Plot Structure: The First Pinch Point

This week I took a deep dive into studying the plot beat known as the “first pinch point” which, in Three Act Structure, occurs halfway through the first half of Act II. For those of you keeping track, that 3/8 of the way into your story — or at the 37.5% mark.

What prompted my exploration into the first pinch point? Beta reader feedback on the first draft of my novel, These Fleeting Flames. Readers weren’t feeling any threat from the antagonist within the second quarter of the story.

What is the purpose of the first pinch point?

The two most important functions of the first pinch point are:

  1. Making the protagonist feel the “pinch” of the antagonistic forces — that is, a reminder of the antagonist’s power. The antagonist is flexing their muscles in some way.
  2. Providing new information about the battle the protagonist is fighting — that is, clues foreshadowing later events in the story.

The combination of these two elements causes a small turning point within the first half of Act II. The pinch point sets up the next 1/8 of the story, right up to the novel’s midpoint at 50%. In fact, a good pinch point goes as far as to foreshadow the midpoint.

Before and after the first pinch point

Prior to the first pinch point, your protagonist has just left their Normal World and entered the Story World at the First Plot Point (which is the end of Act I). From there on out, the protagonist will stumble through the first half of Act II desperately reacting to obstacles thrown at her. She is in a state of reaction, because there’s so much she doesn’t yet know about the enemy, the battle she’s waging, and herself.

Along comes the first plot point, with a peek at new information, and a reminder of what stands in the way of the protagonist achieving her big plot goal.

Armed with this new information, the protagonist enters a state of realization. She’s still struggling, but she is growing a bit more informed, moving toward that revelation at the story’s midpoint.

Symptoms of a weak first pinch point

Let’s use the first draft of These Fleeting Flames as an example. I thought I had a pinch point: an unexpected letter arrives, and my protagonist (fledgling dragonrider Tatiana) learns that Lord Nicandro, the man who murdered her family, now has a dragon of his own. Even worse, two of his soldiers also have dragons. This means that Lord Nicandro’s House, which was already the most powerful of the Six Houses, will soon be unstoppable.

To me, it seemed like I hit the beat (new info, added strength to the bad guy)… but it fell flat on the page.

Why? Despite this injection of new information, Tatiana didn’t change how she acted. The story didn’t pivot in a new direction either — Tatiana simply continued her dragonrider training, albeit with a bit more urgency.

More importantly, I completely missed the opportunity to have the antagonist flex his muscles and SHOW the reader why he’s the big bad. In fact, he didn’t do anything to motivate this plot point at all — one of Tatiana’s allies just mentioned what Lord Nicandro was up to, and his actions didn’t even impact Tatiana directly (at least not yet).

It didn’t matter how many times characters mentioned how wicked and powerful Lord Nicandro was. It didn’t matter that the villain came from the most powerful House. It didn’t matter that his House had all sorts of ingenious dragon-slaying weapons. It didn’t matter that Lord Nicandro was clearly up to something.

And why was that? Because I was telling readers all this, through other characters. And people don’t like to be told what to think. This was one of the sneakier “show, don’t tell” moments I’ve found in my writing.

In short, I needed to properly dramatize my pinch point to continue holding my readers’ interest.

Fixing my weak first pinch point

If I wanted to save my story, I had to rewrite the beginning of the second act to insert a big pinch point scene — one to prove to readers, once and for all, what sort of character Lord Nicandro is — and why he is an ongoing threat to Tatiana’s goals.

To start, I made a list of things I want my new and impactful first pinch point to accomplish:

  • My antagonist will “flex his muscles” and SHOW readers why he’s a threat to Tatiana’s goal
  • The pinch point will still provide new clues, but specifically ones that foreshadow the midpoint reveal
  • This scene should directly impact Tatiana and change her relationship with her battle for her story goal
  • This scene will swing the plot in a new direction and set up the next 1/8 of the story
  • The pinch point should be a vivid scene with punch and high stakes (no boring letter reading here!)
  • To take it one step further, the pinch point should impact Tatiana’s character arc as well: I will punish Tatiana for trying to use her Lie to “solve” the problem in the pinch point scene — so it’ll be that much sweeter when she at last grasps a hint of her personal Truth at the midpoint

In closing

Sometimes half the battle of fixing a problematic element in a story is understanding where and how you went astray in the first place. Thank goodness for beta readers pointing out where we derail — and for plot structure to help us get back on track!

Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

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