Story Structure Part 3: The First Plot Point
In the last post on story structure, we went over the second story milestone – the Inciting Incident. As a reminder, the Inciting Incident is an event that upsets the balance of your protagonist’s life, gives rise to their object/s of desire, and foreshadows the story’s climax.
Your protagonist might have refused the Call to Adventure delivered during the Inciting Incident, or they might still be in shock (in a good or bad way) over what just happened to them. Either way, they now know what they want, and have likely been debating their options (and the risks involved with each option), but they haven’t fully committed to any of the available paths forward (yet).
So, now what do you do? You’ve hooked your reader into your story, but how do you keep your them engaged and looking forward to what happens next? How do you get your hero to commit to the journey ahead, despite the obstacles and risks?
What you need to do is deliver another big moment of change that connects the events of the story to your protagonist in a more personal way.
This moment is called the First Plot Point, and it’s the third story milestone in the First Act.
You might know it as Crossing the First Threshold (on the Hero’s Journey) or Break Into Two (in Save the Cat), but in today’s post, we’re going to refer to it as the First Plot Point.
What is the First Plot Point?
The First Plot Point is the bridge between the First Act and the Second Act of your novel.
For your protagonist, this is the moment where everything changes yet again – but this time things get personal. If they’re previously refused the Call to Adventure during the Inciting Incident, this is the moment they finally accept the call.
At the First Plot Point, something happens that allows or forces your protagonist to commit wholeheartedly to the journey ahead.
The quest to acquire, accomplish, or achieve the protagonist’s object/s of desire no longer optional. Plans are made, and the path forward has been defined. The protagonist has been made aware of the obstacles they’ll have to face along the way, including the threat posed by the antagonistic force. It’s at this time that we also get a view of the antagonist, and how what the antagonist wants directly opposes what your protagonist wants. In other words, the main conflict of the story is established.
It’s also during this moment that we understand how the events of the story personally affect the protagonist.
Personal meaning is what makes people risk their lives, travel great distances, and do things they never thought they were capable of doing. Without this personal connection to your protagonist, there’s nothing to connect them to the stakes of the story and motivate them to go forward.
This is where your protagonist takes an irreversible leap of faith into the unknown. There’s no turning back now. If you’ve set up your First Act properly, the reader is now heavily invested in your protagonist’s fate, and they have someone to root for and against throughout the rest of your story.
Where Does the First Plot Point Occur in the Story?
The First Plot Point occurs around the 25% mark, at the end of the First Act of your story.
Why? Delivering the First Plot Point around the 25% mark allows you to pace your story properly. You’ve already delivered an interesting moment around the 1% mark with the Hook, and again at the 12% mark with the Inciting Incident. This kind of pacing is what keeps your reader interested in your story and turning page after page.
Readers are smart, and whether they realize it or not, they have an innate sense of story that tells them these kinds of moments are coming. If you deliver these story moments too soon, your reader might not become emotionally invested in your protagonist, and/or it might cause your Second Act to drag on too long. If you deliver these moments too late, you risk losing your readers interest, which might convince them to put your book down and pick up someone else’s.
Common Manifestations of the First Plot Point:
Here are some examples of how you can deliver the First Plot Point in your story. This is not an exhaustive list, but just enough to get the creative juices flowing.
The First Plot Point can show how the protagonist:
- Is forced to take action because the antagonist has killed, threatened, harmed, or kidnapped someone close to them, sweeping aside all hesitation in the hero’s mind.
- Knows that turning back means returning to a life of unhappiness. They might realize they have to take risks to grow and change because they can’t go on living as they always have.
- Is trapped with no other choice, for example, maybe they’re stuck on a ship and the rough weather doesn’t give them a choice regarding their path forward.
- Has a desire for something that overrules all else and they’ll do anything to get or achieve it.
- Is given a deadline to achieve something with personal consequences at stake.
To be Effective, the First Plot Point Must:
Happen on the page or on the screen
Occur at the end of the First Act, around the 25% mark of the story
Solidify the protagonist’s goal going forward
Introduce and clarify the obstacles to their quest
Show how the story events personally affect the protagonist
Define the stakes of the upcoming journey
Give the reader and the protagonist a view of the story’s antagonist and what they want
Be a result of what happened in the Inciting Incident
Examples in Books and Movies
Now, let’s take a look at some popular books and movies to see how the writers handled the First Plot Point and what makes these moments work.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone
In Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Harry finally arrives at Hogwarts and is sorted into Gryffindor. During dinner, he makes eye contact with Professor Snape and feels his scar burn for the first time (though it’s really Voldemort hidden in Professor Quirrell’s turban that causes Harry’s scar to burn). Dumbledore tells the students some rules, including that the forest and the right-hand side of the third-floor corridor are off-limits to all students. That night, Harry has a nightmare about Professor Quirrell, Professor Snape, and Draco Malfoy (who, in the chapter before, he had a negative run-in with on the train).
Why This Works:
Once Harry arrives at Hogwarts, there’s no turning back. He can’t get back on the train and go back to his life with the Dursley’s because they would mean a lifetime of bullying and unhappiness. Harry’s goal, at this point, is to do the best he can at Hogwarts, so he doesn’t have to go back to the Dursleys (stakes). He also wants to figure out why his scar hurt when he made eye contact with Professor Snape, and what this means for him – is he in danger? Between Harry’s run-in with Draco on the train and this scene at dinner, we’ve seen all levels of the antagonism that Harry will face during this story – Professor Snape, Professor Quirrell/Voldemort, and Draco Malfoy. During his speech, Dumbledore makes it clear that going in the forest or the third-floor corridor is dangerous and could result in death for any student that doesn’t follow the rules (stakes, and obstacles on Harry’s upcoming journey).
Star Wars: A New Hope
In Star Wars: A New Hope by George Lucas, just after Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi have heard Princess Leia’s full message, they stumble upon a Jawa massacre and realize that Storm Troopers are looking for the droids that Luke has. Luke worries for his Aunt and Uncle and races home to warn them about the Storm Troopers. Unfortunately, Luke sees that the Storm Troopers have burned down his Aunt and Uncles house and murdered his Aunt and Uncle.
Why This Works:
When Obi-Wan first invites Luke to accompany him to Alderaan, Luke rejects the Call to Adventure out of duty to his Aunt and Uncle. Once Luke sees that his Aunt and Uncle have been murdered by Storm Troopers, things became very personal for Luke, and he tells Obi-Wan, “there’s nothing here for me now.” He’s now free to leave his old life and go with Obi-Wan to learn the ways of the Jedi and help the rebellion destroy Darth Vader and the Empire.
The Hunger Games
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss volunteers as tribute after Prim is chosen to participate in the Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta say goodbye to their families and are escorted onto a train that’s headed for the Capital. They eat fancy food and learn about the Capital and the upcoming obstacles they’re about to face.
Why This Works:
The stakes have been personal for Katniss ever since Prim’s name was called as the female tribute, but now they’re even more personal since she’s decided to take Prim’s place. The stakes are clear – if Katniss doesn’t win the Hunger Games, she’ll not only die, but her family will have a hard time providing for themselves in her absence. Her goal is solidified – win the Hunger Games in order to survive. Effie and Hamish act as the Threshold Guardians preparing Peeta and Katniss for life in their new world and warning them of the obstacles ahead.
Pride & Prejudice
In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Mr. Wickham tells Elizabeth that he grew up with the Darcy family and that Mr. Darcy’s father was supposed to leave him the church on the estate. Upon Mr. Darcy’s father’s death, the younger Mr. Darcy didn’t honor this promise which resulted in a rift between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham that’s lasted until this day. As a result, Mr. Wickham was left with next to nothing and has had to make his own way by joining the military.
Why This Works:
This works as because new information has entered the scene (via Mr. Wickham) and it’s this new information that cements Elizabeth’s hatred for Mr. Darcy. Going forward, Elizabeth wants nothing to do with Mr. Darcy—and tells Jane so in the next scene as they’re getting ready for the Meryton ball. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Jane is in love with Mr. Darcy’s best friend, which means Elizabeth can’t avoid seeing or interacting with him.
In the movie, Jurassic Park, Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm travel by helicopter to Isla Nublar to visit Jurassic Park. Once they arrive, they get in a jeep that takes them past the electric fence and into the park. Shortly after they pass through the park’s gates, they see a dinosaur for the first time. All three of them are overwhelmed by the sight of living dinosaurs and are utterly in awe of the giant creatures. Alan asks the park’s owner, John, how fast the dinosaurs are, and John tells him they’ve clocked the T-Rex at 32mph. They continue to watch the dinosaurs for a while and then travel to the park’s main building to learn about how the park has managed to clone and create living, breathing dinosaurs.
Why This Works:
Allan, Ellie, and Ian have definitely left their normal world and landed themselves in an extraordinary world where dinosaurs are alive and well. The goal of their visit is clear – they need to visit the park and sign off on its safety in order to get their archeological dig funded by John Hammond (personal stakes). John needs their sign off in order to get the investor’s money and keep the park open. When John tells Alan how fast the T-Rex is, we are introduced to the story’s primary antagonist and we are told a little bit about its abilities.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q. Is the First Plot Point the same as the Inciting Incident?
A. No, the Inciting Incident is an event that upsets the balance of your protagonist’s world, gives rise to their object/s of desire, and foreshadows the story’s climax. The First Plot Point is the moment your protagonist commits to the journey ahead, despite the obstacles they’ll have to face along the way. During the First Plot Point, the protagonist (and the reader) get a glimpse of the antagonist and learns how what the antagonist wants is in opposition to what your hero wants.
Q. What if my First Plot Point comes earlier or later than the 25% mark?
A. If you deliver the First Plot Point too soon, your reader might not be emotionally connected to and invested in your protagonist enough to make them care about what’s happening to them. This might cause your story to feel rushed or lacking in depth. And it could set you up for a Second Act that drags on too long. If you deliver the First Plot Point too early, you risk losing your readers interest which might convince them to pick up someone else’s book.
Q. Does this apply to all fiction genres? Or only the ones in which the protagonist goes on an adventure?
Yes, the First Plot Point needs to occur in all stories, regardless of genre. As you can see from the Pride and Prejudice example above, Elizabeth doesn’t necessarily go on an action-packed adventure or travel to a magical world, but this moment in the story does hit on all the requirements of the First Plot Point. She commits to seeing her goal through (doing everything she can to make Jane happy), despite the obstacles (disliking Mr. Darcy and the Bingleys, and what they represent) and the antagonistic forces (Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth herself), and the stakes are personal (her sister’s future happiness is at stake).
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Can you pinpoint the First Plot Point in your favorite book or movie? In your own writing, what’s your process for coming up with the First Plot Point in your story?