My lessons in fiction:
I’ve finally figured out what a plot point is.
It’s a place where the character must either change goals or radically change the means of pursuing those goals.
If it’s at the beginning of a story, it’s the inciting incident. At that point, the character’s everyday life is over, whether it’s because Gandalf has brought a troop of dwarves to visit or because a tomboyish FBI agent is assigned to go undercover in a beauty pageant or because the time has come for a carpenter to begin his life as a traveling rabbi.
The character pursues the new goal until something happens to change the goal again. He may succeed at the goal and find out it’s not the ultimate good, or he may fail utterly and find out he’s been trying all the wrong way. He comes to a point where he must choose between two equally terrifying (for different reasons) courses. That is the crisis.
The climax is the working out of the choice at the crisis. At the end, the world or the character is irreparably changed from the beginning of the story.
Another thing I’ve had trouble with is motivation. What is the character trying to accomplish?
When the character wakes in the morning, what is the goal that drives his choice of activities through the day? If he’s a subsistence hunter-gatherer, it might be providing enough food for the family for the day. If she’s a high-powered business woman, it might be making the next deal. If he’s neurotic, it might be escaping from emotional pain. If she’s an alcoholic, it might be taking or not taking the next drink.
Many people have to navigate among conflicting goals. The businesswoman may be a mother; the hunter-gatherer may be a cave painter; the neurotic may be trying to keep his girlfriend; the alcoholic may be trying to keep her job. Incompatible goals, besides being human, can be a source of conflict.
Pardon me for thinking out loud here. I’ve got two reasons (not competing goals, though) for doing so. First, verbalizing it will help me learn it. Second, recording it here will make it easier to review later.