Think of Milestones (aka story beats) as a human skeleton. The skull, spine, sternum (breastbone), scapula, ribs, and pelvis are vital for life. Without these large bones in place, we’d become a mushy blob of skin, muscle, and meat. Also important is the humerus (upper arm), radius and ulna (forearm), femur (thigh), patella (knee), tibia and fibula (shin). Though we could survive without arms and/or legs, we’d have to adjust to a new way of life. Same is true for the metatarsals and phalanges of our hands and feet.
A complete skeleton has the strongest foundation. Don’t we want the same for our novels?
Drilling down into the Three Act Structure, the dramatic arc is split into four quartiles. Milestones appear on the microlevel of those quartiles, called Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. Each Part takes up about 25% of the novel. For clarity, I’ve colored Acts in red, Parts in blue, Milestones in black.
Ready to get high on craft? Cool. Let’s do this…
Part I: The Set Up:
The first quartile (25%) of the story has but a single mission: to set-up everything that follows. We need to accomplish a handful of things (as you’ll see in the Milestones), but they all fall under the umbrella of that singular mission. If we choose to show the antagonist, we only want to include jigsaw pieces of the puzzle.
Most importantly, Part 1 needs to establish stakes for what happens to the hero after Part 1. Here in Part 1 is where the reader is made to care. The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake—what they need and want in their life and/or what obstacles they need to conquer before the arrival of the primary conflict—the more we care when it all changes.
In Part 1 the hero is like an orphan, unsure of what will happen in their life. And like orphans, we feel for them. We empathize. We care.
Often the Opening Scene doubles as the Hook, but not always. If you choose to include a prologue, for example, the Opening Scene must also hook the reader.
In an 85K word novel, the Hook should arrive between p. 1-15. This scene should introduce the hero, hook the reader, and entice them enough to keep reading. You need to ensure the reader either relates to, or empathizes with, the main character. Contrary to what some believe a reader does not have to like a main character. There have been plenty of unlikable heroes that have hooked us for an entire novel. Why? Because we empathized with their situation. Likeable or unlikeable, the reader must have a reason to root for them. That’s key.
Inciting Incident *Optional*
Not every story has to have an Inciting Incident in the way I use the term. Some call the Inciting Incident the First Plot Point. I refer to it as a separate Milestone, a foreshadowing of the First Plot Point but without affecting the protagonist. And that’s the main difference. It can even be an entirely different event, one that relates to the main plot, but it’s a false start. A tease. If we choose to include a separate Inciting Incident, this Milestone should land between p. 10-60 in the same 85K word novel. But an Inciting Incident does not mean we can skip the First Plot Point.
First Plot Point
Here’s where the true quest begins. The First Plot Point should land at 20-25% into the story, or between p. 60-75 in the 85K word novel. The First Plot Point is the single most important scene of all the Milestones because it kicks off the action and propels the hero on a quest, which is your story. Even if it’s been foreshadowed or hinted at, the First Plot Point shows the reader how it affects or changes the protagonist.
Part II: The Response:
This quartile shows the protagonist’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point. They don’t need to be heroic yet. Instead, they retreat, regroup, and/or have doomed attempts at a resolution.
First Pinch Point
The First Pinch Point arrives at about 37.5% into the story (roughly the 3/8th mark or p. 114 in the 85K word novel). This Milestone reveals a peek at the antagonist force, preventing the hero from reaching their goal. If you showed the antagonist earlier, this is a reminder, not filtered through narrative or the protagonist’s description but directly visible to the reader.
For a more in-depth look at Pinch Points, see this post.
The Midpoint Shift lands smack dab in the middle of the story at 50% or on p. 152 in the 85K word novel. This is a transformative scene, a catalyst for new decisions and actions. With new information, awareness, or contextual understanding, the protagonist changes from wanderer to warrior, attacking the problem head on, which lays the foundation for Part III.
Part III: The Attack:
Midpoint information, awareness, or contextual understanding causes the protagonist to change course—to shift—in how to approach the obstacles. The hero is now empowered, not merely reacting as they did in Part II. They have a plan on how to proceed.
Second Pinch Point
Unlike the First Pinch Point, we must devote an entire scene to this Milestone. The Second Pinch should land around the 5/8th mark or 62.5% into the story (around p.190 in the 85K word novel). This time, the antagonist is more frightening than ever because, like the hero, he’s upped his game. Or, if the antagonist force is Mother Nature, the Second Pinch Point shows the eye of the hurricane or lava erupting from a dormant volcano.
Dark Night of the Soul
A slower paced, all-hope-is-lost moment before the Second Plot Point, also known as the second plot point lull. At its heart, the Dark Night of the Soul is the main character grappling with a death of some kind—a mentor, profession, a relationship, his reputation, her sense of who she is, etc. Here’s where the hero is at their lowest point, believing they’ve failed.
As a clichéd example, the Dark Night of the Soul shows the cop with his gun in his mouth, ready to commit suicide. But then something happens to change his mind, and that something sets up our next Milestone.
Second Plot Point
The Second Plot Point arrives at 75% of the way into the story, or around p. 228 in the 85K word novel. This Milestone launches the final push toward the story’s conclusion. It’s the last place to add new information, characters, or clues. Everything the hero needs to know, to work with or to work alongside, must be in play by the end of the Second Plot Point. Otherwise, deus ex machina. But the protagonist—and reader—may not fully understand yet.
Part IV: The Resolution:
The protagonist summons the courage and growth to come up with a solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonist. They’re empowered, determined. Heroic.
The hero conquers the antagonist or dies a martyr. Most will say the hero should never die at the end, but it is an option. And here’s when it’ll happen. In most novels the hero survives. It’s important to note the protagonist should be the one to thwart the antagonist, or at least lead the charge if it’s a group effort. They cannot be an innocent bystander.
Denouement means unknotting in French, and that’s exactly what this Milestone accomplishes.After enduring the quest, stronger for the effort, the protagonist unravels the complexities of the plot, and begins their new life.
Quick note to ease the minds of pantsers
I would never ask you to change your writing process or suggest planning trumps pantsing. There’s no right or wrong way to write a first draft. Whatever works best for you is the right way…for you. But once you have that first draft, read through from beginning to end and take note of the Acts, Parts, and Milestones. Your story sensibilities might be spot on and nothing needs to change. Great! But if your story feels “off” and you can’t figure out why, it’s most often because the Milestones aren’t in the correct order, or they arrive too late, or not at all. Add, subtract, or shuffle your scenes. Rebuild the skeleton of your story bone by bone.
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 teaches a virtual course about serial killers for EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for her fellow Sisters in Crime. She’s appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. In the fall she’s slated to appear on another true crime show for CineFlix. Learn more about Sue and her books at www.suecoletta.com.