Welcome to Week 1 of our Writing Well Story Clinic on turning points. If you missed the clinic introduction, not to worry. You can read it here.
The Story Tent
Remember the tent analogy? Your story is the canvas or fabric of the tent and the turning points are the tent poles that hold up the tent–your story–and make it work.
The first major turning point can also be called the first disaster or the first door of no return. It’s the point at which your lead character leaves his or her normal world and enters the story world.
The second major turning point is in the middle of the story. It’s often the event that changes everything for the lead character.
The third major turning point can be thought of as the final clue, the second door of no return or the third disaster. It’s at this point that the lead character is forced to put up or shut up.
The minor turning points mirror each other. The first one comes before the first major turning point. Dr. Stanley D. Williams refers to it as a moment of opportunity rejected, and that’s the description that helps me most. It’s usually roughly halfway through the first act.
The second minor turning point happens about halfway through the third act, and it’s the lead character’s dark moment. At this moment in the story, everything looks hopeless.
The three major turning points and two secondary turning points look like this:
- Act 1A Turning Point Moment of Opportunity Rejected (minor)
- Act 1B Turning Point First Disaster (major)
- Act 2A Turning Point Second Disaster (major)
- Act 2B Turning Point Third Disaster (major)
- Act 3A Turning Point Dark Moment (minor)
Today’s project is a potential mystery still in the planning stages. We developed a tagline (aka single sentence summary in a previous IPT Writing Clinic post, which you can read here). This is the tagline we came up with:
A history professor who is afraid of heights researches a defunct railroad in the Appalachian Mountains and uncovers a long-buried secret and a recent murder.
The Turning Points
Because I have a good idea how this story is going to develop, I also have an idea of what most of the major turning points are. Let’s walk through the thought process that revealed them.
The professor’s story goal is to learn everything he can about the old railroad.
Once I established that story goal, an obstacle immediately suggested itself. Someone knows something about the railroad or connected to the railroad that they don’t want discovered.
The turning points are the points in the story when the antagonist’s actions have a direct impact on the professor. As I see the story at this moment, major turning points are:
- An injury to a crew member
- The death of a crew or team member
- The discovery of sabotage
How Can it Be Improved?
There is escalation through the major turning points. The last one is worse than the second one, and the second one is worse than the first. That’s good.
But are they the best they can be?
Whether you think the turning points are the best possible or not, it never hurts to consider options. The first ideas are rarely the best, so keep digging. Keep asking, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
Also keep in mind that the best solution might be moving around the turning points relative to each other.
In this example, the three current turning points are a critical injury, a death, and a discovery. What if I shuffled those so that the critical injury was the second turning point and the death was the third turning point? Those two events are naturally escalating. Working backward from the second turning point, what event could happen that might be less serious than the second turning point, but still significant?
How about an attempt to derail the journey by setting fire to the private rail car?
Or maybe an attempted robbery or vandalism or a threatening letter?
It doesn’t matter whether you work from front to back through the turning points or from back to front. You can even find the middle and work toward each end. What is important is that you raise the stakes through each of the turning points.
The Minor Turning Points
Once the major turning points were established, I could think about the minor turning points.
It was at this point that I decided setting fire to the private rail car might work. The antagonist hears about the professor’s trip and tries to keep it from happening by setting fire to the rail car. The professor has the opportunity to halt his research, but he rejects it. Therefore, it becomes the moment of opportunity rejected or the first minor turning point.
Now, what about the second minor turning point; that dark moment?
I found myself once again going back to the third major turning point. As currently written, the professor discovers the identity of the saboteur at the third major turning point. But what if he discovers the secret that’s being protected? He thinks he’s found the reason for all the problems, but he’s only half right.
The other half of the equation–the identity of the saboteur–is yet to be discovered. If that person is close to the professor, someone he’s come to trust or an old associate, then learning the piece of information is going to be a heavy blow. It will, in other words, be the professor’s dark moment.
The New & Improved Version
The story outline now looks like this.
- Act 1A Turning Point (minor: moment of opportunity rejected): A fire on the personal rail car
- Act 1B Turning Point (major: first disaster): A crew or team member is critically injured
- Act 2A Turning Point (major: second disaster): A crew or team member is killed
- Act 2B Turning Point (major: third disaster): The professor uncovers the secret of the saboteur
- Act 3A Turning Point (minor: Dark Moment): The professor discovers the identity of the saboteur
I now have a good framework for a story. Is it perfect? No.
Is it permanent? Again, no. As with all other parts of the writing process, nothing is permanent until the story is published. I may discover during the writing process that the story and characters want to do something else.
But I have given myself a basic road map of the story’s journey. I know the stations where this story train needs to stop, and that allows me to play with the step-by-step route between each station. And at this point, that’s a good start.
Now It’s Your Turn
If you have an idea for a new story, take time to play with turning points, major and minor. Come up with a naturally escalating series of turning points for your lead character, then see how you can make them better.
Next week, I’ll show you how to use turning point structure to analyze a story that’s already been written.
If you have a story idea you’d like help with, email me.
Clinics in This Series
Introduction: Introduction to Turning Points
Week 1: Using Turning Points to Develop a New Story
Week 2: Using Major Turning Points to Evaluate a Finished Manuscript
Week 3: Moment of Opportunity Rejected/Thwarted
Week 4: The Dark Moment
Week 5 Bonus: Chicken Run Turning Points