Over the course of this Indie Plot Twist Writing Clinic on turning points, we’ve focused on novels, but story structure and turning points apply to all categories of fiction. Including the movies.
To prove it, I’m diagramming a movie for this bonus clinic.
To prove there are no exceptions (or very few), I’m going to diagram an unlikely movie. Chicken Run.
Despite the fact that the lead characters are chickens, Chicken Run is a movie with a serious message. It also is very serious storytelling. Consequently, there are strong turning points–major and minor–in the story structure.
The story opens with an escape attempt by the lead character, a hen named Ginger. Ginger is captured and thrown into solitary. The entire scene takes five minutes or less to unfold.
Act 1A Turning Point (minor): Moment of Opportunity Rejected
The first minor turning point, otherwise known as a moment of opportunity rejected or thwarted, is often the most difficult to pinpoint. Since the movie is 84 minutes long and since the first minor turning point generally happens about halfway through the first act (about 21 minutes long), the first minor turning point should occur about 10 or 11 minutes into the movie.
At Minute 12? One of the hens is taken to the chopping block. Literally. This moment serves several purposes.
- The stakes are clearly explained: escape or die
- Ginger’s resolve to escape is firmed despite the hopelessness of her situation and the loss of a friend and compatriot
- The entire flock is set up for what happens next
Deliverance comes sailing over the fence in the form of a Rock Island Red rooster. Though Rocky’s landing is less than graceful and he ends up injured, all Ginger can see is deliverance.
The problem is that Rocky is a loner. No ties. No responsibilities.
No wish to help anyone for any reason.
But he’s escaping his own prison and when Ginger finds out, she uses that knowledge and his wish for deliverance to force his promise of assistance. “Help us and we’ll help you.”
Act 1B Turning Point: First Door of No Return
Rocky refuses until his nemesis arrives. Then, all of a sudden, Rocky needs to hide desperately enough to accept Ginger’s terms. The die is cast and the flock moves into the crux of the story.
By the way, this agreement is reached at Minute 32. Just a little bit past the one-quarter mark in the story.
Rocky isn’t serious about teaching the hens to fly. Part of the reason is his attitude and general personality. But he also harbors a secret he wants to keep secret.
So his efforts to train the hens to fly are meant to satisfy Ginger that he’s fulfilling his end of the bargain so she’ll continue to hide him. So long as the status quo is unchanged, everyone is happy. Ginger and the hens believe they’re being helped. Rocky has safety.
Act 2A Turning Point (Major)
The second major turning point is the point in the story at which something happens to change everything. There is a distinct before-and-after feel to this turning point.
At Minute 45, the known world of Ginger and her friends changes drastically with the arrival of a truck bearing a mysterious cargo. The truck is unloaded into an empty farm shed and the chickens see Mrs. Tweedy (the chief antagonist) rubbing her hands and smiling maliciously. The chickens don’t know what has changed, but they know something has. Furthermore, they know it’s not good.
What we know and what the chickens learn is that Mrs. Tweedy has just purchased a chicken-pot-pie-making machine. No longer are the chickens guaranteed life so long as they produce eggs. They have become the produce.
The status quo has changed. Dramatically.
The story runs along parallel tracks between this major turning point and the next one.
The farm owners assemble the chicken-pot-pie machine.
The hens ratchet up their efforts to learn how to fly.
Comic elements aside, the race is a serious one. If the chicken-pot-pie machine is finished first, the hens are finished. If the hens learn to fly first, they at least have a chance at escape and freedom.
Act 2B Turning Point (Major)
Bad gets worse. There is new information or a new obstacle or situation that causes the characters to wonder why they’re still struggling.
In Chicken Run, that moment comes when Ginger discovers the truth about Rocky. He can’t fly after all. What’s worse, he’s abandoned them. With all hope gone, they turn on each other.
All of this happens at Minute 61, just about exactly three-quarters of the way through the story. Right where it should be.
Ginger rallies her troops, putting an end to infighting with the realization that true deliverance has been in their midst all along.
Fowler, an former RAF mascot, knows about airplanes. He shows them a poster of The Crate (his name for the airplane). Ginger immediately sees a way they can still fly out of their prison and leave no one behind. Best of all, they can do it themselves.
All they have to do is build their Crate before the chicken-pot-pie machine is fixed.
With renewed vigor and motivation, they get busy. The two projects proceed together, independent of each other, but again on parallel courses.
Then the chicken-pot-pie machine is finished, forcing our gals to implement their plan even though it’s not quite ready. Everything looks good and then…
Act 3A Turning Point (minor): Dark Moment
At Minute 75, the hen’s plan is discovered. Their home-built “crate” is prevented from take off. Even worse, Mrs. Tweedy is there, standing between them and escape, swinging a hatchet. It looks hopeless.
Ginger is determined, however, and when she puts herself in danger to rescue the rest, she’s rescued from Mrs. Tweedy and certain death by Rocky’s unexpected, last-minute arrival. Our heroes engage their enemies with everything that is within them, finding courage and resourcefulness they never knew they had.
Act 3B Turning Point: The End
They win the final battle at Minute 80 and the last four minutes of the story show them in their “happily ever after.”
Even though Chicken Run is an animated comedy, there is a lot of excellent storytelling skills on display. I’ve focused on the turning points, but you could do worse than studying character development, character interaction, and conflict in this movie.
Whether you watch Chicken Run or not, I highly recommend diagramming movies. You can learn a lot about story structure and other basic elements of storytelling by seeing how screenwriters do it.
Try it with a favorite movie and see what happens. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Diagram enough movies and it will become second nature. When you reach that point you’ll be more comfortable diagramming your own stories.
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