Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

“Reading and writing are acts of empathy and faith. Guard that trust carefully — in this rapidly changing business, it’s the only sure thing.” ~Erin Keane
"Never give up. And most importantly, be true to yourself. Write from your heart, in your own voice, and about what you believe in." ~ Louise Brown

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it."
~Jesse Stuart

"A writer's job is to take one thing and make it stand for twenty." ~ Virginia Woolf

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

THE most important scene in your novel

Back to writing posts, or is it writing writing posts? How about, back to writing about story structure? I've discussed the hook, the set-up, and what your characters have at stake. What comes next is the most important scene. Everything coming before builds up to it, making this scene plausible and believable when it happens, while everything that comes after is a response to it.

It is called The First Plot Point, and it is what Larry Brooks calls "the most important moment in your story." (Link is for his series on story structure.) Brooks says, "Because the First Plot Point is the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance. It may be the first full frontal view of it, or it may be the escalation and shifting of something already present. In either case, nothing about the story is the same from that moment forward. "

Brooks suggests watching movies to see this story structure displayed before our eyes. Really, really good advice. Especially considering that a novel has so many things happening and going on, and in a character-driven story, the first plot point may be subtle and nearly hidden. Since a movie only has 90 minutes to get it all in, story structure can be obvious once you know what to look for.

Here's how it goes in movies-- you're seeing the main characters in their normal lives, you "meet" them and you find them interesting and likeable. Think of Ghost with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. They're moving into this great loft apartment, she's an artist, he's a corporate guy, they're in love (not married), but you recognize this incredible chemistry between them and so of course you want them to be together. You want her to say yes to his repeated marriage proposals.

First plot point: They're mugged late at night in a deserted street, and Patrick Swayze is killed. Everything changes for our two main characters. The rest of the movie is based on this one incident. It is the first plot point.

In my current wip, there are two sisters, with Cindy's story as subplot and Marcie's story as the main plot. When they find out what's wrong with Cindy's baby, that changes everything for Cindy. Marcie is affected and touched by the news, but it's not the first plot point for her story. Marcie's turning point is much later in the story, and it happens so subtly that a reader might miss it. I won't tell you what it is. But it's my job to make sure that this event becomes the single most important moment for Marcie.

If you're having trouble identifying what the first plot point is in your story, here's my advice. Take a break and go to the movies! My husband and I just saw 2012. It was more difficult to identify the first plot point, probably because there are so many characters and the main character doesn't come in until later. But we did it--we identified the point in the movie where everything changes for the main character. Of course, then we had to identify the mid-point milestone and the 2nd plot point as well. 2012 was a challenge, but we figured it out!

Next post I'll discuss the mid-point milestone-- where the curtain parts, new information is revealed, and everyone steps up their game.

Oops! I forgot my question, which is: What book or movie can you recall where the first plot point is either a) so subtle you almost miss it, or b) so obvious you can't miss it?


  1. That is an interesting aspect I have never thought about. Felt it, perhaps, butit was never pointed out to me that well. Thank you, Karen. Yes, I`m sure we could be friends (me being a gemini too), with the same love for good stories! What is distance? Nothing, nowadays!

  2. I want to say something clever and pithy, but you said it so well, I have nothing to add. Thank you for your wonderful posts.

  3. Excellent post, Karen! You illustrate the initial surface problem from the story-worthy problem.

    Les Edgerton in, Hooked uses "Thelma and Louise" to illustrate the same thing. The killing in self-defense during the attempted rape scene is what people think as the turning point, but he says it was more subtle and much sooner. When Thelma was going to ask permission from her husband to take the trip with her friend, she stops herself, realizing that he'll never let her go. That decision not to be controlled by men is what informs her decisions during the rest of the film.

    Your book seems to be coming along. The glimpses you're giving make me look forward to eventually reading it.

  4. Theresa, you answered the question I meant to put at the end of my post and forgot to do. Which is:

    What book or movie can you recall where the first plot point is either a) so subtle you almost miss it. (your example from Thelma & Louise) or b) so obvious you can't miss it.

    So there, folks, that's the question. Ghost was obvious, Thelma & Louise was subtle. But the whole point is that it's where everything changes for the main character.

  5. I love love love what you're doing here, applying Brooks' story structure series. He just made it so clear for me. It's helping with my writing SO much.

    Lady in the Water. I love that movie. When Story shows up in Cleveland's life--that's the first plot point. I'm so glad you're reminding me that this is the most important part of the story. This was a lesson for me. I always thought the beginning or the end or some great twist was the most important part. But I suppose the FPP is the REASON why everything else exists.

  6. Ooooh!

    I thought of one! Galaxy Quest. In retrospect I'd say the main plot point could have been when Jason Nesmith is kidnapped by aliens (but he doesn't know they're real aliens - thinks they're just dressing up as characters in his defunct sci-fi show). But in hindsight, the main plot point is when he is in a toilet cubicle in a sci-fi convention and overhears two guys making fun of him (they don't know he's in the cubicle). Everything changes after that and he bases his decisions because of that single scene!

    Oh I love this post - it's made me THINK!!

    Thank you!!!!

    Take care

  7. Old Kitty, I LOVE that movie.

    Now I'm going to be thinking of first plot points all day!

  8. I agree with Old Kitty. I had to really think. It made me analyze my own writing. I like a good puzzle, but I have to say, I like the obvious plot points best. I don't have to think so hard! LOL

  9. All these movie quotes and references are making me want to dig out my old DVD's and have a movie fest!!

  10. I've just done and Open University unit on film techniques - your advice to watch a movie is very good.

  11. An obvious plot point: In While You Were Sleeping, she saves the guy from the train.
    Not so obvious: Jurassic Park, he drops the raptor's petrified claw. He has accepted the change in his world.

    Now you will have me looking. I'm watching a movie in a bit while I fold laundry. Hmmm. Thanks, Karen! I'm kind of excited about this!

  12. Very wise words. And your point about analysing film is a good one. I recently went on a writing course where we did just that and I was surprised how much you can glean :-)