Tuesday, March 8, 2016

4 Turning Points: The Most Effective Way to Build a Compelling Story

Whatever you are writing, and however you choose to go about writing it, you need to understand the five defining moments in your story, the turning points, before you can say your book is “done.” Without turning points, you can’t have a satisfying story. Period. Turning points are the problems and corresponding solutions, the tense moments when something begins to change, and the hinges that allow the events to unfold in fresh and meaningful way.

Characters and stories must change, and they do so through a series of connected and causal events. In other words, your character changes because of the problems they face and solve or don’t solve in the story, and similarly, the events in the story depend on who your characters ARE at the moment that the events occur. But the turning points on which character hinges and the story turns do have a relationship, and to create a story that rings true, you have to understand the difference between an emotional change in the character and the preceding or subsequent problem in the story. You also have to understand the function of the turning points and the way they relate to the inciting incident and the climax. In this case, terminology and the simplification of story into a formula has often led writers to be confused. Beginning writers very frequently confuse the inciting incident with what is often called the “first turning point” or “first plot point.” I believe that terminology is confusing, so I’d like to try simplifying it a bit.

There are five basic turning points in every story:

  1. The Inciting Incident — The moment when the protagonist’s world moves from a relatively stable but imperfect state into one that is no longer tenable. As the writer, your job is to show the reader just enough of the world before to let them understand the situation and the major players, and then show the moment that it becomes clear that a change has happened that will lead us into the story.

    In The Hunger Games, for example, the inciting incident is the choosing of Prim’s name to be the tribute from District 12 and Katniss’s reaction, which is to volunteer to take her sister’s place. As you know, this is quite late in the story, and people often confuse it with the break into act two because it is the beginning of the journey that takes us to the extraordinary world of the games, but this is a fallacy. At this point, Katniss does not yet have a purpose, a drive or reason to win the games. She has not yet accepted the fact that she must try. Without that drive, she could easily be one of the first to die.

    Similarly, in Divergent, the inciting incident is when Tris takes the test and finds out that she is divergent, which means that she has to make a choice of faction of her own free will instead of knowing which one will be right for her. The world-order she has always believed in is suddenly shifted.

    Obviously, with both of these incidents, something physical and outside the control of the character happened, and then the character must grow into acceptance or rejection of the outcome of that change. That reaction is what will shape the story.
  2. The First Decision on Which The Story Turns — The original problem gets worse. This isn’t something new that comes from left field. It’s the original problem rearing its head and making the situation come to a boil. In the inciting incident, the protagonist becomes aware of a problem, or the problem occurs outside of the protagonists knowledge but makes it inevitable that the protagonist and the problem will collide. In the moment that ends the first act and propels the main character (and the reader) into the second act, the middle of the story where the real action will occur, the main character makes a decision and acts upon it in a way that puts her or him on a path they haven’t trod before. It fundamentally changes where the story is going to go.

    In The Hunger Games, the change between ACT ONE and ACT TWO isn’t the transition out of District Twelve to the Capitol. It’s the moment when Katniss decides to play along with the idea that she and Peeta are in love. At this moment, she is redefining the games, making the spectators root for two people instead of one, and setting up an ultimate choice between the two—a scenario where one must kill the other if the rules of the game are followed. It’s a heck of a game changer—and that’s exactly what you want in your story.

    In a simpler example, the change between ACT ONE and ACT TWO in Divergent is when Tris actually makes the decision to choose Dauntless as her faction. She is literally leaving everything she knows behind and going off into the unknown. Veronica Roth symbolizes that brilliantly with the blind jump that the new recruits have to make into the Dauntless compound.
  3. The Midpoint Twist — No turning back. Every turning point in the story is there to bring new energy to the plot and keep the reader intrigued. That’s especially necessary by the midpoint, by which time, the reader needs something new, some new direction, something unexpected. Behold the midpoint twist. The problem isn’t what we originally thought—it’s worse. Or the solution isn’t what the protagonist thought it would be—and the attempted solution made the problem worse. The story sets off in a new direction.

    The Hunger Games is brilliant at showing us the potential complexity of a turning point. Having allied herself with Peeta before the games, Katniss discovers Peeta with the pack of tributes—seemingly allied with them against her. She enters the midpoint feeling deeply alone. The odds are stacked against her, and she realizes that the games are being manipulated from outside by forces that will keep putting her in danger until she reacts and continues moving. She moves, sees a little hope and the pack of tributes find her and literally corner her in a tree. That seems pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? It seems as if there is no escape. But wait! Suddenly, she is offered a little bit of help. Up in a tree, Rue points to the hive of tracker jackers, and Haymitch sends a salve to heal her leg, and Peeta soon proves to still be covertly helping her. Katniss is very much NOT alone.

    Shifting back to Divergent, Tris has failed to listen to Four’s advice and she has lost her fight and washed out of Dauntless. At this point, according to the rules, common wisdom says that once she gets out of the hospital she will be factionless. But wait. Like a true Dauntless, she refuses to give up. She chases down her team on the train and with Four’s help muscles her way into that night’s exercise and carries her team to victory. Looks like she’s Dauntless after all, right? Looks like she has a true ally in Four, doesn’t it? And everything will be fine? Nope. Hold on. Tris meets with her mother, who tells her that if she is Divergent, Tris must trust no one and keep it an absolute secret because being Divergent would put her in terrible danger. Having survived the physical training, she is now entering the psychological training phase, and that is when she will be most vulnerable to discovery.

    You see? The midpoint isn’t just one moment. It’s a reversal that requires a set up. The protagonist has to be brought to the knife-edge of victory or defeat, and then have that shown to be false.
  4. All Is Lost and The Dark Moment Leading to the Climax — The crisis in which the protagonist loses everything and isn’t sure that she or he can come back from the defeat. But reaching deep to some piece of wisdom or some tool that she or he has gained along the way, usually something connected to the theme of the book, gives the protagonist the push necessary to confront her or his fatal flaw or the wound that holds her or him back from succeeding in life. Forced to change, the protagonist either finds the courage and/or ability to continue to the climax where she or he will find victory, or fails and proceeds toward defeat. Note that the climax is not a turning point—that is the culmination of the decisions the protagonist makes at her or his lowest emotional point when she or he is backed into a corner. This climax allows the protagonist to demonstrate what she or he has learned and show the character growth that he or she has undergone. This is a mirror of everyman’s psychological development, and that is why it is crucial to our very concept of what a story is. It bears repeating that the climax of the story is not a turning point, although the dark moment, in some cases, comes very close to the beginning of that climax. For that reason, I like to look at the climax as a natural extension of the dark moment itself.

    Let’s look The Hunger Games again. Having seen other tributes die, and having killed herself, Katniss is now faced with the death of Rue. Emotionally, she feels stripped and raw. Rue embodies the loss of everything good to the Capitol, the taking of innocence, the helplessness of those who stand in its path. Rue helped Katniss with no expectation of reward, nothing but her own innate sense of generosity of spirit and what is right and wrong. In a similar vein, with no expectation of reward, Katniss sings to Rue as she dies, mourns her, and honors Rue’s death by decorating her body with flowers and raises three fingers upward as a symbol of defiance. Unconsciously, she is living out the survival tip that Haymitch gave her early on: getting people to like her, but she is doing it in a way that is true to her and not meant to manipulate. She is also living up to what Peeta hoped for—to stand up to the Capitol by playing on her own terms and not letting the games turn her into someone else. This lowest moment not only crystalizes her hatred of the Capitol, it turns the tide of public sentiment in her favor, establishes her as the face of a rebellion, and sets her up to make the choice to deny the Capitol a single victor in the end. Again, it’s brilliant in both its simplicity and its complexity.

    In Divergent, a serum administered to the Dauntless turns them into mindless minions of the Erudite leader, Jeanine, and they are dispatched to murder anyone who might stand in the way of Jeanine’s ambition. About to be killed herself, Tris is saved by her own mother who—as it turns out—used to be Dauntless herself before she chose Abnegation as her faction. But as the two of them race toward the Abnegation hideout, Dauntless kill Tris’ mother, and Tris is forced to kill a friend who is under the serum’s influence. She has to leave both bodies behind, but she has reached a point lower than any before in her life. In spite of that, she makes it to the compound, not knowing what she may find. Her father is there, as is Four’s abusive father. Tris could sit back, give up, give in to pain, and let them take over, but in keeping with the book’s theme of defining choices, she decides to keep fighting. She suggests breaking into the Dauntless compound to wake everyone up and stop Jeanine from achieving her goals. It paves the way for the ensuing action in the climax when Tris has to use every aspect of her divergence self to win.
  5. The New Stability — The brave new world. Having become a new person and solved—or failed to solve—the original problem that made the protagonist unable to continue living her or his original life, the reader now has to see what the protagonist’s life will be like in the aftermath of that resolution. This is often shown as a contrast snapshot between the opening and the closing situations, but it is also a choice. All turning points have choices! The choice can be very small, but it is the act of choosing something, taking an action that the protagonist wouldn’t have taken at the beginning of the book, that shows the change that has occurred.

    In the event of a series, that choice may involve the choice to face a new problem that crops up, or the revelation that even the problem overcome in the first book was only a small part of the overall. The first book itself may become a turning point for the series. 

The Road Map to Story

Really, knowing the turning points is the most basic thing you need to know when you write your story. You don't need to know them before you write, though sometimes that is helpful. But after that first draft is done, make sure you get them crystalized, in your own mind and on paper. That will not only help you make the most of the big moments in your story, it will help you get the pacing right. 

The first turning point is somewhere within the first twenty-five to thirty percent of your story. The trend is moving toward sooner rather than later to capture the attention of impatient readers. But for pacing purposes, the pages between each turning point get shorter to give the reader an increasing sense of urgency and momentum. 

Your Turn!

What’s the final turning point in The Hunger Games? In Divergent? In your own story or your favorite book? Do you agree that endings often revolve around showing a choice and decision?

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.

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Praise for Compulsion:

"Boone’s southern gothic certainly delivers a compelling mystery about feuding families and buried secrets, not to mention a steamy romance.” — Booklist

“Skillfully blends rich magic and folklore with adventure, sweeping romance, and hidden treasure . . . An impressive start to the Heirs of Watson Island series.” — Publishers Weekly

"Darkly romantic and steeped in Southern Gothic charm, you'll be compelled to get lost in the Heirs of Watson Island series." —  #1 New York Times Bestselling Author Jennifer L. Armentrout

"A fresh twist on the Southern Gothic — haunting, atmospheric, and absorbing.” — Claudia Gray, New York Times bestselling author of the Firebird, Evernight, and Spellcaster series 

"Compulsion is a stunningly magical debut with a delicious slow burn to be savored. I want to live in this story world!" — Wendy Higgins, USA Today and NYT bestselling author of the Sweet Evil Trilogy from HarperTeen

"Beautifully written, with vivid characters, a generations-old feud, and romance that leaps off the page, this Southern ghost story left me lingering over every word, and yet wanting to race to the compelling finish. Martina Boone's COMPULSION is not to be missed." — Megan Shepherd, Author of THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER


  1. Awesome post, Ms Boone. In some other posts about these points they gave examples of books that I'd never read so it was hard to relate. But I've read Hunger Games and Divergent so many times that the points and examples you gave were easier to relate to. Thank you so much for posting such an awesomely helpful post, :)

    1. I'm so glad that it helped, Maria! I always love to use examples from books that I am excited to share with people, books that I love or books that have just come out, but I know that when I'm trying to learn something new, it's always easier for me to understand an example if I'm really familiar with the material it's drawn from. Glad that works for you, too!

  2. Thank you so much for this. I've been returning to it over and over as I turn my WIP inside out, and it's been hugely, tremendously helpful, especially your discussion of the inciting incident vs. the first decision/turning point. Like Maria, I also found it great to read your advice alongside your breakdown of two novels I know well :) Thanks so much again!

    1. The inciting incident versus the first turning point is a really difficult distinction to master for many writers--especially as we keep hearing the "jump into the action" advice that makes us feel like we need to shorten the first act. Good luck with the WIP! I hope it's working well for you, and I'm glad I could be of help! :)


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