Please excuse me while I assign already well-loved terms new meanings for my own benefit. (This is to say, writing terminology means something slightly different or goes by slightly different terms depending on who you ask. Two of the definitions I use here are based ones that stuck with me, while the third is something I pulled right out of my backside because it didn’t quite fit with my acquired definitions of the other two. Other terms and definitions are equally valid; I’m just using these ones until I figure out how to telepathically funnel wordless concepts.)
First let’s get basic: What’s a plot anyway? Tis a bunch of things that happen to move your character toward something. Usually this something is a goal. Win the war. Find the killer. Survive the winter. Get through the wedding. Kill the dragon.
Plots (should) have important scenes within them which propel them along. A full book that’s just a knight walking on a path for twenty-five chapters thinking about killing a dragon and then finally reaching the dragon to do so it boring. A book about a knight facing random trials that have nothing to do with the dragon she’s set out to kill is more interesting then walking. But the most engaging version of this plot would be if each trial she faced was connected to the dragon killing in some way.
We could, if we wanted to, label each of these trials with terms like plot point, a plot twist, or a plot hinge, depending on how they interact with the story as a whole. (Now I have to define what each of these terms mean to me. I set myself up here, didn’t I?)
We probably all know what a plot twist is. A big reveal. A shocking conclusion. A revelation that puts the whole story into a new light. (Luke, I am your father!)
Most writers will describe a plot point as some version of ‘an event which progresses the plot.’ This is all fine and dandy until you have to decide what counts as progress and how much of it you need for something to genuinely be a plot point. For the sake of this article, I’m going to call it anything that has a noticeable effect on either the ultimate or immediate goal of the story.
A plot hinge is a type of plot point. It can also include a plot twist. But not all plot twists or plot points are plot hinges, because a hinge actively swings the plot in a new direction. It takes the goal the story is set upon, and it rattles that mother-fork until its eyes pop out.
Let’s have some examples, shall we?
A knight is crossing a mountain on her way to slay a dragon.
While at the mountain, she fights a random dwarf. It’s a nice action bit where she’s in peril a few times and at the end, she kills the dwarf and continues down the other side of the mountain. A real page turner. (Spoilers: it’s probably, actually, not.) It’s also not a plot point (or, a plot anything), because the entire segment could have been cut without anything else changing. This whole scenario has no effect on what the plot’s current goal is, how it’s being accomplished, or how we perceive it.
If instead, while at the mountain, our valiant knight fights a dwarf with ancient knowledge on forging dragon-killing weaponry and convinces him to forge her a dragon-killing sword that ends up being the only reason she can kill the dragon at all, then you have what’s purely a plot point. The goal of the plot hasn’t been altered, nor our perception of it, but we’ve taken an irremovable step towards accomplishing it.
If instead, while at the mountain, our valiant knight uncovers ancient knowledge that reveals the villainous dragon is actually part of a much larger system of dragons with magical human form, and her own mother was secretly a dragon, giving her dragon blood of her own, this is purely a plot twist. The goal of the plot hasn’t changed, and we’re not closer to having killed the dragon, but our perception of the plot, how our main character fits within it, and what it should mean to us as readers, has been altered.
Pretty basic, yes?
Now imagine that those two things both happen while our knight is at the mountain, but as she’s leaving, the dragon she’s been riding out to face finds her. They battle. Barely prepared, our knight is losing terribly. She tries to flee, making it to the nearest town before the dragon finds her. In order to lay him low, his must use both her dwarfish weapon and her secret dragon powers. The town sees this, and decides she, too, is the enemy. A town guard steals her dragon-killing sword and tries to slay her with it. In a moment of compassion, the dragon she nearly killed helps her escape the town, but every knight our valiant half-dragon once fought alongside now sees her as a monster. And they’re coming for her.
This is a plot hinge. We just flipped out perception of the plot, tackled and crashed right through our main goal, and opened the doors for a new goal that’s still adjacent to our original one (and might still lead back to it by the end of the book—who knows, the villainous dragon might still need to be killed after all).
The trick with plot hinges, is the throw the reader for just enough of a loop to make the story fresh and interesting, without letting them question why the story before and after the plot hinge aren’t separate books. For a plot hinge to work, the plot must be pushed without being torn off the hinges. The old goal can’t be left dangling, limp with unfulfilled promise, and the new goal must build off everything the book has already established.
When done well, though, a plot hinge can turn a “this is enjoyable!” story into one that makes readers go “oh god, please read this, I NEED someone to scream at, I’m literally dying.”
I’m not going to tell you how many of these you should have in any given story. I’m not even going to tell you that you need to have any of them. (That would be hypocritical, as not all of my own stories do. Some are pulled along by simply plot points and twists, and they’re still perfectly enjoyable, if I do say so myself.)
You can also slip plot hinges into side plots, and make cases for what constitutes a hinge in character development. And at the end of the day, there’s a hundred different ways to build tension into a story and engage the reader. This is just the one I’m having fun identifying and analyzing at the moment.
And I hope you can set out and have fun with it to.
(Also, call it by my personal terminology. Pretend I, and I alone, invented a brand-new kind of plot point. Buy my book. Ascend me to godhood. Rebel and kill god-me to take back the world for humanity. Something like that.)