Writers in the Storm

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June 21, 2023

A Powerful Plot Point is a Strategy for a Successful Story

Photograph of a road sign on a tree-lined street that is labeled "turning point" with a black line representing a road that dead ends shortly after a left turn.

There are hundreds of books and classes that insist a writer must start with a story with a specific story structure. This implies that anyone who doesn’t use that method is writing their stories the wrong way. Some writers avoid structure, saying it stifles their creativity. Other writers may find the plethora of conflicting terms and advice to induce more headaches than help.

Discovery writer or Plotter, we are all human. Humans use story structure every day, multiple times a day. Each time we tell about a personal trial or triumph, or tell a joke, we are using story structure. Knowing what a Plot Point is and how and where to use it is a strategy that will help you craft successful stories.

Why Use Story Structure?

I’m not here to tell you that how you write is wrong. Get that first draft done, however you need to do it. But if you never address your story’s structure in at least one of your drafts, you do a disservice to yourself and your story.

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book that just felt “off?” Maybe it’s a story you’ve written. You can’t put your finger on why it feels that “off” but you know something didn’t quite work. Most likely the story structure is off. Understanding story structure will help you identify those problems and will help you write better stories. 

All humans have an innate understanding of the pattern of a story. We expect moments of set up followed by tension that lead to an action followed by moments of “relief.” This expectation appears to be universal. Still, story structure isn’t a recipe or a one-size-fits all. It’s a pattern that successful stories follow. Structure makes your story flow powerfully, which keeps your reader’s rapt attention. 

Which Story Structure is Best?

A very short story usually has only one or two elements of structure. A novelette (7,500-17,999 words) has a more complicated structure. While novels and series have complex structures. The longer your story, the more nuanced your story structure must be. 

There are many approaches to story structure. There are three-act or five-act or seven-act structures. Some approaches to story structure work best for specific genres. Others are more general. Some are more scholarly and still others are more simplistic. 

At their most basic levels, all story structures agree a story has a beginning, middle, and end. This is not news to you. Your story has those parts. But it’s the stuff within each of those parts that is truly important. This is the “structure” that shapes your story into a successful one.  

By reading about different approaches to story structure, you’ll learn how you can adapt those interior parts of structure to your story. 

Writers in the Storm contributor, John Peragine, discussed 14 different plot structures that might work for pantsers here and here. You can find resources on Writers in the Storm and on my website. As you read, you’ll find many approaches that you will reject as not helpful. That’s okay. Keep checking out different approaches. It takes some work, but one will speak your story language. You might discover different parts of different story structures fit you best. That’s okay. Mash them together. 

The Most Important Part of Story Structure 

There is at least one Plot Point in every single successful story, regardless of its structure, its subject, its genre, or its intended audience. Plot Points are the most important part of story structure.

A Plot Point is a person, place, thing, event, or situation that creates a significant change for the primary character. The change can be in the protagonist, in her situation, in her location, in her goals, or in the reader’s perception of any of these things. It can involve only one change, more than one, or all of them. 

Its function is to clarify what the stakes are, to connect the sections of the story, and to propel the character (and the reader) forward in the story. This means that the Plot Point falls at the end of an act. 

Don’t let the name throw you off. There are many names for this element of your story. Blake Snyder uses “Beats.” Larry Brooks calls it a “Plot Point.” James Scott Bell calls it a “Doorway of No Return.” Shawn Coyne calls it a “Turning Point Progressive Complication.” I use the term Plot Point, but to my way of thinking, calling it a progressive complication is the clearest way of understanding what it is.

Aren’t Progressive Complications Everywhere?

Photograph of a road closed barrier across a road that is flooded by a river with large homes on the other side of the river.

Yes, and no. Your character should face as many or few complications as your story calls for. And all complications should become increasingly difficult for your protagonist to overcome. Complications can be part of a subplot. Sometimes those complications reveal different strengths or weakness that come into play during the story. Sometimes they have purposes specific to your story.

And no, progressive complications that are plot points shouldn’t be everywhere because these key complications occur in specific areas of your story and keep making things worse for your protagonist.

The First Plot Point 

This is a complication that happens around the 25% mark of the story. It is a progression of the inciting incident. In other words, if the inciting incident didn’t happen, this Plot Point wouldn’t have happened. In addition, this Plot Point should present a more difficult internal or external obstacle for your protagonist. (If you can do both, yay you!) 

The protagonist cannot overcome this complication in the same way she overcame the inciting incident. Plus, her choices here will cost her something. Her choice also forces her toward the mid-point complication of your novel. 

The Second Plot Point 

This Plot Point happens at the 50% mark of the story. It’s no surprise then that it is often called the mid-point. The obstacle and choices your protagonist has made so far have led her to this even more challenging obstacle. It’s at this point the protagonist realizes she didn’t have a clear idea of what problem she faced before now. Now she has a clearer idea of what she is about to face and exactly what it’s going to cost her. This understanding propels her toward the final conflict.

The Third Plot Point 

The third, or final Plot Point, happens around the 75% mark of your story. Again, it directly results from the choice the protagonist made during the previous Plot Point. Now, the protagonist learns something of importance that will help her overcome the final conflict.

This last Plot Point is also when your protagonist finally understands how much she will lose, even if she overcomes this obstacle. Take your story’s tension up several notches by making her face a dilemma. This Plot Point forces the protagonist into the final confrontation with the antagonist.

Note A: If you follow something other than the three act structure, you may have more plot points. Regardless of how many there are, keep cranking up the difficulty and building toward the final show-down. 

Note B:Precise positions of these plot points are unnecessary, but the closer you are to the mark, the less likely your reader will get too impatient to finish the book.

Types of Complications

Progressive complications sounds well, complicated. Fortunately, the concept only sounds complicated. There are two basic types of complications in stories: Revelatory and Action.

A Revelatory complication is where new information comes to light. This information can change the way the protagonist understands the complication or the overall story problem. It can be information about the location, the situation, an upcoming event, about the antagonist. It can be a clue that is only partly understood. The key factor is that it changes something about the situation, so the protagonist must change her strategy to move forward.

An Action complication is when someone does something that forces the protagonist to change his strategy. 

Link the Plot Points

You, the writer, have to make your protagonist’s journey more difficult. Use a revelatory progressive complication or an active progressive complication that arises because of the previous complication. 

 If you are writing a romance, a revelatory progressive complication could be that she learns her heart’s desire is the sort of person she’d never marry. In a thriller, your protagonist could learn of an impending danger to herself, her loved ones, or her world that she doesn’t know how to solve but only she can prevent.

Each time, the protagonist gets a new glimpse or new understanding of the big bad obstacle or person standing in the way of her achieving her goal. That glimpse or new bit of information added to her previous knowledge and events, limiting the choices she has and forcing her to change what she does next. 

The stakes go higher with each complication. Each change or choice she makes seals off all other ways out of her situation. There is no turning back. For ill or for good, she must charge forward into the next Plot Point all the way to the final confrontation. 

Example: Star Wars: A New Hope

Inciting Incident: Luke finds Obi Wan Kenobi to give him the Princess’s message and learns about the Force.

Plot Point One: After finding his aunt and uncle dead, Luke goes with Obi Wan to help the Princess and learn about the Force. (He has dreamed of adventure, and now has nowhere else to go.)

Plot Point Two, The Midpoint: After a tractor beam pulled their ship on board, Luke and company discovers the Princess is a prisoner on the Death Star and decides to rescue her. (If he hadn’t seen her message to Obi Wan, he wouldn’t have been in the ship, tractor beamed aboard the Death Star, or wanted to rescue her.)

Plot Point Three: Luke and company make it back to the ship because Obi Wan is battling Darth Vader. Luke watches Obi Wan allow Darth Vader to strike him down. (Luke can’t continue training with Obi Wan and can’t allow Obi Wan to have died in vain, so he moves forward toward the final confrontation.)

3 Signs of an Ineffective Plot Point

1. Your reader doesn’t connect with your protagonist, or care about her goals, or doesn’t care about the antagonists.

Problem: Your character isn’t deep enough. 

Solution: 

  • Avoid stereotypes and cliches. How? Your first thoughts are usually something you’ve experienced or read or seen in the past. Push beyond that. Brainstorm ways to make your character different. Make the difference more than skin deep.
  • Give your character a life beyond the book. Figure out what her important relationships and life events were before the book begins. How did she think her life would progress from there? Will her relationships, job, important life events change after the book’s ending?
  • Show more of your character’s inner thoughts and emotions. 
  • Give enough of your character’s background that your reader understands why her goals are important, what she fears, and how far she’ll go to get her goal. 
  • Give her a flaw that could make her unable to reach her goal. Then use that flaw to increase the reader’s tension.
    Hint: Make her unaware of her flaw. Or have her think of it as a strength. Then, when it interferes with her goal, it will heighten the reader’s tension 
  • Incorporate some bit of your own personal, emotional experience into her story. Chances are, that bit will make her seem more human and therefore more relatable.

2. The protagonist conquers each complication with little or no difficulties.

Problem: There’s too little challenge.

Solution: 

  • Show your character stumble because of her flaw(s). 
  • Make her fail at least once. 
  • Show her faltering because of the pressure. 
  • Give her a secret that’s in danger of being revealed because of her situation.  
  • Give her an opponent that is as strong as she and has a reasonable chance of winning the fight. 
  • Make her do something that hints at an extraordinary skill she is hesitant (with good reason) to use and she must overcome her hesitation to use it during the final confrontation. 
  • Make her experiences in this story force her to change in an important way. Your reader wants to take the ride, to feel the struggle. 
  • Have her struggle to overcome her flaws and her obstacles. Make her earn her wins.

3. Someone else solves the protagonist’s problem. Or the conflict doesn’t cost the protagonist. Or the protagonist’s triumph at the end is unbelievable.

Problem: Conflict is not big enough.

Solution: 

  • Make certain what the protagonist wants and what obstacles she faces have a connection. Obstacles that simply delay are not satisfying.
  • Be certain to show the reader, more than once, why your protagonist believes this fight is worth it.
  • Show that she has good reason to doubt her ability to win.
  • Make it cost your protagonist dearly to keep going, to overcome her obstacles, to battle her foe.
  • Make her fear the consequences of losing and winning. 
  • Force the protagonist to betray herself. 
  • Push the antagonist and protagonist together. 
  • Show the antagonist’s strength, abilities, or needs.
  • Make the antagonist as strong or stronger (in personality or abilities) than the protagonist. 
  • Make the protagonist’s choice the tougher than she wants to face.

Note: Even if the conflict is small in real life, it must be of vital importance to the protagonist. 

Outlining Destroys My Fun/Creativity 

Story structure doesn’t have to destroy your work flow. You can apply story structure whenever it works best for you and your writing. Some writers start with a basic outline, others create detailed outlines before they write. Those are not the only times you can use story structure. You can write your outline scene by scene as you write. Or you can write your story from beginning to end. Then, during a second or later draft, apply your story structure. Maybe each story you write will require a different structure or time when you apply structure. 

Structure is a Strategy

Some of you have done your homework and have assimilated the skills needed to create powerful plot points. Some of you use story structure instinctively. If either of those are you, go you! 

If you haven’t started studying story structure, don’t stress about it. None of us know it all. Keep writing, keep reading, and keep learning. Story structure can be a lot of challenging work. Rise to that challenge and you will have a much stronger, more compelling story for your readers.

Do you intuitively or deliberately use story structure? If deliberately, when do you think about structure?

* * * * * *

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows

Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, Yorkie wrangler, and occasional stained glass technician. She writes character-driven science fiction exploring the power of choice, identity, transformation, and unimagined heroism.

Her fast-paced series the Fellowship Dystopia, takes place in 1961 and America’s a theocracy. Following the rules isn’t optional. Not even for one of the elite. The first two books, My Soul to Keep, If I Should Die, and the companion book, Fellowship, are available on Amazon and all online bookseller sites. She is hard at work on the third book of the series, And When I Wake.

Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by not doing housework or playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. Join Lynette online at https://lynettemburrows.com, Facebook.com/LynetteMBurrowsAuthor, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows. 

Image Credits

Top Photo by Stephen Monroe on Unsplash

Second Photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash

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8 comments on “A Powerful Plot Point is a Strategy for a Successful Story”

  1. Excellent post, Lynette! I often describe myself as a plotter with pantser tendencies. To answer your question, I think of structure as the skeletal structure which is fleshed out during the writing process. I know the beginning, middle, and end of the plot and the MC's traits before I begin writing. I keep a handwritten notebook of story details and plot points. Sometimes these notes get transported into Scrivener, most times not. The rest of the story is filled in as I go. At least for me, this method provides a nice balance between producing a detailed, labor intensive outline (YUK!) and just going with the flow. I like structure as a starting point, but not so much that it requires slavish devotion and strangles creativity.

    1. Great way to meld the two methods, Linda! Sounds like you and I work in a similar way. I like the structure not only as a starting point, but as a guidepost along the way. Like you, I don't slavishly follow it if during the writing a better idea comes along. Good luck with your writing!

  2. Great article! What we know-or think we know-but with added dimensions.

    Whenever I read thoughtful articles like this, I automatically evaluate how I’ve handled, or not quite handled, such methods in my own work. In this case, the “something doesn’t feel right” has been a recent concern of mine, regarding my main protagonist. The events and challenges in book two of my SciFi series are clearly beyond just her (anyone’s) experience and skills alone. So, much of the subplots play out against the wits and actions of an ensemble cast of friends and foes. So, she appears more as a background presence, digesting issues and leading from behind.

    Unfortunately, of late, I fear I’d left her too much in the background, although as the story reaches its climax, I show her moving back to the forefront in a more active leadership role. Nevertheless, I feel I must show more of her handling the other challenges thrown on her plate (as result of earlier decisions she’d made, especially in book one).

    Of grave necessity, I had to switch from pantser to plotter when writing this book. The complexity of its near future geopolitical setting meant lots of research to adequately mirror reality and stay believable.

    It would be great if you could elucidate about five part and seven part structures, though. I’ve faithfully stuck, I think, to the three part structure, trying to deliver multiple climaxes (no puns, please) toward the end of part two. However, these suggest there might be a more nuanced approach toward staging such big, revealing moments. I’d be interested in fine tuning delivery of my final reveals (twists and surprises).

    1. Thank you for your detailed response, Jerold. Basically, the 5 plot and the 7 plot structures break the story into smaller movements. But it's too much to discuss in the comment section. I will consider covering that in my July post. If you can't wait until then, the Masterclass has a decent explanation of 5 Act structure and the 7 act one.

  3. Great examples and points.

    Thanks for not making being bitchy a characteristic for a female protagonist.

  4. Thank you! I appreciate your perspective. I’ve been studying plot structure for as long as I’ve been writing seriously, and every bit of advice helps clarify how to put my characters to the test.

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