The Five Key Plot Points in Fiction Writing
There is More Than One Way to Skin a Cat
Where in the world did ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’ come from anyway? What a morbid way to say that there is more than one way to get what you want.
Anyway, weird and horrible idioms aside, I want to show you a way to find one possible way to get from the beginning to the end of your story.
It doesn’t really matter if you actually follow the plan you're about to make when you’re writing. All I want you to do is get a feel for how your story could go. And to see how pacing works.
This is how I test my ideas to make sure they’ll support a whole novel. It’s also a good way to give yourself a framework for the pacing of your story.
Your story starts in the ordinary world, something happens to pull the protagonist into the world of the story, they struggle, something good happens, they struggle, then something really terrible happens, and then something happens to turn things around, and your protagonist emerges into a new ordinary world.
There are five key plot points. You can read more about them here, at Script Lab. Today I want you to take some time and come up with one way to get your protagonist through them.
The Five Key Plot Points
I like to think of the inciting incident as a question: do you want to come into the world of this story? It can be asked by another person. It can be an act of God. It can be something very interior for the protagonist. The inciting incident is usually the first truly unusual thing that happens in the story.
If the Inciting Incident is a question, the Lock-in is the answer. Of course, if you’re going to have a story, the answer has to be yes. Eventually. Even if your hero gets there kicking and screaming, they have to get there. The Lock-in is the thing that happens that makes them go all in.
This is the second biggest moment of your whole story. If you’re writing anything other than a true tragedy, this will be a big win for your hero. The Mid-point Climax should mirror the tone of the end of your story. So if you are writing a tragedy, this is going to be a huge defeat for your hero.
The Main Climax is sometimes called the Dark Night of the Soul. It’s the biggest moment, and if you’re not writing a tragedy, the darkest for your hero. All seems lost. The reader is turning pages like a crazy person trying to figure out how this character is going to pull through. This is the trench your hero will have to climb out of, somehow. If you are writing a tragedy, then this is going to be a huge win for your character — the height that you’ll drop them from.
The Third-act Twist is the thing that happens to turn your story around from the Main Climax to the resolution. How does your hero pull themselves out of the trench — or alternatively, what happens to push your hero off the cliff into their tragic ending?
Here's an example of how this exercise works, using one of my own works-in-progress. This story is a Robin Hood retelling, set in modern Las Vegas.
Inciting Incident: Rob Huntington’s father has died. When he goes to the reading of the will, he expects to become the new owner of The Nottingham — the casino his grandfather built. Instead, he learns that his father has left the Nott to his business partner.
Notice that the inciting incident is not Rob's father's death. His father dying is sad, but it's in the realm of his ordinary, normal life. Father's die. The first truly unusual thing that happens is the realization that his father has left the family legacy to someone else.
Lock-in: After Rob visits his father’s office and finds a document that contradicts what he’s been told by the business partner, he decides to investigate.
Rob's father left him enough money to live on for the rest of his life. He could choose to take it and walk away. Instead, he decides to try to figure out what's going on. That's his lock-in.
Mid-Point Climax: Rob has earned the trust of his ‘Merry Men.’ They have a plan to steal back what’s been stolen, and they have their first success.
Main Climax: Their plan is thwarted — and one of Rob’s biggest allies is killed.
Third-Act Twist: A shift in focus changes everything. Instead of working toward getting back what was stolen, the Crew is suddenly focused on finding justice for their dead friend.
The Bones of a Plot
Once you've finished this exercise, you have two things.
1. The bones of a plot for your story.
2. Proof that your idea is big enough to support a whole novel.
How cool is that?
A good plot offers a flexible structure. It keeps you from falling down a rabbit hole and getting too far away from your story. It gives you some guideposts, so you can find your way to The End. But it's not rigid.
If you start writing and realize that your mid-point climax or your third act twist, or any point of your story, is actually different from what you planned in this exercise, that's okay. The point of this exercise is to give you a jumping off point.