There are a ton of narrative structures in the storytelling world. Among the most popular are the Hero's Journey and the Three Act Structure. But no matter which one you look at, they all have one thing in common. They all provide an overall structure for nailing the plot points of a story.
This is an indication of how important a story's plot points are. Which is why I'm going to do a deep dive today to answer the question: What is a plot point?
- What a plot point is and how to identify one.
- Examples of plot points using a well-known story.
- Tips for writing effective plot points.
Table of contents
- What's the Point of a Plot Point?
- Identifying a Plot Point
- Plot Point Example: The Matrix
- Plot Point = Turning Point
- Tips for Writing Excellent Plot Points
- What is a Plot Point: Wrapping Up
What's the Point of a Plot Point?
There's a common misconception that a plot point is anything that happens in a story. In this way, people often confuse a plot point for a story beat. Story beats are the smallest units of storytelling, allowing you to break down a story into small parts without looking at individual paragraphs or sentences.
A plot point, on the other hand, marks a major turning point in the plot. So a story beat and a plot point will overlap, but not every story beat is a plot. There are far more story beats than plot points in a given story.
Plot Points Change a Story’s Direction
Imagine you're looking at a story in a microscope. The closest magnification is reading every single word in the story and piecing it together as a whole—much as you would a reader. These words combine to make up scenes that each contain a story beat.
Zoom out a notch, and you can look at the story beats, making sure each beat helps the story progress.
Zoom out one more notch, and you're looking at the plot points—events that change the direction of the story. This view allows you to focus less on the minutiae of the story and more on the most important events.
Identifying a Plot Point
After you've watched a movie or read a book and some time has passed, chances are you'll remember the plot points better than anything else. This is because they're the most impactful events for the characters in the story. Especially the protagonist(s).
A plot point isn't just something that happens in the story. It needs to have consequences, affecting the events that follow. This is how you differentiate a plot point from a story beat or a scene.
Thinking about plot points in this way can help you craft a story that will please readers. Whether you're plotting your story before you write a word, or you simply want to make sure what you've written already is as good as possible, taking this bird's-eye-view can really help.
So let's break it down using The Matrix, which is masterfully plotted and compelling.
Plot Point Example: The Matrix
Plot Point 1
The first plot point doesn't come until about the 15-minute mark in The Matrix. This is common enough because you must first establish the protagonist and their “ordinary world” through exposition and character introduction.
The first plot point in most stories is also called the Inciting Incident. In The Matrix, this is the sequence in which Morpheus calls Neo while he's at work, warning him about the agents that have just shown up at Neo’s office. Morpheus attempts to direct him out onto a scaffolding on the side of the building so he can escape from the agents.
Neo refuses this initial call (also common in many stories) and gets captured by the agents. They then offer him a deal: help them find Morpheus or go to jail for hacking crimes. Neo refuses, and they put a “bug” inside him. He wakes up in his bed.
Although we're led to assume that Neo thinks the whole incident is a nightmare, he knows something strange is going on. So when Morpheus calls again and asks if he wants to meet, Neo agrees.
Plot Point 2
The second plot point, often called the Point of No Return or Crossing the Threshold, happens when Neo meets with Morpheus and is offered two pills. After initially refusing the “call to adventure” in plot point one, Neo now accepts the red pill. He's pulled out of the Matrix and into the real world.
This also marks the end of Act I in the traditional three act structure.
Plot Point 3
Plot point three in The Matrix comes when Morpheus and several other crew members bring Neo into the Matrix to meet the Oracle. After hearing from Morpheus that he is “the One,” Neo learns from the Oracle that he is not, in fact, “the One.”
On their way back out of the Matrix, they're attacked by agents. Morpheus is captured and three crew members are killed, but Neo and Trinity escape.
This is a plot point for two reasons. One, it's this decision to go see the Oracle that allows the agents to get the drop on them (with the help of Cyrus back in the real world). Also, what Neo learns from the Oracle directly affects his decision in the next plot point.
Plot Point 4
Back in the real world, on their ship, Trinity decides to go back into the Matrix to save Morpheus. Otherwise, the agents will torture him until he gives up the location of the hidden city of Zion.
Neo decides to go with Trinity, in part because he's not “the One.” But even if he's not “the One,” he can still make himself useful by helping to save Morpheus.
This marks the end of Act II in the traditional three-act plot structure.
Plot Point 5
The beginning of Act III and plot point five are one and the same in The Matrix. Trinity and Neo infiltrate the building where Morpheus is being held. Morpheus and Trinity escape back to the real world, and Neo is left behind.
But the danger isn't over yet. There are machines coming to kill those in the real world. Neo must find a way out of the Matrix before the machines get to the ship, otherwise, he will die or everyone on the ship will die—which would include him.
But once again, this plot point centers on a decision by the main character. When he encounters Agent Smith in the subway, Neo can either fight or run. Running is what he's been told to do. But he decides to stay and fight Agent Smith. And he temporarily beats him.
Plot Point 6
The climax of The Matrix comes when Neo is racing into the building to get to a phone and finally get out of the Matrix. Although he faced off against Agent Smith, it was a close thing, and now several agents are closing in on him. He needs to get out.
But when he opens the door to the room containing his way out, Agent Smith is already there, and he shoots Neo in the chest several times. Back in the real world, the machines are tearing into the Nebuchadnezzar. Neo dies and all seems lost. But then Trinity tells Neo in the real world that he has to be “the One” because the Oracle told her she'd fall in love with “the One.”
Neo comes back to life. The agents shoot at him, and he stops the bullets in midair. He is “the One.” He quickly defeats Agent Smith and leaves the Matrix just in time for the crew to use the EMP to defeat the machines tearing into the ship.
Plot Point = Turning Point
As you can see, there's a lot of stuff from the movie that we didn't cover in the breakdown above. And that's by design. When we discuss the main plot points of a story, we're looking at the most impactful moments. They should all have to do with the main conflict of the story.
Much of the space in between plot points is spent developing subplots and character arcs, and building up the story's conflict.
These other plot elements are important, too. But by looking at each major plot point in turn, you can ensure that there's a coherent story arc that builds up toward the climax.
It's important that each major plot point leads inexorably to the next. If there's no through-line, it's just a series of random happenings.
Tips for Writing Excellent Plot Points
Whether you like to plot your stories out or simply sit down and write, knowing what plot points are can help you craft a great story. And the following tips can help you design your narrative arc, even if it's just an idea in your head.
Be Mindful of Action vs Reaction
In many powerful stories, the main character spends the first two or three plot points resisting change.
We can see this in the first plot point in The Matrix. Neo refuses to go out onto the scaffolding to escape the agents. He does this because he gets scared. In fact, much of Neo's character development is about overcoming his limiting fear and doubt.
So if your main character is excited about each new plot development, it takes away some of the conflict. Plus, it's kind of unbelievable. Change is hard, and most people don't want to leave their “ordinary world.”
But there should come a time when your character does get proactive because this is essential for an effective character arc.
Things Shouldn't Go to Plan
If you've ever read a book where everything goes smoothly for the main character, you were probably bored to tears. This is why you hear the term “rising action” from many fiction writers.
By making things harder on your main character (through the antagonist), you can craft an entertaining narrative that builds toward the story's climax.
Each major event (plot point) should facilitate this need. Of course, your character needs to overcome obstacles to develop. But for every obstacle they overcome, there should be some unforeseen consequence that follows because of it. And the character's reaction to that consequence should lead to the next plot point.
Don't Neglect Other Plot Elements
While we've focused mostly on the major plot points in this article, it's important to note that they are simply a piece of the whole. A good plot includes a subplot or two, character development, and falling action to let the reader breathe between plot points.
So while it's a good idea to nail your plot points, it's never a good idea to focus on them to the detriment of all else. Writing a good story is all about getting every single plot element right.
What is a Plot Point: Wrapping Up
A plot point is a major event that changes the course of the story, leading inevitably to the next plot point. They're cause and effect in action. Without cohesive plot points, a story is just a series of loosely connected events.
Whether you're writing a novel, a screenplay, or a short story, getting the plot elements right will give the story a through-line. When supported by exposition, character development, and effective tension-building, you can write a powerful story every time without having to stick to a strict plot structure!