What is a plot point? Every writer talks about them. Most use them. Many abuse them. Some plain lose them. But what are they really? Where do they go? And what do they do?
All great screenplays are broken into three acts. The Introduction. The Complication. The Resolution. Plot points are the major twists that propel the hero from one act to the next. In the good movies, they come as a surprise to the hero and the audience. In the bad movies, the hero and/or the audience see them coming from a mile away. Ideally, they are significant twists that drop the hero into a new equilibrium from which they cannot return. If a hero loses his keys, no big deal, he goes back and finds them. Bad plot point. If a hero loses his job, or his leg, or his virginity, tougher to fix. Good plot point. As the story progresses, these unforeseen turns should complicate matters for the hero, raise the stakes and push the character into deeper and deeper kimchi.
Do you have to have them? Yeah, you kinda do. Plato, Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Tarantino all have plot points in their work. Because they work. Because we’re wanting something to happen. We’re wanting progress. You know what they call movies without them? Boring. Trust me, if you’re sitting in a movie theater and nothing significant happens in the first third of the movie, you’re going for Milk Duds and not coming back.
Where do they go? If you’re writing a 120 minute movie it equates to about 120 pages of script. A three act structure breaks down like this: Plot Point 1 lands between pages 25-30. Plot Point 2 lands between pages 85-90. But that leaves a dark and murky sea between them of almost 60 pages. In the old days, early filmmakers could get away with that. But not these days. We’re used to getting too much too quick and need a Midpoint Plot Point around page 60 to bridge the gap. And maybe more. James Cameron says he writes in seven acts. Joel Silver wants major wham-o’s every ten pages. Something that turns your hero’s life upside down with the turn of a key, the draw of a gun or the blue of a pregnancy stick.
The good news is these building blocks help make climbing your mountain of a screenplay more manageable. Instead of looking up at Kilimanjaro from 19,000 feet below wondering how the hell you’re going to get to the top… you break it down. Knowing you just have to make it to each tier. One step at a time.