In discussing the inciting incident last Friday, I mentioned it’s not really the same thing as the first plot point (although it can be), but I didn’t actually go into what the first plot point is. That is today’s topic.
If you recall, my fellows, the inciting incident will usually occur somewhere between page 30 and 50 in a 90,000-word novel. (If it occurs sooner, it is called a hook, BTW. I neglected to go into that.) The inciting incident is the first sign of trouble, the first call to adventure (for the Joseph Campbell fans among us), but the hero will usually try to deal with the inciting incident quickly and get it out of his hair so he can go back to life as usual.
Life as usual. That’s important. When faced with a disturbance in “emotional equilibrium” (kudos to John Jack for that lovely phrase), people will usually try to restore that equilibrium, that state of comfort. They usually do NOT gladly go charging into danger, especially when hearth and home remain behind them and their inner demons lay ahead.
That’s where the first plot point comes in. This is the event that will drag the hero most unwillingly through the ONE-WAY door from Act I to Act II. After this event, there is no going back. There is no ignoring the dangers ahead, no quick-fix. The glimpse of trouble that was the inciting incident is now a large looming danger that transforms the hero’s understanding of the situation and requires him to change tactics drastically. If the hero refuses to respond to the call now, all will most certainly be lost. This is the point at which he realizes that.
I mentioned on Friday that the first plot point usually occurs at about the 20-25% mark in the story. Why so late? Because we have to establish the stakes we are going to endanger before we threaten them. It’s one thing to find out that there is a sea monster eating ships in the Atlantic. It’s another thing to find that out after learning that the hero’s baby sister is a scientist on a research vessel in the area where the sea monster was last seen. Introduce the stakes after the first plot point, and they will usually seem like a hasty afterthought, pasted in during revisions because the beta readers said they didn’t particularly care about the story or characters. These stakes can evolve and escalate during Act II, but we need to go into the act with readers already worried about what’s already at stake.
I’ll pause a moment to note that the set-up to the inciting incident and the first plot point might ‘just’ be establishing character and stakes, but that does not mean these scenes should be a boring diary of daily life bereft of tension and conflict. Mundane life always has its challenges. Especially in paranormal fiction, it’s mundane life rolling on in the background that lends an additional layer of urgency to the problems at hand. It’s not just the world at stake. It’s the people and things in the world that the hero cannot live without. Everyday problems should definitely complicate our supernatural ones, and vice versa.
Now back to our regularly scheduled topic. I should also mention that the first plot point is the introduction of the antagonist. The inciting incident might have involved a problem caused by the antagonist or his minions, but from a distance or in a less than full frontal assault context. The inciting incident does not seem like a direct threat at the time, because the hero’s understanding of the larger conflict and the antagonist force is incomplete. By the time he gets to the first plot point, he gets smacked in the face by the realization that the problem is not what he thought it was and there’s someone very powerful, with opposing goals, standing between him and the resolution to the crisis.
The first plot point has been called the most important even in the story. There’s no denying that without it, there is no story, at least not one that can sustain suspension of disbelief. Without this event, the hero will remain happily in Act I, like any of us would. Danger will always be something that is happening in the next town over, never endangering the Shire or the last human city of Zion.
The first plot point is when we bring the main conflict home.
More thoughts on the first plot point, my fellows?