Welcome to the first part of our little series on story structure. Remember those four boxes we mentioned last Friday? Today we’re going to fill up the first one. Box One. Knowing what goes in this box will make your writing easier, it will satisfy your readers, and it will make your work far more marketable.
The first quarter of your story is the setup. This is where we learn the stakes, the backstory, we empathize with your characters, we get a taste of what’s to come. This is where we meet Billie Jean and find out her neat, tidy corner of the world is going to implode. While I fully encourage you to begin the story as late as you can, the first plot point doesn’t arrive until the end of Part One. You can have an inciting incident that sweeps her along for the ride, but don’t confuse it with the first plot point. More on that later. Right now, we want the reader to care about Billie Jean and what happens to her. The more we care about Billie Jean, the better. We need to empathize with what she has at stake. What does she need or want in her life? What does she face before the main conflict arrives? This is what will affect how much we care about her when the caca hits the fan. And why should you care how much we care? Because the more we care, the more effective your story is.
Now that we’re falling all over ourselves with caring, our dashing heroine gets hit in the face with the first plot point, and the reader gets rewarded with meaning. Ta da! Cue the angelic spotlight from the ceiling. The antagonistic force has come into play and either the main character, the reader, or both are hit straight in the eyes with what’s happening. Before this, we don’t know what it all means, even if we’re scared out of our wits or if we find it arousing.
So, what’s the difference between an inciting incident and the first plot point? An inciting incident is definitely something big that happens. It’s huge and dramatic. It can be a game changer. It can also be part of the set up. While a plot point can be all those things, it also defines the changes and the path the character takes. An inciting incident creates an obstacle, but the plot point gives meaning and implications to the hero’s journey.
So, the setup has to bring your character to the transition point. We do that using scenes. This part ends when Billie Jean realizes she needs to step up. Part one has revealed something new… a decision, an action, an obstacle that has created a situation that must be addressed. It may be challenging or scary. She has to accomplish something. If she was already working towards this accomplishment in Part One, the plot point alters it somehow or clarifies what is at stake or the nature of her challenge. Alternatively, the first plot point can be completely unexpected; a moment in which everything changes.
At the very end of Part One, the first plot point, the reader gets the first full look at the antagonist. That doesn’t mean everything is explained about the antagonist, but now the reader gets to understand what his or her desire is and how he or she opposes our hero. Conflict. This is where the story really gets interesting.