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:
- We start with the protagonist in his ordinary world
- Inciting incident 10%
- First plot point (first threshold) at 25%
- First pinch point at about 37.5%
- Mid point (look in the mirror point) 50%
- Second pinch point at 67.5%
- Second plot point at 75%
- Climax at 90-99%
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?