In television and film, a plot point is a significant event within a plot that spins the action around in another direction.
Plot points are often without advance notice. They can be a twist, for example, the revelation that friendly character A is actually the mastermind behind the drama. In this case, the plot is turned upside-down. It can also be new information that raises new questions about what’s going on.
First, let’s talk about plot points in film. In the television world, the ‘point’ part of the name gets replaced by a ‘beat’ image in the action — a cut to a gun or a knife. They are all more or less the same thing.
Film-makers like to throw in a story twist or plot point about once every 30 minutes in a feature film. They are markers along the way of the story’s progress. If a story’s plot points are spaced out then the story will essentially come to a stop. Shorter spaces between show the action moving forward in a continuous fashion.
Plot points are often driven by character rather than by story — another twist, for example, by revelations of a character flaws / inner motivations. There’s a sense of ‘plausibility’ about a story where you relate to the main character, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Plot points, typically, are where the character is revealed in a new or different light, and you have to re-assess what you thought you knew about them.
Like all storytelling tricks, plotting points are made effective by the viewer’s suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement with the characters.
While bad guys have to be bad in order to be riveting, something about them draws you in. Good guys have to be good, too — you can’t enjoy a story where the chips are stacked against a worthy character that you cheer on. For a plot point to work, the character has to be relatable, and fighting against some worthy foe. It’s a total cliché, but you can’t fight the system. Any force that opposes the main character needs to be something the audience can relate to or understand, if the plot point is to work.
To use an analogy, fishhooks hurt a lot more than barbs. So while barbs are just as painful, they can be removed. Fishhooks will reach straight into the flesh and out the other side if you try to get them out. To remove them, you have to cut off the hook.
Now, back to episodic dramas — specifically web series — for a minute.
True crime stories are often the latest plot point in real life. Laurie Foster and the Cragg case are a great example of this. The drama of one man’s idea of a funny prank vs what happened is fascinating, and reminds us of the balancing act between fantasy and reality.
This is the same for web series. The drama of one man’s idea of a funny prank vs what happened can be riveting.
Plot points are useful in that they change the ground rules for the ensuing story. They cause the viewer to bet on whether this will be the time that a character will be caught, or escape liability.
Plot points are also useful in that they fulfil a dramatic purpose. This is where the beats come in. The good guys may have a win in the background — until the point where it all goes pear-shaped. The victim may have his plot point of revenge — until it all goes pear-shaped. The baddie may get his comeuppance — until it all goes pear-shaped.
Plot points are used throughout life to cause a desired event to go pear-shaped. So how about those plot points in your soap?
Don’t forget that soap writers study good drama. And they love the drama of a show built around plot points. Plot points are the centrepieces of soap opera, because they present new information to the main character. As the viewer, you get to sit in the dark, and wait for them to arrive — which leads into a new round of questions for your brains to focus on.
Plot points, if well-used, also present the opportunity for crisis and resolution. When the unwitting victim reacts to the news, a shift can occur in their relationship to the perpetrator. This is drama writing in action, and it’s often done to the best effect.
In series where the characters’ loyalties are tested, plot points can also be used to flip the balance. When did you wound X’s pride enough? When was your first chance to show him up for what he really is? It’s a progression from one thing to the next, which makes them all the more compelling to follow. You can watch them over and over again to portray the theme of ‘you never know what you’re going to get’ — meaning, you can’t predict what the characters might do next.
The biggest advantage of plot points is that they create twists in the story. Call a plot point a plot twist, if you prefer. But what we love about soap opera is the phenomenon in which characters we’ve known for a long time do something that catches us off guard. When the audience finds out, it’s not a surprise that they’re surprised, nor a surprise that they’re angry, nor a surprise that they have to try to understand how they got to this point. It’s in this response that the soap writer has to put the greatest emphasis.
The thing about soap opera is that it’s built out of a series of events. There is a continual cycle of anticipation and suspense needed to sustain the interest of the audience. People want to know what happened with Susan and her boyfriend. (Did they kiss?) But the anticipation doesn’t stop there. It’s with us when we read the final scene of a book we read to find out what happened, and it’s with us when we go to see a play or a movie, or even if we know we’re going to see a show. Soap does all of these things.
- Who will be punished the most in the end?
- Who will be rewarded?
- Who will get away with something?
- Who will have their plan hit the rocks?
- Who will get blindsided?
The soap writer uses plot points to create suspense and surprise on a regular basis. The main character(s) are at risk of missing out on a secret, or being found out, or being kidnapped, or killed. And then there are soap plot points closer to home.
When viewing a soap opera, you’re also taking a ride with the writers. Their story plot lines are incredibly exciting to follow, which is why you’re the most price-sensitive audience on the planet. What’s more, you’re watching for hours every day, week after week, without missing.
What does that tell us?
You know there’s something special to watch.
You’re watching a second time, to get the most out of it. You welcome the plot points. You love a good soap ‘twist’. You want a plot point to throw everything into a different light, to see how the action can change. You want to know what’s going to happen next, and sometimes you wish there were 30 episodes a week, because you can’t get enough. Soap is the greatest form of entertainment there is, and each episode contributes to your viewing pleasure. There is no other way to say it.
How Do Soaps Contain So Many Plot Points, You May Ask?
Over the past 20 years have you ever asked yourself, how do they fit all of that into one show?
Well it’s really not that difficult. Here are some of the reasons why:
The problem with giving a television series a huge number of plot points is that the writers can end up balancing them out. It can become difficult to tell the difference between a plot point and a scene. This means that many scenes may not have much on them and end up being a load of wasted screen time. So how do you handle this?
There is also so much in a plot point that the writers have to be careful about overdoing it. This also means that many plot points can end up being too overblown, and simply end up being too much.
It can be tricky to weave all the elements and details into a story, and to give each plot point the right amount of screen time. As most plot twists become heavily involved, they also end up becoming monotonous.