In Part 4 of My Simple guide to planning a novel, we looked in detail at the inciting incident.
Today we will look at the remaining key plot points. Next week is our final instalment when we explore the acts of the book and fill in all the gaps.
The Rhythm of a book
You may not know it, but books have a rhythm. This rhythm splits the books into four neat sections. Each section has a purpose, it’s own rhythm, and is triggered by the arrival of a key event that brings change.
One of the great things about taking the time to plan the novel is that you get this rhythm nailed right at the start. Once you know what the key plot points are you can shuffle everything else that happens around them. Unless we have these stabilisers, the story will drift, and we may find it either goes nowhere, or goes somewhere too far away and never really stops.
Each story needs at least 3 key plot points, or at least 4 if the inciting incident happens before the 1st plot point. Many stories have more.
The mid-point (2nd plot point) is probably the easiest, after the inciting incident, because this is the place right in the middle of the book where our protagonist stops reacting and starts acting. In other words they are no longer a passenger to the events. Whatever has been happening during the first half of the book, something now triggers then to own the issue. It is worth noting that owning an issue is quite different to acknowledging they need to address the issue, which is the inciting incident. They may not have a firm plan at the mid-point, this can wait for the 3rd plot point, but they know they need to do take control.
It is worth noting that this doesn’t have to be a massive big-bang event, it can even be simple or subtle. Maybe it is a repetitive argument or other event that has prevailed throughout the first half of the book and this time the protagonist views it differently and acts differently towards it. This time they change.
Example Star Wars: The mid-point of Star Wars is marked by Luke’s discovery that the Princess is being held captive. Further, by his decision to take action independently of Old Ben in initiating her rescue. Until this point Luke, our protagonist, while acknowledging his willing to take part in the fight against the Empire, he was very much just following Old Ben’s guidance. Luke now starts to act independently, and this shows his ownership of his part of the fight against the Empire.
The 3rd plot point is where you are all in. It’s all or nothing. There is no turning back for our protagonist, even if they wanted to. This really is the point of no return.
Example Star Wars: The 3rd plot point of Star Wars is marked by the death of Old Ben aka Obi-Wan Kenobi. It is worth noting that Old Ben’s death (3rd plot point) at the hands of Darth Vader—the very man who killed Luke’s father—Just like the death of Luke’s Aunt and Uncle (1st plot point), deepens the stakes and drives Luke further into his role of the protagonist. Luke’s decision to do whatever it takes to see the Empire’s weapon destroyed and Darth Vader’s plan thwarted is effectively reinforced by Old Ben’s death.
The first plot point can either come in the guise of the inciting incident, in other words the event that calls the protagonist to action for the first time. Or some other event that brings further irrevocable change.
Reminder: The point of the key plot points is to:
- bring change
- deepen the stakes
- reinforce the protagonist’s commitment
- provide a theme for the subsequent chapters of the book
When you review your character timelines certain events will pop out at you as potential candidates for the above key plot points. When I jotted my own character timelines for book three, I already had (what I thought was) a firm idea of where events needed to occur. But as soon as I started to explore them against these key plot points, I realised that what I thought should happen near the end (3rd plot point), needed to happen slap bang in the middle (2nd plot point). Once I made this change the rest of the plot points all fell into place, and the rest of the chapters sketched out quickly too. Taking the time to consider the key plot points makes writing the story so much easier. It also provides a vital framework, which gives our story balance and rhythm.
Step 1: Explore your story notes, character timelines, and summary, and look for all other EVENTS that bring irreversible CHANGE.
Step 2: Consider how these events fit in with the story time line. Can you identify roughly where they occur?
Step 3: Look for the mid-point first. Can you see what triggers your hero to take control of the situation? The mid-point event drives offensive behaviour. They start to take control and we crank up the stakes even higher. Do you have an event near the middle that makes your character decide to make a stand?
Step 4: Next look for the 3rd plot point. Can you see what triggers the hero to be at the point of total commitment, the point of no going back. The stakes are extreme and it’s all or nothing now. It is the catalyst that drives them to their epic ending. Do you have an event near the 75% mark from which there is no going back?
Step 5: If you don’t already have a 1st plot point with your inciting incident, look for another event close to the quarter point that brings further change.
For all major plot points (including your inciting incident) we want to record in our framework the EVENT and the resulting CHANGE
Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.
In Part 6, we will look at the acts of the book in more details. This is the final stage where we begin to fill in the rest of the chapter notes.