Plot Pivot Point is a specific moment during the story telling where if something different had happened, or if some character had made a different decision, the entire plot would collapse and there would be no story left to tell.
It is possible for a plot to have more than one pivot point, but the main one can be considered to be the one that occurs earliest in the story telling. It is also possible for plots to have no pivot points at all. However, most Hollywood productions will have at least one that can be easily spotted.
How can I find a pivot point in the plot?
Pivot points may appear anywhere in the story timeline, some as early as the first chapter of a book or the first 10 minutes into a movie. Others may appear only at the final pages or at the end of the movie. The events surrounding the pivot point may be somewhat irrelevant to the main plot, and may even last only a split second, but they are crucial for the plot's continuation. They can be usually identified them by asking key questions like:
- If X had not happened...
- Or if character X had made a different choice...
- Or if character X had done something else other than Y...
... would the plot follow a completely different path? Or would there be any interesting story left to tell at all?
If the answer is YES and NO (respectively), then you have found a pivot point.
Be carefulDo not confuse a pivot point with a plot preassumption, which is still part of the plot but encompasses everything that happened and/or is established before the story telling begins. Preassumptions are referenced inside the story telling as facts and accepted as truth by its characters.
Examples of pivot points
- Men in Black - When Kay recognizes Jay's potential to become an MIB agent, he arranges a meeting in a park, opens up the truth about aliens and the secret agency, and offers him a chance to become an agent. Had Jay refused the offer, nothing else could be told and the story would halt to a complete stop.
- Jurassic Park - One pivot point in this film revolves around the character Dennis (Wayne Knight), who deactivates the island's security system so he can get away with dinosaur embryos he secretly sold. Once the security system is off, dinosaurs all over the island are let out of cages and begin to cross over protective fences, attacking people at random. Had Dennis not been a greedy bastard, he wouldn't have sold the embryos. Or if he hadn't been an idiot, he would've found another way to carry the embryos out of the island without putting everyone life at risk. If this character had made a different choice, the story telling would never reach the best parts of the plot.
- Back to the Future - The whole plot revolves around Marty McFly being accidentally sent back into the past, bringing confusion and adventures to his life. Dr. Brown decides to test his new invention in a mall parking lot. He shows off the amazing car and talks with Marty about all the possibilities. He also fails to mention that he stole plutonium from a terrorist group to power his time traveling device. The group shows up, and shoots Dr. Brown. In a panic reaction, Marty gets into the car trying to get away. But once it reaches 88Mph, he is accidentally sent back in time. The pivot point is very subtle, shortly before the time jump. You will see it right at the moment when Brown is demonstrating the panel inside the car, entering important dates as examples where/when he might travel to. If Brown had reset the panel shortly after, or never set it to 1955 while explaining how it worked to Marty, the time machine would not have been configured by the time the terrorists arrived. With the date not set, Marty would've never been sent to the past while trying to outrun the terrorists. Brown would be dead (for real), the entire plot would melt down, and neither sequel would have never happened.
- Dark Shadows - When Angelique becomes sickly obsessed with Barnabas Collins, she casts a spell that turns him into a vampire. Had she never cast that particular spell, Barnabas would've died with his generation and there would be no story to tell.
- Harry Potter series (2001-2012) - Believe it or not, the plot pivot in the whole series is composed by two events: the prophecy made by Sybill Trelawney, and the presence of Severus Snape in the moment that prophecy happened. Any other decision made by Lord Voldemort in the matter of the prophecy is a direct consequence of his knowing about the prophecy, considering at the time Severus was still his servant. Any decision made by Lily and James Potter also is a direct consequence of that event. If Lord Voldemort had chosen differently, the story would be different, but not so much. If the Potters also had made different decisions, eventually, their secret might have still fallen apart at some time, or even redirected the story to other events, but not that much different of the story as a whole. But if Severus not at the scene, or had Sybill not made her prophecy, the entire story would never exist. In the first books/films, this event is unknown, so this might be considered a Plot Preassumption for those, but when this part of the story is revealed, the entire story is revealed to be held up by this event. (valid for both films and books)
- The Fly (1986) - The plot pivot is the result of the three principal characters each making a fateful decision, each leading into the next. Stathis, jealous of his ex-lover Veronica's professional and personal relationship with Seth, decides to jump her on the story of Seth's telepods, leaving a mockup of a magazine cover for her at the loft where Seth lives and works. When Veronica discovers it — just as they're celebrating Seth successfully teleporting a baboon from one telepod to the other, a milestone in his work — she decides to confront Stathis immediately, simply telling Seth that she has to deal with "the residue of another life; I have to scrape it off my shoe and get rid of it once and for all." She promises to return in a few hours. Seth then makes the Tragic Mistake that sets up the rest of the film: Rather than trust and wait for her to return and explain all upon being asked (which she does), he gets drunk as he muses over the possibility that he's being cuckolded. His judgment clouded, he decides that since the just-teleported baboon appears to be perfectly fine — previously he explained to Veronica that he'd send it out for testing to make sure it was okay before moving forward — he should jump ahead to the climax of his project by teleporting himself. The result is that he ends up genetically fused with a fly that he doesn't notice is in the telepod with him (its computer isn't programmed to teleport more than one living being separately), and slowly begins mutating into a monster.
- The Matrix - The plot pivots around Neo's choice between the red and the blue pill. Had he eaten the blue pill, he would have gone back to his normal life and never learned about the Matrix or become a freedom fighter.