Set pieces and plot points
When I wrote the first draft of “Crashers” in the year 2000, the very first scene in my head was the set piece that serves as the plot point to get us out of Act II. That is: Landing a wounded widebody jetliner, in a blazing rainstorm, on a highway. Then making her take off again.
That was my beauty shot.
A couple of quick definitions:
First, a “set piece” is a scene in which the setting is all-important. Most scenes, you could move from a boardroom to a handball court and keep the dialog. The scene would be different but not necessarily better. A set piece relies heavily on the set, or the scene. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when Atticus Finch, beaten and sadden, leaves the defense table and, up in the balcony, all of the African-American citizens of the town stand with him, that’s a set piece. You couldn’t move that scene anywhere else and get the same effect.
Second, a “plot point” is the fulcrum that moves your story from one act to the next. Almost all stories ever conceived come in the traditional three-act format. Act I sets up your plot, your characters, your pacing and your settings. Act II ratchets up your stories (your A Story is the main plot; your B Story is, say, the romance; your C Story is, dunno, whatever, the funny bit that leavens everything else). And Act III is the resolve to all stories.
Take “The DaVinci Code.” (Like it or hate it, I’m guessing you read it. It was on the NYT best-selling list for 137 years.) Act I sets up everything and everyone. We meet the hero, the love interest and the four antagonists (bullish cop, assassin, conniving archbishop and The Teacher). The plot point for Act I is when Robert realizes he’s Suspect No. 1 in the murder in the Louvre. In Act II, it’s the arrest of The Teacher. Both of these events thrust the story forward.
If your first draft is written but it’s missing that certain je ne sais quoi, ask yourself a couple of questions: Do you know for sure where your Act I and Act II plot points are? Do they catapult your story forward?
And do you have an absolutely essential, must-have, must-love set piece?
Saying “yes” to both is the key to moving from first draft to final draft.