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We all have an inherent sense of story. There is an expected rhythm to it, like breathing, and we notice when that rhythm gets interrupted. This is why we give up on a novel we’re reading because it’s moving too slowly, or why we are dissatisfied with an ending because it felt too rushed.
I had the pleasure earlier this month to present at Writer Unboxed’s Unconference in Salem, Massachusetts. One of my topics was “Wrangling with Plot,” to correspond with my essay in Author in Progress. Rather than focus on the three-act plot structure that, perhaps, we have all heard too much about. I attempted to focus my remarks on the pacing of those three acts so that they resonate well with modern-day audiences’ expectations. In other words, while you want your plot to surprise, to inspire, and to get readers thinking about things in new and interesting ways, the pacing of that plot, the delivery of that message, is often best received when it has a certain anticipated rhythm.
If you are getting comments from agents, editors, or even readers that the story is “hard to get into” or “moves too slowly,” then you are likely dealing with a pacing problem. Your story is not beating in rhythm with the pulse of the modern-day audience and that lack of rhythm can, no doubt, be unsettling.
Generally speaking, the basic rhythm of a plot is created by an inciting incident that occurs no later than 25% of the way through the novel, an “all is lost” moment at 50%, and your protagonist’s final crisis at about the 75% mark. Of course, these percentages aren’t gospel; they are merely a guide.
The movie Brooklyn is an example of story with a solid beat. It’s the story of an Irish girl (Eilis Lacey) who emigrates to America in 1951 with the goal of becoming a real American. Even though Eilis is passive and makes few decisions for herself, the movie still resonates. I submit that it does so because it beats in synchronicity with our inherent story pulse.
For example, Eilis gets on the ship to start her journey (inciting incident) at the 15% mark. As the story progresses and she creates a new life for herself (including marrying her Italian-American boyfriend, Tony), her sister Rose dies at the 55% mark. This “all is lost” moment inspires Eilis to return to Ireland to assist her mother through the transition. When Eilis returns to Ireland, she finds opportunities that had not existed for her when she left. These opportunities cause her to question whether she’ll ever return to America, to Tony, and to her new life. At the 75% mark she is boxed into a corner and forced to decide once and for all whether she is going to be an Irish girl, or an American.
But in addition to the pacing of these three classic beats, Brooklyn illustrates the effective use of another set of pulses or plot beats. These are the beats known as “pinch points,” which are reminders-––for the reader’s benefit––of the conflict that threatens to stymie the main character’s progress toward his or her ultimate goal.
Pinch points appear most effectively at the points halfway between the inciting incident and the “all is lost” moment (37%), as well as halfway between the “all is lost” moment and the final crisis (62%). Their purpose is to wake the reader up, to re-focus the reader’s attention on the dark threat that is lingering in the background and, thus, to maintain the tension during the long (long) second act.
Pinch points may be entire scenes, but they could be as simple as a single sentence. Furthermore, because pinch points are for the reader’s benefit, the reminder could be made directly to the protagonist, but it could just as easily occur while the protagonist is off-stage and completely unaware. For example, a pinch point may come as:
- a foreshadowing of an upcoming major event;
- a symbol (for example, the Deathly Hollows symbol that keeps showing up throughout Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows);
- a newspaper headline the protagonist sees as he/she is walking down the street;
- a missing person poster hung on a lamp post;
- a scene where Dr. Evil plots the protagonist’s messy demise;
- a dream that wakes the protagonist up from a sweat-drenched sleep.
In Brooklyn, between Eilis’s journey to America and her sister Rose’s death, there is a pinch point scene in Ireland where Rose is tearfully reading a letter from Eilis. From the viewer’s perspective, we are refocused on the dark force of homesicknesses and the separation of the sisters. It’s not until later that we realize the pinch point has foreshadowed their permanent separation. Later in the movie, after Eilis has returned to Ireland and has become re-established in Irish society, the second pinch point is a scene back in Brooklyn where her husband Tony is writing her a letter and worrying that she’ll never return. Both scenes occur outside of Eilis’s knowledge. They are solely for the audience’s benefit.
Haven’t seen Brooklyn? Another example of well-used pinch points appears in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The first pinch point comes when Harry, Ron, and Hermione are attacked by a troll. It reminds the reader that the castle is not an impenetrable fortress. It also informs the characters that they are stronger as a unit against the dangers within than they are as individuals. The second pinch point comes between the midpoint and final crisis (in a scene outside of Harry’s consciousness) where Snape is seen muttering a curse to cast Harry off his broom during a Quidditch match. Even as Harry is celebrated as “the youngest seeker in a century,” the reader is reminded that dark forces are afoot and not to get too comfortable in Harry’s success.
What are some more memorable pinch points from your favorite books? How have you used pinch points in your own writing to maintain solid pacing?