All story structures include turning points and plot points. Whether it has seven, seventeen or twenty-four chapters, somewhere in that structure you hit key turning points or plot points that change the direction of the story. Without them the story is a flat line.
There’s a game you can play at home watching movies and TV; Plot Point Bingo. You look for the revelation, change, decision or argument and call out which plot point it is. You can cheat a little if you keep an eye on the clock, because these plot points or turning points occur at carefully timed intervals in the running order.
Turning points and plot points are the heavy-handed signature of formula-plotting, beloved of Hollywood, Bollywood and genre writers. They are the way-points of the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat and many others. Does this make them bad? They are essential. Without turning points, your plot just meanders along a fairly flat line. The turning and plot points resolve or kick-start the rising and falling action that makes your story compelling.
In Service of Character
It’s worth saying again, plot doesn’t matter in itself. The plot isn’t the story; plot is just stuff that happens. The story is how the characters react to what happens, how it changes them. If there’s no reaction, no change in the characters, then plot points don’t matter. Plot points exist to impact the characters; that’s the essential craft, not how ingenious or detailed are the plot points themselves.
Okay, that reminder’s done; on with the turning points and plot points.
Writing Plot Points
Plot points are key to story structure, often more important than the three or four act division. They are indicators of a well-structured and satisfying story arc, present in every genre of fiction from romance to Western, to action to fantasy, crime to horror.
You even find them in literary fiction, because engaging stories are hardwired to rising and falling action. Otherwise it’s just a boring sequence of stuff happening. Even literary fiction demands these key moments or game-changers to drive character reaction, growth and transformation.
That’s why they exist.
Common types of plot points
Plot points impact characters when they are:
- obligated to do something
- facing a hard choice, or better, ultimatum
- pursuing or fighting back
Generic as those are, they pretty well cover all bases.
First Plot Point
Somewhere near the end of Act One, the first plot point kicks the protagonist into action and out of their ordinary world.
Called the Point of No Return, the protagonist can’t go back to the status quo. It raises the stakes and marks the beginning of the adventure or journey.
In Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker) it is the Bingley’s quitting Netherfield to return to London, all hopes dashed for the Bennetts.
Turning Point One
Turning point one represents a major shift or upheaval that alters the direction of the main character.
In Pride and Prejudice, turning point one is arguably Mr Collins proposal to Lizzie. Her refusal is potentially a massive betrayal of the family, the marriage securing their future at Longbourne. But Lizzie stays true to her principals in rejecting the repellent Mr Collins.
This is usually the revelation that changes context for the protagonist. It prompts or shoves them to move in new direction. It also marks their transition from reactive to proactive.
In Pride and Prejudice, it is Darcy’s bolt-from-the-blue proposal to Lizzie. And she cuts him to the core.
Turning point Two
With big news or a dramatic discovery, the protagonist shifts their world view or has a moment of enlightenment. It begins to re-shape their character.
In Pride and Prejudice, this is Lizzie’s visit to Darcy’s estate, not for the display of wealth, but what the visit reveals of his character.
Third Plot Point
Typically this is a revelation, transformation or both. Using Pride and Prejudice, this is Lydia’s ruinous elopement with Wickham.
While Lizzie’s final transformation or re-birth comes in the climax confronting Lady Catherine, she can’t achieve it without going through all those turning points and plot points.