In his book Story Engineering, Larry Brooks offers six core competencies involved in writing an excellent novel. Competency Four, Structure, has four parts: The Set-up, The Response, The Attack, and the Resolution. Within these four parts are some major milestones. This is all review, so look at previous posts if you’re lost. The milestones within the structure are:
- The opening scene or sequence of your story;
- A hooking moment in the first twenty pages;
- A setup inciting incident
- The First Plot Point, at approximately 20 to 25 percent through the story;
- The First Pinch Point at about the three-eights mark, or precisely in the middle of part 2;
- The context-shifting Midpoint, at precisely the middle of the story;
- A Second Pinch Point, at about the five-eights mark, or in the middle of Part 3
- The Second Plot Point, at about 75 percent through the story;
- The final resolution scene or sequence
In my last post, I started digging into the First Plot Point (FPP). I’d like to expand more on those ideas today. The FPP is a major change in the hero’s life that he MUST respond to. It could be huge, like hitting an iceberg or killing a man. It could be personal, like finding out his spouse is having an affair or a child dealing with drugs. It could be devastating, like a kidnapping. It could be subtle, like a lover’s cold whisper. It doesn’t have to be dark. Maybe your hero wins the lottery. Whatever it is, it will shove the hero into a quest, a need, that will have visible obstacles (antagonist) that seek the opposite outcome.
The FPP means the hero’s life has completely altered, and won’t go back to the way it was before. The problem must be addressed. Ignoring it will only make things worse. In The Da Vinci Code, the FPP comes when someone is trying to kill Robert Langdon before he can figure out the truth. Langdon can’t ignore the assassin. I guess he could, but then his life would end and the story would be over…
The FPP should come 20-25 percent of the way through your novel. So, if yo’ve got a 350 pager, the FPP should fall between pages 70 and 87. That’s the sweet spot. Too early, and you might not have enough set-up to make the reader really sympathize with your hero. Too late, and your reader may be bored before they get to the good stuff.
Once you’ve written the FPP, you’ve left Part 1: The Set-up and moved into Part 2: The Response. This isn’t the time for the hero to be heroic. It’s time for him to react to this new, scary, life-altering event/news/information. He’ll seek shelter, seek allies, seek answers to burning questions. The reader needs time to digest this new stuff, to understand and identify with the decisions and actions the hero makes in those first tension-filled moments after the earth-shattering FPP.
I love this example Brooks offers: “If the airplane the hero is in loses an engine and begins spiraling to the ground, he screams. Then he prays. Then he comforts the person next to him. What the hero doesn’t do is rush the cockpit and take over. That comes later. For now, the hero is still very human. And his reactions need to be in context to that humanity. It’s Part 2, and the mission here is to show the hero’s response.”
When I first started playing with this structure, it seemed that Part 2 was too long. It’s supposed to be a quarter of the book? And it’s all Response to the FPP? I thought I couldn’t drag it out that long, that my reader would get bored waiting for me to get around to Part 3, The Attack (which sounds like the exciting part). I was wrong. This structure really does work. Brooks explains it this way: you’ve just finished your scene/scenes that lay down the FPP. Now you’ll have a scene or two where your hero “regroups, retreats, or otherwise takes stock of his options… if you have a scene that sets up the Pinch Point [I’ll explain that in the next post]… then the Pinch Point itself… then a scene or two responding to the Pinch Point… followed by a few scenes leading up to the Midpoint scene…” [also to be explained later]. You’ve just covered most of the scenes needed in Part 2. That leaves you a scene or two to deal with a subplot issue, or foreshadow something coming in Part 3, or use a scene to slow down the pacing and let the reader breathe for a minute. With this method, you’ll never wonder, “What do I write next?” You’ll have a logical sequence already mapped out.
For those pantsers out there who hate to outline, there’s still plenty of freedom within this method for flavorful surprises to pop up and make you take notice. These creative gems that you love so much don’t have to mean the downfall of your structure, nor does planning your story mean the end of these exquisite revelations. It just means you don’t have to worry about fixing things when you take a rabbit trail in the wrong direction. If you decide to take the rabbit trail that jumped out and caught your attention, just make sure it ends up back where you need to be. You’ve got several extra scenes to play with in Part 2, so feel free to use them exploring your creativity regarding the mess your hero finds himself in.
My next post will cover the First Pinch Point. You won’t want to miss it!