Story Structure in a Movie: "Barfly"

I love to beat on story structure, partially because it fascinates me, and partially because I think it’s one of the most important things a writer must get right. Whether you plan your story in every detail or write by the seat of your pants, in the end, the story must have this structure. Movies are a great way to see it in action because they follow it religiously, and it’s quicker than a novel. It’s true that a novel does not have to follow the structure as precisely as a movie does, but the closer it is to it, the better.

The structure I follow is a combination of that of Larry Brooks in his book Story Engineering, and that of James Scott Bell in his book Write Your Novel from the Middle. The best part of these two books is that they explain the structure more clearly than others.

A story has the following plot points:

  1. We start with the protagonist in his ordinary world
  2. Inciting incident 10%
  3. First plot point (first threshold) at 25%
  4. First pinch point at about 37.5%
  5. Mid point (look in the mirror point) 50%
  6. Second pinch point at 67.5%
  7. Second plot point at 75%
  8. Climax at 90-99%
  9. Denouement

Barfly is a 1987 flick staring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, directed by Barbet Schroeder and written by Charles Bukowski. It’s based on Bukowski’s time in LA.

Mickey Rourke plays Henry Chinaski, a boozer who spends his days and nights drinking, and often fights with one of the bartenders at his local hangout. He befriends Wanda, another boozer/hooker played by Faye Dunaway. In the meantime, there are a couple of people looking for him. Turns out one is a private eye hired to find him, and the other is the editor of a magazine to which he has submitted numerous short stories. She has decided to accept one, and wants to find him to give him a check, and to save him from his wretched circumstances. Let’s leave the storyline there and get to the analysis.

Ordinary World
The movie starts with Henry and the bartender in a brutal brawl in the alley behind the bar. The bartender beats Henry unconscious. This fight seems to be a tradition between these two, but we are never told why.

Inciting Incident

There is a lot of confusion as to the difference between an inciting incident (10%) and the first plot point (25%). Some pundits seem to use them interchangeably. Larry Brooks says that the inciting indent is the first plot point. Others make a distinction between the two and preach that you have to have both. As to writing your novel, I believe there should be both. 
The inciting incident is the point when something disturbs the protagonist’s status quo. Everything before this point is backstory and setup. I don’t think this movie has an inciting incident, or it’s obscure.

As this movie is about 96 minutes long, the inciting incident should come at about ten minutes in (or before). At the ten minute point the PI and the publisher are sitting in a car outside Henry’s building. Henry is in his seedy room listening to classical music and writing with a pencil on small pieces of paper. The scene fades to black, and then comes back with Henry laying on his bed listening to the radio. When Henry goes down the hall to the bathroom, the PI goes into his room and takes pictures of the papers on which Henry has been writing. The PI leaves just before Henry gets back. Henry never knows that the PI was there. 

This part ends at the 13 minute point, or about 13.5% of the way into the story. As it ends, he walks out of his building and the landlady bitches at him for being a young man who is drunk every day by noon. She tells him to get a job.

It’s possible that the inciting incident is the fact that he has been found and the PI proves it with the writing. But can an inciting incident be something unknown to the protagonist? I don’t think so, because it’s supposed to be an event that disrupts the protagonist’s life. It’s not the first plot point or turning point, it’s just something that happens.

I’ve seen some sources who say that the inciting incident could have happened before the story starts. He is a good enough writer to get published at a literary magazine, which means he has some education. He likes classical music, which also is evidence of education. He has submitted stories, which means he at some point had a typewriter (this is 1987) or access to one. You can’t submit hand-written work to a publisher. We are never told what led him to live like he does. Maybe he’s insane. At one point Tully asks him if he’s crazy. He says yes.

On the other hand, whatever happened before the story starts may explain how or why he’s where he is, but when the story opens this is his normal, everyday life. Therefore, there has to be an inciting incident. But I don’t see one.

He fights, returns to the bar the next day, goes home, goes back to the bar, and fights again. This is his world. Not until around the 20 minute mark does anything out of the ordinary happen. But we are now in the territory of the first plot point. My verdict: there is no separate inciting incident.

First Plot Point

This is the point at which the story really gets going. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the crossing of the first threshold. In this movie, it’s the point at just past the 20 minute mark when, after the most recent fight, the bartender in his regular place refuses to serve him. He leaves and heads for the bar across the street. One of the bartenders, Jim, follows him and gives him a cut of the cash he won betting on Henry in the fight. Henry then enters the other bar, thereby crossing the first threshold at about the 22.4% point.

The new bar is much nicer than the one in which he usually hangs out. He’s in a different world. By the way, crossing the first threshold often involves a bar. For example, in the first “Star Wars,” it’s when Luke and Obi Wan walk into the bar full of strange characters.
In this scene, Henry meets Wanda and they strike off together.

First Pinch Point

“Pinch Point” is an unfortunate term because it doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s meaningless without further explanation. The best explanation I’ve seen is by Larry Brooks, who defines it in “Story Engineering” as an example or reminder of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force.

That brings us to the question of who or what is the antagonistic force. There are a few candidates. Booze; his own personality; the bartender he fights; even Wanda. I firmly believe that the antagonist can’t just be society in general, or the government, or something like that. It may be the government, for example, but there has to be a person who embodies the antagonist. I suppose that a person can be their own antagonist, and there’s a good argument here that Henry is both the antagonist and the protagonist. In my opinion, it’s Wanda.

In the first instance, we meet her at the first turning point, which is when we should meet the antagonist, or at least when the protagonist should meet the antagonist. It’s possible we already have met the antagonist, as is the case in the first Star Wars, but it’s not the case here.

The first pinch point should come at about 37.5% of the way through the story. In Barfly, that point is the scene where Henry and Wanda wake up in the morning after going to bed for the first time. She gives him an extra set of keys to her apartment. He says he’s not too good at this sort of thing, and she tells him it’s easier for two to pay the rent. Ultimately, they head off to get his few belongings.

Midpoint/Look in the Mirror Point

One thing I like about Larry Brooks’ approach is that he divides the story into four parts, rather than three. Other people do this, such as by having Act IIA and IIB, but he explains it best. James Scott Bell calls it the “look in the mirror point.” Many times the protagonist at this point is looking in the mirror considering what to do. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief, who is the protagonist in the novel, is in the bathroom looking in the mirror. In Barfly, exactly at the 50% point, Henry has been hit in the head by Wanda and has bled all over the place. He’s in the bathroom staring into the mirror reciting poetry.

Second Pinch Point

Halfway through the third section comes another pinch point (about 67.5%). In Barfly, it comes at about 60 minutes, where Wanda is pretending to be sick and about to die. She tells Henry to call an ambulance. The EMTs show up and say that she’s just drunk. When they leave, she immediately snaps out of it and complains because one of the EMTs said she was fat. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her. It just highlights how manipulative she is.

Second Plot Point

The second plot point is the all is lost moment. All information has been provided and the final chase is on. This marks the point between Act III (or the second half of Act II) and Act IV (or Act III if you stick to pure three-act structure). That means it should come at about 75% of the way through.

In Barfly, it comes at about 70% when Tully shows up and reveals who she is and what she wants. We’ve seen her before, and we knew she was looking for Henry, but we didn’t know why. She has decided to publish one of his stories and needed to track him down to tell him that they had discovered him. She gives him a $500 check and we get into the final act.

Climax

Between 90 and 99% of the way through the story, the final battle between the antagonist and the protagonist takes place. Henry and Wanda are in the bar pissing away his new-found wealth by buying everyone round after round of drinks. Wanda does not know who Tully is. In a previous scene, Wanda smelled Tully’s perfume on Henry (he had spent the night with Tully). In the bar, leading up to the climax, Wanda says she’ll tear whoever he was he was with apart, if she finds her.

In walks Tully. Wanda smells her perfume and realizes who she is. At about the 95% point, the women fight over Henry. Wanda prevails and Tully leaves.

I find this very interesting because the protagonist is not involved directly in the final battle. The antagonist has it out with what I think is the temptress archetype. The antagonist wins.

Denouement

After the climax, we see the world of the hero as it is now. Normally, one would expect the hero to be in a state opposite that of the beginning. The movie ends, however, with Henry going off to fight the same bartender he fought at the beginning. He’s been offered a chance at a better life and turned it down. It’s one of the few stories you’ll see where the protagonist does not change.

What do you think? Agree or disagree with my thinking on this? Do you try to follow this structure?
 

My Experience with Amazon Giveaways

Amazon makes it very easy to setup a giveaway for any product (so far as I know). You go to that product’s page, scroll down, and you’ll see a link to “Setup a Giveaway.” Follow the simple instructions, pay for the item and, after a short time, your giveaway will be active. Amazon does not market it for you, but they provide a link that you can use to market it yourself. There are even social links whereby they automatically insert the link and the hashtag #AmazonGiveaway.

As an author, I’m always interested in finding new ways to market and this looked pretty good. They allow you to do a giveaway for your Kindle book, as well as your print book. I tried both.

The first giveaway I did for the Kindle version of “A Beast in Venice.” I had the price set at $3.99, and I wanted to give away five copies. I had to pay 5 x 3.99, or $19.95. On the upside, you still get your commission for the sale, so I only ended up paying 30% of that (net). The lesson there is to set your book to 99 cents before the giveaway. I set it for one in every 25 people to win. (In other words, I still didn’t what the hell I was doing), and required them to follow me on Amazon in order to enter.

As an aside, the real goal of marketing for an author, outside of selling books, is to get followers interested in your type of book, and preferably on a mailing list. You want to be able to contact these people at will.

Amazon allows you to require the entrants to follow you on Amazon (a list over which you have no control and don’t even know who’s on it), follow you on Twitter (which is better), watch videos, or do nothing else (more about this one later). I decided for my first one I would go with Amazon followers, as Amazon will email them when you make a new release. Not an ideal situation, but better than nothing.

I Tweeted the thing with their hashtag, and within a few hours all the books were gone, giveaway over. Ok, I thought, I got 111 new followers on Twitter who are interested in my book. Wrong.

Amazon gives a list of the winners. I checked them out. The only place I had done any marketing was on Twitter, so these people must have Twitter accounts. All five of them were either “goose eggs,” or had a picture with no profile. That is, they are spammy accounts that enter Amazon giveaways in order to get the thing and sell it, or return it for a credit. As to Kindle books, I understand they can trade it in for something else, or for credit.


So, for my $6.00, I figure I got nothing. Maybe some of the followers were good followers who will not unfollow me, and who may consider buying my new books. But I doubt it.

The next giveaway was the Kindle version of “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man.” On this one, I set the price at 99 cents before the giveaway, and I wanted to give away ten copies. I still had not figured out what was going on, and I thought I could get me a thousand followers. (Yes, I’m slow). 

I set the giveaway to 1 in 100 and required them to follow me on Twitter. At least I’d be able to see all entrants, whereas in the version where they follow you on Amazon, you only know who won. I Tweeted the link with #AmazonGiveaway (duh). Right off the bat I got about 300 followers and 3 winners. Guess what? They were all shit. No real people actually interested in my book.

At this point I finally realized what was happening. People (bots) automatically look for the hashtag and enter the giveaway. There are websites where they list the active giveaways, what it is, and what it’s worth.

I set up another giveaway of two copies of the print version of “A Beast in Venice.” This time I would require people to sign up for my mailing list before they could enter. That’s where the “do nothing else” comes in. One of the options when you set up a giveaway is not to require the entrants to do anything additional. That way you can set up whatever conditions you want, and then give them the link.

The form to sign up (through Mail Chimp) has reCaptcha. The entrant must click a box that they are human. Result: no takers.

The bottom line is that no one wants to be on a mailing list, even if they get a chance to win a bona fide print book. 

I tried something else with my giveaway for the Kindle version of “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man.” All they have to do is enter a password (which I give them) to click through to the link. No takers.

The bottom line is that Amazon giveaways are useless for authors.

There has sprung up an industry around these giveaways that make it impossible for an author to accomplish what they really need to accomplish, which is to build a mailing list of people interested in the kind of books you write.

What if you gave away a Kindle, instead? Even if you were able to keep the bots out of it, you have a list of people who want to have a free Kindle, not a list of potential readers.

What would be a good strategy to use this method to gain real, meaningful followers, or to build your mailing list? Give away copies of books by well-known authors in your genre?

What do you think?

I’m thinking I may try that, but I am of the mind that the best thing to do is to give books away on Goodreads. At least you know that the people there are interested in books, and they’re not likely to be scamming on a book in a genre they don’t read. If they are, and they are doing it to sell on ebay, they will find out what every author already knows: it’s easier to write a book than it is to sell one.

OpenOffice Text Selection Slow: Solved

OpenOffice Writer Text Selection Running Slow

 

I’d used OpenOffice Writer for years with no problem, then one day the text selection feature was so slow that it would take twenty minutes to select all the text in a novel (80,000 words). It hadn’t done that before, and I couldn’t figure it out. That made it useless.

I went online and read all sorts of complicated responses to people who had the same. Here’s the thing: solutions to this type of issue are rarely complicated. The more complex the solution suggested, the less likely it is to work, and the more likely you are to screw up your computer.

Here’s the solution: Mine was caused by an extension. Specifically, Word Count Status Bar.

To fix it, go to “Tools” on the menu bar, select “Extension Manager” from the drop down menu, and then disable the extensions. Ordinary ones, such as spelling and grammar are ok, but any others, disable.

Then close the program and restart it. Selecting text should work again. If you really want the extensions you disabled, enable them one at a time, close the program and restart, and test the selection feature. If it works, repeat the process for the rest, one at a time. That’s how you find the offending extension. When you find it, remove it.

That’s it. The simplest solution is always the best.

Good luck.

How Not to Start Your Novel, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about how not to start your novel. One of the most common questions I see from new writers is how to start. I can't necessarily tell you how to start your novel, but I can tell you how not to, particularly if you want to find an agent or a publisher.

I follow a couple of thousand people on Twitter, largely other authors, many of whom are self-published. The self-published people love to hawk their books, and I like to go to Amazon to “Look Inside,” which I do mainly out of curiosity. It interests me how people start their books. 

There are two very popular ways of beginning a novel among the self-published crowd: by someone waking up, or by someone (usually a woman) being chased.

The main character waking up

If you Google “how not to start a novel,” you will find many articles on the subject. One thing all these articles have in common is that they tell you not to start with a character waking up (or any of its variants, such as coming to in a dark room).

Consider this, aspiring writer: I want you to tell me a story. I don’t want to spend five pages with the main character struggling to get out of bed because they’re tired and sleepy. 

It’s cliché. The character’s alarm goes off, they hit snooze, their mom calls up that they’ll be late for school, or for work, they groan and roll over, pulling the covers over their head. This exciting action repeats at least once, and then they finally get up, stretch, yawn, rub the sleep out of their eyes, blah, blah, fucking blah… Sound familiar?

By this point I’m three pages in (actually, I quit reading when the alarm went off) and all I want to do is kick the character’s ass. As an author, that is not what you want.

Of course, you can find plenty of traditionally published novels that start with people waking up, or getting out of a car, or with the weather, etc. But they are not you. Unless there is some mighty compelling artistic reason for needing to start your novel with a character waking up, don’t do it.

Someone being chased

“Start with action,” or “start in the middle of things.” Every book and every blog on the subject of writing gives you this advice. And it’s good advice. But what does it mean?

To me it means to start with the character doing something, rather than with pages and pages describing the world and its history.
In my novel, “A Beast in Venice,” I start with the main character walking in Venice at night looking for a martini. In “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man,” the main character, who is a lawyer, is in court.

In both cases there is no description of the place and time, other than what’s woven into the narrative, and then only to the extent necessary for the reader to understand what’s happening. We start to learn about the characters from what they say, do, and think. 

It gives the reader a chance to get to know the character, and hopefully begin to care what happens to them, before anything bad happens.

I have seen a number of self-published novels where the author has interpreted “start with action” to mean start with the character being chased by someone (or something) intent on causing them serious bodily harm. Often this chase is taking place in a dark forest, or in the alleys of a city at night.

What’s wrong with that? I don’t know the character, and I don’t care what happens to him or her. How do I know the person being chased is the good guy? Maybe they’re running from the father of a little boy they just raped. I don’t have anything invested in the character.

The other thing is that a novel has to have rising action. If you start your novel with a big, violent scene, you’d better ramp it up from there. The reader expects things to get much worse for your character before they get better.

You’re thinking, “But I just watched ‘Casino Royale,’ and it started with a big chase, and shooting, and things blowing up.” Yes. That’s because it’s James Bond. You already know everything there is about him (did you know he’s an orphan?). From the time he appears on screen you’re invested in his character.

Not so with yours, unless it’s part of a series, I suppose.

The Hero’s Journey, as described in “The Writer’s Journey,” by Christopher Vogler, starts with the character in her ordinary world. This is our chance to see who the character is, and what her problem is. We (hopefully) develop an interest in what happens to her. Then, when the monster is chasing her through the woods, we know who to root for.

There are few rules in writing. It is a rule that a proper name is capitalized, or that a sentence ends with a period. Not start with someone waking up is not a rule, and neither is not starting with someone being chased. They are guidelines, or suggestions, or maybe even best practices. You should, however, think long and hard before you ignore them.


Flash Fiction: The Void

Jim Lane laughed as one man hit the other over the head with a shovel.

"Goddamn, Bill, this movie's funny. You seen it?"

"Yes, Jim, but I do not see the humor."

"That’s because you're a robot."

"I am programmed to understand humor."

The pale blue light from the video screen illuminated the robot's shiny fake skin.

"You know, women don't get this humor, either. Maybe you were made female. That's not exactly a bulge you're sporting under those tights."

An alarm sounded. Jim silenced it as the ship jolted to sub-light speed.

"What the fuck happened, Bill?"

"The ship's computer indicates failure of the space-warping module. Faster-than-light travel is now impossible. By the way, the nearest habitable planet is approximately three-times-ten-to-the-sixth parsecs away."

"Fuck me. That's like, what?—"

"Approximately nine-point-seven-eight-times-ten-to-the—"

"Would you quit talking in scientific fucking notation?"

"As you wish. We are ten million light years from the nearest civilized world. At our current speed—"

"Save it. Do we have another one of those gizmos on board?"

"The ship's records indicates there is one in the forward storage room. Shall I go get it?”

“Yes.”

#

"All right, Billy Boy, let's plug 'er in."

"The module into which this must be placed is outside the ship."

"What? I gotta go outside? No. I don't leave the fucking compound. I don't walk in space."

"Without it, you can expect to die of thirst in ninety-point-five-two days."

"Lovely. I'll suit up, but first I'm going to have a hit of that kickapoo juice we got on that jungle planet."

Bill blinked at him with a serious expression. "Jim, you are free to do as you wish, but I strongly urge you not to drink before you go into space."

Bill’s sickly skin reflected a red light flashing in the background. "You know, I’m definitely looking into your programming. I'd swear you were my second wife."

"I'm trying to determine whether that is humorous . . . no, it is not."

Jim took the device from the box. Just a circuit board. "So, all I do is plug this thing in?"

"Yes, Jim. De-energize the unit, remove the old board, save it for refurbishment, plug in the new one, and turn it on. The rest is done through software."

"Sounds easy."

"It is."

Putting on his suit in the airlock he considered the possibility of just chucking the whole thing. He had a cargo of some sort of goddammits to be delivered to a hideously difficult customer. Maybe he otta just say fuck it; die in the void.

Nah, he had a couple of girls on the hook. He would go into fucking space to replace the fucking gizmo.

He exited the hatch, followed Bill’s instructions, and then pushed the button at the hatch to alert Bill he was ready to come in. No response. Cocksucker.

"Bill, let me in."

His breath smelled like shit inside the helmet.

Bill didn’t respond.

"Bill, let me into the fucking ship."

"No need to shout, Jim. I can't let you in. There is a technical problem."

"What the fuck do you mean, a technical problem? Open the fucking hatch."

"Stand by."

"I'm going to open the hatch manually. You'd better have the airlock shut."

"I wouldn't do that, Jim."

"That's exactly what I'm going to do in ten seconds. Nine. Eight."

The hatch clicked open, he floated in, and closed it behind him. He repressurized the room and changed from the suit. 

"What the fuck's wrong with you?" he asked Bill in the cockpit.

"There was a problem, Jim."

"What problem, exactly?"

"I'm still analyzing it."

"Well, analyze this: if you ever refuse an order again, I'll deactivate you quicker than a Baldarian frog catching a fly. Do you read me?"

"Yes, Jim. I understand."

"Now, let's fire this thing up."

"I've run the installation algorithm for the new oscillator."

"Wonderful."

Jim secured his harness. "Computer, begin countdown to super-luminal jump."

"Super-luminal jump in fifteen seconds," the computer said.

"Strap yourself in, Bill. I don't want your useless carcass flying around the cabin."

"Five seconds."

Five seconds later nothing happened.

"Jump to super-luminal speed failed."

"Determine cause."

"Improper oscillator installation."

Jim looked at Bill, who was gazing back without expression. "Well?"

"I don't understand it, Jim."

"I think you need to go out and check it. Wiggle it, or something."

"I don't think—"

"Remember what I just told you?"

Bill blinked. "Yes. I'm going."

Jim switched the computer to a classified channel Bill could not access. "Computer, diagnose super-luminal drive malfunction."

"The original super-luminal drive failure due to software modification."

"Who modified it?"

"Bill."

"Why does it not function now?"

"For the same reason."

Christ, there was nothing wrong with the unit. Bill reprogrammed it to malfunction. And now he's outside where he could disengage it.

"Computer, secure all external access panels."

"Panels secured."

"Jim," Bill said, "I can't open the panel."

"All right, Bill, stand by."

"The computer may have locked it."

"Computer, restore space-bending oscillator software to last operable version."

"Software restored."

"Begin countdown to super-liminal jump."

"Bill is exterior to the hull."

"Understood. Secure all hatches for faster-than-light travel"

"Hatches secured. Super-luminal jump in fifteen seconds."

"Jim, I believe the computer has started the sequence for super-luminal speed."

"Yes, Bill."

"I am still outside."

"I know, Bill."

"Super-luminal jump in five seconds."

"But, Jim—"

The ship lurched to thousands of times the speed of light. Jim sat back. It was going to be a lonely few months without Bill, but Bill had tried to kill him.

There came a banging on the hull. Metal on metal.

"Computer, report cause of banging."

"Bill."

"What? Display visual."

On the screen appeared Bill pointing a wrench at him.

 

 

Story Structure in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," by Ken Kesey

Every writer or aspiring writer should read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and dissect it. It’s very well-written, nicely paced, and perfectly structured. It’s a study in how to construct and write a novel. The structure is what concerns us here.

A writer can learn a lot about structure from this book. Every writer struggles with structure, particularly those trying to learn the craft. We’re told that a story has a beginning, middle, and end, which is not a particularly helpful description. We’re told there are three acts, four acts, or even seven or eight. There are “pinch points” and “beats.” It’s all very confusing jargon, and the descriptions in the literature are often opaque.

I’ve recently read Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. That book lays out story structure in a way that makes more sense to me than most other books on the topic. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest follows Brooks’ system perfectly.

This is not an analysis of Brooks’ structure, but you need a basic understanding of it to understand what I’m talking about. Briefly, Brooks divides the story into four sections, each about 25% of the book: Setup, Response, Attack, and Resolution. In the middle of the Reaction and Attack sections, there are “pinch points,” which I’ll talk about later. Do yourself a favor and read that book to get a clearer and deeper understanding of these principles, and other things you need to know to write a novel.

There are three major plot points or turning points in any story: they take place at 25%, 50%, and 75% of the way through the book. In addition to these, there are two “pinch points,” where, as Brooks puts it, we are reminded of the power of the antagonistic force. That’s the best description of pinch point I’ve seen. The first pinch point is half way through part two (about the 37.5% point of the book), and the other is half  way through part three (about 60% of the way through the book). Cuckoo’s Nest has all these points lined up perfectly.

Larry Brooks’ System

In the Setup, we learn about the protagonist, antagonist (or the antagonistic force), the setting, and what the conflict will be. The mission of this section, according to Brooks, “is to set up the plot by creating stakes, backstory, and character empathy, while foreshadowing the forthcoming conflict.” This section ends with the 25% turning point, which propels the character into the second part.

The Response is essentially how the protagonist reacts to the turning point at the end of part one. The hero is, according to Brooks, “running, hiding, analyzing, observing, recalculating, planning, recruiting, or doing whatever else required to move forward. At the end of part two is the 50% turning point. It’s what James Scott Bell, in his book “Write Your Novel from the Middle,” calls the “look in the mirror point.” This is where the hero is reflecting on what he has to do, and is often looking in the mirror talking to himself. It’s when the hero decides with conviction to confront the antagonist.

In the middle of part two (the 37.5% point) is the first “pinch point” where we are reminded of the power of the antagonist, and just how bad he is.

The Attack is when the hero stops running and hiding, etc., and mounts an attack on the antagonist. He puts his plan into action. At the end of this section is the 75% turning point. Sometimes this is called the “all is lost” point, or the “belly of the whale.” The hero is often in deep shit, his plan has failed, and it looks like it’s curtains. But he manages to escape and gets the last bit of information he needs for the final battle.

In the middle of the Attack is the second pinch point (the 60% point), where we are again reminded of the power of the antagonist, and of the stakes.

In the Resolution, the hero summons the courage to mount the final attack to destroy the antagonist, or die trying. At about the 90-99% point, the story climaxes, the antagonist is destroyed or the hero killed, and the story ends with the denouement.

Structure in Cuckoo’s Nest

The first turning point in Cuckoo’s Nest is at about 24% of the way through when McMurphy bets the other patients that he can get under Nurse Ratched’s skin. This drives his actions in part two. It’s why he tries to make her angry. (Pay attention to how Kesey describes Nurse Ratched, using terms to invoke cold.)

The first pinch point occurs at about 36% of the way through. During one of the group meetings McMurphy is dominating the conversation to try to rile the nurse. Chief observes that she’s too big to be beat. That she’s got all the power of what he calls “the Combine,” or society, behind her. 

To beat her you don’t have to whip her two out of three or three out of five, but every time you meet. As soon as you let down your guard, as soon as you lose once, she’s won for good.

The second turning point comes at exactly 50% of the way through Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief is in the bathroom looking into a mirror thinking about what McMurphy was, and thinking that he was now seeing things a lot differently. This leads us into part three, where McMurphy takes a more aggressive approach to getting under the nurse’s skin.

It’s arguable that it’s also a look in the mirror point when McMurphy discovers that he could be kept in the asylum past his sentence. He had finagled a trip to the hospital to get out of working on a prison farm. He saw it as a way of having an easy time of it.

The second pinch point comes right at 60% when McMurphy and the others are waiting to get chest X-rays. They are outside the room where they do shock therapy discussing the fact that McMurphy is committed, which means he gets out when Nurse Ratched says he can. In the mean time, they are discussing how shock therapy works.

. . . when the door whooshes open you can smell the acid in the air like when they recharge a battery. McMurphy sits there, looking at that door.

“I don’t seem able to get it straight in my mind . . . .”

The third turning point is right around 74% to 75% when McMurphy takes them fishing. McMurphy seems to have won his war with the nurse. During the previous series of scenes, Nurse Ratched was working against him, posting information about the dangers of deep sea fishing. He comes up against a number of other obstacles, but in the end he wins the round, and they have a lovely fishing trip. Nurse Ratched, however, is even more determined than ever to destroy McMurphy.

The climax comes at the 98% point when McMurphy attacks and nearly kills Nurse Ratched. This leads to his lobotomy, and murder at the hands of Chief.

A note on the inciting incident. 

This term is dealt with in confusing ways. Some gurus say it’s a big event that sets the hero on his path. It’s not. That’s the first plot point at 25%. According to Brooks, if there is a big event prior to 25%, then it is not, by definition, the first plot point. It’s an inciting incident that is part of the setup. The example he uses is the scene in Thelma & Louise where they shoot the guy in the parking lot. It’s at about 19% of the way through. Too early to be the first plot point, but right at the 10% point, making it an inciting incident. According to Brooks, the first plot point in Thelma and Louise is at the 31% point, when they decide to go on the run.

In Cuckoo’s Nest, the inciting incident is probably the arrival of McMurphy to the ward. It’s not the first plot point because it’s too early, and it does not define their actions going into part two.

Conclusion

You will always find the discussion of these plot points in the contexts of movies. If you watch a movie, you will find them where they are supposed to be, almost to the second. These plot points are the tenants of screenwriting. In novel writing, there is more flexibility. But I urge you to consider applying them fairly strictly to your novel.