Showing posts with label Pinch points. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pinch points. Show all posts

Friday, November 4

(NaNoWriMo Day 4): 4th Key Scene: The First Pinch Point

(NaNoWriMo Day 4): 4th Key Scene: The First Pinch Point

The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with. —William Faulkner

Welcome to the November madness that is NaNoWriMo! Every day this month I’m blogging about a key scene, one that any story will include. I take a close look at how this scene, this structure, is implemented in three popular genres: Action, Romance and Mystery. So far I've posted articles about the Inciting Incident, the Climax and the Midpoint Climax.

Today I'm going to talk about the first pinch point.

Pinch Point One: Breaking It Down

What is a pinch point? Sue Coletta writes: “A pinch point is a demonstration of the nature, power, and very essence of the antagonistic force.[1]”


I blogged about pinch points a little while ago (see: Story Structure: What Are Pinch Points?), but let’s go over them again. A pinch point reminds the reader of the nature of the antagonist, the extreme threat he poses to the protagonist and what is at stake. In other words, it brings us back to the main story arc.

Two different kinds of pinch points

As far as I can tell there are two different kinds of pinch points, depending on how developed the protagonist’s internal desire is; that is, how big of a role this desire plays in the overall story. (See: What Kind of Writer Are You? Dramatic Action versus Character Development.)

Outward facing pinch points.

For lack of a better term, I’m going to call these outward facing pinch points.

In an outward pinch point, the threat is mainly physical; the protagonist’s life is in danger. In these sorts of stories the protagonist usually doesn’t have a well-developed internal desire. Here the focus is on showing the audience the power of the antagonist and highlighting how very bad it will be for the protagonist if she fails to achieve her goal.

Raiders of the Lost Ark contains a great example of this. The first pinch point shows us the conflict between Indiana Jones and Dr. RenĂ© Belloq. In this scene Indy believes Marion has been killed by Belloq’s minions. He gets drunk and goes to confront his nemesis. After a marvelous discussion about each man’s philosophy of life and relic hunting, the two men face-off—but it’s not a fair fight because Belloq is surrounded by his minions. Jones’ life is saved when a group of children surround him and escort him to safety.

Inward facing pinch points.

Second, there are inward facing pinch points. In an inward pinch point the threat doesn’t necessarily have to do with life and death (though it might), it has to do with the overall destruction of the life itself, of the one thing that makes it meaningful. It is a moment of truth leading to intense pain and radical change (perhaps not right away, but it puts events in motion).

For instance, in You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly loses the thing she loves most in the world, the bookstore she inherited from her mother. She loses it because a big chain bookstore, Fox Books, has moved into her neighborhood. In the first pinch point Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox have a face-to-face confrontation and it is a barn burner. Kathleen is deep in denial and Joe, in the most brutal of ways, tells her the truth: You can’t complete with Fox Books, you are going to lose your business.

As a result Kathleen is wrenched out of the state of denial she has been stubbornly clinging to and the truth begins to filter through: she is going to lose her bookstore. This seems unkind, and it was, but it was true and it was something she needed to prepare for. Recognizing the truth of her impending loss broke her heart, but it also did her a service, it helped her prepare for the inevitable.

Where is it?

The first Pinch Point occurs about 37.5% of the way through a story, or half way through the middle of the first half of the second act. (If you’re using a four act structure, the first Pinch Point comes halfway through the second act.)

How is Pinch Point One connected to the protagonist’s desires?

In any kind of Pinch Point it is what the protagonist wants, what the protagonist is seeking, that brings her into conflict with the antagonist. Though the protagonist and antagonist have different ends, different ultimate goals, they both want/desire the same thing.

How Pinch Point One is Implemented in Three Genres: Action, Romance & Mystery

For the first pinch point there really isn’t a lot of variation across genre.

Action Genre

In an action story, this will be a scene that highlights the essential difference between the protagonist and antagonist, and how this difference is reflected in their actions. Also, there will be an element of violence or implied, perhaps impending, violence.

Romance Genre

In a romance, the first pinch point will be a menacing scene. For instance, perhaps there will be a misunderstanding and the antagonist will threaten, or appear to threaten, the protagonist. Or perhaps, as in You’ve Got Mail, the antagonist will harm the protagonist through wielding truth like a scalpel.

Murder Mystery Genre

In a murder mystery the first pinch point often takes the form of the detective receiving an anonymous note from the murderer, or perhaps something the murderer does puts the detective’s life in jeopardy.

This is a scene that showcases the essential difference between the sleuth and the killer, the difference in how they think of both the world in general and the value of human life in particular. If the killer threatens the sleuth this could be used to foreshadow events at the climax.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share a link to K.M. Weiland’s marvelous book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Her book can help you choose the right type of outline for you, guide you in brainstorming plot ideas, aid you in discovering your characters and show you how to structure your scenes. What’s not to like?!

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow when I go over another key scene.

How are you doing with NaNoWriMo? Do you have any tips and/or tricks you’d like to share for achieving your word count?

Word count so far: 5,578
Word count for today: 1,200
Total words this month: 6,778


1. “Pinch Points In Fiction Writing,” by Sue Coletta.

Monday, October 17

Story Structure: What Are Pinch Points?

Story Structure: What Are Pinch Points?

Today I want to focus on one particular aspect of story structure: pinch points. In what follows I have a lot to say about them so let's start by looking at what they are.

Pinch Points Are Reminders

A pinch point reminds the reader of five things:

  • Who the antagonist is.
  • What the antagonist wants. 
  • Who the protagonist is.
  • What the protagonist wants.
  • What is at stake.

Often, the first Pinch Point comes directly after the Fun & Games/Tests & Trials part of a story and serves to bring it back to the main storyline, reminding readers of the core conflict. Sometimes this can quickly take the reader from bemused chuckling to a gut wrenching feeling of loss.

Pinch Points Are About Truth And Transformation

More abstractly, pinch points are about exposing the truth. The truth about the protagonist, the antagonist, and their situations/realities. Realizing, understanding, the truth of one's situation often causes pain and destruction but, in the end, transforms the protagonist (or the protagonist fails to transform and has a tragic end).

It has been my experience that truth/transformation pinch points are much more common in literary works, dramas, romantic comedies, and so on, than they are in action/adventures, mysteries and thrillers.

Where Are The Pinch Points?

In a four act structure the first pinch point comes in the middle of the second act and the second pinch point comes in the middle of the third act.

In a three act structure the first pinch point comes in the middle of the first part of the second act and the second comes in the middle of the last part of the second act.

If that’s confusing (and it is!) there’s a helpful diagram in this post: Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive. As with everything, this is only a general guideline. Fit them in where it feels appropriate for your story.

Now let’s take a look at each pinch point in more detail.

Pinch Point One

The two Pinch Points serve the same purpose:

  • Bringing the focus back to the core conflict between the protagonist and antagonist.
  • To ensure the stakes of the conflict are crystal clear to the reader. This often means that this scene should be vivid. Dramatic. 

Also, we can take this opportunity to remind the reader of the essence of both the protagonist and antagonist, of who they are, what they want and how far they'll go to get it.

Truth & Pain

Additionally—and whether this is true of the pinch points in your story may largely depend on what kind of story it is (see the examples below)—a pinch point can also be a moment of truth leading to intense pain and radical change (perhaps not right away, but it puts events in motion).

I find that in an action/adventure the pinch points are more about showing the protagonist and antagonist (or the antagonist's agents) in physical conflict while, say, romantic comedies are more about how the protagonist and antagonist (the two lovers) destroy each other’s (false) worlds, destroy each other’s illusions, the lies they tell themselves, by forcing each other to see the truth about their lives, about themselves.

Books could—and have!—been written about this (McKee’s Story, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, and so on) but the idea is that it’s easy to get comfortable with one’s life. It’s easy to coast. You have a job, a place to live, perhaps a significant other, perhaps a family, and you’re genuinely happy.

But then things you’re not so thrilled about start happening—you’ve been putting on weight, but that’s okay. You’re older but, hey, that’s no reason to start exercising. Sure you haven’t bought new clothes in a year but that’s not really so important. After all, being swayed by a person’s looks is so superficial. Okay, sure, you’ve been disconnecting from your friends, choosing to stay home and watch TV. And so on. Then you wake up, look in the mirror and realize: I’m my mother!!!!!! (* cue screaming violins *)

Things happen, life events, that you’re not thrilled with but you say, well, that’s okay. I’m happy, or at least not unhappy. Why rock the boat? And, slowly over the years it’s like a game of telephone. You go from being genuinely, authentically, happy with your life to disgruntled, disillusioned. It’s the death of a million cuts, it’s the frog being slowly boiled to death.

Of course your protagonist isn’t a frog being boiled to death! Instead of a frog we could talk about the postal worker who goes on a murdering spree. Or we could talk about the man or woman who gets up one morning and walks out on their family.

Speaking generally, the protagonist is on a trajectory from true happiness to destruction. If not their personal, physical, destruction, the complete and total destruction of their life, their world.

Truth as Destroying/Cleansing Fire

Every once in awhile we need a shock. We need to re-connect with how things really are, with how other people see us, warts and all. The truth, like fire, strips everything away and takes us back to our most elemental, most real, form. And it’s agony because we lose all those lovely illusions that were most dear to us. Here’s how I picture it:

Truth -> radical change/agony -> transformation or failure

At the beginning of a romantic/dramatic story, the protagonist is somewhere in the middle of this arc. What the pinch points do—this isn’t the only thing they do, but it’s one of them—is reveal this truth to your character.

That is, they reveal to the character that they are living a comfortable, happy, lie. In revealing this, the protagonist is forced to deal with it. (When this happens in real life it hurts like hell but you’ve been saved from something far worse. At least, that’s how I look at it.)

In this kind of pinch point you show readers how disconnected the protagonist is from the way things really are. You show the protagonist (and the reader) their perception of the world and then you show them their world (/their life) as it really is. The pinch point itself is about the protagonist being hit with this revelation.

This clash between mental image, between their current belief system and how things really are can be extremely painful. Truth hurts. But in return they get to see how they’ve gone from genuine happiness to something else. Something dark. They see they’re headed for destruction.

Sometimes this destruction can be averted, but not without a cost. If your protagonist is a workaholic who continually puts his family second because he thinks that’s what’s best for them, this revelation can save his relationships with those he loves but it might cost him his business, his dreams for the domination of the corporate world. Truth always exacts a price.


Okay, that was a lot of information! Let me try to bring this into perspective with two examples. The first is of a classic action/adventure, Star Wars IV: A New Hope. The second is of a romantic comedy—You’ve Got Mail—where the conflict, the tension, between the protagonist and antagonist revolves around using truth to destroy illusion.[1]

Star Wars

I know I use examples from Star Wars IV: A New Hope quite a bit, but the movie has the advantage that almost everyone has seen it! In Star Wars the first pinch point occurs when Imperial Forces, sent to recover R2-D2, menace Luke Skywalker and his allies.

Here the Pinch Point is split over two scenes. In the first scene Imperial Stormtroopers stop Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan to question them about their droids. This is where Obi-Wan says, “These aren’t the droids you are looking for.” It's a great scene!

The second scene (or, really, sequence) in the first pinch point has the Imperial Stormtroopers shooting at Han Solo as he’s going through the preflight check. The Millennium Falcon then takes off only to be chased and shot at by what looks like an Imperial battleship.

So here we’re reminded of the protagonist and antagonist (Luke and his band of allies vs the powers of the Empire exemplified by Darth Vader), what their goals are (Luke wants to deliver the plans of the Death Star to the rebel alliance, the forces of the Empire want to prevent this) and what the stakes of the conflict are (the Empire can blow up your planet!)

You’ve Got Mail

Just before the first pinch point we see Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan’s character) in all out denial about the likelihood that Fox Books is going to put her small independent bookstore (The Shop Around The Corner) out of business. Everyone else sees that her bookstore is in trouble and thinks she’ll be forced to close, but Kathleen is living in a dream world. She believes she can compete. “Everything is fine!” she says and smiles.

The first plot point occurs when Kathleen discovers that Joe (played by Tom Hanks)—the charming guy who came into her bookstore earlier—is Joe Fox of Fox Books (the big chain of bookstores that is putting indie bookstores out of business). They then have a passionate exchange in which Joe tells Kathleen the truth. What Joe says to her begins to destroy Kathleen's comforting world of illusion.

Let me set this scene up. When Kathleen discovers that Joe’s last name is Fox she accuses him of spying on her because she’s his competition. Here’s where they become passionate and the truth comes spilling out:

“It’s a charming little bookstore,” Joe says. What do you sell? About 350 thousand dollars worth of books a year?”

“How did you know that?” Kathleen asks, astonished and oh-so-very suspicious.

“I’m in the book business,” Joe says. He smiles at Kathleen but there is no warmth, only condescension.

Kathleen’s face grows hard. Joe has made a direct hit. She shakes her head. “I am in the book business.”

“I see,” Joe says. “And we are the Price Club, only instead of a 10 gallon vat of olive oil for $3.99 that won’t even fit under your kitchen cabinet, we sell cheap books.”

Joe pauses a moment then shakes his head. “Me, a spy?” Oh, absolutely. I have in my possession the super-duper secret printout of the sales figures of a bookstore so inconsequential yet full of its own virtue that I was immediately compelled to rush over there for fear that it’s going to put me out of business.”

Kathleen is so utterly shocked and completely undone by Joe’s words that she can only make an inarticulate squawking sound.

In my opinion, that’s the first pinch point. It’s a moment of truth and unspeakable pain for Kathleen. Joe is saying: It’s not personal, but the thing you love most in life is going to go away and I’m the one who is going to take it from you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Kathleen’s loss doesn’t happen all at once, but that’s where she begins to wake up, begins to realize what her situation really is.

Wow, this post is long! I need to stop here. I’ll pick this topic up again later.

I’m intensely interested in what you think about what I’ve said about pinch points. Do you agree? Disagree? Is there something you’d like to add? An example you’d like to share? Please do! I love it when you contribute to the discussion. That’s how I think of these blog posts. We’re sitting somewhere having coffee, chatting, and I’m laying out my thoughts. But it can be awfully one-sided! I want to hear your thoughts too. :-)

I’ve decided that I’m going to try, every post, to pick a book or audiobook I personally have loved and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes, I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar, at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored that you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share links to a series which has become my number two favorite series, behind Jim Butcher's Dresden Files (which I cannot recommend highly enough, the books just keep getting better). Anyway, the series is Kelley Armstrong’s Cainsville: Omens, Visions, Deceptions, Betrayals. Cainsville is a mystery crossed with horror crossed with romance. (BTW, I’m NOT saying that if you like the Dresden Files that you’ll like Cainsville. They are very different. But they are both what I would call urban fantasy.)


1. I should mention that, as near as I can tell, You’ve Got Mail has four pinch points, two for each main character’s arc. So, above, when I talk about the first pinch point, this is really the first pinch point of Kathleen’s arc. Just FYI.

Monday, November 18

Dan Wells' Seven Point Story Structure: The Second Plot Turn And Pinch Points

Dan Wells' Seven Point Story Structure: The Second Plot Turn And Pinch Points

This post continues my series on story structure. Here are links to the earlier posts:

The First Plot Point/The First Plot Turn (25%)

Whatever you call it, the events at the end of the first quarter of the story prepare the reader for the events at the midpoint.

In the hero's journey, this--the first plot turn--is the place where the hero enters the Special World, it's where he crosses the first threshold.

Two things happen:

a. The hero accepts the quest, and
b. The hero is locked into the quest.

Let's take these one at a time.

a. The hero accepts the quest

This doesn't have to happen at exactly the 25% mark, it can happen at any time in the first act. But it needs to be clear that the hero is entering the Special World of Act Two of their own free will. It must be the hero's choice. 

This acceptance doesn't have to be long and involved. It can be a subtle as a head nod. But the hero must intentionally take up the quest. It's a choice. 

Even if the villain is blackmailing her by threatening all she holds dear, still, the hero has to be shown accepting the quest. She sees the dangers, she knows what taking up this quest could cost her--she knows the stakes--yet she accepts. She commits herself to a course of action.

b. The hero is locked into the adventure

Something happens to "lock in" the hero. For example, at the 25% mark, at the tail end of Act One, Neo (The Matrix) is presented with a choice between the red pill and the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill he'll go back to his regular life, his ordinary existence. He will turn aside from the Special World of the adventure. 

If, on the other hand, Neo takes the red pill then his life will be irreversibly transformed as he is ushered into the true world, the world of the adventure, the world where the scales will, finally, be removed from his eyes and he will, at long last, discover the answer to the question: What is The Matrix?

I think The Matrix is one of the clearest examples of the hero being locked in to their quest, but once you start looking for it you'll see it in practically every movie you watch. 

The Second Plot Turn (75% to 95%)

I think of the second point turn as the third act twist

Here's how Dan Wells explains it: At the midpoint, the hero resolved to do something. At the resolution/climax the hero does what he resolved to do. This point, the second plot turn, is where the hero gets the last piece of the puzzle to finish the quest.

The hero realizes "he has the power" or "the power is within him" or some such variant. 

As Dan Wells says, when you see this sentiment in an outline, or just say it aloud, the concept seems cornball to the extreme, but it's powerful; that's why it's used so often. That said, Dan Wells reassures us that all genre novel outlines sound a bit silly, so don't let that hold you back.

In The Matrix Trinity tells Neo "I love you. Now get up!" He gets up  and wipes the floor with the agents of the matrix. Why? Because he's the one. He has the power within him.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry is the boy who lived. He's the boy who could find the philosopher's stone because he was pure of heart. He didn't want to use the stone, only to find it. He had the ability/power within him.

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke is told to use the force, that the power is within him.

Pinch Points

Pinch points add zest to your story and help keep it on track. 

Pinch points are where we see, first-hand, the antagonistic force and the dastardly things it is capable of. Pinch points apply pressure on the hero. They remind us of the central conflict of the story. They help push the hero into action.

There are two pinch points. The first is halfway through the first part of the second act and the second is positioned halfway through the second part of the second act. (see: Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive. That article contains an illustration of where pinch points fall in the three act structure.)

Note: Though both pinch points have the same function, since the stakes are constantly increasing, your second pinch point is going to give the hero a 'pinch' that's more like a punch.

If you use a three act structure in your stories then you'll know that the middle of the Second Act can seem to stretch out before you like the great swampy middle of despair. Pinch points can go a long way to keeping the story on track and reminding your readers what it's all about, who the big bad is, and what the hero is fighting for.

Examples of pinch points

These examples are courtesy of Dan Wells:

Loss of mentor

For instance, Gandalf's apparent death in The Fellowship of the Ring. I re-watched this movie last night; "You ... shall not ... pass!" and then: "Run you fools!" Fabulous scene. 
This was a vivid pinch point. It showed us the power of the Dark by way of the formidable beasts of power which lived it in its depths. If a beast of the depths could claim the most powerful of them, Gandalf, then what chance did the rest of the fellowship have? A great way of showing the reader/watcher the strength of the opposition.

Loss of everything

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the second pinch is a sequence of events. It begins when the hero, Harry, and his two friends, Ron and  Hermione, go into the dungeon and are presented with a series of trials. The last trial takes Ron and Hermione away and Harry is forced to continue on, alone.

*  *  *  *

That's it! Or at least, that's the nuts and bolts of Dan Wells' 7-point system. He has a lot more to say in the videos, especially about how this system applies to romance stories. And a lot, lot, more. Highly recommended.

Till next time!

Photo credit: "beaver moon" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, November 7

Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive

Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive

Think of what a story would be without structure. Many of us don't have to imagine it, we have those stories buried under our beds!

Structure helps move a story along, it lends novels that most mysterious of things: narrative drive. The I-can't-put-it-down quality that keeps sane people up way past their bedtime.

Structure also helps writers when we have that feeling: Gee, shouldn't something be happening about now? But what? Following a structure, or even reading about it, can generate ideas.

The Purpose Of Writing/Storytelling

Screenwriters talk about structure more than novel writers, so I've been studying screenwriting. Not with the intention to write a script--novels are challenging enough!--but to learn about different story structures.

Whether we're talking about writing a novel, short story or a screenplay, it's the same basic idea: We're telling a story to an audience. We are entertainers seeking to wow the crowd.

One concept I discovered recently, that of the Pinch or Pinch Point, is another tool a writer can stow away in her toolbox just in case she needs it. And, during NaNoWriMo, who knows what will come in handy before the month is through.

Pinch Points

A pinch point is a reminder. It's a reminder of who the antagonist is and what is at stake. Further, this reminder isn't filtered by the hero's experience. In other words, it's not just how the hero sees the antagonist, or antagonistic force, this is how they are. Here we see their true nature. (Story Structure Series: #9 – Pinch Points, Larry Brooks)

The Structure Of Your Story: How To Use Pinch Points

There are two pinch points--sometimes just called "pinches"--in a novel or screenplay. Assuming a three act structure, the first pinch comes halfway through the first part of the 2nd act (3/8 mark) and the second pinch comes halfway through the second part of the 2nd act (5/8 mark).

Clear as mud? Here's a drawing:

First Pinch Point:

The first pinch point reminds us of the central conflict of the story.

Second Pinch Point: 

The second pinch point, like the first, reminds the audience of the central conflict of the story, but it also is linked to the first (Wikipedia, Screenwriting). It shows the audience the threat (whatever it is that still stands in the way of the hero achieving his goal). The pinch point scene lays out what the hero has yet to conquer/overcome/accomplish. (“The Help” – Isolating and Understanding the First “Pinch Point”, Larry Brooks)

My background isn't in screenwriting but, to me, pinch points seem a lot like sequels. Not exactly like a sequel, though, because sequels come after the scene, after the action. Perhaps a pinch is like a scene+sequel. You show your audience the antagonist in all their unadulterated glory (or horribleness) and then you see the aftermath, the personal consequences for the hero, the goals he has still accomplish and why he must accomplish them.

Examples of Pinch Points

First Pinch Point 

[I]n Star Wars, Pinch 1 is the Stormtroopers attacking the Millennium Falcon in Mos Eisley, reminding us the Empire is after the stolen plans to the Death Star R2-D2 is carrying and Luke and Ben Kenobi are trying to get to the Rebel Alliance (the main conflict). (Screenwriting, Wikipedia)

Second Pinch Point

In Star Wars, Pinch 2 is the Stormtroopers attacking them as they rescue the Princess in the Death Star. Both scenes remind us of the Empire's opposition, and using the Stormtrooper attack motif unifies both Pinches. (Screenwriting, Wikipedia)
So, in Star Wars, the pinch points remind us that the Big Bad is the Emperor. Further, the pinch points are related--the second one calls back to the first--through the use of Stormtroopers.

Even if we end up not using them, the concept of pinch points can help remind us that we shouldn't lose sight of the antagonist in the story. Sometimes this is a danger when the antagonist works behind the scenes, through his or her minions, and receives little "on stage" time.

# # #

If you're doing NaNoWriMo this year, best of luck! How's it going? It's been tough for me. Life has a way of intruding on my writing time. But that's okay! I'm at approximately 12,075 words, hopefully I'll have over 14,000 by the end of the day.

Go NaNo-ers! :-)

Other articles you might like:

- More Writing Advice From Jim Butcher
- How To Get Your Readers To Identify With Your Main Character
- Chuck Wendig And The Battle Song Of The Storyteller

- Syd Field's Podcasts (Syd Field was the first person to publish a book on modern screenwriting)
- StoryFix (Run by Larry Brooks)

Photo credit: "Ice Storm" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons 2.0.