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The 5 Movie Plot Points that Matter Most

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Even when you’re humming along toward pro-level screenwriter, it’s still a useful exercise to analyze stories. Keep the skills sharp. Learn something new from the work of others.

So let’s talk about one easy analysis exercise to keep your head in the game, even when you’re not writing.

Analyzing a story’s shape

Satisfying stories tend to have a natural shape: beginning, middle, and end. Setup, escalation, resolution.

What defines a shape are the turning points. (Without turning points, you’d just have a straight line.)

Every story (movie or screenplay) has turning points that define its shape. So if we look at those turning points, we’ll be able to see the shape of the whole represented.

The turning points that define a story’s shape are its major plot points.

So the easy exercise to keep your skills sharp is this: make it a practice to analyze the major plot points. Take a real look at the shape of every movie you see. Get adept at recognizing how they work.

What is a plot point?

The plot is the sequence of events in your story, in which we 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 goal.

Very basically, when you’re watching a movie, you’re watching a character try to make progress toward his or her goal.

The 5 important movie plot points

Not all plot points are created equal. Some plot points are the big turning points that define the shape of the story. If you know these important plot points, you know the story. Not every detail, but a sense of the whole.

What makes these five plot points so important? How do they define the shape of the story?

You get a sense of the whole in these plot points because they relate back to the story goal. These are the essential points in the life cycle of the story goal. When you get down to it, these points show the birth, life, and death of the story goal. The beginning, middle, and end. The whole story of that goal, which is the whole story of that movie.

So what are the five most important plot points? They’re actually four turning points and the outcome. How the whole thing shakes out. Here they are:

    1. Inciting Incident
    2. Break (or turn) into Act 2
    3. Midpoint
    4. Break (or turn) into Act 3
    5. Climax

Here’s approximately how they line up, proportion-wise, in your movie:

|——-1——-2—————3—————4——-5>>>>—|

How do the major movie plot points relate to the story goal?

If the reason these five plot points are important is their relationship to the story goal, then we should probably look at how each of them relates to the goal.

1. The Inciting Incident (or Catalyst, if you prefer) introduces a problem (or opportunity) the protagonist must contend with, setting the story in motion by creating circumstances in which the protagonist will need to form the story goal.

2. By the Break Into Act 2 the main conflict is clear and the story goal is established, which the protagonist believes will address the problem/opportunity. It’s his preferred or only solution to the problem.

3. The Midpoint raises the stakes and/or creates greater opposition to achieving the story goal, and as a result injects new energy into the story and sometimes drastically changes the direction it’s headed.

4. The Break Into Act 3 shows the protagonist’s new, “growth” way of addressing the problem – now that he or she has been through the transformative events of this story.

5. The Climax shows whether the goal is achieved or not, whether the problem is successfully addressed or not (aka how it all shakes out).

Movie plot point examples

Die Hard

1. Inciting: Hans Gruber and the terrorists arrive at Nakatomi Plaza, where John McClane is trying to reconcile with his wife, Holly, during her company Christmas party. The terrorists are the problem, even though John isn’t aware of them yet (though he will be shortly).

2. Break into 2: John has learned the terrorists are ruthless killers, and he’s the only one who’s not being held hostage at gunpoint, so he’s the only one who can save them all. His story goal is to save the hostages from the terrorists.

3. Midpoint: Even though it looks like outside help is on the way and John thinks he can hand over responsibility, the terrorists are listening in so they have an advantage. And they’re coming for John so they can get their detonators back in order to complete their plan. That’s an increase in stakes and opposition.

4. Break into 3: The first time they come face to face, Hans pretends to be a hostage and John gives him a gun. A fatal misstep? No! John’s two steps ahead of Hans this time. Their battle continues into Act 3, with John a bit wiser, a bit more insightful.

5. Climax: John realizes what Hans’s real plan is, uses that info to save the hostages, and then faces off with Hans to save wife Holly. When the movie ends, we know John has solved his problem and saved his marriage.

Bridesmaids

1. Inciting: Annie’s best friend, Lillian, announces her engagement and asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor. Annie’s new problem is wanting/needing to be there for her best friend’s celebration of happiness, while struggling with her own current trashfire of a life.

2. Break into 2: By the end of the engagement party, Annie has met rival Helen and the other bridesmaids and can see the challenge coming her way. Annie’s story goal is to “win” as MoH, which means fending off Helen’s attempts to show her up and take over as best friend.

3. Midpoint: Annie accidentally ruins the bachelorette party and Lillian tells her Helen will take over as MoH. Annie has lost her MoH position, and is now desperate to hold onto her place as Lillian’s best friend (raising the stakes).

4. Break into 3: Annie has just tanked her friendship and been disinvited from Lillian’s wedding altogether, as well as gotten in a fight with potential love interest Officer Rhodes. That was her rock bottom. Here we see her begin to change her ways: she says goodbye to her booty-call Ted. It’s the start of her “growth” way of navigating the story.

5. Climax: Annie learns Lillian, the bride, is missing. Annie tracks her down and gives her the pep talk (and dress re-design) Lillian needs in order to walk down the aisle, and Annie is back in the wedding party. When the movie ends we know Annie has solved her problem – she’s pulled off being Lillian’s MoH and best friend, and she’s made changes to put her own life back on the right track.

Studying screenwriting theory is great, but seeing how that theory shows up in actual movies (or screenplays) can drive the concepts home – and show you variations on the “rules.” So the next time you’re in research mode (aka bingeing movies), make sure to also look at them with an analytical eye. Note what happens at these important movie plot points and how they tell you the whole story.

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

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