The Structure of a Story

September 17, 2015
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?

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