Turning points

“Turning point: The point at which a decisive change takes place.” – Oxford American Dictionary

Some while ago, I got about a half-page of questions on turning points from someone who was writing an article on the subject. They were an odd mix of the sort of questions I remember from my high school English classes (“What is a turning point? Give an example. Are there turning points in both the external and internal story lines? Compare a turning point to a plot twist.”) and the sort of questions I get from earnest would-be writers (“Can I have more than one turning point in a story? Should I have more than one? How do I foreshadow my turning point?”)

I couldn’t provide any answers for a variety of reasons, chief among them that I write about writing, and not one of those questions has anything at all to do with the way I write.

For starters, the “turning point” that is the focus of these questions is a description of a particular point in a specific type of plot structure. It’s the moment in the Council of Rivendell where Frodo volunteers to take the One Ring to Mount Doom, or when Elizabeth Bennett refuses Mr. Darcy’s first condescending proposal.

And since turning points are  part of the bones of the story, talking about “making your turning point work” is a lot like talking about “making your hipbones work” or “making your elbow joints work;” if your hips or elbows aren’t working, there’s probably quite a lot wrong at a fundamental structural level, or else you have arthritis or some other problem that needs to be addressed before you can really look at what, if anything, is wrong with the joints.

When the story is in process, there are hundreds of possible “turning points” at which the story could go in a completely different direction – from the character missing a train or being held up by a car accident on the freeway to ninjas unexpectedly leaping through the window during dinner. None of these are visible in the finished story, but they are, to my way of thinking, a lot more useful and important to think about than trying to codify the how and when of the stuff that shows up in the final story.

Most of the writers I know don’t talk about their work in terms of abstract structure. They talk about their stories in metaphors – the First Veil, the Next Event Horizon, the Valley of Fog. Those points are often turning points and points of decision – but they are points of decision for the writer, not necessarily for the characters or the plot.

The in-story turning points are a matter of the instinct and intuition that make us storytellers. As such, they aren’t terribly important things to focus on (in the first draft, at least). They’re things the backbrain delivers, either well in advance as part of the initial story, or as a sort of “Aha!” moment when one realizes in mid-scene that the characters have some options that hadn’t occurred to one before…and that those options could take the story in interesting and unexpected new directions.

The writer’s turning points, on the other hand, are usually the “sticky spots” in the process, the places where the writer has a non-obvious decision to make.

Most of the writers I know have a pretty fair notion when a Big Important Scene is coming up, though not necessarily how it will play out. Some of the time, the writer gets to a chapter or so before the characters have their turning-point scene and then have to stop and think about who is going to do what, what the actions will be, what decisions the characters will make; only when they know these things can they go on and write the scene. Once the scene has been written, though, the consequences are obvious and the story (from the writer’s point of view) flows on until the next sticky point where decisions have to be made.

Other writers know a lot about the turning point scene, because they’ve been dying to write it for weeks…but they have no idea how the decisions and actions that come out of that scene will affect the next part of the story. So they can tootle steadily along through writing the in-story turning point, but then they have to pause to make some decisions about what happens next, given the scene they just wrote. And of course some writers have to make decisions before some Big Scenes and after other Big Scenes, and aren’t consistent about it either way.

And in all cases – the writers who stop before-hand to make decisions, the writers who stop immediately after to make decisions, and the ones who switch off – the Big Important Scene may not be the sort of thing an English teacher, critic, or editor would identify as a “turning point” at all, because it is not a point of “decisive change” within the story for the characters or plot. Epiphanies about the next key bit of action or emotional development can occur regularly two or three chapters before that action bit arrives, while the writer is describing a park or the hero’s casual walk through the Farmer’s Market (or, quite commonly, when the writer is in the shower, on the bus, or taking a walk, none of which have anything particularly to do with the hero’s big fight with the dragon or the heroine having to choose between the sidekick and the hero).

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8 Responses to Turning points

  1. I’m sitting here laughing. You couldn’t have written

    “The in-story turning points are a matter of the instinct and intuition that make us storytellers. As such, they aren’t terribly important things to focus on (in the first draft, at least). They’re things the backbrain delivers, either well in advance as part of the initial story, or as a sort of “Aha!” moment when one realizes in mid-scene that the characters have some options that hadn’t occurred to one before”

    a week ago, when I really needed it?

    They say ‘great minds’ and all that – but I just figure out two of the toughest scenes so far – on the path to an ending I already knew – and it literally took many weeks. Granted, I was refining plot, making sure I am going to arrive with a punch, etc., etc., but it was like slogging uphill in a freezing, driving rain – in socks.

    And yet, the backbrain is now happy that I have listened, and so proud of itself for being devious and interconnected.

    You nailed it: epiphanies. It is the right point for several characters to have them.

    You never know in advance which scenes are going to give you the most trouble.

    Thank you for the insightful post – about story AND writer turning points. And the reminder to separate them.

  2. LizV says:

    the instinct and intuition that make us storytellers

    It gives me a dose of the warm fuzzies knowing that even the planniest of writers, at some point and on some level, just has to wing it and see what happens.

  3. Tiana Smith says:

    I usually have to stop and think before – I know the bones of what will happen, but not how it will all play out. My critique partner is the opposite. She thinks after, because while she knows the big scenes, she doesn’t always know how to get from Big Scene A to Big Scene B. Everyone is different!

  4. Dorothy Heydt says:

    Well, I don’t know if it’s an epiphany, but I *think* my hindbrain has finally come up with the solution to my current block. Instead of my protagonist leaving Numisia Dome at leisure, with plenty of advice from his friends on whom to contact when he reached the spaceport — about which person I *cannot* find out anything whatever, he’s a dry well — he’s going to leave in a hell of a hurry with the bad guys on his tail, hurriedly changing into his pressure suit in an airlock rather too small for him, and out onto the surface having no idea whatever whom he’s going to encounter or what he’s going to do when he reaches the port. I’ll still have to make things up, but I won’t be sounding a dry well.

    I usually get helpful ideas like that in church; credit Where it’s due. :)

    • They teach actors: whenever you have a choice to make, make the bold choice.

      It is generally good advice – we, as humans, spend too much time constraining our urges so we are safe to be around in public. But we far overdo it, and in fiction, where it’s safe, should choose the more operatic response.

      This is way overdone in one area already: character on TV or in a movie who responds to frustration by sweeping everything off his/her desk in a fury. It is a bad trope in my book – and I’m really tired of seeing the writers take that cliched easy way out time after time. It makes a mess, breaks important electronics, disconnects phones – they never show the aftermath and the cleanup – and makes the character look like a fool.

      But in fiction, conflict IS the reason we read – and the choice with the problems (as long as they are well-motivated and set up) is the better choice. In every sentence, every paragraph, every scene.

      I love your guy getting into a space suit in an airlock that is too small – as long as he somehow manages to do the proper checks for leaks – unless you want him explosively decompressed when he steps onto the surface (need to research the ‘explosive’ part – apparently it isn’t necessarily instantaneous that your blood boils out of all your pores, etc.).

      Go for it. And I agree – we know Who to thank.

      • Dorothy Heydt says:

        As to the airlock problem, it’s not too serious. Just annoying. Since the guy is slightly over two meters tall (grew up in low gravity), he has to stoop under the airlock’s low ceiling (as under many another low ceiling). The suit is mostly elasticized fabric, with a really solid ring at the neck to attach the helmet to.

        As to the non-explosive decompression, I already researched it a while ago. He’s going to do that in the third book if I ever reach it. (Note that it worked for Dave Bowman.)

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