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.
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.