Outlining Methods Part 3: The Promise of Plot Points

In part one and two of this series, we’ve explored methods of finding and capturing inspiration as you build an outline or refocus your draft. This final step is simply putting that inspiration together into concrete events that you can anticipate and work towards. Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, this step is a fantastic way to maintain your drive and vision as you begin drafting.

4. Setting milestones: Plot points you can live for

Ok, some of you pantsers might have cringed just at the sight of the word “plot point’. Plot structure can turn hostile when you let it prescribe your every move. But it doesn’t have to be the enemy. Plot points do not have to be about pinning down your entire narrative. (Though those with more plotter inclinations, like me, can find that useful, too.) Instead, they can simply be a promise. They are a way to remind yourself of a few big things you are excited for.

Let me give you an example: My friend Kaela Rivera (remember, of the upcoming Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls? So excited for that!) is one of the most devoted pantsers I have met. Her stories wrestle her to the computer in sporadic 4,000-word sprints, and run where they will. Her inspiration comes best when she is in the nitty-gritty words of each scene. However, I recently discovered that she writes out a query letter before she seriously dives into a draft. She explained that if she could write a query, she knew that she had enough substance for a full book. This caught me by surprise. This hard-core pantser was . . . well, plotting. She was using the practical form of a query letter to help her pin down enough plot points for her wild journey to continue.

So, let’s talk about what a plot point is:

  • A plot point is a big, exciting event (probably what you remember when looking back at a book)
  • A plot point challenges the character in a big, new way. This challenge often helps the character begin to change, as they are forced to make decisions about the major flaw that is holding them back.
  • A plot point significantly advances the plot. This often done through major events with exciting reveals, new obstacles, or game-changing loses.

You probably already have a few plot points in mind! Writing those down helps you remember that you have exciting events to work towards. And if you lean towards pantsing, that can often be enough.

Let’s look at what these plot points might look like. Many authors have found that plot points tend to fall into a certain pattern in order to create an organic, compelling story. Plot points tend to work well in this order:

  1. First Plot Point: Entering a New World (occurs 1/4 of the way through the book)
    This is the moment when changing events propel the character out of their typical life, and they commit to an intimidating but necessary new role in order to pursue their big goal.
  2. Second Plot Point  or Midpoint: The Reveal (occurs 1/2 of the way through the book)
    After attempting to accomplish their goal in a straightforward way, they encounter a major shock. This event is often a frightening reveal that changes their understanding of the plot. The character realizes that what they’ve been doing won’t work anymore. If they want to survive, they will have to take a new, proactive approach.
  3. Third Plot Point: Facing the Inner Demon (occurs 3/4 of the way through the book)
    Though the character has made significant progress since the midpoint, the flaw or “lie” that has hindered them throughout the book has just tripped them up in a way that jeopardizes everything. This event causes them to realizes their true priorities—and how much they still have to change if they want to meet their goal.
  4. Climax: Claiming a Higher Goal (last quarter of the book)
    This is what everything has been building towards. Armed with a new understanding of themselves, the character finally and fully faces the antagonist. This gives them the opportunity to act on their new understanding, which can affect their decisions in unexpected ways. Sometimes, they realize that the goal they’ve been working for isn’t quite right, and they need to make a different decision than they had planned on to claim their “truth” and what they’ve really been wanting the whole time. This should resolve the external and internal conflicts in one powerful event.

Just seeing story structure laid out in this simple, four-point map often helps your ideas start to arrange themselves in exciting ways. As you jot them down, you will find these anticipated events will lend you extra excitement, fuel, and vision as you travel down the drafting road.

If you lean towards plotting, there are a few more valuable aspects of plot you can investigate: First, try exploring pinch points. They can really help plot click into place. And second, take a look at how your character’s arc is an inextricable part of your plot’s momentum. Outlining can be as exciting and compelling as drafting when you see all the pieces fit together.

To wrap up, here are a few more excellent resources for both plotters and pantsers to expand your plot-building tool-set:

  • https://www.critiquecircle.com/blog.asp?blogID=280
    If you want a quick review of plot points, but with pinch points incorporated, this article is a great resource. I would also recommend checking out the YouTube link to Dan Wells’ lectures on story structure! He is an award winning science fiction and horror author, and his lectures go into great depth.
  • http://www.secretsofstory.com/2011/08/ultimate-story-checklist.html
    If you really want to dive into story structure, this is the article. Matt Bird has been called “a certifiable writing-craft genius,” and rightly so. This article will give you the basic plot “check list” he has developed to describe what has worked for the best stories he’s seen. The associated links as well as his book, Secrets of Story, go into great detail. If you’re looking for a compelling, game-changing read, his book will be well worth your time!
  • https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/
    And, of course, I have to reference you once again to K. M. Weiland’s complete story structure series. If you want to learn more, but need readily available information, her series is the place to go!
  • https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/story-structures/
    If you want to get a “feel” for story structure in your favorite stories, use this database. Here, K. M. Weiland and her readers have give a detailed plot break down of many major books and movies. After you’ve read through three or four, you can really see how plot points have moved your favorite stories forward.

Well, there you have it–the four methods of outlining for both plotters and pantsers. I have found each of them to be a unique and important guide on my journey of writing. Have you used any of these methods before? Which has been the most valuable to you?

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