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February 11, 2014

How to Make Turning Points Drive Arcs and Themes

Road curving through trees with text: Turning Points Drive a Story

Last week, we looked at turning points from the perspective of beat sheets—how to identify them and ensure they’re changing the direction of the story enough to deserve their name. But turning points affect the story in other ways too.

Turning points aren’t just about plot twists. (In fact, plot twists come with a warning.)

Turning points are also where we show character arcs by showing how their reaction changes at each triggering event. In addition, turning points are often the touchstones that build a story’s theme.

The Danger of Too-Twisty Turning Points

We writers love our plot twists. We love to zig when readers expect the story to zag, and we revel in their shock and their need to turn the pages to see what happens next. But sometimes we might love our plot twists a little too much. *smile*

If our plot twist comes out of the blue with no connection to the rest of the story, readers can feel cheated. (“What do you mean, the murderer was an alien? When did this cozy mystery become a sci-fi with aliens?”)

The non-cheater approach is to make our plot twist be surprising initially, but then make complete sense to the reader in the big picture of the story. Shocking yet inevitable.

To do that, we have to ensure that our plot twist has a basis in the story:

  • Foreshadowing: We can allude to the future twist as a possibility.
  • Subtle Hints: We can bury minor details that will seem important only in retrospect.
  • Puzzle Pieces: We can give details that seem unrelated until we bring them all together into an inevitable conclusion.
  • Character Motivation: We can give a non-point-of-view character a reason for a change of heart that affects plot events.

Character Motivation as a Plot Twist?

That last bullet point might seem surprising, as character motivation is often underutilized. Part of why we’re reluctant to use character motivation as a plot twist is because we’ve seen too many stories use it poorly. (“Yes, I know I’ve been saying that I want X for the last 300 pages, but now I suddenly want Y because it’s convenient to the plot.”)

Again, just like with plot twists in general, character motivation twists need to have a basis in the story. We need to show a trigger for why the character changes their mind.

Any character in a story can have an arc, so the problem isn’t with characters who change. The problem is with characters who change without a reason.

If we show why they’re changing and their reasons make sense for the story, characters—even antagonists—are allowed to have a change of heart. However, antagonists’ changes of heart aren’t always good news for the hero. *maniacal laugh*

Turning Points Can Reveal Theme

Turning points involve conflict, character motivation, epiphanies, etc.—all good things for revealing our theme. As an example, let’s take a look at how a theme involving trust, such as “only through trusting others can we succeed,” could play out over a romance story’s turning points:

  • The Inciting Incident introduces the heroine to the hero, and boy, she does not trust him, or anyone for that matter.
  • At the End of the Beginning (First Plot Point), she has to work with him, and her distrust causes conflict that prevents them from making progress toward the story goal.
  • The Pinch Points make her trust him about minor things, forcing her out of her comfort zone.
  • At the Midpoint, the hero calls her out on her trust issues and points out how they’re doomed to fail because of it.
  • In the Crisis of the Black Moment, she has an epiphany about her trust issues, but now it’s too late to fix things.
  • The stakes of the Climax rip her comfort zone to shreds and she takes a leap of faith, which involves trust in some way, to overcome the conflict.
  • In the Resolution, we see her interacting with the hero (and maybe with others) with her new-found trust on display.

(By the way, this is a great approach for how pantsers can use themes to write their stories and shows how plot-driven and character-driven elements can work together.)

This example shows how each turning point pushes the character along their emotional arc. Also, by having many of the turning points tackling the theme on some level, such as how they all involve an aspect of trust here, the theme is revealed through subtext.

Spoilers Ahoy! A Discussion of Frozen

Fair warning, spoilers for the Disney movie Frozen ahead. If you haven’t seen Frozen yet, skip down to the questions at the end of the post, which are safe from spoilers. *smile*

I hope most of us have seen the movie (considering its box office receipts, a good number of us have). I couldn’t figure out how to discuss the way Frozen‘s Black Moment turning point reflects the theme without going into spoiler-ish details. And there’s really no spoiler-free way to talk about how the movie would be different if Disney had added a character motivation twist behind the plot twist.

The Theme of Frozen‘s Black Moment Turning Point

A Black Moment/Crisis turning point is when the character feels that all is lost. In Frozen, the Black Moment occurs when Anna learns that Hans is not the person she thought he was.

In fact, all of the main characters are in a dark place at this turning point. Anna is dying and rejected by true love, Elsa is locked in a dungeon, and Kristoff feels alone and unwanted.

This scene works as a turning point for the plot because it directly affects the rest of the story and changes everything. After Anna learns about Hans, she can’t go back to thinking that he’s her true love.

The scene also reinforces Disney’s-poking-fun-at-themselves motif of “you can’t know someone well enough after one day to marry them.” Elsa and Kristoff both comment on Anna’s judgment earlier in the movie, so this scene drives that point home.

The subtext reveals the theme: Find value within yourself, as Anna’s desperation for love made her vulnerable, subject to bad judgment, etc. That’s great subtext, especially for a movie appealing to young girls.

How Frozen Could Have Used a Character Motivation Twist

The moment of Hans’s reveal shocks the audience. Hans says he was manipulative and conniving from the start, yet we’re missing that glimpse of him through evidence or foreshadowing, which is why, for me at least, the reveal felt a bit too out of the blue.

Every scene with him before had proven him to be a “good guy,” caring and thoughtful of others, even though we might have been looking for evidence otherwise. As mentioned above, plot twists are dangerous without any hints, and Hans’s sudden selfishness feels like it’s there as a requirement of the plot and not as part of his personality.

This plot twist is a simplistic deus ex machina way to create more conflict. Yet, understandably, Disney didn’t want to tip their hand with hints of the reveal in advance.

What if, instead, this scene used a character motivation twist to create a character turning point for Hans too, one that made sense for the story? What if he was a good guy all along (no foreshadowing needed), but he did have the feelings of being 13th in line (which was referenced) and he loved the feeling of being the hero (which we did see and could be made stronger).

Then this scene could be about him deciding that he liked his new situation too much now to give it up. He could like Anna, sure, but not enough to have to go back to sharing his hero status with her.

In other words, he could make the same decisions, the plot could play out the same way, the subtext could be the same, and it wouldn’t feel like we were blinded by his sudden evil-level selfishness. That’s the importance of character motivation and an example how how they can play into plot twists. Little changes to internalizations and motivations can make huge differences in the big picture of our stories.

Now, maybe you like Disney’s way of approaching that scene just fine, and think my suggestions are terrible. That’s okay. *smile* My point isn’t to say that one way would be better than another, but to demonstrate how turning points are important places to ensure our characters, plot, themes, and subtext all work together to create the impression we want.

Do you dislike when plot twists come out of nowhere and don’t fit with the story? Can you think of other ways to tie plot twists into the story? Do you have other insights for how to reveal theme through turning points? If you’ve seen Frozen, did you see foreshadowing or hints of the reveal? What would you think of the story if Disney had added that character motivation twist?

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Sharla Rae

You bring up some great points. I hate red herrings and will toss a book because of them. I didn’t see Frozen yet but will take a look for sure. 🙂 I think by throwing into situations that go against their grain, we get to see them grow so that by the end of the book they are handling situations they never could have or would have at the end of the story. 🙂

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I always love your posts because each and every one is a mini class packed FULL of knowledge!!!
In reading this a certain movie came instantly to mind, From Dusk Til Dawn. I was into this movie the whole way until suddenly vampires showed up out of nowhere, and I LOVE vampires, but it made no sense to me and ripped me right out of the story. To me, that was a plot twist that could have been handled better 🙂
Thank you for this! I’ve bookmarked and will re-read often!

Have a great week!
Tamara

Carradee

One thing that makes any type of foreshadowing difficult is that different readers will pick up different hints, or interpret things in different ways. Personally, since I’ve read more than 2k books in my life and work as an editor, I can often pick up on upcoming plot twists immediately once the author drops a line of foreshadowing. (Sometimes I have to reassure authors I’m working with that they aren’t being too obvious.) But also, some readers won’t notice foreshadowing unless you beat them over the head with it. A case in point is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. By the end of book 1, I’d guessed who Kate’s dad was. A book or two later, the authors spelled it out—or so I thought. Even after that book, I saw people asking “Who’s Kate’s dad?” It can get a bit awkward when someone I know introduces me to a series, I start following it…and start talking about things they haven’t noticed but that were oh-so-obvious to me. This is one reason I tend to love series with unreliable narrators: you’re supposed to read between the lines. So those series attract the type of readers who aren’t likely to be upset if I give a “spoiler” for something they haven’t noticed yet. That said, I remember one book I edited that had a genre tweak pop up past the midpoint. I blinked at it and pointed out to the author that it was a complete surprise. But evidently the…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hey Jami, I love the tips on how to make a plot twist not look contrived or out of the blue! I’ve thought of the giving hints/ foreshadowing, but I really haven’t thought of the character motivation method, haha, so thanks for pointing that out. From looking at your example and at Michael Hauge’s 6 Stage Plot Structure, I simplified it for myself and now think of the following: For BOTH plot arcs and character arcs, we have the 3 Act structure: 1 Beginning (setup of normal/ current life, then inciting incident where the normal / current life is disturbed) 2 Middle (the stakes are rising, the obstacles keep coming and increasing; and eventually we get to a climax or final showdown) and 3 End (the resolution followed by the epilogue/ wind-down. I know some people hate wind-downs, but I personally adore them, lol. I’m one of those readers who want to find out what happened to everyone in the story in the end, haha.) That Beginning, Middle, End structure looks like a plot arc, but it seems to me that it’s the same for a character arc: 1 Beginning: current character attitude/ personality/ belief; then inciting incident that threatens this status-quo attitude/ personality/ belief 2 Middle: more events threaten to make the character change their attitude/ personality / belief; these events build up to a climax, where the character is finally FORCED to change 3 End: The character changes, and we see the aftermath of this change. The character…  — Read More »

Jordan McCollum

Well, since I’m apparently the only other person here who saw Frozen . . . 😉

I actually LOVED having the plot twist come out of nowhere because I’m so seldom surprised by movies, especially children’s movies. However, I like your ideas too 😉 .

Laura Pauling

That didn’t bother me at all. I was delighted that for once it wasn’t the handsome prince who got the girl. Sure, they could’ve showed a little foreshadowing but I think in a movie many people would’ve guessed, and I’m assuming they didn’t want anyone to see that coming. I loved that the whole insta-love situation was refuted and love went to the one she’d built a relationship with. That way overshadows any missing foreshadowing.

Robyn LaRue

I enjoy working on twists in revision, but love when they blow me out of the water while writing. From there, it is all fun. In thinking about Frozen, I was reminded of Karate Kid III where the foreshadowing was so heavy it took the tone of a melodrama.

Jordan McCollum

Okay, so I’ve been thinking about this more today and I’m not so sure about it. If we changed Hans’s motivations to be more like a recently acquired addiction to power, what does that say about his relationship with Anna before? Was it actually love? And if so, I think it becomes harder to not have him kiss her to save her life. He’d still be in power if she’s alive and they’re married.

Personally, I’d rather have him calculating the entire relationship, eliminating any possibility of him saving her.

Of course, when I started reading the article, I thought you were going to go after the potential deus ex machina with “love” as the answer to Elsa’s out of control powers. In retrospect, I really wanted there to be something–preferably a fantastic musical finale–to explain why love all of a sudden works. Elsa and Anna have always loved one another; why does love suddenly solve everything now? (The answer is probably something as simple as letting go of the fear that closed off their relationship. Or something. I reeeeally want it to be something specific about Anna’s pure love that Elsa’s cut herself off from for years. Of course, that’s probably my bias. You’d think I wrote a book about character arcs or something…)

Gry Ranfelt

BRILLIANT way of fixing that plot point in Frozen! I felt like that part was totally off.
Personally I would have loved for Elsa to have gone down a more dark path and then being redeemed. Throughout the story I was rooting for her and ice-boy Kristoff 😛
At the same time, I liked that hers wasn’t a love story but about self-love and self-acceptance.

I notice you say “the pinch points between plot point 1 and middl”.
Everywhere I read that there’s ONE major pinch point that shows how things are worse, but this makes so much mroe sense.

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[…] Jami Gold: How to Make Turning Points Drive Arcs and Themes […]

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[…] Whether we pants or plot, we have to make decisions about where our story is headed. K.M. Weiland tells us how to make the right decisions for your novel, while Jami Gold explains how to make turning points drive arcs and themes. […]

Rinelle Grey

Yes! Thank you!

Saw this movie last week, and I totally agree with you. I love a lot of the storyline, but the Hans bit just didn’t sit well with me. I needed just a little more explanation of his motivations. I could even have brought the line that he was a bad guy all along. (They did kind of hint it when Anna is singing of her love, and he’s singing of finding a place of his own.) What I didn’t buy was why he made certain decisions (such as keeping Elsa alive), when he wanted her town. A little more explanation when he’s talking to Anna would have fixed it.

(If this comment is too spoilerish, feel free to remove it, I just was so excited to see someone else seeing the plot holes I am to not post!)

Rinelle Grey

Yes, I think that’s my problem. It really does feel like turning to trick the audience rather than a clever twist to me.

That said, I think a lot more went into the movie than we see, and it underwent several revisions and changes (posted about this on my blog the other day), and perhaps some of the explanations got lost in the “editing”.

There is so much that’s good about the movie, and I want to love it completely, but I just can’t. Maybe once I’ve watched it a few more times? (I’m certainly going to get a chance, my daughter and her friends are a little obsessed…)

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[…] I wrote a book on Character Arcs or something. As I was telling Jami Gold in her post analyzing another way Frozen might have been a little better, these criticisms and analysis of the movie are actually a positive thing. I think it says a lot […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

*Frozen spoiler*

Hi it’s me again! About surprising plot changes, did you also find Elsa’s change from a good, gentle, and self-effacing girl to the “Let it go, let it go!” girl quite abrupt? I mean I think it’s perfectly possible for a long repressed person to be like that when they are finally free from society, but still…Maybe it might have felt more immediately logical and convincing if her motivation was shown more clearly beforehand? E.g. show more scenes of her repression but also show hints of her wish to break free?

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[…] turning points reveal theme in some […]

Andi-Roo (@theworld4realz)

We didn’t see Frozen till it came out on DVD, so we missed all the audience gasps of shock at Hans’ character reveal in theaters. And I’m right with you — never saw it coming, and I like to think I’m typically a smart cookie.

Alternatively, my sister said she knew right off that Hans was a booty-brain. I don’t know how she knew; she says it was just obvious to her. BUT — by the time she saw the film, she was already primed to hate it because of its ridiculous reception, because of the claims of strong women characters and new story lines, etc. So I kind of wonder if maybe she wasn’t just ready to assume ALL the characters had some secret motivations hidden up their sleeves.

Interestingly enough, my sister and her husband and kids {aged 9, 15, and 16} all thought Frozen was dumb. Meanwhile, my husband, kids {aged 9 and 20} and I thoroughly enjoyed it. IN SPITE of the flaws, I should add. Because YES, the story had holes and questionable conclusions. Kinda like, oh, I dunno, ALL the Disney films! haha!

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[…] want to flesh out our themes, add depth, pump up our scenes, strengthen the character arc and plot arc, and make sure goals, conflicts, and motivations are clear. Once we’ve finished revisions, […]

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[…] As an example, let’s take a look at how a theme involving trust, such as “only through trusting others can we succeed,” could play out over a romance story’s turning points: […]

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