Image: Matthew Loffhagen
What’s your favorite book? Let the story flood back to you in all its vivid detail, think of the journey it took you on. Now, think of the parts of that story that affected you most deeply. If they’re moments of significant change for the character, you can bet they were plot points. A plot point is a turning point for your protagonist matched by a shift in the plot.
Strong plot points are the backbone of a well-constructed story because they support both plot and character. Identifying your weak plot points and fixing them is an essential part of constructing a compelling and memorable narrative. But that can be tricky. So, let’s walk through one of my favorite books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as an example. I’ve used a three-act structure to identify three major plot points, what they do for the storyline and character, and how to make sure you’re making the most of these turning points in your own story.
A quick note: Though I’m using a three-act structure, there are many narrative structures useful for shaping a story. This analysis will work regardless of which structure you use or how many plot points you have.
Act One establishes the norm of your protagonist’s status quo, which is interrupted by a significant moment of change in the story, Plot Point 1. In Act One of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet our protagonist in the humdrum of his everyday life: Harry is a neglected orphan, in the reluctant care of his aunt and uncle. He’s resolved to being invisible and generally disliked. But then . . . Harry discovers he’s not a nobody, in fact he’s a very well-known somebody—a wizard, the only wizard You Know Who (Voldemort) couldn’t kill, a wizard who’s been invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! Whoa, talk about a divergent destiny.
Strong plot points mark a change in the plot and the character, but most importantly, they strike an emotional chord in the reader. Imagine what Harry feels at this moment. I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt that in my own life—not in such a dramatic fashion, but that breathtaking surprise of suddenly being put on a new trajectory, of being launched into the unknown.
So, how does your current work-in-progress measure up?
- In Act One, do we have a sense of your character’s everyday life?
- Does something happen to him or her that creates a new trajectory?
- Does that moment create a shift in the plot as well as the inner life of the character?
- And, the secret ingredient, does it connect with readers emotionally?
Hopefully you can answer yes to all these questions. But if you can’t, take some time to think about your Act One plot point and the missing elements. What if Harry had only found out that he was a wizard who’d been invited to a wizarding school, but hadn’t yet learned that everyone in that world knew him? That makes a big difference on an emotional level. Take some time to ensure your first plot point makes the most impact it can on the plot, the character, and the reader’s emotional connection.
Act Two is all about conflict. The protagonist forges ahead into the new reality and encounters all kinds of unexpected obstacles. But it’s facing these challenges that creates change in the character. This series of obstacles builds toward the climax, the most drastic scene of conflict, and it’s just before we get there that we find Plot Point 2: The Black Moment. The protagonist is faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge this time, and though there’s no way back, neither is there a clear way to victory.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this moment comes when Harry realizes he must face Voldemort alone. In their desperate attempt to stop him regaining power, Harry and his friends are without an adult ally. They’re on their own to face the world’s most powerful dark wizard!
Notice again how this moment is multilayered. Harry (and the reader’s) expectations are overturned in a plot twist, yes, but what else? He’s unexpectedly forced to face the greatest threat to his new identity. Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents and exiled him to a life of obscurity on Privet Drive now threatens the new home and community he’s found in the wizarding world. It seems impossible that Harry might be able to confront him alone, but he can’t afford to back down, he’s come too far.
Plot and character.
And the emotional component? I too have come to that dark moment of feeling the way forward is too hard, too uncertain, too vulnerable, of having to summon all my courage, strength, and bravery to move forward. Maybe not to face a dark wizard, but at the risk of losing something precious to me. Absolutely.
How does your Plot Point 2 look?
- In Act Two, is your protagonist facing a series of challenges that build to the climax?
- Is there a Black Moment in which your protagonist has seemingly lost everything, hit an insurmountable wall, or lost hope?
- Does that moment alter both the expectations of the plot and the character’s belief about their abilities?
- What’s the reader’s universal connection to the emotional landscape?
The challenge with Plot Point 2 is in the stakes, are they high enough? If Harry found out he had to confront Voldemort but still had the headmaster by his side, would it be the blackest moment of all? No. When you push your characters seemingly beyond the edge of their abilities, their triumphs will be that much stronger. So, have you made your character’s Black Moment as desperate as it can be, and can your readers relate to the character’s emotions? Once you’ve made Plot Point 2 as strong as possible, read on for the final turning point in our Act Three example.
Act Three is about the new normal. Our character has undertaken an incredible journey and has changed in some way. Now it’s time to see how he or she will step forward as a transformed person.
Harry has confronted Lord Voldemort and escaped unscathed; he’s looked his darkest moment, his deepest sorrows, and the man responsible for them in the face and survived. From the standpoint of character arc, how has he changed? The boy who was once ignored and ridiculed by family and classmates has now found friends, community, and a new destiny in the wizarding world and he’s defended them against the Dark Lord.
So what now? He’s going back to Privet Drive. Plot Point 3: it’s subtle yet powerful. Harry may be returning to the place he began, but he’s certainly not the same person. The juxtaposition serves to heighten all that’s happened to him and highlight the magnitude of the change: Can the budding wizard Harry Potter go back to living in the cupboard under the stairs? Hardly.
Plot, character, what about emotion here in this final moment of transition? In our example, it’s a feeling of hope. The reader stands with Harry in a place of victory, strength, and self-knowledge. We’ve pushed through our own hard times too, to come out stronger and wiser on the other side. We know what we’ve gained, we know what we’re made of.
And your protagonist?
- In Act Three, what is the new normal?
- Has your protagonist changed because of the way he came through his Black Moment?
- What does he/she carry with her now that she didn’t have in Act One and Act Two? Who has he/she become that he/she wasn’t before Plot Points 1 and 2?
- What does the reader feel as they stand with your character on the brink of this new world?
As with our example story, Plot Point 3 may be subtle in your story as well. Just be sure it’s powerful. Use your writer toolkit to its full advantage and leave your reader with an unforgettable sense of the character’s transformation. What if Harry had stayed on at Hogwarts for the summer? Sure, he still triumphed over Voldemort, but we’d have lost the opportunity to see how far he’s truly come. Look closely at your ending, shape and reshape it until you’re confident that the plot highlights the character’s transformation in a powerful, memorable way.
So, you’ve analyzed your own work-in-progress. As you’ve walked through your story from beginning to end and reviewed your major plot points, are they strong enough? Does each one address plot, character, and reader emotion? What changes will you make as a result and how will they impact the scope, reach, and effect of your story?