act breaks). Some common examples include:

  • A first plot point in which the protagonist is first made aware of a developing Big Event, and that awareness sends him on a quest to fix things
  • A midpoint reversal in which the protagonist discovers he’s been chasing a red herring
  • A climax in which the villain gets gunned down, freeing our hero from the anxiety and fear that have plagued him for several hundred pages
  • A denouement in which the villain finally gets killed for real, freeing our hero from the anxiety and fear that have plagued him for several hundred pages

In each instance, the significant aspect is the change of direction. As I said, it’s all about a single point in time, within an otherwise ongoing process.

Moving Things Forward

The funny thing about it, though, is that these discrete points keep things moving the rest of the time. They pull the action irresistibly toward them, then drive it forward into the following act.

As a writer, it helps to know your plot points while you’re writing, whether or not you know any of the fine details. As you’re working your way through a scene, no matter what’s going on, you’re writing toward the next plot point.

That gives you focus. It keeps every word of your story tied to the plot, and creates a consistent, cohesive experience for your readers.

How to Design and Write a Plot Point

With that in mind, how do you go about building plot points strong enough to serve those purposes? That’s a question worth of a post its own.

So come back tomorrow and I’ll talk about how to design and write plot points to give your story memorable magic.

One Response to “On Story Structure: What is a Plot Point?”

  1. Dave Doolin says:

    My narrative arc needs overhauling very badly.