Pinch Points are usually included by sheer instinct, but once you know more about them they become a useful tool. #amwriting #writingtips
If you’re writing a novel, you probably know about the common elements of fiction even if you’re a “pantser” who writes without an outline. Granted, pantsers in particular may not pay much attention to these things, especially in their first draft, but they’re aware of them.
The vast majority of novels roughly follow those guidelines, which are practically ingrained into our thinking. Nearly every T.V. show, movie (especially Hollywood movies), and novel follow the three or four-act structure, climax, inciting event, etc.
They do it for a reason. I think it’s safe to say that unless the author deliberately goes out of their way to avoid such story elements,, they fall into place on their own more or less naturally. We subconsciously expect to see them, even if we’ve never read a book on story structure.
Pinch Points are one of these naturally-occurring story elements, I believe, but they have only recently been identified and written up in detail. K.M. Weiland, a well-known author of books on the craft of writing, is to my knowledge the person who first identified them in her excellent 2013 writing book, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. That’s where I first encountered the idea.
That book, by the way, has a solid 5-star average rating with over 400 reviews, which is an incredible feat. It is just as relevant today as it was when published.
Why you should care
Because they seem almost natural, if you’ve written a novella or novel in the past then you have probably included pinch points without even thinking about it. Yet by being aware of them and how to best use them, they stop falling into the category of “probably included.”
When you include them deliberately and with forethought, you will ensure they are present, but you’ll also now be able to add them at the best place and time, building the strongest story structure possible. Pinch points keep your readers from feeling that your villains are pushovers, and they keep pacing and flow where they need to be.
You still have to draft the story–pinch points don’t do it for you, nor make it any easier–but keep them in mind as you write. Your readers will thank you for it because it lets you give them a better-focused, more tightly-written novel to enjoy.
Planning when to get pinchy
You may know about Plot Points and where to place them, and if so, you know that a plot point occurs naturally at about the ¼ mark (at 25k words, in a 100k-word novel). That’s the point where the main character is forced to acknowledge that his or her life has changed irrevocably and has begun to do more than just react. They’re getting proactive!
But this also means there is often a long stretch of material in which the focus is on the successes of the main character and what they’re doing, leading inevitably closer to the climax later in the book. The first Pinch Point should occur in the midst of all that frantic, MC-driven energy. Remember from earlier articles that every action must have a reaction if either is to be believable and smooth.
The first pinch point, then, is the villain’s reaction to the hero’s action. It’s the part that shows the villain isn’t just waiting in their sorcerer tower twiddling their thumbs while the MC runs around the countryside building an army to challenge them. They’re taking notice of what’s going on and they’re gonna try to nip it in the bud to avoid the future problem of an upstart hero.
By showing the villain reacting, we see all the more clearly that the hero is now the one taking action. If the hero was reacting before this, but after the inciting incident becomes proactive, then the effect is that the villain is now the one reacting.
Of course, the villain’s reaction — the first pinch point — becomes the cause of the hero’s next action…
Where to place them
The best places for the two pinch points are at halfway through the first half of Act 2 (37k-38k words, in a 100k-word novel) and at halfway through the second half of Act 2 (62k-63k words). Act 2 covers half the book, from the 25% mark to the 75% mark, so you can figure out the right word counts for your own novel based on your intended length.
You can also simply note them for the relevant chapters in your outline. If you have 24 chapters in your outline (regardless of how many chapters it ultimately gets broken down into for the final version), you’d place them in roughly chapter 9 or 10, and chapter 15 or 16. I have written about using disposable chapter breaks during outlining for the purpose of making sure your plotting/pacing is ideal, and will likely write on it again in the future, but these rough directions will do for now.
First Pinch Point
KM Weiland says a lot about the first pinch point in her book, but the most relevant, comprehensive statement is this–
Writing the Pinch Point chapter or scene will require a little thought. Given both what you know about the villain and what you’ve written about him, his goals, and his resources–
- How will he discover that the nature of the game is changing?
- What will be his emotional reaction to this, based on his character? Some villains may feel fear — fear of being betrayed, killed, or perhaps just being discovered, depending on the plot. Others will become angry. Their pride may be involved, or perhaps if their plot fails they’ll lose a loved one. The latter might make anyone angry, after all. Whatever their inner emotional response, it has to be believable as a human being (unless the villain is an alien K’Vork) and it has to stem naturally from his personality poles and ultimate goals.
- The emotional reaction will then fuel their physical reaction. Do they use the force to kill an innocent minion by choking him from across the room? Do they lock themselves in their room and refuse to come out to build snowmen with their little sister?
- And finally, the villain will come up with a plan. It must have a reasonable chance of success, and it should play off both the villain’s strengths and the hero’s known weaknesses. Later, when the hero eventually wins, their victory will be so much sweeter because the resulting series of events knocks the hero back on their heels (but will eventually be overcome). In this way, the end result of the pinch point will be a strong influence on the hero’s journey, their growth arc.
These things are individually pretty simple. The challenge comes in weaving them together into a coherent whole, all while weaving in the various subplots and other factors that impact the story and the character.
I find that if I am stumped on how to proceed, this is a great time to take it to a writing circle or maybe a Facebook writers’ group for ideas.
Second Pinch Point
The second pinch point, which occurs at roughly the 5/8ths mark of the book, has a slightly different purpose. The midpoint has already been reached. The hero has already been through their defining moment that leads (eventually) to critical personal growth, so this pinch point isn’t setting the stage for the hero’s growth nor foreshadowing later events in the book.
Although it’s still an opportunity to put the spotlight on the villain’s inner thoughts and motives, now it shows that the villain is still dangerous, and not yet defeated by a long shot. That’s important because shortly after this, the book moves into the tail end of rising drama that leads to the climax. The hero may have had some successes up to this point, often with the help of others (which is another topic for another article), but the second pinch point shows the reader that the day is not yet saved, so there is still rising tension.
But whereas the first pinch point foreshadowed future events, the second serves the purpose of raising tension after several hero successes in preparation for the climax. Weiland gives the great example of Darth Vader hiring bounty hunters in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a short but dramatic scene, but yours needn’t be that short unless you want it to be.
I choose you, Pinchpoint-Chu! Drama Attack, now!
Well, that’s a bit cheesy and I don’t know if kids even watch Pokémon anymore. The point is that, although the first and second pinch points serve some different purposes, they both ratchet up the book’s tension level. You probably already include them just by instinct, having read books and watched TV shows and movies for years, but when you know about them — what they are, when to use them, how they work, what they do — then you can deliberately plan them out to get the best use of them.
By planning ahead, whether through your outline or just in your head, both plotters and pantsers might notice a big improvement in the story arc and tension alike.
Sometimes just being aware of a technique is enough to let you quickly master it. Pinch points are like that, and now that you know about them, I bet you find yourself recognizing them in the next book you read, the next show you watch… and in your own writing.