The problem with plot points
By David G Brown
A natural dislike for outlining and plotting
Outlining a novel with plot points can, at first glance, seem like a paint-by-numbers, formulaic approach to writing. Many new writers start out with grand visions of the stories they will tell, and the thought of forcing their creativity into boxes is unappealing. This is exactly the attitude I started with, and several successful authors have told me it was the same for them.
But the truth is, even if you have all the conventional plot points tattooed on one arm and the hero’s journey on the other, writing an immersive and compelling novel will still be difficult to pull off. There’s much more to it than an outline. However, a solid outline with a fully intentional structure will give your creation a much higher chance of success. Or, at least, an outline could save you a lot of extra work in the revision stage.
The reason is simple. The standard plot points will help you create and sustain emotional draw—the quality of a narrative that keeps readers engaged, anticipatory, and turning pages. In other words, conventional plot plots help you shape your narrative in a way that takes your readers’ emotional experience into account.
However, there’s another critical consideration that is more important than the plot points themselves: causality. But before I get into what that is and how it impacts your narrative, let’s dive into the plot points themselves.
How important are plot points anyway?
Plot points are the natural infrastructure of a story. Some narratives might not include them all, but most do. And this isn’t because authors worldwide are using the same cheat sheet. It’s because plot points correspond directly to turns of emotion in your reader.
In simplest terms, a story has a beginning, middle, and end. When it comes to plotting, those three critical elements are represented by the (1) inciting incident, (2) rising action, and (3) climax. Something happens, someone responds to what’s happening, and eventually this someone succeeds or fails—or a mix of the two.
But of course it’s not that simple. A beginning, middle, and end could be filled with almost anything, and the goal is not just to write a story, but to write a story that readers will connect with and enjoy. So what’s critical about these three plot points is how they are connected.
Stasis and the Inciting Incident
If there’s a beginning to a story, there’s also a time before the beginning. And that time is your protagonist’s stasis. It’s their normal, everyday life when they have not yet been swept up in the adventure or trial to come. The inciting incident is what disrupts the protagonist’s stasis. As such, the inciting incident is sometimes referred to as the disruption.
Your inciting incident is crucial because it is the moment when your protagonist’s narrative goal is crystalized. Something comes along and disrupts the stasis—it could be a layoff from work, a decree from the queen, or a rocket ship landing on your protagonist’s house. The result is that the protagonist realizes, in a flash, what they must achieve (even if they don’t yet know how they will achieve it). At the most general, this goal may simply be survival, but keep in mind that the more specific you can make your protagonist’s goal, the easier it will be to pull your readers in.
When your protagonist has a clear, specific, and relatable narrative goal, your readers know exactly what the protagonist wants, why they want it, and what the consequences will be if they fail. These elements all work together to create stakes, and stakes keep readers invested. The more readers care about whether your protagonist succeeds or fails, the more they are compelled to turn the page.
The inciting incident is like an arrow fired at the beginning of the story that hits a target at the end. That target is the climax, and the uncertainty it passes through from bow to bullseye is the rising action.
[Tip: You don’t necessarily need to include stasis in a novel. In fact, some novels start after the inciting incident. But if you do include stasis, make sure to keep it interesting and engaging. Avoid using stasis to setup and explain.]
Once your protagonist has a goal, they have to get to work. If they instantly succeed or fail, there’s no story. And if they take a meandering or easy route to get there, then the stakes aren’t very high.
Rising action isn’t one plot point—it’s a series of actions and reactions that ideally notches up the tension, leading to the highest emotional peak—the climax. An action refers to anything the protagonist does in pursuit of their goal—all the choices they make and risks they take along the way. A reaction refers to the protagonist’s response to obstacles that make their goal more difficult to obtain.
Your story’s rising action is a chain of consequences. The first chain link is the inciting incident, and the last is the climax.
Not only is rising action important for keeping readers wringing their hands with anticipation, it’s a crucial tool for characterization. Your characters may have intricately mapped out backstories plus nuanced strengths and flaws, but your readers will come to know them in the midst of active scenes. What a character chooses to do (or not) demonstrates their motivations, values, and personality. And it is through the protagonist’s active experience that they are in some way transformed by the end.
The climax is the highest emotional peak. It is also the payoff for readers who have been eagerly waiting to discover how everything will turn out for the protagonist. The climax is the point when the quest is decided. The protagonist will overcome their demons and succeed, or they will fail while learning an important lesson in the process. Either way, this success or failure completes the protagonist’s transformation, and therein lies the story’s arc.
The “other” plot points
I don’t mean to suggest that the following plot points are optional or expendable, but they don’t have the same universality. Whether you include them or not ultimately depends on the story itself.
The point of no return
The point of no return is very similar to the “threshold” stage of the hero’s journey. In most stories, there’s a point when the protagonist has taken an action that confirms their commitment to the quest or locks them onto the path. However, sometimes the threshold is vague, and if you asked five readers, they might name five different moments when it seems like the protagonist crosses this line. In many stories, it’s not impossible for the protagonist to give up or walk away. In fact, that’s sometimes central to their internal conflict.
There’s still an important takeaway here. When your protagonist crosses a threshold or makes a choice that cannot be revoked, the stakes are heightened. They have committed to their path, which means the spectre of failure isn’t far behind.
The midpoint reversal
I absolutely love when this plot point is used well. In fact, this is one that deserves its own blog post.
The midpoint reversal is an event that comes in the middle of the second act and completely sidelines the protagonist. The path forward gets a whole lot more complicated. The main conflict goes from bad to worse. Think of the midpoint reversal as a mini climax.
A midpoint reversal is likely to find its way into a manuscript without the author planning for it. Sometimes it is the biggest obstacle the protagonist comes up against. Sometimes it completely changes the protagonist’s narrative goal. For example, think of the scene when the T-Rex appears in Jurassic Park. The protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant, ditches his goal of “assessing the park’s safety” for a new and much more urgent goal: survival.
Does every story have a midpoint reversal? Most do, or at least they have an emotional peak leading up to the climax, even though the author might not have specifically named that scene the midpoint.
If you receive feedback that your story “sags” in the middle or that the pace drops off in the second act, a midpoint reversal might be exactly what you need.
All is lost vs false victory
The “all is lost” moment is sometimes referred to as the “dark night of the soul” (which references a sixteenth century poem by St. John of the Cross). This is a moment right before the climax when success or even survival seems hopeless. The protagonist has tried everything, and nothing has worked.
Readers are compelled by characters who walk this knife-edge of success and failure, and so the closer you can bring the protagonist to devastation, the more you can pull on your readers’ heartstrings. The reason this plot point comes right before the climax is that it helps the climax become the highest emotional peak.
Keep in mind that the “all is lost” moment comes before ultimate victory in what the old Greek dramaturgists referred to as a comedy. In a tragedy, the protagonist ultimately fails at their quest while learning a value lesson in the process; therefore, there is no all-is-lost moment. Instead, what comes right before the tragic climax is a false victory where it seems the protagonist will finally get what they are after.
The dark night or false victory is very nearly universal. However, some narratives may omit this plot point when the protagonist’s final outcome is more of a mixed bag. In such cases, the story is usually classified as a tragicomedy since it contains elements of both structures.
A story’s resolution comes after the climax—it involves tying up the loose threads and bringing the story to a reflectively emotional note that allows readers to consider what the protagonist has been through and how they’ve changed along the way.
Does every novel have a resolution? I can’t think of one that doesn’t, and I can’t find any convincing examples. However, I’ve seen one-act plays that end with the climax, so it’s certainly possible.
Causality and the problem with plot points
There are many good reasons to consider the major plot points when you’re planning a story. However, they do not guarantee your story’s success. The problem with plot points is that, when you take each on their own, they can still result in a vague and meandering storyline. I’ve had many clients come to me with intricately outlined manuscripts that technically include every major plot point. It turns out that the connections between the plot points are more important that the plot points themselves.
What I’m talking about is causality. A strong plot is a chain of consequence. The first chain link is the inciting incident, the last is the climax, and every link in between represent the ways in which the protagonist’s actions, reactions, and interactions in some way determine what comes next. In this way, every scene should include a causal element, such that the protagonist is forging their destiny with the choices they make and the risks they take.
When you plot with causality, you ensure that your inciting incident connects directly with the climax. You also ensure that the rising action brings your protagonist closer and closer to failure, raising the stakes with each new obstacle.
One way to determine whether you are plotting with causality is to consider the transitions between each scene. Can you link each scene with the transitions therefore and but, or is the transition merely sequential—and then. You want to avoid and then transitions—they are a sign that your story’s causality is faltering.
Another way to think about this is in terms of action and reaction. When the protagonist takes action in pursuit of their goal, you’ve created a therefore transition; when they react to an obstacle that has arisen in their path, you’ve got yourself a but. When a piece of new and unrelated business crops up, you’ve turned to and then and have created an anecdote instead of a causally connected scene.
Considering the reader’s experience
Conventional plot points do not represent a paint-by-numbers approach to writing a novel. Instead, they are crucial tools to help you deeply consider your readers’ emotional experience of the text. Your story’s emotional draw is what keep readers engaged, compelled, and most importantly turning pages. But it’s not the individual plot points themselves that help you create a powerful narrative—it’s the causality between the plot points, how they work together. If you can combine inventive plot points with unbroken causality, then you’ll be on your way to mastering narrative structure.
David G Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer, and his debut novel is represented by the Donaghy Literary Group. He has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in magazines and literary journals, and he volunteers for the Malahat Review where he interviews writing judges and screens contest entries. He holds a BA in anthropology (UVic) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). As an editor, he pays special attention to structure, relationship arcs, and voice. David lives in Victoria, Canada, in the traditional territory of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations.