First Plot Point

Most stories are told in a 3-act structure. Each act takes the hero/ine into a different world. Blake Snyder (author of Save the Cat! which I reviewed here) defines these three worlds as
  • the thesis world (where the character is comfortable)
  • the antithesis world (where the hero/ine's world turns upside-down)
  • the synthesized world (the new world the hero/ine proves him/herself and applies what he/she has learned.)
There are some basic things to look for for each of these turning points. The first one (where the character steps out of their comfortable world in act one), which comes about 1/4 of the way into the story, is usually easy to spot, if you know what you're looking for. The common wisdom says that the main things to look for are:
  • The hero must make a choice. (In the Hero's Journey based on Joseph Campbell's analysis of myths, this is where the hero/ine answers the Call To Adventure) The hero may make this choice kicking and screaming and often doesn't really understand what they're getting into, but it must be his choice. (This is what they all tell you, but is it true? We'll look at that, too.)
  • The story must change directions 

Movies tend to be more universally familiar to everyone, so I'm going to use a number of them to illustrate this.

Romancing the Stone [Blu-ray]In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder's sister has been kidnapped and needs her to bring a map to Columbia. In spite of the fact that she gets motion sick on escalators, Joan goes, thereby stepping out of her comfort zone in Manhattan and into a third world country she's totally unprepared for.

Sara Conner in The Terminator makes her choice by taking Kyle's hand when he says, "Come with me if you want to live."

In Dirty Dancing, Baby makes the choice to become involved with the dancers' problems when she asks her father for the money because "someone's in trouble." For the first time in her life, she lies to her father, denying that it's for something illegal (as abortion was back then.)

Ethel and Norman agree to keep 13-year-old Billy for the summer in On Golden Pond, so their daughter and the boy's father can take a trip to Europe.

In Sleeping with the Enemy, Laura chooses to fake her own death to escape her abusive husband, leaving the hell she knows for a new life.
Sweet Home Alabama
After forging a successful New York career, Melanie returns to Alabama to get her husband to sign divorce papers so she can marry the mayor's son in Sweet Home Alabama.

In The Sting, Redford and Newman make the choice to run a revenge con on the man who killed Redford's conman mentor.

Luke Skywalker refuses to join Old Ben Kenobi until the Empire's storm troopers kill his aunt and uncle in Star Wars, but in the end he chooses to sign on, spawning five more movies.

Small town cop and neatnik Scott Turner's life is turned upside-down when he reluctantly takes responsibility for Hooch, an unmannerly junkyard dog, who is the only witness to his previous owner's murder in Turner and Hooch.

In Victor/Victoria, Victoria and Toddy hatch a plan to pass her off as a female impersonator. Though she's skeptical at first, she lets him convince her.

In all these cases, the hero/ine made the choice to step into an alternate world. Sometimes that choice is the only reasonable one to make. But is that step into the new world always the hero/ine's choice? The movies below would argue it's not. In these stories, the only choice the character has is to deal with what life has dealt them. Let's look at some of those.

Avatar (Original Theatrical Edition)When the seeds of the sacred tree perch all over Jake's body, Avatar changes directions. Jake is no longer an alien invader but the special someone who has been foretold in Neytiri mythology. Though Jake doesn't understand what this means, at this moment, he can no longer be who he was before.

In Peggy Sue Got Married, Peggy Sue is thrust back in time to high school, not long before she got pregnant by her boyfriend. This isn't her choice, but it most certainly changes the direction of the movie. Once she's in the past, she has little choice but to go with it. (Unless you count telling everyone the truth and being thought crazy.)

In P.S. I Love You, Holly steps into the second act when her husband dies. Does she choose this? Hell, no.

In Ransom, Tom Mullen steps into an unknown world when his son is kidnapped. Again, not his choice.
The Rock
A chemical specialist for the FBI is told he will go with the seal team on their mission to free Alcatraz from the military rouges who have taken over The Rock. Maybe this is a choice, if he you count his ability to quit his job as an option.

After a bathroom accident, ad man Nick Marshall can hear women's thoughts which pushes this misogynistic man into a world he neither chose nor wanted in What Women Want.

Twelve-year-old Josh Baskin makes a wish to be "Big" which is magically answered. Though this might be considered a choice, he never actually expected his wish to be granted nor is the result really what he had in mind. This is, in many ways, the same movie as Peggy Sue Got Married because the real choice comes at the end of the movie when the characters choose their old lives.

In many of the examples where the character didn't make a choice, the protagonist is thrust into the antithesis world by magical means, but not all of them. This seems to argue that having the character make the choice strengthens the story, but that it's not a deal breaker if they don't. The story must, however, change directions at the first plot point.

How do your stories change direction? Does your protagonist make the choice?


  1. I look on the hero's "choice" to answer or refuse the call more in terms of their desires and internal conflict than their outward action. In The Rock, Stanley Goodspeed's initial reaction is a refusal of the call, because he's not a field agent, and is in no way prepared for what he's about to face.

    When the hero refuses the call, something has to push them on, otherwise there's no story. In Stanley's case, that something is the fact that he's the only person there qualified to disarm the vx gas devices.

    If we look more at the motivations of the hero, rather than just the choices (or lack thereof) that they have available, we can see more range for the aspects of the Hero's Journey.

  2. This is an awesome post!!! Very informative. I love your examples - all spot on. I wonder why it is that screen-play books are so good at helping out us writers. I haven't read Save the Cat, but I have heard tons about it. I have a great book called, How to Write a Selling Screenplay by Christopher Keane. I love it.

    In my current WIP, Chloe Chronicles, the heroine makes the decision that changes everything - after it is presented to her. However, in the other WIP I'm working on, an accident forces my heroine to act - though she is reluctant - she doesn't have a choice in the matter. She must "do" or should I say, "deal with the circumstances and hope to survive."

  3. I like to allow my characters to make choices and at least attempt to be in control. Even if they make the wrong choice, their fate is still in their hands. Of course I do believe in outside influences coming into play to and altering my characters' worlds.

  4. I found this post to be very helpful Suzie, as it confirms the direction the protagonist takes in my work in progress. Have a good weekend!

  5. Great post Suz! (I loved your examples) It made me sit back and really think about my stories. In both of them, my heroine makes the choice that changes the story. In the first one, she decided to make the leap of faith and move to London even though she doesn’t like the man she’ll be working for. In the second, she decides to date again, even though she’d sworn off men until her cancer was officially gone. I think the first plot point comes naturally to many writers. The second takes a bit more work but is probably the most fun plot point to write and the third always bites me in the butt. But I’m learning, thanks to you.

  6. Hi Ashley,
    Being familiar with your stories, I'd argue that the trip to London is more of an inciting incident since it's tied to losing her job and comes so close to the start of the story. At that point, she can still turn back and return home. When she knows more about the situation and decides to stay, that's where I think the first plot point hits.