Some writers map their story in an outline before they even write it. Other writers simply take to the page and see where their story leads them. But at some point, you will need to think about the structure and where key moments are placed in your novel.
Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end. But what happens in-between are plot points. This article discusses the importance of plot points, which are the major events that propel the story forward to its conclusion.
For the purpose of this discussion, I have analyzed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone using the three-act story structure and seven plot points. I explain when the plot points occur in the book at the end of the sections, so you can skip ahead to the next section if you don’t want spoilers.
What Is a Plot Point?
A plot point is an event that will change the course of the story. It is a major event that is significant enough to influence the character’s arc toward the story climax. Plot points impact the story in a big way.
Your story is comprised of many scenes that all lead up to the story’s climax. Think about your scenes as pieces to a big puzzle. All the scenes are needed to complete the puzzle, and without plot points, your story will be missing key pieces to the narrative puzzle.
Here are some things to consider regarding plot points:
- They will move the story forward in a significant way.
- They should be a “big” enough moment that readers will remember.
- They should push the protagonist in a certain direction toward the finish line.
It’s important to differentiate plot points from other scenes in your book. Every scene must serve a purpose. Some scenes build character development, while other scenes are action-packed, quiet, or reveal clues along the way. Every scene (puzzle pieces) are needed, but not every scene is a plot point.
The seven plot points are:
- inciting incident
- plot point one
- rising action
- plot point two
Let’s look at these plot points in more detail and learn where to place them in your book.
The Three-Act Story Structure
The three-act story structure is the most commonly used model in fiction storytelling. Aristotle believed that every story could be divided into three acts, and that each act must build on the previous one to reach the story’s climax.
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you structure your novel into three parts—Act I, Act II, and Act III—there are certain plot points that occur along the way. This is what it would look like:
- Act I: Setup: hook, inciting incident, plot point one
- Act II: Confrontation: rising action, the middle, plot point two
- Act III: Resolution: climax, denouement
While every story is different, there is a formulaic model for where plot points should be placed in the story arc to create an engaging story for the readers. There are other story structure models, such as the four-act story model, but the three-act structure will be analyzed in this article.
The three acts in your story each serve a different purpose, but they are all equally important.
The sections that follow define the purpose of Acts I, II, and III, as well as the plot points in each act.
Act I: The Setup
hook | inciting incident | plot point one
It can be argued that the first act of your novel is the most important. Act I is an introductory phase known as the setup. This is where you will introduce the protagonist and write exposition to establish the setting, tone, and mood, as well as the protagonist’s main conflict.
Act I will offer insight into the protagonist’s world (i.e., what their life is like). Backstory will help develop the character and their world.
The plot points in Act I are: the hook, the inciting incident, and plot point one.
- The hook will grab the readers’ attention.
- The inciting incident significantly changes the protagonist’s life in a major way.
- Plot point one marks the beginning of the protagonist’s journey.
Act I is comprised of the first 15%–25% of your novel.
How many times have you started a book only to put it down because it didn’t grab your attention? It’s likely that the story didn’t have a strong enough hook to pull you in.
The hook is important because it establishes the first connection of developing the protagonist’s character. It sets the stage for the character’s journey and the main conflict. The hook should include some backstory about the character and their situation.
The Hook: Harry Potter is an orphan who lives in the cupboard under the stairs in the Dursley’s home. He has a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead, and he doesn’t know how he got the scar. The Dursleys (his aunt, uncle, and cousin) are cruel to him.
The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the most important part of your story. Without an inciting incident, the story wouldn’t exist.
The inciting incident is the point of conflict when the protagonist’s life changes in a dramatic way. Something must happen that will trigger your protagonist into action, altering the course of their character arc.
If there isn’t an inciting incident in Act I, readers will most likely stop reading because there isn’t anything to spur the protagonist into action. It’s all about forward momentum. The protagonist now has goals and motivations because of the inciting incident.
The inciting incident take place within the first 15%-20% of your novel.
Inciting incident: Harry receives a letter from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He learns that his parents were wizards who were killed by Voldemort, a powerful, dark wizard (the antagonist). Harry survived the attack but was left with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. Now Harry has a choice to go to Hogwarts to learn about his past and how to become a wizard.
Plot Point One
Plot point one is the point of no return. This is the moment in the story where the protagonist has to engage. The situation that arose from the inciting incident pushes the story arc forward and leads to plot point one. The protagonist has to act and can’t back down from the central conflict.
Plot point one should occur between 20%-30% of your novel, and it marks the end of Act I.
Plot point one: Harry boards the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 ¾, a secret passageway at King’s Cross railway station. This is where Harry’s journey begins. He can no longer back out of his decision—the point of no return—so off to Hogwarts he goes!
Act II: The Confrontation
rising action | middle | plot point two
Act II is the middle section of the book and is known as the confrontation. It is usually the longest, accounting for roughly half of the book. This is the part of the story where the protagonist gets their feet wet. They are adjusting to their new situation, which arose from the inciting incident and plot point one. They are learning about their world.
In Act II, the protagonist learns more about other characters, makes friends and forms a tribe, and also makes enemies. The protagonist will learn more about the antagonist, and his or her goals will start to take shape as a result.
The plot points in Act II are: the rising action, the middle, and plot point two.
- The rising action creates roadblocks for the protagonist.
- The middle is a major plot twist.
- Plot point two is the final turning point before the climax.
Keep in mind that Act II is about the protagonist learning, observing, and analyzing, not necessarily succeeding. The protagonist will flounder along the way. He or she will have some small victories, but it’s more of a learning process.
The Rising Action
The rising action can be viewed as a series of roadblocks that the character has to overcome. It isn’t one standalone scene like the other plot points, but rather multiple scenes that continuously build on each other, which, in turn, further develops the story and the characters.
As the protagonist learns more about their journey, they will encounter many obstacles. There will be a character shift in the protagonist’s actions and their adaptability in situations.
Rising Action: In many scenes, Harry is being tested. Harry is almost sorted into Slytherin, a house known for the dark arts and wizards, but the Sorting Hat places him in Gryffindor instead. Harry is constantly at odds with his nemeses, Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape. He is suspicious of Snape.
The middle is a plot point in the story when something life-changing happens to the protagonist. It has to be a major event—a plot twist—that will challenge the protagonist. If something major doesn’t happen in the middle of your story, the readers will feel cheated and let down.
The protagonist will shift from being reactive and observant to being proactive and active. The character is forced to make decisions in order to achieve their goals.
The middle should occur halfway through your story, around the 50% mark.
The middle: Harry and his two best friends, Ron and Hermione, venture into the forbidden third corridor. There they discover Fluffy, a three-headed dog, guarding a trapdoor. They are now curious about what the dog is guarding.
The pivotal moment in the middle plot point is how the story unfolds after the incident. The history of the Sorcerer’s Stone is revealed. The stone can be brewed into an elixir, which will grant the drinker immortality. Harry and his friends conclude that the all-powerful stone is hidden behind the trapdoor. Harry suspects that Snape is attempting to get the stone. All of these scenes are prompted by the middle plot point.
Plot Point Two
The end of Act II wraps up with plot point two. This is the point in the story when all hope seems lost for the protagonist. It marks the story’s final turning that leads to the climax. The character will have succeeded and failed in their goals, gathered information, and developed a solid plan of action for the climax.
Plot point two should occur around the 75% mark in your story.
Plot point two: As punishment for leaving their dormitory after hours, Harry and his friends are serving detention in the Forbidden Forest. Harry and Draco stumble upon a ghoulish figure killing a unicorn. Harry is defenseless against the ghoul, but he is saved by a centaur. It is revealed that Voldemort was the dark ghoul in the forest, and he is after the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry now has a goal: to do everything in his power to stop Voldemort.
Act III: The Resolution
climax | denouement
Act III is the final act of the story, also known as the resolution. The climatic scenes will reveal whether or not the protagonist can achieve their main goal.
The plot points in Act III are: the climax and the denouement.
- The climax is the most dramatic scene(s) in the book.
- The denouement ties everything together.
In Act III, the protagonist has to be active and take center stage. Everything in the novel has been leading up to the climax of the story, where the protagonist will finally be put to the test.
The climax is a series of events that brings the story arc and the character arc together into one big, explosive finale. The climax of your novel needs to be the most dramatic scene. It can be one scene or a series of climactic scenes, but the climax scene itself must have a wow factor. Readers have been waiting for this moment, so the payoff has to be worthwhile.
The protagonist must be present in the climax scene. This is the moment of truth: your protagonist is up against the biggest, most dramatic and complicated thing imageable. The protagonist must face the antagonist in some way.
By this point in the book, the protagonist will have undergone significant transformation and change. Their character development needs to be tangible. They may not win, conquer, or overcome in the climax, but their character growth will be evident in their actions in the final scenes.
The climax should happen somewhere around 90% in your story.
Climax: There are several climatic scenes that build up to the story climax. Harry, Ron, and Hermione go through the trapdoor to get the Sorcerer’s Stone. They face many obstacles until Harry is the only one left. Harry faces off with Professor Quirrell/Voldemort to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone, and he wins!
The denouement, also known as the resolution, is the conclusion of the story that ties up loose ends. It isn’t a plot point, but rather the result of all the plot points throughout the book.
The dust is settling from the big climax, and everything will now fall into place in the conclusion. The main conflict has been resolved, so it’s time to wrap up the story.
Keep in mind that the denouement should not be too long, as this will affect the pacing and detract from the dramatic climax. Nobody wants to read a story with an awesome climax only to have to read another ten chapters that don’t lead anywhere.
Denouement: Dumbledore gives Harry answers about his parents, the Sorcerer’s Stone, and explains what happened to Voldemort. In the end, Harry is a hero.
Plot Point Tips
Now that you’ve learned about the three-act story structure and the seven plot points, it’s time to examine your own story.
If you’re just getting started, write down what you think the plot points are without looking at your manuscript. Then refer to your manuscript and see where the plot points are placed in the story. Sometimes, you may think a scene is a plot point only to realize that it isn’t. If your inciting incident doesn’t occur until 40% of the way in the book, you’ll need to move it sooner. If your middle plot point does not result in a big enough plot twist, you should revise it.
If your plot points are weak, nonexistent, or misplaced, use the advice in this article to really focus on those key events. Your novel is only as strong as its weakest plot point, so make sure they all stand out.