This is part one in a four-part series on story structure. To see the whole series, go here.
There’s a moment in every story that’s most important.
It’s more important than the ending. More important than how the protagonist (aka: hero) gets introduced. Even more important than the crazy-cool plot twists you’ve thrown into the mix.
It’s a big moment–a huge one. It’s the moment in your story when the real story begins.
This moment is the First Plot Point, and without it your story’s a dud.
The First Plot Point (FPP)
The FPP is when the story’s antagonist makes its full-frontal appearance–and everything changes. The protagonist is now thrust into a journey where he must square off with demons, both inner and outer, in order to achieve his goal, overcome his demons, and defeat the antagonist.
This is the moment in your story when everything changes. Whatever came before this moment was just set up for it.
This moment defines the stakes of the story–what the protagonist has to lose (or gain). It introduces the primary conflict and antagonistic force (whether that be a person or an actual force of some kind, like nature).
There’s SO much I could tell you about the FPP … but Larry Brooks, the bestselling author of Story Engineering, has already done an amazing job going into detail explaining what the FPP is and why it’s so important in these two blog posts:
Rather than re-explain everything that Larry explains, I’d recommend heading over there and reading those posts. Then come back here for some more specific examples of First Plot Points in action (go ahead, I’ll wait.)
Breaking Down the First Plot Point: Two Examples
I don’t know about you, but I always do better understanding things when I can see them visually. So I thought I’d give you a simple exercise for finding the FPP in movies. I use movies as the teaching tool for storytelling (something I learned from Larry) because movies are visual and you can learn quickly from viewing them.
If you watch any movie trailer or read the description of (most) movies, you will find the FPP, staring you in the face. That’s because the FPP tells you what the movie is actually about.
Let’s take a look at two examples, one a movie trailer and the other a written movie description:
1. The Trailer for If I Stay
Right around 1:17 into this trailer you’ll see the FPP happen–a car accident, where the protagonist is badly injured and falls into a coma. Everything that happened in the first 1:16 of the trailer was just set up for that moment. That one big, important moment that changed the whole story and moved the protagonist in a whole new direction.
2. The Movie Description for While You Were Sleeping
An exercise I love to do is to read the descriptions of all the movies on Netflix. It’s such an easy way to study First Plot Points in-action. Here’s the description for the 90s romance, While You Were Sleeping:
A transit worker rescues a handsome commuter, then pretends to be the comatose man’s fiancee while falling for his brother
Bam–there’s the FPP: “pretends to be the comatose man’s fiancee.” It’s the moment that changes everything in the story.
Without this moment, the movie would just be about a transit worker’s day-to-day life; she saves a guy at work one day, then she goes to the hospital to see if he’s OK, then she falls in love, then she… boring! There’s no real story there.
[Take note of this: episodic stories do not work. (Except sometimes in movies, but those movies are usually pretty boring, and they rarely ever become blockbuster hits. Just saying.)]
The real story comes from adding in that FPP.
By pretending to be the fiancee of the guy she saved, she took the story to a whole new level. Now we’re not just seeing her day-to-day life, we’re following along vicariously as she tries to get herself out of the mess she just created by lying about being his fiancee!
We’re hooked–we have to keep watching to see what happens next.
That’s the true power of the First Plot Point.
Even More First Plot Point Examples
To make it even more clear how important the FPP is, here are a bunch of other movie descriptions with the FPPs bolded (and italicized) for emphasis:
- Something’s Gotta Give: Still sexy at 60, Harry Sanborn wines and dines women half his age. But a getaway with his girlfriend goes awry when her mother drops in unannounced (in the movie, Harry ends up falling in love with his girlfriend’s mother)
- The Sweetest Thing: After a brief nightclub encounter with a handsome real-estate agent, a party girl and her best friends embark on a wild road trip to track him down (without the decision to go on a road trip to try and find this guy, the story would be about a girl who likes to party meeting a cute guy at a bar–boring!)
- Just One of the Guys: When her essay about a woman posing as a male jock is scoffed at during a contest, a teenage journalist decides to prove her theory’s feasibility (before making this decision, we would just be watching a movie about a young woman who wrote an essay that got made fun of–boring!)
- Olympus Has Fallen: A disgraced Secret Service agent must come to the rescue when Korean terrorists descent on the White House and take the president hostage (the antagonist has made a full-frontal–now we know who they are–Korean terrorists–and what they want–to kidnap the president–which creates stakes and conflict)
- Panic Room: A woman and her daughter are caught in a game of cat-and-mouse with burglars in their New York City home and are forced to retreat inside a vault (without the burglars making an appearance, forcing them into the vault where they’re pretty much sitting ducks, there is no story)
Without the First Plot Point, a story is nothing more than a boring, episodic tale of endless dribble. The FPP infuses the story with conflict, with stakes, with a journey for the protagonist.
Master this one piece of story structure and you’re pretty much set for life as a writer.
But of course, there’s a lot more to it than this. The FPP is only the beginning.
As a writer, you need to educate yourself on the whole picture of how to tell a story that works. Up next in part two of this series: the Midpoint.
Share With Us
What are your thoughts on the First Plot Point? Have you noticed it in all the movies (and books) that you watch (and read)?