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February 4, 2014

What Makes a Story Event a “Turning Point”?

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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What do you think?

40 Comments on "What Makes a Story Event a “Turning Point”?"

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Pirkko Rytkonen

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?

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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

Julia Tomiak

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.

Raven Clark
Raven Clark

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!

Daphne Shadows

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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[…] desired, we can fill in the description for what plot event fulfills each of the beats to help us remember the turning points of our story. (We wouldn’t need to specify the Act […]

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[…] Grefer focuses on 3 types of repetition you’ll find in fiction; Jami Gold defines what makes a story event a turning point; and Andi Cumbo-Floyd shares 5 tips for reading as a […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
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… Read more »
Jacinta Rose
Jacinta Rose

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. 🙂

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[…] 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 […]

Kathryn McKade

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

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[…] This technique is why I’m such a fan of beat sheets even though I write by the seat of my pants. Sometimes we can get a sense of the overall story by analyzing its beats or turning points. […]

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[…] at war with the Left Brain.  It figures all that writing advice out there is useful and maybe a turning point would help resolve the sticking […]

Jess
Jess

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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[…] Well, beats are simply plot events that change the course of a story. Some plot events change a story’s direction more than others. We even call them “Turning Points”—because the story turns to focus on a new conflict, obstacle, stakes, or goal. […]

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[…] you’re familiar with beat sheets or turning points, you probably recognized how some of those questions coincide with the turning points of our story, […]

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[…] Some plot events change a story’s direction more than others. We even call them “Turning Points”—because the story turns to focus on a new conflict, obstacle, stake, or goal. […]

Andrea Garlen
Andrea Garlen

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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[…] does his laundry irregularly, and has a potent sexual imagination and drive – all of which influence scenes and plot turns in the story. Use your imagination to keep character detail and story intertwined. Try to make every detail work […]

Maggie Jones
Maggie Jones

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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[…] every scene should be important and involve some kind of change, not every scene will be a “turning point” and appear on a beat sheet. Rather, beat sheets pull out the most important scenes to the story, […]

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[…] want a sense of the point of the story, which is met by a major turning point near the 25% mark, also known as the End of the Beginning or the First Plot Point beat in story […]

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[…] a problem. Every story beat or turning point scene—every time events affect the main story question, conflict, or goal—needs to be included in a […]

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