Kat: Turning Points

I Wouldn't Start From HereI suspect that if you ask each of the 8Ladies what writing concept they find most challenging to apply to their story, you’ll get at least five difference answers. Conflict (or the lack thereof) is probably at the top of the list. Beats are undoubtedly up there, too. However, its turning points that make me want to scream. Conceptually, I get what they are and how to structure them in the story (see Michille’s awesome post). But determining what they are in my story is a whole different animal.

My problem began when I saw Jenny Crusie’s “cup of tea” illustration—a visual explanation of how turning points work and escalate the action. Since then, I tend to think of TP’s as events so big they practically explode from the page (i.e. someone gets stabbed with a fork).

Then, this past weekend I watched an old black & white western directed by John Ford. I knew it was filmed up in Monument Valley, UT and since several of the ladies (myself included) will be taking a road trip there in a few weeks, I thought, hey, road trip research.

Instead of (or maybe in addition to) checking out the landmarks, the movie provided a lesson in turning points. Most of those old movies have turning points that hit you over the head (i.e. explode off the page) and in some ways it’s true here. But the small things, the things one might miss are the things that truly turn the story to its inevitable and tragic end. The decision the troop leader makes to go right instead of left, moving a column of soldiers into an ambush, or the heroine’s decision to take things in hand and show up for dinner uninvited in order to see the man her father has ordered to stay away from her.

Still, recognizing TP’s in someone else’s story isn’t the same as developing our own. I want a definitive way to recognize them and determine whether they work in Cheyenne. So, I went to my old pal, google and found a short video by  Sarah Cypher, Freelance Editor and author of “The Editor’s Lexicon”. In it, she refers to Turning Points as Plot Points, but both are the same thing, an “action a character takes that can’t be undone and moves the story ahead”. What might that look like on the page? See if the character has done at least one of these things:

  • Created a new problem for themselves.
  • Advanced toward something they want.
  • Created a temporary statist to stay away from something they don’t want.

Sarah also advises that, “The best way to determine whether the turning point works is to look at the character before and after the TP.” Is the character changed to a point where they cannot move back to where they were? At this point in my story, the answer is no. I’ve been thinking in terms of physical movements (Cheyenne finally is pushed to move from Reed’s guest room into an uninhabitable house before she’s ready).

To me, the best way to really grasp a concept is through examples. Anyone care to share a turning point or two from their own story?

16 thoughts on “Kat: Turning Points

  1. I’ve been revising an old novel for just about ever, and now that it’s almost done and I’ve carved away the junk, the turning points stand out really clearly. Both of them are when the heroine decides to make love with the hero. The first time, she’s casting off old cares and going for fun. The second time she commits, daring to hope for her future. Seems kind of obvious—maybe this book isn’t complex enough!—but they’re really clear.

    Those old John Ford movies are why I want to go to Monument Valley. That old black-and-white photography is gorgeous. Think what the valley will be like in color!

    • I passed through there last year (unfortunately at the speed of light) so I didn’t see the actual monuments, but if what I saw from the highway is any indication, it will be a spiritual experience.

  2. Turning points are a big deal, and I’m almost afraid to identify them in a first draft. I’m afraid I’ll push them into something they aren’t meant to be. But, after I’ve got a first draft, identifying the turning points and then figuring out if they work or how to punch them up is a big thing.

    Even a short story can have a turning point or two. In Colonel Black’s Camera (the short-short I shared during Christmas Week), the big turning point comes when the medium summons Mr. Glossop. There’s no surprise there — that’s what they came here to do. But there’s no turning back, either. (-: And note, it takes almost half the story before it happens.

    The next turning point comes much faster — Mr. Glossop curses the group (and the cameras, but that’s incidental).

    The final turning point is when midnight strikes. The ghosts (from the abandoned paupers’ graveyard below the house) rise up. Mrs. Glossop with her new powers is frightened and dies of a heart attack.

    Perhaps all that is a subplot, though, because it’s about the conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Glossop.

    The main plot is not all that exciting, and it’s really reactive. Black is not in conflict with a who, but rather a what — his own poverty and obscurity. He encourages the medium to start (so he can take pictures and get his money). He takes the pictures — they can’t be taken back. He is finally defeated by circumstances, and the final point is that he steals something so he can pawn it and get cash to start over in America. Jenny would gnash her teeth. “Conflict is between two people.”

    Perhaps it’d be more interesting if Black was the one in conflict with Glossop, and stealing curios from the Cabinet of Wonders in the music room could be Black’s final word with Glossop. (God, that sounds like a lot of work, though. Especially for a little backstory that explains why Black has super-sensitive cameras. But it might be better for my craft to work out the conflict more satisfactorily.)

    I really love the tension between Mr. and Mrs. Glossop, though, and the tension between various partners in the story. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but there were 13 around the table. And I just realized that the Ghost of Mr. Glossop completed the circle with the 14th and made up the seventh pair that evening. (-: Numerological significance, that’s what that is.

    If I were a really good writer, though, I’d take the hour or two to write it up the other way, and see if it was better.

  3. I also think of it as a change that can’t be undone that moves the character in a different direction. I just finished re-reading Gentle Rogue by Julie Garwood (one of my first ever romance novels [with Fabio on the cover]). The initial off-the-page inciting incident is Georgie’s decision to go to London to look for her fiance. On the page, the inciting incident is having all their money stolen. When Georgie finds her fiance, he is already married – big change in plans. She and Mac can’t find a ship going back to America so they sign on to work on a ship going to Jamaica and Georgie goes in disguise as a cabin boy – once out to sea, can’t change those plans either. She is “discovered” and she and James make love – can’t take back the intimacy. When they reach Jamaica, Georgie boards her brother’s ship and leaves James. James chases her to Bridgeport and they are forced to marry. James finally declares his love and HEA. 5 turning points on the page, 4 acts – follows the current fiction structure.

    • This is an interesting example, Michille. The TP’s in this story are similar to mine (i.e. Cheyenne must stay in the house 60 days but Hawk does XX to get her out). Whatever she does to counter his move changes things and escalates his actions, but it doesn’t fundamentally change who Cheyenne is (which is how I understand TP’s). The changes Cheyenne undergoes as a person occur at the hands of River and Reed. That’s where I’m seeing my turning points.

      Hmmm…okay now I’m wondering if the main conflict is between Cheyenne & Reed/River and the Hawk storyline is a subplot.

      • I’m not sure that the turning point changes fundamentally who a person is, just that it means they can’t go back. So “all” the turning point has to do, for example, is change a person’s attitude. So before, Candi Apple was a happy hooker. Then she had a fight with her pimp and decided she wouldn’t hook any more. But she’s still the ornery, lovable gal with a heart of gold that we learned to love in chapter 1, just with a new agenda. She’ll become an Apple genius!

        I haven’t read any of your pages in ages, but if you’re writing a romance, shouldn’t the turning points come with Cheyenne and Reed? Not sure you’re writing a romance, though…

  4. My first turning point occurs when Satan assigns Beilai to corrupt and destroy Dara. He can’t turn back from that without losing everything he’s worked for. (page 10)

    The next turning point occurs when he fingagles his way into the Clinic.(page 125).

    The third occurs when–okay, I’m not really clear on that one. When he falls in love with Dara and switches sides? No, because that’s along the character arc, not the plot arc. When he gets the measles? (p. 225) Probably, because that’s what causes him to become more human and to fall in love.

    The fourth occurs when he almost kils a patient (p 310). And the last is the resolution. a couple of pages from the end.

    The book is currently about 350 pages, so that second turning pont occurs about 50 pages later than it should. And I know it’s a problem because early readers tell me it takes too long to get Belial and Dara on the page together. On the upside, in the first draft it didn’t happen till page 150, so it’s getting better.

    • I think I’m going to do a brief outline of Cheyenne on my whiteboard this weekend and see what I actually have. I still think I’m looking for some huge physical event as a turning point, mainly because according to Jenny, the TP’s are supposed to be bodies in motion, i.e. some action (belial switching sides for example). They may be there, I’m just not seeing them.

    • I don’t think it has to be a huge physical event, Kat. It has to be an action, it has to be by Cheyenne (because it’s her story), it has to be significant and it has to turn the main plot in a new direction. So when Cheyenne’s faced with a decision and does something she absolutely would not have done at the beginning of the book because she is no longer that person, for me that’s the TP. So maybe an action that shows Cheyenne starting to treat the house as a home – a choice she makes that actively goes against what she wanted when she came to town (sell the house ASAP and run)??

    • Jeanne, I’d say your third is Belial deliberately choosing to hit his head (trying to avoid spoilers)?? A hugely significant action taken by him that runs totally counter to his mission and which he would never have done at the beginning of the story.

      • That was the original plan, Jilly, so you’re probably right. That was supposed to be the midpoint, but it doesn’t happen till page 288. The next turning point is only 22 pages later, way too soon. Argh.

  5. To Jeanne’s point above, I see TPs as key moments in character arc, because as Chuck Wendig memorably put it a while ago, characters poop plot, plot does not poop character.

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