By Sue Coletta
Once I learned structure and could visualize the pattern beneath my favorite novels, movies, and streaming series, I felt like I’d been handed the keys to a magical kingdom. Employing structure elevated my writing to the next level. This knowledge helped me score my first publishing contract. Powerful stuff, structure.
Some say, planning a novel in advance destroys creativity. I believe the opposite is true. Regardless, it’s important to hit certain milestones for the novel to work. Two of those milestones are called Pinch Points.
New writers often concentrate on the Hook, Midpoint, and the big twist at the end. But without well-placed Pinch Points, the story will lose its sense of rising action, conflict, and tension. The quest cannot exist without an opponent, and the Pinch Points show the reader what that opposition is all about.
Pinch Points show how high the stakes are. They also set up the emotional change within the hero as they react to the new situation.
The First Pinch Point
The First Pinch Point comes midway between the First Plot Point and the Midpoint. Since the First Plot Point comes in at 20%-25% into the book and the Midpoint arrives at 50%, then the First Pinch Point would be at the 3/8th mark or about 37.5%.
With the First Pinch Point, readers need to see the antagonist and not merely hear it referenced or discussed. They need to experience it, either through the hero’s eyes or through the antagonist. In thrillers, the scene could involve a murderer stalking his next victim. Or a kidnapper playing recorded screams over the phone for the hero. In a romance novel, the First Pinch Point could be the hero’s husband being seduced by another woman (acting as the antagonist).
The simpler and more direct the pinch point the better. The important thing to remember is that the reader must feel it. Even if we choose to use a cutaway scene to show the antagonist, we’ve fulfilled the need of the First Pinch Point.
Anyone who’s ever read an Alex Cross thriller has seen these many times. The Pinch Points stick right out because Patterson uses short chapters that show what the antagonist is doing — planning, scheming, killing. Make no mistake, he knows exactly where to place those Pinch Points to keep the reader flipping pages.
That doesn’t mean we need to use a cutaway scene. Think about most detective fiction. The story begins with the detective being assigned a new case or called to a crime scene. The detective (and team) spends several scenes working the case — collecting evidence, searching for clues, canvassing the neighborhood — but getting nowhere. And then, another body is discovered. The arrival of victim number two reminds the reader of the evil lurking nearby — if the hero doesn’t catch the killer, more will die — which fulfills the duty of the First Pinch Point.
In Silence of the Lambs the First Pinch Point arrives when Hannibal Lecter gives Clarice the location of a storage facility, where she finds a jarred head of an early victim of Buffalo Bill.
The Second Pinch Point
The Second Pinch Point should land between the Midpoint (50%) and the Second Plot Point (75%) at around the 5/8th mark or 62.5%. This time, we need an entire scene devoted to the Second Pinch Point, whereas with the First Pinch Point, we don’t.
A Pinch Point is a demonstration of the nature, power, and essence of the antagonist force. And now, it’s more frightening than ever because he’s upped his game, just as the hero changed at the Midpoint from a wanderer (who is trying and failing) to a real hero attacking the problem head on. The Second Pinch Point is the time to show this evil in its purest form.
Suppose the hero meets a victim’s family member. This character shares details of how she lost her sister, how evil the antagonist really is, and warns the hero about what’s at stake should they fail.
If we think back to Silence of the Lambs again, the Second Pinch Point arrives when Hannibal shows Clarice the map of Buffalo Bill’s murders, which ultimately helps her break the case and find the killer.
But what if the antagonist force is within your hero? Then the Second Pinch Point could be a discussion between two characters that reminds the reader what the protagonist is up against.
None of this means we can’t show the antagonist earlier in the story. We can add as many pinch points as we like, but we must have at least two, perfectly placed.
Pantsers, Don’t Panic!
Write by the seat of your pants. Then, when you finish the first draft, add your two Pinch Points. We place them at 37.5% and 62.5% for a reason, but don’t drive yourself crazy trying to land on the exact page.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Story Engineering to help you remember the proper placement of each Pinch Point.
“The First Plot Point, Midpoint, and Second Plot Point are your big meals. Don’t skip them if your goal is to add dramatic tension and jack the pace to your story. The Pinch Points are like nutritious snacks between those meals — mid-morning and mid-afternoon. They’re good things. They give you energy, they nurture you. You wouldn’t eat them too soon after a big meal, nor would you eat them right before a major meal. No, they’re right smack in the middle of the gaps between those meals.
As for any other snacks (moments in which your bad guy does his thing), well, remember that in this analogy you’re trying to gain weight… so go for it. The more calories you stuff down the reader’s throat the better.” Larry Brooks, Story Engineering
Resident Writing Coach
Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the popular Kill Zone, writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing), and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield Group, Inc.).
Sue also appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion and will be teaching an advanced education course on serial killers for Foothills Regional (CT).