How to Shape a Character Arc Using Pivot Points
Stories are about journeys of change. Readers want to see how your flawed main character will fight for what they want, how their weaknesses will hold them back, and how they’ll overcome those weaknesses in the end.
For an effective character arc to work, you need your character to transform throughout the narrative, starting in one place and struggling against their inner demons, until they finally see the light and reach a higher version of themselves.
Specifically, their beliefs about themselves and/or the world change. They start the story with an Internal Obstacle, a flawed belief or mindset, and end the story with the Story Point, a reformed belief or mindset that represents the message of the narrative. The two must be tied, in that the character cannot learn the Story Point until they unlearn their Internal Obstacle belief.
NOTE: Even if your character fails to change in the end, we still need to see the potential for change in their actions, up until the point when they tragically fail to cross the finish line.
Action is the proof of change. When your characters make hard decisions, they prove what they value and how they see the world. As they change throughout the narrative, the types of decisions they make should shift.
Thankfully, you can use the four key Pivot Points to map the shape of that change!
Let’s break them down.
Pivot Points in a Character’s Arc
To prove your character is changing, you need the types of decisions they make to shift as a result of the changes.
One of the biggest choices a character can make is in their plan for achieving their goals. How do they plan to get what they want? What are they willing to do? To risk? As your character comes up against their Internal Obstacle, and the consequences of it, their plan needs to change as their belief system does.
Your story’s Pivot Points are moments when your character is forced to change their approach to achieving their goals. These Pivot Points ultimately determine the shape of your character’s arc.
Initial Plan: Act One
You’re going to send your character on a journey of change, but to do so you must first establish who and what they’re changing from. What is their Internal Obstacle? What do they want and how do they initially plan to get it? Their Internal Obstacle should be impacting that plan in a negative way, setting them up to head down the wrong path.
In Act One, once you’ve established who your character is and what they want, your plot should throw them a massive curve ball. This is often called the story’s Catalyst or Inciting Incident. It rocks their world and challenges their initial plan.
In Act One of The Hunger Games, Katniss believes that “Survival, of self and family, is the only reasonable goal.” This Internal Obstacle fuels her initial plan: Do everything she can to ensure her sister survives. Her Catalyst or Inciting Incident occurs when her sister, Prim, is chosen as a contestant for the Games. Katniss’s Internal Obstacle drives her to volunteer in Prim’s place to save her sister’s life.
Pivot #1: Act Two Break
Did you know your story’s Act One to Act Two transition moment is actually an internal moment? The break occurs when your character chooses to pivot their plans as a result of the Catalyst or Inciting Incident challenge. They’ve finally admitted that whatever they were doing when the story opened is no longer effective. They’re forced to reevaluate and craft a new plan. They actively choose to step into Act Two. The key? Their new plan still has to be the wrong plan. Their Internal Obstacle is clouding their judgement, sending them down another misguided path.
In The Hunger Games, after Katniss volunteers for the Games, she and the other tribute from her district, Peeta, are swept off to the Capitol for a series of interviews, parades, and training before the Games start. She is horrified by the Capitol’s oppression and indulgence, but doesn’t believe she can do anything about it. After all, she’s going to die, so what power could she possibly have? At least Prim will survive.
At the end of Act One, however, she and Peeta are the stars of the opening event. Through matching outfits and holding hands, they evoke empathy from the viewers, potentially leading to sponsors. Realizing she actually stands a chance in the Games, Katniss decides to play along — but she guards herself against Peeta’s kindness, thinking it’s all an act so he himself can survive.
Because of her Internal Obstacle belief that only survival is a worthy goal, her Act Two pivot plan becomes: Survive and win the games, without the distractions of friends or allies. But this is the wrong plan. Katniss is focused solely on herself, with the Games as her enemy, rather than on the injustice at large, and the Capitol as the true enemy. This sets up her up for a series of mistakes in Act Two.
Pivot #2: Midpoint
Your character will spend the first half of Act Two trying to implement their new misguided plan to achieve their goals. Maybe they’re doing okay, maybe they’re floundering. Regardless, when they reach the Midpoint, they experience a failure. Maybe their plan fails outright, or maybe they might get what they thought they wanted and it doesn’t feel right. Either way, this Midpoint failure should force them to admit their plan was flawed. They’ll create another plan. Unfortunately, it is still misguided, because their Internal Obstacle is still in the way.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss spends the first half of Act Two navigating training and the opening of the Games. She avoids getting attached to any Tributes (since she’ll have to kill them to win) and focuses on training and winning sponsors. When the Games begin she sets out on her own, experiencing setback after setback, from dehydration to Tracker Jacker attacks.
Katniss’s Midpoint occurs when Peeta, seemingly allied with some of the other kids, unexpectedly saves her life. Hurt and hallucinating, Katniss realizes that Peeta truly cares about her. His allyships are the act. Realizing she isn’t going to get where she needs to go alone, Katniss shifts tactics again. Her new plan is to: Temporarily ally with others in order to win the games and survive. Of course, she’s still set on playing the Game by its rules and being the sole survivor, so this is yet another wrong plan — but we’re seeing a hint of a shift here, as she’s letting others, like Peeta and a new friend named Rue, into her heart and plan.
Pivot #3: Act Three Break
At the lowest moment of your story, sometimes called the All Is Lost beat, the consequences of your character’s bad choices will finally catch up to them, launching them to rock bottom. In the dark depths of their mistakes, you’ll force them to admit they’re wrong, again. But through their self examination in closing out Act Three (sometimes called the Dark Night of the Soul), they’ll finally realize the truth: their Internal Obstacle has been in their way. This realization prompts a mindset or belief shift, in which they adopt the Story Point. Doing so allows them to see the light and pivot again. Just as with the Act Two break, they actively step into Act Three with another plan in place. Except this time it’s the right plan, fueled by the Story Point.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss joins forces with Rue, another Tribute who reminds her of her sister. They experience success, but find out Peeta is hurt and dying somewhere. Then, in a mission gone wrong, Rue disappears. Katniss doesn’t go looking for her friend because her goal is still to survive at all costs. Because of her hesitation, she’s too late to save Rue’s life. Katniss prepares a funeral tribute to Rue in order to humanize her and make a statement on television. By the time she’s finished, she’s learned that there’s more to life than merely surviving.
When the Capitol announces two people can now win the Games, she makes the choice to: Find Peeta and save him alongside herself, even though that will be harder than surviving on her own. She’s learned the Story Point that: There are more important and worthy goals than simply surviving.
Pivot #4: Climax Moment
Action is the proof of change. Therefore, it’s not enough for your character to ‘decide’ to believe the Story Point. The key function of Act Three is to force them to prove it. You want to surprise them with an unexpected twist in the plot, something that forces them to make a really difficult choice between who they used to be (their Internal Obstacle belief) and who they think they’ve become (the Story Point belief). In a positive arc, they’ll choose their changed self, and implement one LAST successful plan.
In The Hunger Games Katniss goes to find Peeta and nurses him back to health. Together they fight their way to the end of the games. They’re the last two standing. Peeta begs Katniss to kill him so he can survive. She can kill him, win, and go home to her sister.
The Katniss at the beginning of the book would have killed him — but she changed in the Act Three Break. She now understands that killing him and surviving would be worse than death. She also knows the Capitol wants a winner. Her new plan becomes: Make a political statement by both sacrificing themselves.
She gives Peeta poison berries and they both move to eat them at the same time. The Capitol stops them just in time, announcing two winners. The action sparks revolution across the country. These positive consequences prove the Story Point: There are more important and worthy goals than simply surviving.
Effective character arcs need to show a character struggling against a false belief, pivoting their plans in the wake of it, and failing again and again until finally the consequences of their actions pile up to the point where their flawed belief is no longer possible to ignore. As you craft your character’s arc, make sure you know, what Internal Obstacle is in their way, how that Internal Obstacle is clouding the plans they make to achieve their goals, and how those plans pivot in the face of failures, setbacks, and ultimately, change.
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