In every story there are turning points, moments in time where the characters are forced into a new course of action and thus get unexpected results.
Turning points may be simple or complex, mundane or magical. For example, you might have a character who is driving home from work, and he sees police cars on the road ahead, with their lights flashing. He worries that the road might be blocked, so he turns right onto a side street and then stops at the first stop sign. As he does, a gunman forces his way into the car, and suddenly a routine drive home from work turns into a desperate attempt to outwit a wounded bank robber. That’s a simple turning point.
But turning points may be more complex. You could have a story about a politician who has been asked by a pharmaceutical company to support some new legislation. The bill looks good and seems to be in the public interest, but the politician knows that he will come under scrutiny if he supports this, so he begins to dig deeply, wondering why the company is so eager to get it passed, then comes a rather blatant offer of a bribe—enough to fund his failing bid for re-election. Does he dare take the bribe? Or does he reject the offer, blow the whistle, and thus end his career? The moral, legal, and philosophical complications can be very convoluted. So perhaps your politician decides to reject the bribe and thus put an end to his political life, a course that might have been unthinkable a day earlier. This too, is a turning point.
You may be able to identify turning points in stories that you love. For example, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo leaves his home in the Shire in order to take his magical ring to the elves in Rivendell, but because he is nervous, he makes some odd choices. He leaves at an odd time of day and walks through the night, he avoids strangers, he strikes off across country instead of using the roads, he hides when he hears a rider coming, then sets off across Farmer Maggot’s fields, and so on. Time after time, he is forced to turn aside onto new paths or take undesirable trails.
A turning point occurs whenever your character’s forward progress is blocked and he is forced to make a change. Often, the new course is fraught with risk. Usually, the path ahead is unfamiliar and unclear. That’s the fun of turning points.
I recently was working on a story and felt that my characters were plodding ahead toward the same goal for four chapters. Sure, interesting things were happening, but they didn’t interest me enough. I felt that I needed to have some more turning points.
So I began looking for ways to block them, to force them into unfamiliar paths, and it helped immensely.
Which brings up a question: How many turning points should a story have? I’m not sure of the answer. I think I’d say, “Just enough to keep the audience hooked.” But I recently read a book by a screenwriter who suggested that each act in a three-act screenplay have about six turning points. That seems like a lot to me. In an adventure story or a thriller, that number might be fine, but I worry about making the story seem busy or contrived. So I seek a balance and ask myself, “Does the story offer plenty of surprising twists without feeling exaggerated or overwrought?”
Yet it does suggest a worthy goal. Perhaps when you’re plotting a story, you might look at each act and try to come up with ten or twelve “possible” turning points in the act. That way, as you do settle into your plot, you can choose the twists and turns that interest you most, that seem the most fresh, the least obvious.
Whenever you have a story that seems too predictable, look for ways to add turning points. If a character is trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B, figure out how to force him to go to point C first. If he thinks that he understands someone else’s motivations or goals—say those of a lover or killer—surprise the reader with a twist that casts the story in a new light.
Have fun twisting your story, and your audience will have fun with you.
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