The other day somebody asked me what a plot point was, and I had to stop and think about it. As usual, when I have to stop and think about anything writing-related, I end up doing a blog post to clarify my thinking.
“Plot points” are one of those writing terms with no standard definition. I was a bit surprised to discover that some people use the term to refer very specifically to the events that mark the theoretical boundary between “acts” of a story. That is, if you’re using a three-act structure, your story has two plot points, one between acts one and two, and one between acts two and three. If you’re using a five-act structure, the story would have four plot points.
At the other end of the range, I found a definition that boils down to “anything significant.” That’s a little broad, but when you get down to cases, I find it a lot more useful than the extremely limited version above.
And then there are the folks in the middle, who define “plot point” as synonymous with “turning point” – a life-changing decision or event that opens some new paths for the characters and closes others. In Lord of the Rings, the hobbits’ meeting with Strider in Bree is one such event; Frodo’s decision to volunteer to be ring-bearer is another. This definition is in the middle of the range because it’s generally accepted that there’s a major turning point at the end of each act, but there can be lots of lesser ones along the way.
After looking at a bunch of different definitions and examples, the best one I can come up with is this: plot points are the information the reader must have in order for the story to make sense. That’s why general examples of plot points tend to include the word “significant” a lot: The characters perform a significant action, or make a significant decision, or discover significant information or clues; a significant character or place or question is introduced; something significant is set up or paid off or answered, etc.
In other words, plot points are things that move the story forward. They can be large and obvious (finding out that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring, hiding from Ringwraiths on the road to Buckleberry Ferry), or they can be seemingly inconsequential things that set up a scene or situation or key bit of information for later (Sam remarking, very early, that he’d like to see elves one day). They’re not limited to life-changing events or decision, but they certainly include them (a life-changing event or decision is nearly certain to be “significant” to the story-in-progress, after all).
So what are the things the reader needs to know to make sense of the story? Who the central characters are, for one; what the key strengths and weaknesses and relationships are that will cause them to take or not take important plot-relevant actions. What information the characters need to have at any given point in order to move forward. How they get that information (and if it seems to come out of nowhere, all too conveniently, then the writer may need to add a plot point earlier to set things up so it’s not such a coincidence). What choices they have and what decisions they can make. What actions they take as a result of the information and choices they have and the decisions they’ve made. What things need to be set up, and what the payoff of each setup is.
Looking at plot points this way is useful from a couple of different directions. The first is that if plot points are things that move the story forward, that means they are the source of narrative drive, and a writer can theoretically control the pace and drive of the story by controlling how many plot points are included in a scene or on each page. If readers are complaining about a scene or story moving too slowly, maybe it’s because there aren’t enough plot points per scene to maintain the narrative drive.
The second interesting thing is that you can examine and create plot points from either direction. That is, you can write a story or plot outline and then make a list of what plot points are missing (what things need to be set up or introduced or clarified for the reader), so you know what to add/fix in revision, or you can start with an idea and a blank sheet of paper, make a list of possible plot points, and construct the outline from there. Or you can work from both ends toward the middle: start by making a list of key plot points, and add to it or rearrange it as you write and realize that things are happening in a different order or going in a different direction.
The last interesting thing about this definition (and most of the others) is that “plot points” are not necessarily strictly about plot. Bringing an important new character onstage is a plot point (Gollum, for instance); so is introducing the reader to a major new setting (Rivendell, the Mines of Moria, Edoras, Mount Doom). One could color-code one’s list of “plot points” in a variety of ways (blue for characters; red for actions/decisions; yellow for settings/information; or perhaps using lighter shades or secondary colors like green, orange, and purple for subplots…)
My point here is not to encourage people to waste time (though if you find it useful to your writing, it’s not a waste of time). It’s more to remind folks that the reader needs to know more than just “what happens next;” they need to know who and how and why and where, as well as what. So if you’re going to try analyzing your writing for plot points (it’s not required, and it won’t be useful to everyone), don’t limit your “plot points” strictly to the action.