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A Field Guide to Screenplay Plot Points

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting

Earlier in the Start Your Screenplay series, I mentioned the step in the process when you start to identify plot points. But what are plot points? How do they function? And how do you know what your story’s plot points are?

Stay tuned – we’re about to answer those questions and more.

What is a plot point?

The plot is the sequence of events in your story, in which we generally track a character’s pursuit of a goal or objective. A plot point is an event that changes the character’s orientation to that objective.

At each plot point, the character is either closer to or farther from the objective. In that way, plot points mark progress and propel the story forward. (Hat tip to Adam Skelter @ Anatomy of Chaos for this definition.)

The major plot points work together to create a spine for the story.

Screenplay Plot Points

What are the major plot points?

There’s probably some debate about what’s considered a “major” plot point, but a likely lineup would be:

  • Catalyst
  • Break into Act 2
  • Midpoint
  • Low Point
  • Break into Act 3
  • Final Battle

String these together and you’d have a basic summary of your story.

These plot points show up in most successful movies. (“Successful” meaning the story works, not an achievement of box office success.) But don’t assume this is some kind of formula.

Effective movies create a desired emotional effect on the viewer. The setup and delivery of that effect is created with careful orchestration of the story elements, including the plot points. Often, that orchestration takes a certain shape and pattern — one that is shared by other effective stories.

Some stories do take a formulaic approach: they design plot points for spectacle, mistaking the size of the event for the quality. But these stories miss the point.

It’s not about the size. It’s about the effect. To get the desired effect, you have to know the purpose of a given plot point and then design it to fulfill that function in your particular story.

The major plot points below may show up in most stories, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to the “rules”. If you need to do it differently to get the effect you want, then go for it. But be deliberate about the effect you’re creating with your story.

Let’s look at each plot point’s function in the story so you can identify your own.

Catalyst

Also known as the Inciting Incident. Usually occurs 10-15 pages into the script.

You might think of it as the event that sets the story into motion, or that shakes up the protagonist’s normal world. It is often the first appearance or indication of the antagonist or main force of opposition. The Catalyst’s function in the story is to kick off a problem (or opportunity) that the protagonist must act on.

Break into Act 2

Also known as Plot Point 1 (if you’re a Syd Field fan). Occurs at the end of the first act.

Often described as the event that locks the protagonist into the story, or forces him to begin to pursue the story goal in earnest.

It launches the story into Act 2 by solidifying what the protagonist is going to pursue over the course of this story (the objective), and showing us that he or she is starting that pursuit now. This gives the audience something to track. It helps us engage with your story, because it allows us to follow the progress toward the goal.

Aim to establish the Dramatic Question by this plot point. Will ‘A’ do ‘B’? Where A = the protagonist, and B = achieve the story goal. i.e. Will John McClane free the hostages?

Midpoint

Also known as… Nope, I think that’s the only name for it.

Often described as a major raising of the stakes and/or turning the story in a new direction.

You probably notice the midpoint turn in movies without realizing it. After the midpoint, effective stories usually feel more intense, faster paced, more urgent and/or with higher stakes.

Sometimes the Midpoint is a big reveal, for the audience and/or the main character. Sometimes it’s the launching of a timeclock. Can be a huge defeat or a huge win. Can be a “now it’s personal” loss, or “sex at 60” moment (where a romantic relationship takes a major step).

Its function is to create new tension. It causes the audience lean in, to get even more invested. To make them eager to stick around for the rest of the story.

Low Point

Also known as the All is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul story beats.

Often described as the point where the protagonist seems furthest from reaching his or her goal. It might be where the protagonist loses his or her support system, such as if a mentor character dies, the love interest leaves, or the hero is fired from his position of responsibility or authority.

This is the place in the story where the character usually realizes what he or she must learn or change going forward. We often see the theme reflected back to the protagonist here. Which makes sense, since the theme is related to the lesson the character needs to learn.

If the character is going to be changed by the events of this story, then this is the point. There’s nowhere else to go. He (or she) has been through the ringer, seemingly to no avail, and is out of options. So he’ll finally stop avoiding the hard lesson and begin embracing that new life strategy.

Break into Act 3

Also known as Plot Point 2.

After the realization moment of the Low Point, the protagonist knows what he (or she) must do. A new plan is formed in order to achieve the story goal.

That plan, however nascent, far-fetched, or dangerous, will be the final attempt to achieve the story goal. It gives us (the audience) something to track over the rest of the movie. This is what we’ll be watching in Act 3.

As you can guess, the function of this plot point is to propel us into Act 3, into the protagonist’s preparations or initial efforts.

Final Battle

Also known as the Climax.

The climax is the main character’s final confrontation with the primary obstacle. This is the battle that determines the outcome of the war, once and for all. There will be no more chances. The goal will be achieved, or not. The audience will know the answer to the Dramatic Question. Will the protagonist attain the goal? This is where we get the answer, yes or no.

Once the Dramatic Question is answered, the movie is essentially over. We’ll likely need just a bit of wrap-up to bring a feeling of closure and satisfaction. But that’s about it.

 

As you’re working out your story, keep in mind that you don’t have to discover these plot points in chronological order. Start with what you know, and use that to help you find the others.

Often when you’re developing an idea, you’ll have one or more of these plot points already in mind. Maybe you know what the big, climactic confrontation scene will be; it’s what inspired the whole movie.

Or maybe you know what the main thrust of the movie is – the journey of Act 2 — and from that you can identify the Break Into 2, the thing that launches that journey.

And if you know the Dramatic Question, then you can brainstorm Catalyst moments that could work to trigger it.

It’s not a linear process. You’ll figure out one, then do the math to figure out the others and realize you need to adjust the first one. That’s okay. Soon all of the puzzle pieces will fit together. You’ll be able to see the entire big picture of your screenplay living in these six plot points.

 

Ready to take your own idea from zero to screenplay? Catch up on the series here:

How to Start Writing Your Screenplay
How to Outline Your Screenplay, Phase 1
How to Outline Your Screenplay, Phase 2

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ADVANCE YOUR STORY

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