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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Story Structure in ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

Since writing my series of posts on story structure for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I’ve been asked numerous times to analyze another Potter book, particularly one of the longer, more complex ones. So I’ve picked the longest, beastliest book of the bunch: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

(Of course my analysis will only be as helpful to you as your recollection of Phoenix, so feel free to skim through a summary of the plot for a refresher.)

This post will be a quick look at the specific plot points and pinch points in Phoenix—I won’t be repeating all the lengthy definitions and explanations of story structure from my first set of posts.

(If it’s been a while, you can reread my post, or you can simply buy Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which landed on my 2012 list of best writing books and is the bedrock of everything in this post.)

What Story Structure Looks Like

All right, let’s get down to it. Below is a graph of story structure in its most basic form:

Story Structure

Now here is a graph of the pinch points and plot points in Order of the Phoenix:

Story Structure Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

How to Identify the Main Storyline

Rowling has several subplots in Phoenix. To name only a few:

  • Harry’s romance with Cho;
  • Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape;
  • and Harry’s ongoing feud with Dolores Umbridge.

These subplots, however, still tie in to and enhance the main plot, which is:

Voldemort’s attempts to acquire a secret weapon and Harry’s attempts to stop him.

[Note: It’s important to know as the writer exactly what your main plot is, because your main plot determines what your story’s pinch points will be.]

What You Need for the First Plot Point

Remember that the first plot point has to fulfill two criteria:

1) The hero needs to get his marching orders.

2) He needs to set out on a journey (otherwise known as “the point of no return”).

No one wants to read about a hero who has a mission but nowhere to go, or vice versa, a hero who’s going somewhere but has no mission.

Harry gets his “marching orders” in Phoenix when Sirius tells him that Voldemort is trying to acquire a weapon; soon after Harry sets out on his journey to Hogwarts.

Understanding Anomalies in Story Structure

In both Phoenix and Sorcerer’s Stone, the placement of Part Four of story structure—The Resolution—falls short of the expected 20-percent mark.

This variance is typical in books that rely heavily on uncovering a mystery (in these two cases, a stone and a weapon). Once that mystery is revealed it’s a mad rush to the finish, thus the shorter ending.

How Rowling Cornered Harry at the Point of No Return (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt II)

In my previous post we discussed how Rowling’s unique plots were successful because she followed some basic novel guidelines. I specifically focused on plot points and pinch points in that post as defined by Larry Brooks in his book Story Engineering. Now in this post I’m going to be referring to Brooks’ text again to look at a few more important elements of story structure.

I’m a visual learner myself so here’s a diagram of the parts I’ll be talking about:

OVERVIEW OF STORY STRUCTURE

Now for the specifics:

STORY STRUCTURE IN HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE

Harry Potter Story Structure

In Story Engineering Brooks writes that there are four major parts of a novel: The Setup, The Response, The Attack and The Resolution. Like a circle, successfully writing one of these parts determines the success of the next part – and the success of the sum of these four parts determines the viability of the entire novel.

Part 1: The Setup

Part 1 is The Setup and its purpose is just that: to prepare the readers for everything that follows. It comprises the first 20-25% of a book. The focus of Part 1 is NOT “the hook”/inciting incident (which can happen anywhere in Part 1). The mission of Part 1 is to “introduce the hero and show us what he has going on in his life” (e.g. backstory, stakes and character empathy). A fatal but common mistake, Brooks says, is stuffing too much story into this first part. The readers won’t care about what happens next if they don’t care about the character to begin with.

The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake – what he needs and wants in his life, and what trials and tribulations and opportunities he is facing before the arrival of the primary conflict – the more we care about him when all of that changes.

The more the reader cares, the more effective the story will be.

It isn’t until the end of Part 1 when we hit the first plot point that the story “gets its legs.” Here the hero receives his marching orders and sets out on his journey. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone this is when Harry arrives at King’s Cross to catch the Hogwarts Express for the first time. But what happens before that? How does Rowling get us to care about Harry to begin with? Here it is in bite-size chunks:

  1. In Chapter One, “The Boy Who Lived,” we get an idea of how awful Harry’s life is. We start to empathize with him.
  2. In Chapter Two, “The Vanishing Glass,” we find out that Harry has some weird and interesting abilities. (How does he make that glass from the cage vanish? And why can he talk to snakes?) Now we’re curious along with empathetic.
  3. In Chapter Three, “The Letters from No One,” we learn that someone else seems to care about Harry – so much, in fact, that they won’t stop sending him letters, and they seem to have strange powers just like Harry.
  4. In Chapter Four, “The Keeper of the Keys,” Rowling pulls out the big “hook” – the inciting incident: Harry’s a wizard and will be going to Hogwarts.
  5. In Chapter Five, “Diagon Alley,” we get a peek into this new world of wizardy and meet some key characters.
  6. And finally in Chapter Six, “The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters,” we get to the first plot point.

That’s already 25% of the novel!

I want to mention something here that might seem nit-picky but is actually quite important. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between the inciting incident and the first plot point of a novel. Why isn’t the first plot point in Chapter Four when Harry meets Hagrid and finally gets to read his letter? Getting our hands on that letter is what Rowling has been hanging over our heads this whole time, right? But it’s only the inciting incident and not the first plot point because it only fulfills one out of the two criteria for the first plot point. Yes, Harry receives his “marching orders” (an invitation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) but he hasn’t set out on his journey – not even when he visits Diagon Alley in the next chapter – because at any point he could turn back. It isn’t until he’s on that train speeding away in Chapter Six that his journey has truly begun. Now why was this important enough for me to blab on about for an entire paragraph?

Every manuscript needs to end its Part 1 with a term often coined as the point of no return. The protagonist can’t have the option of just wimping out and going home. He has to corner himself to the extent that he must see things through. And that, along with caring about the protagonist, is what keeps the reader reading.

Check back for part three, The Response, coming up in the next post!

More posts on story structure:

Story Structure in Harry Potter: How Rowling Became a Billionaire by Following the Rules (Pt I)

How Rowling Created Obstacles for Harry’s Character Development (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt III)

How Rowling Kept the Middle from Dragging (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt IV)

How Rowling Wrote a Satisfying, Cathartic Ending (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt V)

And check out my latest story structure analysis of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.