Please tell me, What are Turning Points in a Story? Are they necessary? What do they do? Let’s talk about it!
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Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, understanding certain components of storytelling will help you create a more engaging story, which keeps readers turning the pages. Today we’re going to talk about one of these key components: Turning Points. The simplistic explanation of a Turning Point is that something in the story changes. While that is true, Turning Points in great storytelling have layers of insight built into them, with each Turning Point taking the reader on an emotional journey alongside the protagonist.
To really understand the power of Turning Points, we need to look at scene. Each scene exists both by itself and as part of the greater whole. Generally speaking, a scene is confined to a specific setting (location, duration, period, and character emotion) and contains conflict which propels the plot forward. That conflict represents change for your character. It is about goal, motivation, conflict, and disaster.
Within a scene, the POV character has a scene objective (goal) based on a definable reason (motivation). There is some obstacle to the attainment of the goal (conflict). The result is an action and unanticipated reaction that takes the protagonist in a new direction (disaster).
Goal; Motivation; Conflict; Disaster
Goal; Motivation; Conflict; Disaster are the key elements of every scene. The point of each scene is that it causes change. If it does not do that—cause change—then it’s a flat scene that doesn’t belong in your story. The change within a scene can be minor, moderate, or major. These are the Turning Points in your story. They are built into the scenes, each serving a specific purpose, and each building insight for the POV characters, or developing character growth because they are based on the character’s choices. Whatever choice they make when faced with a decision, they must act in a way that is consistent with who they are and with what their goals are. Your protagonist will always act and decide to do what they believe to be right. Likewise, the antagonist will act and make decisions based on what they believe to be right. These opposing goals are direct conflict, which creates a push and pull between the protagonist and the antagonist.
The antagonist’s actions in Act II create Pinch Points. These are reminders for the protagonist about the inherent conflict they are facing because of the antagonist. It’s the antagonist reminding the protagonist of his existence. We’ll talk about Pinch Points next week.
Back to Turning Points
Back to Turning Points. The major Turning Points in a story are reversals. A reversal is a significant change that takes a character from a positive to a negative place, or from negative to positive place. Or from a negative (bad) to a more negative (very bad!) place. It’s an extreme change that shakes the foundation the protagonist stands on. Everything is good, then suddenly it’s not. It’s bad. Or everything is bad, but the reversal makes things good. At the end of Act II, this is a False Good, also called the Central Ordeal in the Hero’s Journey.
Every story needs a minimum of three major Turning Points, two Pinch Points, and several smaller Turning Points. Remember, this is a guideline, not a formula. Once you understand the purpose of Turning Points and the journey your protagonist is on and the growth that will be realized, you can play around with the conflict and Turning Points to fit your story and make Act II robust and compelling
Think of your book in four unforgettable scenes:
1. The inciting Incident (Call to Adventure)
2. Act I (Crossing the Threshold)
3. Act II (Road of Trials)
4. Act III Climax (Resurrection)
Each of these key scenes end with a significant Turning Point (Reversal), with smaller Turning Points (and Pinch Points) to keep the action strong and the narrative tight.
Keep in mind, you can definitely have more than 3 Acts and any number of Turning Points, depending on the type of story, length of story, and how you want to tell it.
Major and Minor
When you think about Turning Points, think about them as Minor and Major. A Minor Turning Point leads one scene to the next. The Disaster at the end of Scene A leads to a new Scene Goal for Scene B. The major Turning Points occur at specific places in the story, and they are Reversals. They cause the character to:
1. Be Surprised or Caught off Guard
2. Act (Because of Compelling Curiosity or Need)
3. Be Newly Aware and have Greater Understanding or Insight
4. Change Direction
Let’s use the universal Wizard of Oz to look at broad examples:
1. The inciting Incident (Call to Adventure)-Dorothy is swept away by a cyclone. She’s Caught off Guard.
2. Act I (Crossing the Threshold)-She lands in Munchkinland. She needs to act in order to get back home-Compelling Curiosity/Need.
3. Act II (Road of Trials)-She makes her way over the Yellow Brick Road, along with her allies, toward the Emerald City. Midpoint/Central Ordeal: Dorothy faces the Wicked Witch of the West and expects the Wizard to fulfill his promise and send her home. This is a False Reversal, though. The Wizard does not have the power to send Dorothy home. Each step of the way, she gains insight, leading to a greater understanding of her own power and inner strength.
4. Act III Climax (Resurrection)-Dorothy’s quest is complete and she realizes her own power, summons it, and returns home. Reversal from Bad to Good. She Changes Direction—gains maturity and the ability to get herself home.
Within Act II, there are several Turning Points:
1. Dorothy must go to the Emerald City to find the Great and Powerful Oz in order to return to Kansas.
2. She and her allies face obstacles: the tin man’s joints freezing, the flying monkeys, the field of poppies, for example. The Wicked Witch appearing after Dorothy and her friends have made it to the Emerald City and writing Surrender Dorothy in the sky is the first Pinch Point. Even though Dorothy has achieved her goal of reaching Oz, all is not good. She is reminded of the power of the antagonist.
The flying monkeys leading up to the Central Ordeal or Midpoint is the other Pinch Point. This is the Wicked Witch asserting her power to attack and capture Dorothy. Her power is reaffirmed, the danger to the protagonist reestablished. Each of these are also Minor Reversals: Things are good in Oz, but the witch’s presence makes them potentially bad again. Things are hopeful leading up to confronting the witch until Dorothy and Toto are captured, making things bad again.
Minor, moderate, and major Turning Points keep Act II robust and compelling. They are the conflicts that cause Reversals, or they are Pinch Points, which are the antagonist making their presence known. As you write, think about the Turning Points, and the Reversals your protagonist will experience. Use the timeline below as a guide.
Next up, a deeper look at Pinch Points!
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