What Makes a Story Event a “Turning Point”?

by Jami Gold on February 4, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Wood plank balanced on an old pier post with text: How to Recognize a Turning Point

Between questions on Facebook and some of my editing clients, I’ve had several conversations lately about story turning points: what they are, what they mean, and how to recognize them.

As writers, we all need to understand turning points. If we plot or plan our story in advance, we need ideas for the turning points before we start drafting. During revisions, we want to make our turning points stronger. Sometimes we complete a beat sheet or a synopsis after we finish our first draft, especially if we write by the seat of our pants, so we also need to know how to recognize turning points (beats) within a story after the fact.

Our stories are filled with scenes where (hopefully) things happen. Some of those story events will be loud, some will be quiet. Some will be plot related, some will be character related. Only some of those events are turning points and belong on a beat sheet.

The tricky thing is that we can’t always tell what our story’s beats are by picking the loudest or most action-oriented events. So how can we identify our story structure?

How Can We Recognize a Turning Point?

Turning points are the story events, either plot or character related, that mark where the story “turns” in a new direction. The new direction is usually caused by a choice or dilemma faced by the characters—a big choice or dilemma.

What defines a “big” choice or dilemma? How can we tell when a story event is a turning point and belongs on a beat sheet?

We can look for events that affect the main story question, conflict, or goal:

  • Does the character decide for the first time to become involved with the main story conflict rather than avoid it?
  • Does the character discover a new situation and envision a story-sized goal for the first time?
  • Does the character accept that the main story conflict they’d been trying to avoid is, in fact, unavoidable and they’ll have to deal with it?
  • Does the character encounter new significant obstacles or conflicts, complicating their path to the story goal and forcing them to reevaluate?
  • Does the character take a significant step toward the growth they’ll need to complete to overcome the main story conflict?
  • Does the character come away with a new story-sized goal (not just a goal for a scene)?
  • Does the character learn that everything they’d assumed about the main story question or conflict is wrong?
  • Does the character significantly change their approach to the main story question or conflict?
  • Does the character have a new understanding of the main story question that changes their perspective of everything else that had happened?
  • Does the character have an epiphany that affects how they proceed toward the story goal?

I could probably go on with questions, but the point is these story events involve something new and significant. They’re story events that directly affect the whole story, not just the next scene.

How Turning Points Affect the Whole Story

Recognizing turning points can be difficult sometimes. After all, every scene we write should have something happening.

However, unless that “something” will have direct repercussions for the rest of the story—to the point that there’s no turning back for the characters without major consequences—the scene’s choice or dilemma likely isn’t a turning point.

For example, in a romance, the hero and heroine have to meet for there to even be a story. Their first meeting is a minor turning point, usually the Inciting Incident on a beat sheet.

But we meet plenty of people in our lives that we never see again. A romance also needs something to happen so they must spend more time together. Maybe they have to work together on a project, maybe they end up as guests at the same wedding, maybe they’re being chased by the same bad guy, etc.

This event where they decide (or give in) to spend time together is a major turning point, typically the End of the Beginning/First Plot Point on a beat sheet. Again, there wouldn’t be a story without this scene, and they couldn’t go back from the decision to spend time together without major in-story consequences, like the bad guy catching one of them or being fired from their job.

Is This Scene a Turning Point or Not? Example #1

Let’s take a quiet, character-oriented scene for another example to show how we can tell when a scene is a turning point. In a romance, there might be a scene where the hero makes the heroine laugh, and she starts being nicer to him.

That event affects the story, right? If she’s nicer, they’ll get along more, and then they’ll spend more time together, and then they’ll discover how perfect they are for each other, and then they’ll fall in love, right?

But do you see all those “and then”s in that progression? That means the event of the hero making the heroine laugh is not directly affecting the following scenes. It’s simply part of the cause-and-effect chain of the story.

It’s also not a point-of-no-return, as the characters could go back to interacting the way they were before without direct, major consequences. If the hero does something obnoxious in the next minute and destroys her good mood, there could be scene-level consequences with her no longer being nicer to him, but there wouldn’t be direct consequences beyond simply maintaining the status quo for the characters in that reversal.

So it’s not a point-of-no-return, and it doesn’t directly affect the rest of the story. That means no matter how important the scene might feel when we’re down in the weeds of analyzing our story, it’s not a turning point.

Is This Scene a Turning Point or Not? Example #2

Now let’s take that same scene and show how it could be a turning point. Say, after the hero makes the heroine laugh, she experiences an epiphany.

Maybe she decides that she’s been wrong about him and she’ll give him a chance despite her still-wounded heart from the last boyfriend. Or maybe she decides that despite his job/family/history, she really loves this guy and doesn’t want to lose him. Now we have a turning point.

That scene now directly affects the rest of the story because that epiphany results in a new story-sized goal: “try a relationship again” or “keep the guy.” We also have a point of no return because she can’t suddenly forget her epiphany and go back to the status quo. The status quo doesn’t exist anymore.

In fact, if she tries to ignore her realization, she’s going to suffer from heartbreak and all those other kinds of emotional, character arc conflicts. The consequences of trying to go back to the way things were before would result in new story conflicts, which would then send the story in a new direction with a new story question: Will she get her head on straight and accept that she likes/loves him before it’s too late?

In other words, the triggering event in a scene—big or small, loud or quiet—doesn’t determine whether it’s a turning point. What makes the difference is if the response or the immediate results indicate significant story-sized change beyond just this scene and the next, and beyond just the normal cause-and-effect chain that links scenes together in stories.

And that’s why we call the beats that go on a beat sheet “turning points.” The question is all about whether the story turns to a new direction for story-sized questions, conflicts, or goals as a result. *smile*

Does this post give a clearer explanation of turning points? Have you ever struggled with identifying your story beats for completing a beat sheet or a synopsis? Does the list of ways to identify a turning point or the examples help clarify how to recognize them? Do you have other questions or insights into how to tell a turning point? Can you think of other examples of how to transform a normal story event into a turning point?

P.S. Check out this post if you struggle with knowing where a turning point should go on a beat sheet.

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39 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Pirkko Rytkonen February 4, 2014 at 7:58 am

This post is so meaningful. It helped me realize the my character must accept the main story conflict (giving up her baby and keeping it secret) she had been trying to avoid but now it’s unavoidable when she meets up with her grown son and must reveal the secret to her present husband. I think I understand it. There may be many turning points?

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Jami Gold February 4, 2014 at 9:27 am

Hi Pirkko,

Yes, there will likely be several turning points. As I talk about in my post about the Basic Beat Sheet, I try to worry only about the 4 Major and the 4 Minor beats/turning points/plot points/whatever you want to call them. 🙂

The 4 Major beats will be in every story and many will also have some or all of the 4 Minor beats. As I said, some will be loud and some will be quiet (like the Midpoint is often a quiet, character-focused turning point), so it can be tricky to figure this out sometimes. Many writers practice trying to find these in movies. 🙂

I hope that helps and feel free to ask if you have any questions. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc February 4, 2014 at 8:54 am

I’ve never really sat down and analyzed my turning points…which is ridiculous because that should be paramount while I’m crafting my story. I’ve always just written.
Even so, I know that they are important and I make sure every scene, every action, every motivation is necessary in my finished novel.
That being said, the way you broke this down and made it easy to see exactly what a turning point is will be incredibly helpful in drafting and editing.
Thanks so much for your wisdom!!
Have a great day,
Tamara

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Jami Gold February 4, 2014 at 9:34 am

Hi Tamara,

As a pantser, I can definitely say that we don’t have to think about these while we’re drafting. We can let the story unfold organically. 🙂 Even when I have some vague ideas for what the beats might be, I end up changing many of them while writing (usually the two Pinch Points and the Midpoint).

So I often go looking for them after the fact, and then I’m double-checking the pacing (making sure they happen close to the right place in the story, based on the beat sheet page count) and seeing if I can make it stronger. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Julia Tomiak February 4, 2014 at 9:36 am

This is great stuff, Jami! Saving to Evernote to review later! Also must see your post on beat sheets! Including the examples is a big help.

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Jami Gold February 4, 2014 at 9:41 am

Hi Julia,

Yes, I have tons of posts on beat sheets, which cover these same beats/turning points. So please let me know if you have any questions and I’ll direct you to the right place. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Raven Clark February 4, 2014 at 9:46 pm

OMG. How did I not figure this out before? lol! It’s so easy to understand now. Thank you so much for this post. I’ll have to go back to my current novel, and your beat sheets, and look for the turning points again, now that I know not only how to identify them, but make them!

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Jami Gold February 4, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Hi Raven,

Yay! I’m happy to help. 🙂 Good luck with your story, and thanks for the comment (and the question)!

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Daphne Shadows February 4, 2014 at 10:26 pm

This is perfect for me right now.
I’m currently starting to write draft #4 and was wondering where my turning point was – specifically speaking.
Your bullet point list? Just simplified my life. Thank you! 😀

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Jami Gold February 4, 2014 at 11:13 pm

Hi Daphne,

Excellent! Thanks for letting me know. 🙂 And thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung February 6, 2014 at 6:43 pm

Just a question related to this topic: What exactly constitutes a character change/ character arc?

I know changes in personality, or in philosophies of life/ outlooks on life/ grand beliefs, etc. would probably count as character arcs, but what about:

1) Attitudes/ beliefs towards SPECIFIC (not philosophical) things?

E.g. She used to think that art is useless and is merely a thing of pleasure. But in the end she realizes that art is valuable even beyond pleasure and entertainment, i.e. art is much more significant and worthwhile than she believed.

E.g. He believed that scientists and intellectuals are all elitist snobs. He ends up knowing that not ALL scientists and intellectuals are snobs, and that some are genuinely very modest about their achievements and knowledge.

E.g. She used to think that animals are nothing but a nuisance. Yet in the end, she changes her beliefs and becomes an animal-lover.

E.g. This man used to be very enthusiastic about politics and voting. But by the conclusion of the novel, he becomes cynical and disillusioned about politicians and is no longer able to trust any political party.

(These are random examples that have nothing to do with me, haha.)

2) Attitudes/ beliefs towards SPECIFIC PEOPLE?

E.g. He believed all along that X was the murderer of his father (though there is no conclusive proof, so the court judges X as not guilty), so he was hostile towards X all his life. But by the ending, the protagonist discovers that X was INDEED innocent of murder and so the protagonist feels extremely embarrassed, contrite, and opens up his heart to LIKE X instead of hating him.

E.g. She always thought that her best friend was a perfect person, an absolute saint, and so she had always worshiped her. Yet, in the course of the novel, she learns that her best friend is a flawed human being like everyone else after all, so she now has a revised, more realistic view of how her friend is like.

E.g. People all tell her that Leader X is a terrible person in a, b, c ways, and that she should not trust him. But when she gets to meet and know this leader for herself, she realizes that he is not as bad as other people told her, and is actually quite an honorable and amiable man.

Do 1) or 2) or both or neither count as “character change/ character arcs”? Or do the changes have to be on the grand, philosophical, or personality level to count as an “arc”?

Or does the question of whether 1) or 2) are “arcs” depend on HOW MUCH OF THE STORY 1) and 2) changes take up? E.g. A 1) change happens, but only takes up 10% of the story (it’s a very minor side story), then that doesn’t count as an arc? Or if the change takes up over 50% of the story, then that makes it an arc? But what if it’s a MINOR CHARACTER that makes the change? If it’s a minor character, then wouldn’t it be reasonable for the change to be only a very small side story?

Thanks!

Reply

Jami Gold February 6, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Hi Serena,

Those are can be valid changes for a story-sized character arc IF

  • those “before” beliefs are somehow related to a story conflict, and
  • the climax of the story is somehow related to the change of heart.

If this isn’t meant to be the main character or the main character arc, then even those details don’t matter. Characters can change in multiple ways (not all of them big), and minor characters aren’t expected to have much (if any) arc.

For example, if a main character doesn’t trust people in general, a sufficient change could be them learning to trust one specific person if their trust issue is related to the conflict (maybe not trusting causes more issues for them) and if the fact that they learn to trust this person somehow helps them overcome the main story conflict at the climax (maybe they win because they trust this person).

Does that make sense? I hope that helps. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung February 7, 2014 at 11:05 am

Yes, that definitely makes sense! Btw, I looked at your major beats sheet (the shortened one, for pantsers), and I’m happy that my pantsed story miraculously fits it so far! (It’s only 90ish pages at the moment, but I anticipate that it would be 400 pages in total?)

Then I think of a novel I did finish, and lol I have THREE plot arcs in that novel, though elements of the first arc reappears in the second arc, and makes a final, climactic reappearance and resolution in the final arc. The final arc also has the most emotionally significant plot arc. And threading through all three arcs is an overall character arc. So would you say that I would use your sheet separately for each of the three plot arcs, and then use the sheet again for the overall arc?

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Jami Gold February 7, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Hi Serena,

You can use the sheets however you think it will help you make your story better. 🙂 But yes, we can have multiple arc in a story. Like romance has the external, internal heroine, internal hero, and romance (at least!). So they’d all mesh together and have their own ups and downs.

I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung February 7, 2014 at 4:00 pm

I see, thanks. The story I’m currently writing is not strictly a romance–it’s more like action/ adventure–but it does have a major romance component. Wow, external, internal heroine, internal hero, romance…Just shows that there are a lot of arcs we take for granted and don’t consciously realize are there! The “external” refers to the actual external events and actions, right?

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Jami Gold February 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh yes, I wasn’t saying that you were writing a romance. I was just giving an example of how stories can have multiple arcs. 🙂

Most stories have an external and an internal arc at least, and if there are multiple main characters, those usually add more arcs as well. And yes, external arc is what we usually think of as far as plot events and actions. So as you said, we often don’t realize all the arcs in a story until we start analyzing it. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung February 7, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Oh! Lolol! I didn’t mean to say that you were saying that I was writing a romance. XDD (That sounds very meta…) Sorry for creating such a (albeit hilarious) misunderstanding! LOL

Haha, yeah I tend to have tons of characters in my stories (which might be a bad thing, so I give the readers a factfile at the end), and I totally see what you mean by having more arcs thanks to all those minor characters. I was just brainstorming future events for my current novel earlier, and I was finding out why the villain did what she did, then I discovered that she had a backstory, and that she did what she did under the orders of ANOTHER villain, and this latter villain had her own backstory as well. And their backstories are definitely arcs as they have a beginning, middle, and end–the tragedies of how they came to be. (So e.g. at the start, happy normal peaceful life. But then this terrible event happened, which influenced their whole life and changed their whole worldview, and they ended becoming the people they are now. Well that’s not EXACTLY the three act structure, but you see what I mean. XD) But if you add the backstory along with my present story, then there will be ANOTHER “act three” (end) to these two villains’ arcs. However, for the second villain I mentioned, she already died before the “present time” of my story, so unfortunately she won’t have a new “act three”. But yeah, minor characters/ villains giving stories extra arcs FTW! 😀

Btw, while I was brainstorming these future plot events, I was listening to Stravinsky’s Firebird. There are a lot of spooky parts in Stravinsky’s composition, which made a perfect atmosphere for thinking about my really creepy villains. XDD I love my villains, lol.

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Jami Gold February 7, 2014 at 10:26 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Would you believe that while I was reading your comment about your villains, I thought of a cool twist for one of mine? 🙂 *fist bump* Cool villains for the win! LOL! Thanks for your brainstorming-worthy comment!

Jacinta Rose February 9, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Hi Jami,

AWESOME post!!

So, can I ask for your opinion? In my story the hero and heroine don’t get alone. They used to be friends and now her and her family are in danger. He’s helping them escape. She acknowledges how badly she’s treated him and they kiss. But later they fight again when she feels he betrayed her, so it wasn’t a lasting conversion. Does that mean its just a scene change? Because they acknowledge their love and then start fighting again, but with memories. Could that be a turning point? 😛 Later in the story she changes when she thinks he’s dead. It’s a turning point for her cause she now realizes her fears.

I hope this wasn’t too long or confusing. 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold February 9, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Hi Jacinta,

Just because we logically know the right thing to do doesn’t mean we always do it. 🙂 In other words, she could have her epiphany but still fall back into old (bad) habits. Especially if she recognizes (internally at least) that her reaction is “wrong” (maybe with internalization about how she knows she’s being unfair but she couldn’t help it), there’s nothing wrong with two steps forward and one step back. In fact, that’s how progress normally happens in books and in life. 🙂

Besides, if she thinks that he betrayed her AGAIN, that new betrayal is a trigger for a new reaction (i.e. like a new turning-point-worthy beat). And again, it would be human for her to slightly overreact to that trigger based on old hurts. Like we might push the hurts aside for a time, wanting to turn a corner, but something bad happens that makes us think that the corner was temporary, and that the old hurts are the things here to stay. This is all normal and natural for life and stories. 🙂

The final turning point, when she thinks he’s dead, could be deeper in that she realizes what’s been driving all the other turning points–her fear. Her fear (of losing him?) could be driving her reaction to his assumed betrayal, etc., and once she admits that to herself, then she’s turned the corner for real at the end of the story.

So yes, they can all build up to each other. Does that make sense or did I completely confuse things? LOL! Thanks for the comment!

P.S. This is a mini-part of what I do for my editing clients for the Story Outline Analysis and especially the One-on-One Feedback Session, in that I help them ensure that all their turning points work and make sense with each other and that the themes add up to what they want to say with their story. 🙂

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Kathryn McKade February 14, 2014 at 5:56 pm

What a great post! It’s something I’ve always struggled with, so this post (and your beat sheets) are an invaluable writing tool for me. I’ve linked to this on my blog. Thanks so much! 🙂

http://kathrynmckade.blogspot.com/2014/02/links-and-check-in.html

Reply

Jami Gold February 14, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Hi Kathryn,

Yay! I’m happy to help. 🙂 Thanks for the link and for the comment!

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Jess October 28, 2014 at 11:41 am

This was so helpful. It illustrated for me something I’ve been struggling with. The REACTION/EFFECT piece as the focus for the story turn was like a light bulb. I’ve had an epiphany and now *I* can’t go back to my old way of thinking.

Thanks

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Jami Gold October 28, 2014 at 11:43 am

Hi Jess,

LOL! Yay! You’ve reached a turning point in your writing knowledge. 😉 Good luck with applying that knowledge, and thanks for the comment!

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Andrea Garlen March 3, 2015 at 3:24 pm

I really like this Post! It really helped me understand turning points and also let me proof a point to a friend. Thanks!

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Jami Gold March 3, 2015 at 7:57 pm

Hi Andrea,

You’re welcome! 🙂

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Maggie Jones June 28, 2015 at 5:05 pm

Jami, this is SUCH a great post. I’ve been struggling with a story for months – and now I realise I’ve been trying to ‘turn’ the wrong way. Too weak, too unclear, consequences too small, absolutely NOT a point-of-no-return. Thank you!

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Jami Gold June 29, 2015 at 5:03 pm

Hi Maggie,

Yay! I’m glad this helped. 🙂 Good luck with your story, and thanks for the comment!

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