Jilly: Hitting the Go Switch

Boom!So far, so good. I’m still engrossed in the discovery stage of my fantasy WIP: growing the world, developing the community, digging away at the characters of my hero and heroine, adding images to my collection and tracks to my playlist – thank you so much for the great suggestions last week – and generally trying to knit together the jumble of impressions, ideas and loose ends into something vaguely coherent. Getting there. I think.

I’ve also been investigating lots of diverse subjects I know nothing about, including how to field dress a broken arm, much ado about horses, how to maintain a shaved head, leather armor, underwear through the ages, the history of soap, and lots more stuff about fighting.

I was talking to a knowledgeable friend about fighting, sketching out the essentials of the story, and I got to a turning point that makes the heroine commit to the hero’s cause. “Ah,” my friend said, nodding his head. “That hit her Go Switch.”

I hadn’t heard the phrase before, and I’ve had some difficulty locating it online thanks to a physical switch with that name that’s apparently used in nuclear processors and other hi-tech installations, but I immediately liked the idea.

The way I understand it, an event or information that hits a Go Switch zaps the hindbrain and triggers an instantaneous and unqualified reaction in the person receiving it. An obvious example might be: if a woman feels threatened, she might soft-pedal, try various strategies to try to extricate herself from a dangerous situation. If her child is threatened, hell hath no fury: she’ll put herself in harm’s way, take no chances and no prisoners.

It’s not a new idea, but for me it was a new and simple way to look at story and character. Some of the best and most powerful moments in some of my favorite books arise because a character has a Go Switch that’s particular to them, usually caused by some momentous event in their backstory. The reader knows this, so the reader is ready and holding their breath when some unremarkable event triggers an immediate and extreme reaction from one of the main characters.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips is brilliant at this. Take, for example, Kiss An Angel, where the hero is, among other things, the whip-wielding star of an act with a traveling circus. He’s hot but damaged (of course) and is absolute in his determination never to have children because Backstory. The heroine falls in love with him (of course), becomes pregnant (inevitably) and thinks their growing closeness will make him happy about impending fatherhood once he gets over the initial shock. Well, not immediately. She breaks the news. His Go Switch melts. Their circus act is dangerous, but he’s a whiz with his whip and she’s supposed to smile confidently while he slices objects in half with a flick of his wrist a mere whisker from her body. He’s in such a state, he gets it wrong, for the first time ever, and lashes her body instead of his target. She’s not badly hurt, but shocked, and believes he’s done it deliberately to hurt their unborn child. She runs. He re-assesses his priorities. Lots of powerful action ensues before everything comes good in the end.

Loretta Chase is great, too. Take my oft-cited fave, Lord of Scoundrels. When Lord Dain gets carried away and starts disrobing the equally out-of-control Jessica in the orangery at a society ball, they are discovered in a compromising position. Because his first love had used that exact tactic to try to trap him into marriage, Boom! Dain instantly assumes history is repeating itself. He behaves outrageously, condemning Jessica to scandal and social ruin. Which leads her to shoot him, which perversely leads him to marry her, and…

A major benefit is that writing turning points that hit a character’s Go Switch leads to scenes involving strong actions and reactions, putting bodies powerfully in motion rather than people talking at each other, which makes for a much better story. Incredibly useful.

When I started to think about my WIP, I realised I knew my heroine’s Go Switch. She’s the child of an unplanned pregnancy; her father behaved appallingly, and she’s been living with the consequences for her entire life. So a generation later, when she returns to town and sees her half-brother repeating her father’s behavior, she’ll do anything to prevent history repeating itself.

I also discovered my hero’s Go Switch was not what I expected, and I had to think a little harder to figure out what it was. Now I’ve got it, I can build on it, figure out what must happen to push it, and what happens as a consequence.

What do you think? Does this easy test work for your favorite scenes or stories?

16 thoughts on “Jilly: Hitting the Go Switch

  1. I’ve never heard of the Go Switch before, either. I’ll have to think about this in terms of my WIP and see what I come up with.


    • Will be interested to see what you decide. Funnily enough, I had a thought about this in relation to your WIP when I was trying to think about mine 😉 .

  2. Ditto. Never heard of a go switch but I like it. The trick I’ve heard most often is what does your character fear the most. I like this way better. It could work not only for what makes your character unthinkingly react with fear and anger, but also joy or love. This opens up a whole new way to look at character. Thanks, Jilly!

    • Glad you like it! Yes, absolutely I think it could be a positive reaction as well as a negative one.

      Slightly spoiler-y – there was a brilliant one at the end of this week’s instalment of the latest Ilona Andrews Innkeeper serial (One Fell Sweep). The heroine was asked to do something incredibly dangerous that she absolutely, definitely, positively knew she couldn’t agree to, and she refused implacably. Then it became clear that the price of taking for the assignment was information about the one thing she would do or give anything to find out. I applauded my laptop when I read it, because even though that was the end of the instalment, it didn’t matter. It was a total no-brainer. Doesn’t matter what the odds are or how dangerous it’s going to be, boom! she’s got to do it.

  3. This is a great idea – it’s a really simple but powerful way to think about turning points. Thank you, Jilly. (I suspect many of my turning point scenes fail this test and this will really help me pinpoint if/why they aren’t quite working).

  4. Hmmm. Have been running this around in my mind all day. When I think about my favorite stories, I can see instances where characters have a “Go Switch,” but it doesn’t often seem to be tied to significant plot points. I’m wondering if this is because I much prefer stories where the H&H are not particularly angsty and are working together against an outside force- most of the plot points are tied to that enemy.

    However, in some of my own stories characters *definitely* have a “Go Switch!” Because that can create seriously funny stuff. 🙂 Although, still not tied to the plot points.

    • Interesting! For me it offers an insight into a powerful personal trigger and that’s perfect for key decisions & turning points of character arc, but if it works better for the kind of story you prefer to read or write I guess a Go Switch could be equally useful to add detail or colour or humour. Hmmmm. Thinking. Thank you!

  5. I’m kind of thinking along Jennifer’s lines, too—that a Go switch doesn’t have to be a life-or-death trigger. It could be just something that the h/h can’t resist. So, for example, our heroine wants to be principal ballerina, but she weighs 107, and she can’t be principal unless she weighs 105, so she’s on a diet. And she can resist any food on earth except mango ice cream. So the evil corps member who also wants to be principal drops by with a quart of superfat mango. And boom! Now our girl is 107.5. I guess that could be tied to a plot point—how she doesn’t get to be principal ballerina after all, so she becomes a nuclear physicist. But just saying that I’m not seeing a Go switch necessarily as being Something That Changes Everything.

    • I think you (and Jennifer) have a point. A Go Switch could (say) be the comedy sideline/running gag in a detective series that explains why Our Girl has a series of failed relationships – but I think I like it best as Something That Changes Things.

      To take your example about our heroine, if she was dead set on being principal ballerina I’d say not getting it thanks to the machinations of the evil corps member is a pretty big deal – but if she loves mango ice cream more than she wants the top job, she didn’t have a very strong goal in the first place and it doesn’t sound so interesting as a story. If she’s increasingly frustrated with the daily privations that come along with being a top dancer, then the ice cream might make her realise it’s time to quit and live normally. Better. But maybe she hates dancing but is incredibly talented, has one shot to make the top, which will earn her money and kudos. Maybe she’s from a poor village in a faraway tropical place and the entire village has pooled their life savings to send her to London/New York/Wherever for her shot at glory and they’re depending on her to deliver. It’s cold and bustling in the city, she does’t speak the language well and nothing is familiar. The ice cream the bitch of a corps member drops off is rich and fragrant and made from the mangoes that only grow in her home village, where the mango festival is the highlight of the year. Our Girl grabs the carton from the evil girl, digs the ice cream out with her hands, gobbles down every last scrap and licks out the cardboard before she even realises what she’s done. Then for me the mango ice cream might be the Go Switch that makes the heroine realise she wants to go home to her family more than she wants to be a superstar dancer.

      [BTW I tweaked it somewhat, but I borrowed that ballerina’s feelings of loneliness and homesickness from legendary Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta’s autobiography No Way Home.]

  6. I like this a lot, and I’m trying to figure out how “Go Switch” differs from “boy, s/he really knows how to push his/her buttons.”

    I think when psychological buttons are pushed, it’s often an implosion — it doesn’t go anywhere, per se, but causes a great deal of heat and flash. If that makes sense?

    But a “go switch” implies “All systems are go!” There’s going to be a structured reaction (could be good, could be evil — bombing a continent, or sending a space shuttle up). It’s going to be loud and flashy. And there’s going to be movement towards something, not just a pit in the ground.

    What do you think about that? Or am I making up my own definitions? LOL, still helpful to me, but not helpful for sharing; if I’m making my own shit up, I better choose a new name, hee-hee.

    So, my current short story WIP has a drifting hero. So far, no goal except to get laid and have some fun (because, BACKSTORY). However, when my heroine (anti-heroine?) puts on the pressure to get married and settle down and guard her treasures, he finds his go switch, which propels him across the world.

    I think a leprechaun hits my heroine’s go switch. He’s trying to steal her treasure. And his near successes must be what hits her go switch — she realizes she needs a guardian for her treasure, and she’s out to ensnare the best available candidate and bind him to her for good.

    I think Thomas O’Malley’s go switch has been activated pre-story. (Is that too corny? That’s the leprechaun’s name for now. He likes jazz . . . .) His treasure has been stolen, and that makes him crazy because . . . ?????

    OK, yes, this concept is very helpful. I know what I need to figure out today. What’s TO’M’s go switch?

    I wonder what the relationship between protagonist/antagonist and go switches are? Could it be if a character enters the story with the Go Switch activated, s/he owns the story because s/he is driving it? Upon light reflection, no. I don’t think so. An antagonist can come in with Go Switch activated, but not own the story. This is often the case with Disney Villains, isn’t it? Jafar and his quest for power. Cruella DeVille and her fur fetish.

    I think there must also be some other switches to be flipped. Go Switch. Level One. Red Alert. Defcon Three. No, not Defcon. Offensive Readiness Condition Three. Etc.

    Will think . . . .

  7. I think Go Switch differs from ‘she knows how to push his buttons’ because often the button pushing is inadvertent. It doesn’t have to be (thinking of ex-girlfriend Cynthie, who engineers Cal’s meltdown at the end of Jenny Crusie’s Bet Me) but I think it’s fun if the reader knows the fuse is lit but the character who lit it does not.

    Your short story sounds like fun, and Thomas O’Malley the leprechaun, why not? Do we get to read it some time?

    Defcon makes me think of the incomparable Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad: Asking someone to repeat a phrase you’d not only heard very clearly but were also exceedingly angry about was around Defcon II in the lexicon of squabble.

    • If I get it properly sussed out, I would love some extra eyes on it! I hope it’s only a short story. I’m afraid I will have to write in two POVs, which is scaring me right now. Not sure why, exactly.
      I definitely have to keep this in my “part of research” area. That allows me a lot more freedom to create.

      Love the Terry Pratchett. I remember that line. Oh, what a conflict those ladies had!

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