Using Plot Points and Pinch Points in a Story with a Twist Ending

Recently I’ve had a few readers ask the same question:

What exactly is a pinch point and how do you differentiate it from everything else in a story?

Okay, first, here’s the most important thing you need to know about plot points and pinch points:

They always need to be developed from the reader’s point of view.

[For the definition of plot points and pinch points, see my earlier post.]

What a Pinch Point Is, and Is Not

One of my blog followers (politely) argued that he thought the second pinch point in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone shouldn’t be the successive scenes of Snape showing Filch his Fluffy-bitten leg and trying to curse Harry off his broom but should instead be the scene in the Forbidden Forest when something creepy (i.e., Voldemort) slithers out of the darkness and drinks the blood of a dead unicorn—because, in the end, Voldemort is the real antagonist, not Snape.

I agree that the slithering something is definitely a what-the-freaky-heck-is-that moment, but let me explain why it cannot count be the second pinch point.

A pinch point, as defined by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering, is

an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force.

Essentially, a pinch point is meant to show your readers the powerful forces pushing against your hero. Which means that your readers have to identify the bad guy as the bad guy for your pinch points to have any meaning.

This is especially important to understand if you’re writing a mystery, or any story with a twist ending (which Rowling has a particular penchant for in the Harry Potter series: Quirrell in book one; Ginny in book two; Sirius in book three, etc).

Plot points and pinch points act like a metronome for you as the writer, giving your story beats and keeping it on tempo, but if you have a twist ending or a hidden antagonist whom your readers aren’t meant to recognize until later, then those “secret beats” won’t mean anything to anyone but you. Instead, your readers will be confused and bored with a story that looks like it isn’t going anywhere (even though you know it is).

That’s why plot points and pinch points need to be developed from the reader’s point of view.

An Example: Snape as Antagonist

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling presents Snape as the supposed antagonist. Quirrell (which includes Voldemort) is the hidden antagonist. This means that the pinch points in Sorcerer’s Stone need to be directed at Snape, not Quirrell, in order for readers to feel like the story is progressing.

(But remember, it’s still absolutely vital to drop hints about the twist ending so readers don’t also feel gypped at the big reveal; the fastest way to lose readers’ respect is to trick them.)

Notice, then, that Rowling sneakily interjects Quirrell into Snape’s pinch points—for example, when Harry’s scar sears in pain while looking past Quirrell’s turban at Snape. It’s such an innocent detail that we breeze right past it, not realizing that it’s actually critical. However, since that turban clue doesn’t mean anything at the time, Rowling needs to keep us interested until it does.

How?

By focusing on the red-herring antagonist, Snape, so we feel like the story’s going somewhere—just not where we think.

Same goes for the second pinch point. We think that Snape is trying to curse Harry off his broom at the Quidditch match, but Snape is actually trying to protect Harry from Quirrell’s incantation. Rowling ties everything together below the story’s surface.

The What versus the Who

All of this goes for plot points as well. Whatever is presented to the readers as “the story” (even if it’s a farce) is what needs to follow the story structure of first plot point, midpoint, and second plot point. Between all of that, you still need to squeeze in the clues that reveal “the real story.”

But that’s actually not very difficult, because a story’s red-herring antagonist (as depicted in the pinch points) typically determines the direction of the real story anyway.

For example, the two big plot questions in Sorcerer’s Stone are:

What is hidden in the third-floor corridor, and who is trying to steal it?

Like most of Rowling’s Potter books, we eventually figure out the what (the sorcerer’s stone), but we’re as confused as Harry about the who. We think the antagonist is Snape, but then we realize that it’s actually Quirrell, who is, ultimately, Voldemort.

So, the plot stays the same; it’s only our view of the characters that changes.

In short, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone could arguably be viewed as a pinch point for the whole Potter series, since it’s where we first come face-to-face with the evil power of Voldemort, but that individual scene with Voldemort drinking the blood of the unicorn cannot be a pinch point for Sorcerer’s Stone because a pinch point depends on the reader’s understanding of who the antagonist is.

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12 thoughts on “Using Plot Points and Pinch Points in a Story with a Twist Ending

  1. This is very helpful, thank you. I am wondering whether the unicorn blood scene might be intended to also function as a pinch point for re-readers, she is clever enough to think of this! So then you could both be right 🙂

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    1. I’m all for a good compromise, knotrune! I agree that the unicorn scene could function as a general pinch point in a re-read because a book can have any number of pinch points; basically a pinch point is any time the antagonist is out there flexing his muscles (and as long as the reader recognizes him as the antagonist, which would be the case with Voldemort and the unicorn blood in a re-read).

      But I’m going to be stubborn and stick to my guns in saying that the unicorn scene still cannot be the *second* pinch point. The second pinch point has a much more specific purpose than a regular pinch point in that it is meant to land in the middle of Part 3 to keep the plot moving and reengage readers when they’re most likely to lose interest (i.e. in the middle). The unicorn scene is near the end of the book (83%) and is actually the first falling domino that leads to the second *plot* point in which Harry finally gets the last bits of information he needs to jump into the resolution of Part 4 (i.e. he realizes that it’s actually Voldemort who wants the stone and Hagrid accidentally gave away the secret of how to get by Fluffy).

      Of course not everyone has to agree with me and it won’t hurt my feelings if they don’t! Thanks for contributing to the conversation, knotrune. Your thoughts (always very civilized) are appreciated.

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      1. Ah, I hadn’t realised it was at 83%, of course you’re right, that is far too distant from the middle to be the central pinch point. I’m reading Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering at the moment, after following his blog for years. I find all that stuff so useful 🙂

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    1. You caught me! I’m in the throws of reworking my website so you’ll no doubt find many errors with many things (unfortunately I was not blessed with a natural *penchant* for technology like the rest of my generation). (Did a vein in your forehead nearly explode when you read “throws”? Sorry – I couldn’t help myself.) Thanks for checking in!

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  2. This is a wonderful article (and website)! Could you tell me, does the “evil force” the hero reckons with have to be the same in both pinch points?

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    1. Thank you, Theresa! Sometimes blogging can feel a bit thankless so it always so nice to know I’ve helped someone. And I’m sorry that my answer to your question is so belated! (I ended up taking an unexpected sabbatical over the summer.) At any rate, yes, the “evil force” has to be the same in both the first pinch point and the second pinch point. The second pinch point is meant to build on the first pinch point because it shows the reader how the antagonist is “tightening the noose” since the first pinch point.

      But that certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t have multiple antagonists and multiple pinch points (see my reply to knotrune above). Rowling had many bad guys, i.e. Snape, Malfoy, Voldemort, but for each book she had one antagonist that was central to that specific book in the series and that same antagonist surfaced in both the first pinch point and the second pinch point. (If you haven’t read some of my previous blog posts, they have a lot of detail in how Rowling accomplished this. See “Story Structure in Harry Potter”: tinyurl.com/n3mpxwy. And “More story structure!”: tinyurl.com/po44lfv. I hope this helps and please feel free to check in again!

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  3. You provide such tremendous insight! Thank you so much! I absolutely love your writings and amazing guidance! Lots of exclamation marks there 🙂

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  4. Oh, I absolutely love all of this stuff. I’m making my way through this entire series of posts in preparation for reoutlining and editing my own novel. SUCH good analyses! Thanks for sharing!

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