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?Pin It