What is a plot point?
Like scenes and the four stages of a novel (inciting incident, rising action, climax, and ending), plot points are another structural element of your story which you’ll need to keep track of.
For the writer, plot points are destinations. We write with the purpose of moving the characters towards the plot point. For the character, however, the plot point is a beginning.
A plot point happens when a character makes a decision which sets the story going in a new direction.
In questing stories, often in fantasy genres, plot points are linked to physical locations. In the Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, most plot points occur when Frodo decides to go somewhere, and he often adds or subtracts people from his group at this point as well.
- Frodo begins the quest when he decides to take the ring and meet Gandalf at the Prancing Pony in Bree. (Adds Sam, Pippin, and Merry)
- Frodo decides to go to Rivendell. (Adds Strider)
- Frodo decides to take the ring to Mordor. (Adds Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, and finally meets up with Gandalf.)
- Frodo decides to…
You get the point already.
Plot points are also a useful way of determining who your main character is. If you struggle with this question, try mapping the events of the story, and identify which events change the course of the story. Your main character is the person whose actions cause those changes.
The actions of antagonists and other characters happen between plot points and serve to push the main character into making her (or his) decision, but it will always be the main character who causes the story to change.
The Plot Point is Not…
…necessarily super dramatic
It all depends on the novel you’re writing. If the novel you’re writing is about the MC’s relationship between people and not a life and death situation, the plot point could be quite subtle.
I once read a book where the plot centered around a woman trying to gain self-confidence. In this type of book, a plot point could be as simple as a decision to take a self-defence course, or a decision not to attend an event.
The plot point has to be a big deal to the character, and must set the book on a new course. But it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a character leaving a spouse, or taking a new job. That big of a move may very well be reserved for the climax.
…ever ever ever caused by something other than the previous events of the story.
I will talk about this more later on, so I’ll just touch on it now. It has to be the previous events of the story which push the main character into making the decision.
Otherwise, you don’t have a plot point, you have a plot ticket. Plot tickets are to plot points what an ex machina is to the climax. You don’t want a plot ticket.
…laid out neatly like a road map for the character to follow near the beginning of the book.
This is another kind of plot ticket, but this kind is worse because no changes are even being made to the course of the story. I have watched some movies in which the MC was told “you need to get these special items in order to defeat the bad guy. You will find them here, here and here. Off you go.”
I do not like those movies. Sometimes the sub-villians at each of the destinations are interesting enough to keep me watching, but they are never interesting enough to make me think of watching it again without groaning. The story still feels too amateurish.
Normally, these movies are intended for young children who do not know better. This sort of storytelling is marginally acceptable in videogames, but never in novels.
The plot point has to change the course of the novel. Ergo, the MC has to make a decision to do something s/he was not previously planning to do. The story takes a new direction, it does not simply move into the next phase of an already decided-upon plan.
…a complete shock to the reader
While the plot point is a complete change in the story’s direction, there are already forces at work pushing the character into taking the story in that new direction.
For instance, when Frodo reached Rivendell, he wasn’t planning on taking the ring any farther. However, the reader likely realizes that Frodo’s story doesn’t end at Rivendell, and might well have predicted that Frodo’s quest with the ring would continue all the way to Mordor.
Planners vs. Pantsers
Do you need to know what all your plot points are going to be in advance?
Short answer: no.
It is widely recognized that there are two generally categories of writers. Those who prefer to plan everything out in advance before they write, and those who do not. I’ve never truly considered myself a “pantser” (one who writes by the seat of her/his pants), because I do quite a bit of planning.
On the other hand, I can list off the top of my head, the plot points I have already written in my current WIP, and the plot point I am writing towards. I also know generally how my climax and ending are going to work. As for the rest of the plot points, I don’t have a clue. That’s not quite true, I do have a clue. But not much else.
I don’t really know how my characters are going to react when I reach my next plot point until I’m actually in the moment, so speculating on the effects of my MC’s next big decision seems like a waste of time. This is probably also why I always write chronologically.
Either way works, but for those of you of the pantser persuasion, I believe you should always write towards a plot point. This will keep your plot on track and driven by your MC.
Cousins of the Plot Point
The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the event that sends your character’s life in a new direction. So, in theory the inciting incident could also be considered a plot point. But it need not be, and most usually aren’t.
Unlike your climax and the inciting incident, this is the one time in your novel when something major happens which does not need to be directly caused by your MC. That said, if your inciting incident is not caused by your MC, the inciting incident will soon be followed by a plot point in which your MC decides what course to take based on the inciting incident.
Returning to the Fellowship of the Ring, the inciting incident in this story is Bilbo’s decision to run off to Rivendell and leave Frodo the ring. Soon afterwards, we have the plot point in which Frodo decides what he’s going to do about it.
However, the inciting incident can be driven by a decision made by your main character, thus making it a kind of plot point. In the newest Star Wars movie, the inciting incident is actually a decision made by one of the characters to leave his previous life. Just in case someone out there has not watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, I won’t go into any more detail.
The Dreaded Plot Ticket
Also sometimes called a plot cookie, you should avoid the plot ticket like the plague.
The plot ticket happens when a change in plot direction occurs, but it is not driven by a decision made by the MC and/or the decision is not driven by previous story events.
For instance, imagine how odd it would have been if Frodo had decided to take the ring and run off to Mordor on his own (with Sam) straight from the Prancing Pony. Weird, right? Why would Frodo do that? How does Frodo even know what he’s supposed to do with the ring? (In most plot ticket blunders, some random thing happens which lets the MC know what s/he is supposed to do. The MC gets handed a “plot ticket” essentially.)
There’s no good reason for Frodo to choose to go anywhere by himself especially given how dangerous his situation is. And beyond that, we don’t want Frodo to leave. We just got introduced to an interesting new character (Strider), and we want to find out what happened to Gandalf.
Now, fast forward, and Frodo has just seen Gandalf “die” and witnessed the destructive effect of the ring on Boromir. The fellowship of the ring is falling apart already, and Frodo doesn’t want the ring or his quest to do any more damage to his friends. So he chooses to go alone (with Sam.)
See how much more effective the plot point is when it’s driven by previous events?
The Plot Twist
Plot twists are very effective. I love plot twists. In fact, one of my pet peeves is reading the first chapter and being able to accurately predict the entire plot of the book (*cough* romance novels *cough*). I like surprises.
However, plot twists are not plot points. They may radically change something, but they cannot directly change the course of the novel. Plot twists come out of the blue (with foreshadowing), and plot points do not. Instead, plot twists work very well as one of those events which push the MC into making a decision which completely changes the course of the book, thus creating a plot point.
For instance, Luke Skywalker’s fight with Darth Vader would have ended the way it did whether or not he learned that Darth Vader is his father. Either way, Luke loses the fight and has to get picked up by his friends. At the time, the only thing this really changes is Luke’s mental state. Instead of being disappointed that he failed to kill Darth Vader (and relieved that he survived the fight), Luke is having a massive personal crisis.
However, this emotional trauma dramatically effects the decisions, and thus plot points, Luke makes later on.