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.Pin It