From Act One ingenue to Act Three veteran, your second act pinch points are the key. Character arcs simply don’t work without them.
Story is about transformation; the transformation of the protagonist. From innocence to experience, from misbelief to truth; from bystander to hero. The protagonist begins naive, innocent and ignorant and becomes a different (usually better) version of themselves by the end. They uncover their misbelief, find their truth, abandon their want in favour of their need.
These character arcs are easier said than done. That’s why the second act is just as important as the first and last. That’s why you need second act pinch points.
What’s a pinch point?
Let’s fall back on KM Weiland’s definition of a pinch point:
“I want to create pinch points that not only focus on external elements, but also philosophical and internal elements. A pinch point should be a specific story event that challenges a character’s beliefs and moves their character arc forward.”
A pinch point is a specific causal event in the characters’ arc that moves them away from their initial false belief toward their eventual goal.
In conventional story structures, there are two pinch points. The first pinch point happens around one quarter into the second act, between the first plot point and the midpoint.
The first pinch point serves as a significant event or realisation that challenges the protagonist’s beliefs. At this point they are shaken but refuse to change. It sets up the midpoint, halfway through the second act. The midpoint truth is inescapable and the protagonist has to accept it.
The second pinch point occurs between the midpoint and the second plot point, about three quarters into the second act. Here, the protagonists steps away from their false belief and towards the truth.
The pinch points are the stepping stones along the route to the new system of belief:
- first pinch point: reject the new belief
- midpoint: acknowledge the new belief
- second pinch point: embrace and experience the new belief
Tightening the Vice
In Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker), Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s marriage proposal at the first pinch point. She cannot believe this proud man actually loves her. She clings to her prejudice against his pride.
At the midpoint, Darcy’s confesses selfless motives in breaking up Jane and Bingley (not that it helps much). It does shake Lizzie’s misbelief. Darcy can’t be all bad…
Pinch point two is arguably the visit to Pemberley where she discovers Darcy to be something of a saint in disguise. This is when she realises she has Darcy all wrong. Away from society this very private man is altogether more admirable. This is when she realises she’s made a hideous mistake and abandons her prejudice. Although she imagines by now it is entirely too late. Cue the all-is-lost, Dark Night of the Soul incident with the Wickham elopement. Wherever will we find a white knight to ride to the rescue?
These are the incidents that shift Lizzie’s misbeliefs. They also remind us of the stakes; in this case, the disappearing prospect of a Happy Ever After. The plot points and turning points separately provide the drama and excitement that prove her initial misbelief and her new belief.
The Confrontation Game
The pinch points force a character to confront an uncomfortable truth, or to question their central lie/misbelief. The character has to make an active choice; that’s usually rejection in the first and acceptance in the second. Without a conscious choice, they become a witness or a passenger and that makes for poor character development. Choice makes the transition to a new belief much stronger.
More Pinch Points
Pinch points are not structural beats in a check list. You can have more than two pinch points in a story. The try/fail cycles in Act Two provide ideal opportunities to challenge the character’s beliefs. With each challenge, the character moves progressively from misbelief toward truth without passing under a glowing neon sign flashing ‘this is the truth.’
This is the reason why, in conventional three-act story structures, the second act is the longest. It has a lot of heavy lifting to do and there’s no reason why it should suffer Soggy Middle Syndrome. Those stories with lagging second acts aren’t applying the pinch points correctly. We should see the challenge to the protagonist’s beliefs happening right in front of us, foreshadowing the turnaround in the third act.