I’ve been thinking about pinch points lately, those intervals in a story when you realize how difficult the hero’s task is. They occur (optimally) at the 3/8th and 5/8th point in a story and structurally, they serve a two-fold purpose: to show how vulnerable the hero(ine) is and what will happen if he/she loses. But structure never interests me as much as character and pinch points teach and clarify these better than anything else. The same thing is true about people. Pinch points are what we learn in the worst of times.
The axiom says failure teaches more than success and the essence of a pinch point is failure. For example, the first pinch point of LOTR’s The Fellowship of the Ring happens at Weathertop, when Frodo succumbs to temptation and puts on the Ring. He becomes vulnerable to Sauron’s most powerful agents, the Nazgul, and the resulting injury nearly destroys our hero. Frodo never fully recovers from the experience but both the reader and he learn from it. Frodo shows a resilience and physical fortitude after the injury that most other beings don’t possess. And his character is strengthened after the failure. Strong as they are, the Nazgul never successfully distract Frodo from his destiny again. None of this is apparent until Frodo fails and his failure at the first Pinch Point strengthens him for the second, when his company loses their leader, Gandalf. Grieved as they are, Frodo and his companions continue with their journey knowing their likelihood of success fell with Gandalf into the abyss. Their reliance on each other increases and the remaining story turns on both those redoubled and fractured alliances.
Frodo at Weathertop in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring
The fact is people, like books, have pinch points, but ours aren’t conveniently scheduled at the 3/8th and 5/8th points of our lives. Instead we face instances when we’re overwhelmed by pain and events. That’s how I felt eleven years ago when my father died.
Losing a parent, for many of us, isn’t just overwhelming emotional grief, it’s an existential crisis. No longer are we junior citizens in some family corporation; in an instant, we become senior members, the next in line to go, and the sole custodian of some childhood memories. That’s an incredible amount to assimilate all at once and more than most people can handle. Luckily, as Frodo found, catastrophes can be met, especially if we don’t meet them alone.
The Fall of Gandalf – same film
Led by my incredible sister, people who loved my Dad pulled together through the despair that followed his passing. They listened to us, laughed and cried with us, fed and boarded us, fetched, carried, and above all, showed us we were still loved even if we’d lost the man who’d loved us first. I learned a lot about the strength and love of old friends eleven years ago.
I also learned a lot about my sis and myself in those days. Her strength of will has been apparent since infancy; seldom has a more focused person walked this earth. But dad’s death taught me more about the nature and limits of my sibling’s strength, that it can become over-stressed, and when she can use my help. I found out I could help her. In my own way, I dealt with disaster and found I could tolerate pain and help others with theirs. I found out many things I feared were worse in anticipation than reality. Sis and I both learned a lot in that time and that knowledge served us well when Mom’s death followed Dad’s. If their passing turned us irrevocably into grownups, those events also made us into something new: a team.
That’s the nature of learning in the worst of times. We’re under so much stress, we don’t even know we’re learning, much less learning what really matters. Only afterwards, will we recognize it as a pinch point. And we’re better beings for surviving its lessons.
People who read often get overwhelmed when they start to think about writing. A complete book is the result of such a long, massive effort that most would-be writers get discouraged and quit long before they do a lot of sustained writing. I understand that. I never knew how or why successful authors developed the story-telling tempo that could pull me so completely into a book until one of my English professors gave me the low-down on pitch points and pinch points. These are the spots in the plot that pull a story along and by using these as plot structure (not unlike poles in a circus tent) a writer can drape the line of whatever narrative he or she is writing and get the story-flow right. Let me explain what they are.
Pitch points are the points in the story where circumstances cause the main character to change his or her usual pattern of responses which alters his or her ultimate destiny. Pitch points come (roughly) at the quarter point, half-way mark and three-quarter point of the story. Pinch points are when the protagonist (or the audience) gets reminded about how difficult it will be for the hero to prevail. Pinch points occur at about the 3/8 ths and 5/8ths of the story. There’s one more point I’ll talk about in a minute but first I want to give you an image and an example of the story tent:
I’ll admit I’m no artist but you can see the idea of where the points occur. Now let’s compare this tent to the plot of a rather famous book I and one of my nephews both love, The Hobbit. At twenty-five percent of the way into the story, Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves are about to face some nasty trolls. Until the point, Bilbo has a passenger in his own adventure, swept along by dwarves and a wizard. Here is the first time he acts. Instead of crawling back to his companions with the warning “Trolls right in front of us, we should detour” the hobbit decides to live up to title of “burglar” he’s been given and tries to pick a pocket. His idea doesn’t work out but he acts and that’s important. At the half-way point, the dwarves are captured by giant spiders in the middle of Mirkwood Forest and Bilbo uses his courage and wits to rescue his friends. BIG step. Now we’re at the three-quarter point and where’s our Mr. Baggins? Gone down a long scary tunnel, to parlay with a dragon, all by his lonesome. In each incident, he does something he never would have dreamed of doing when the story began. Now let’s talk pinch points, shall we?
Pinch points are when our hero is at his lowest. The Hobbit’s first pinch point is in the beginning of Chapter Five. Bilbo’s alone, in the dark, in a place he’s never seen before and he doesn’t know the way out. Dwarves and wizard are all gone and there’s no one to rescue him. Remember, this is before Bilbo had enough courage to rescue his friends. This is the point where he must rescue himself and he has no idea on how to do that. It’s a short little spot but it’s bad enough to pinch.
The second spot is a bit more elusive but it’s still there, with Bilbo astride a floating barrel on the river leading out of Mirkwood. Anyone else would be thrilled to be away from the forest and free but here is where Bilbo gets his first sight of their ultimate destination, The Lonely Mountain, and it seems to be frowning at him. All the previous adventures fall back into memory when Bilbo sees his “Big Bad” from a distance. It’s a reminder of how far he still has to go.
You might think that’s all there is to story structure but I’ve saved a key point for last. Take a look at the new story graph.
See that purple addition after the third pitch point? That’s the eighty percent mark and the point of no return. At this spot, something happens that makes the rest of the story a race to the climax. In the final Harry Potter book, it’s when Voldemort realizes Harry’s been deliberately destroying his Horcruxes. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s when Jem and Scout walk to the Halloween pageant by themselves and in The Hobbit, it’s when Bilbo picks up the Arkenstone. The Arkenstone is the heart of The Lonely Mountain’s treasure and it’s the only piece Thorin won’t part with. By taking it, Bilbo sets up a conflict that will harden Thorin’s heart and help bring on the Battle of the Five Armies. Once this happens, the rest is inevitable.
So how standardized is the formula? It’s talked about in writing classes and it’s a good way to edit a story into shape. I understand professional screenplays are actually calculated down to the page so pitch and pinch points can hit at the right places. Pull out your favorite movie or book and calculate where the story is by looking at the percentages. This story structure works.
So now you know the secret of story points: the pitch, the pinch and the one-of-no-return. Is this cool or what?