Conflicts need a turning point, the moment where everything clicks together and the hero earns either victory or defeat.* This is when the tension resolves into satisfaction, and that progression is what makes the scene feel like part of a story rather than simply a sequence of events. A good turning point needs to show not only how the hero wins, but also why they deserve to win, be it through cleverness, determination, or just being a good person.
With all that riding on them, it’s no wonder that turning points are a particularly difficult aspect of storytelling. Pros and neophytes alike are often stymied by these tricky literary devices, and today, we’re looking at five such occurrences from published novels. But we’re not just gonna snark a bit and be on our way, oh no. Instead, let’s put on our editing hats and see what’s needed to make each of these duds shine.
Spoiler Notice: Skin of the Sea and The Unconquerable Sun
1. Single-Target Magic: Age of Myth
Michael J. Sullivan’s novel of Bronze Age fantasy has a number of arcs and loose plot threads running through it, but the climax is easy to spot: a final battle with evil elves* on one side, humans and good elves on the other. Well, that’s the theory anyway. In reality, the battle is between Gryndal the evil elf mage and Arion the good elf mage. Age of Myth’s magic is so powerful that it doesn’t really matter how the rest of the fight goes. Whichever mage is victorious can easily deal with their remaining enemies.
In fact, the other characters spend most of the fight watching as Gryndal and Arion throw houses at each other, turn the ground to deadly quicksand, and enchant the local plant life to restrain their opponent. Gryndal also cackles about how he’s a god and everyone else is ants to him, because he’s a villain you see. This is already not a great start, because when an author includes a bunch of human and elven characters, it’s disappointing that they don’t get to do anything.
It gets much worse when you realize Arion isn’t the main character. She’s not even one of the top three main characters. Those are all humans: Raithe the warrior, Persephone the chieftain, and Suri the mystic. Of those three, Suri has some untrained magical powers, but she’s not nearly strong enough to make a difference in the fight.
So how does Sullivan get his three heroes into position to actually matter in this climax? With a contrived clever deduction. First, Arion finally gets knocked out by Gryndal. Then, working together, Persephone and Suri figure out that a small dwarven shield they found earlier can actually deflect magic, so they give it to Raithe. When Raithe approaches Gryndal, the evil mage just happens to attack with a single-target lightning bolt that Raithe is able to deflect back, killing Gryndal and ending the battle. Raithe then cuts off Gryndal’s head for good measure.
This feels contrived because for the entire fight, Gryndal has been casting huge area-effect spells that an anti-magic shield would be useless against. The last time Gryndal wanted to kill a single, non-magical enemy, he just flexed one hand until the other guy’s head caved in. There’s no reason for the heroes to think he’d do anything different this time, so it feels like they won through sheer luck. At the same time, Gryndal had already been set on fire at least once during his fight with Arion, and he shrugged it off, so why did this reflected lightning bolt kill him? Maybe his magical shield was depleted, but there’s no way for the characters or readers to tell that.
How to Fix It
In an ideal scenario, we’d start by addressing Age of Myth’s magic system. That was one of the biggest problems I uncovered in my worldbuilding critique of this book, and it really shows here. When the mages can effectively do anything, it’s really hard for non-mage characters to matter without making things contrived. This would be a lot easier if Arion and Gryndal had more limited powers, perhaps restricted to attacking one or two enemies at a time. Not only would that make the shield solution more plausible, but it would also make the other characters matter more in the fight as a whole.
If we’re not allowed to change Sullivan’s worldbuilding, then we have to finesse a solution at the scene level. The best I can come up with is for Arion and Gryndal to largely cancel out each other’s magic after a few opening exchanges. Arion can be incapacitated, and Gryndal is left with magic that’s vastly reduced, but still powerful enough to overwhelm the non-mages without their anti-magic shield. So long as this is actually shown to readers, it’ll be much more believable when Gryndal attacks Raithe with a single-target lightning bolt rather than dropping a house on him. On the bright side, since there are essentially no limits placed on elven magic, there’s nothing in the story to say it can’t work this way.
2. The Blink of Failure: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
In this deeply contemplative novel about the nature of stories, our heroes are on the run from an evil secret society with deep pockets and a casual attitude toward murder. Our protagonist is named January, and she’s in way over her head. Her upbringing as a cloistered ward of the secret society hasn’t prepared her for the difficulties of being hunted, which is great for upping the tension.* Plus, her father is missing, and she doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead!
Team Good eventually finds reprieve when they stumble through an interdimensional portal and find a town inhabited by fellow outcasts. It seems as if January and her friends might finally be safe, except that shortly after they arrive, they’re followed by a mysterious old woman who also claims to have just stumbled on the interdimensional portal. Understandably, January is pretty suspicious of this strange lady, especially when one of the townsfolk is brutally murdered. Without evidence, January has no choice but to sneak around at night and see if she can catch the possible villain in the act.*
January quickly makes a startling discovery: the sweet old lady is actually a ruthless society assassin wearing a magical disguise. This is bad news, but January does have one trick up her sleeve: she brought a gun, while the assassin only has a knife, which January quickly relieves him of.* This is a pretty interesting conflict: January is holding the assassin at gunpoint, but she isn’t a killer, so she won’t just shoot him in cold blood. She’s too far from the town to call for help, and the assassin could try something at any moment. What’s January to do?
To my surprise, the story actually goes for a downward turning point where the assassin gets the better of January. Conceptually, this is fine, but the way it’s executed is… strange, to say the least. First, the assassin tells January that her father is alive, but that he’s trapped in another dimension with no way back. And then we get this passage in the novel:
Alive, alive, alive. Father is alive. Not wracked and rotting on some foreign hillside, but alive, and finally gone home to his own true world. Even if I would never see him again.
I closed my eyes and let the twin waves of loss and joy crash over me, let my legs go limp and my knees crunch to earth.
So… January is so overwhelmed by emotions that she deliberately closes her eyes while holding a dangerous assassin at gunpoint? You might expect the assassin to use this opportunity to jump her and take her weapon, but no, he just runs away. He must have realized she was having a moment.
This is, to put it mildly, extremely difficult to believe. Granted, January is hardly experienced in the craft of holding an assassin at gunpoint, but it’s hard to imagine anyone ignoring such an obvious source of danger right in front of them, no matter what news they just received. Also, we saw earlier in the scene that she was easily able to take the assassin’s weapon without losing her composure, suggesting she might be better at taking prisoners than we thought.
Together, this all adds up to a conflict that ended because the author was finished with it, rather than because of any dramatic or logical reasoning. January’s mistake feels completely out of character, so there’s no sense that she actually earned this failure by making unwise choices.
How to Fix It
The problem with fixing this scene is that it has two steep requirements:
- The turning point has to be the assassin telling January what happened to her father.
- This has to result in the assassin running away, which is actually more difficult for him than wrestling the gun away from January would be.
If we relax either of those requirements, the fix is easy. Without #1, the assassin could simply run, and January could find she isn’t able to shoot him in the back, failing a battle of will turning point. While she won’t get much bad karma from this failure, it’ll still show that she didn’t earn success, and since it’s firmly established that she isn’t a killer, it would make intuitive sense. Without #2, the assassin’s reveal could make January hesitate for just a moment, maybe dropping the gun barrel an inch or two. This is much more believable than closing her eyes, and while it wouldn’t last long enough for the assassin to flee, it would give him all the time he needs to lunge forward and disarm her.
Keeping both restrictions in place makes this much more difficult, but I have an idea anyway. We keep the assassin’s reveal like it is in the book, and January hesitates the way I described in my previous example, rather than closing her eyes. The assassin then jumps January, and they wrestle for the gun. As they’re struggling, the gun goes off but doesn’t hit either of them. Since the gun only has two or three shots left by this point in the story, this can quickly exhaust its supply of ammunition.
The shots are loud enough to alert the rest of Team Good, who come running to help. Realizing he’s outnumbered and that the gun is empty, our quick-thinking assassin flees the scene. This would be a far more satisfying resolution, and it would preserve the author’s main goals for the scene, at least as far as I can tell. The only problem is we’d also need to figure out what to do with January’s dog, which is technically in this scene as well. But it does nothing in the book, which is why I didn’t mention it, so it could probably just not be there.
3. The Hydrophobic Mermaid: Skin of the Sea
This next entry is a West African fantasy tale by Natasha Bowen, focusing on Simi the mermaid and Kola, her dark and broody love interest. The lovebirds are racing against time to reach Kola’s home village and retrieve a pair of MacGuffins before the bad guy gets them. Very exciting! While there are a few fumbled turning points in this story, let’s focus on just one: Simi and Kola are in a small boat* sailing for shore when a storm overtakes them, threatening to wreck the boat and plunge them into the water. To make matters worse, the storm is full of lightning, possibly directed against them by antagonistic gods.
This conflict is well timed, as the previous scene was mostly about Simi and Kola getting directions and supplies from a friendly pirate ship,* and the next scene sees them invited to a feast by the local fairies. Those are both low-tension situations, so it’s good to put something with higher tension in the middle so the book’s pacing doesn’t slow down too much.
Unfortunately, this scene isn’t exciting because it lacks genuine conflict or agency. Simi and Kola shout each other’s names a few times, but neither of them tries to do anything. They’re simply swept up in the storm, waiting for their boat to be destroyed.
Not only is this dramatically unsatisfying, it’s logically confusing as well, because Simi is a mermaid. We know she’s a strong swimmer, can breathe underwater, and has at least some control over creatures of the sea. Of course, Kola is a regular human who could easily drown, but surely Simi has some options to prevent that from happening?
Apparently not, as Simi remains in her human form, never even considering how her powers might be useful. Then the scene ends with the boat breaking up, spilling them both into the water. Simi finally turns into a mermaid shortly before she blacks out.
That last part is particularly baffling. Why would Simi, a mermaid, black out from falling into the water? This just further enforces the feeling that Simi has effectively turned into a human until the next chapter. Reading the scene again, I think the implication is that some debris struck her in the head, and that’s why she’s knocked out, but the text is hardly clear. This is all we get:
The sea heaves again, picking up the shards of our boat, breaking them apart and showering the remnants down on our heads.
That’s the last line in this scene, and the next one cuts directly to Simi waking up on the beach. If Simi is supposed to have been struck on the head, you’d figure that would be included in the narration, right?
How to Fix It
What this scene needs is agency on Simi’s part. It’s okay if Kola is a bit passive here, as he’s the less important character and he has plenty of time to shine later. Fortunately, it’s very easy for Simi to have agency in this scene, as it takes place at sea, and she’s a mermaid. Once that’s done, the author could decide if she wants a successful or failed turning point to resolve the conflict.
What would that look like? I’m glad you asked! First, I’d have Simi get out and push. Once she’s in the water, her powerful tail could easily propel the small boat with Kola on board. It’s actually much easier to survive a storm in a moving boat, as it allows you to turn into the waves and ride them out rather than being struck broadside.
Despite Simi’s best efforts, the boat should fail, dumping Kola into the water. Then Simi would have to carry him toward shore, doing everything she can to keep his face above water so he can breathe. To raise the stakes and create more urgency, I would make the lightning strikes come steadily closer, since the storm is magical in nature.
When lightning might strike the water near them at any time, Simi reaches a dock or rocky outcrop and chooses to lift Kola out of the water before getting herself to safety. Then she’s hit, creating a kind of sacrifice turning point. It would also justify why she blacks out at the scene’s end, allowing the story to pick up in the next chapter with no interruption.
4. Surprise MacGuffin Brother: The Unconquerable Sun
This space-opera adventure has a complex plot full of twists and turns, but I’ve done my best to summarize what you need to know for the final conflict. Princess Sun* is with her companions. Only one companion matters for this scene: Persephone. They’ve chased a group of Phene* operatives to a remote world and cornered them in a temple. One of these Phene is an important leader, and they’ve captured the warrior Zizou, who is Sun’s bodyguard and Persephone’s love interest. Finally, there’s one more name you have to remember: the side character Tiana. She’s basically Persephone’s personal assistant.
Our heroes have the Phene surrounded, but there’s a problem: the temple has an emergency force field that keeps our heroes from reaching their enemies and saving Zizou. Oh no! If they don’t find a solution quickly… actually, there’s no reason they need to find a solution quickly. That’s the first problem with this conflict: the planet they’re on belongs to Princess Sun’s own Republic of Chaonia. No, I don’t know why this republic has a monarchy. Moving on.
Since this planet is in Chaonian space, the heroes have every advantage. They control the local military, and they have all the time in the world to get through the forcefield, as a Phene rescue attempt is unlikely. The book is extremely vague on how difficult it would be to disable the field, but with infinite time and all the resources of a powerful republic behind them, it seems likely the heroes will find a way. You might think that the Phene could at least hold Zizou hostage, but no. Instead, the surviving Phene are all unconscious for plot reasons.
This all reduces the scene’s tension to zero, making you wonder why it’s taking so long and why they don’t just skip forward to a squad of Chaonian engineers figuring out a technical solution. When Sun and Persephone agonize over how difficult it will be to get Zizou out, the situation becomes unintentionally humorous, giving the impression of stage actors trying to distract you as something goes wrong backstage.
Then we get to the resolution, and things go from funny to bizarre. Remember Tiana the personal assistant? She’s a secondary character to Persephone, who is already a secondary character to Sun. Despite this, Tiana gets a fair amount of screen time on account of being super glamorous and refined, so it does make some sense that she’d be pivotal to the resolution… by leading the more important characters to her younger brother, who has a special Phene-power that can disable the forcefield.
So now the story’s final conflict is being resolved by Sun’s companion’s personal assistant’s brother. That’s too many degrees of side character! The author does foreshadow the brother’s power, but that barely matters. Tension was already at rock bottom, and now the spotlight swings over to a character we’ve only just met. No amount of foreshadowing would make that a good idea.
How to Fix It
First, we need to inject some tension into the scene. The simplest way to do this would be to make the planet in question a neutral outpost and then have the characters discover that there’s a Phene rescue fleet on the way. This means Team Good can’t just call the local authorities to solve the problem, and it means there’s a ticking clock. If they can’t get the forcefield down before the invasion starts, they’ll lose Zizou and a valuable Phene prisoner forever.
Next, we take Tiana’s little brother out of the equation. Her family is introduced way too late in the book to be so pivotal, and if they’re going to be important, that’s a job for book two. The good news is that there’s no reason Tiana can’t have the forcefield-disabling power herself. Sun and Persephone actually have a relationship with Tiana, so this could provide some emotional satisfaction.
Even so, the turning point needs to be stronger than just asking Tiana to use her power. Instead, I would have Tiana initially hide her power, since it’s something that’s normally associated with the Phene enemy. Sun can have a clever deduction where she pieces together some clues and figures out that Tiana has the power. Then Persephone’s role would be convincing Tiana to trust them. If Persephone’s done something meaningful for Tiana without getting anything in return, this could be a prior achievement turning point where Tiana returns her kindness. With all of these changes, we’d have a tense conflict and a proper resolution accomplished by characters we actually care about.
5. Oops, We Already Won: Red Rising
In addition to its less-than-stellar worldbuilding, Red Rising has a problem: all of its turning points are exactly the same. Each and every time our hero Darrow wins a victory, he does it the same way. What is that way, you ask? The hidden plan, a turning point where it’s revealed that the hero had a secret advantage or scheme all along; the audience just didn’t know about it. This hurts the book for two reasons.
First, any kind of turning point is annoying if it’s overused. Variety is the spice of storytelling as well as life, and even if Red Rising’s hidden plans were perfect, they’d get boring after the third or fourth time. Second, hidden plans are very difficult to employ in prose fiction, and especially difficult when the story is narrated in a close perspective like this book is. It’s really easy to spot when the narrator is hiding information, and Red Rising doesn’t even try to be subtle about it. Instead, we get exchanges like this, where Darrow is conferring with Mustang, his girlfriend and second in command:
“And even if we make it through this storm, what will taking Jupiter accomplish?” she asks. “If Apollo didn’t leave when his House lost, Jupiter won’t either. You’re just going to provoke them into interfering. We should go after the Jackal now!”
I know the Proctors are watching me plan this. I want them to know where I’m going.
“I’m not ready for the Jackal,” I tell her. “I need more allies.” She looks at me, eyebrows pinched together. She doesn’t understand, but it doesn’t matter. She will soon enough.
Why does Darrow want the Proctors to know where he’s going? What doesn’t Mustang understand now that she will understand soon enough? It doesn’t take an expert to notice that critical information is being left out, creating a meta mystery and the problems that come with it. Readers will be frustrated that the protagonist is hiding information as though he knows he’s a fictional character, and they’ll feel emotionally distant from the story because they don’t have enough information to understand the protagonist’s actions.
On top of that, this tactic also destroys the story’s tension, because once Darrow starts hiding information, he could be hiding anything. There’s no way to judge how threatening a situation is – for all we know, he could have a secret army of ninjas hiding just over the ridge. And since Darrow does this over and over again, we know he has however many aces up his sleeve as are needed.
In this particular conflict, Darrow captures a nearby castle* in a bid to lure out the Jackal, one of the story’s antagonists. The book has been hyping up this Jackal guy for chapters and chapters by now. He’s supposed to be Darrow’s equal, the only one who can match him in cunning and guile.
What follows is a bizarre sequence:
- Darrow captures the castle and makes friends with one of his new prisoners.
- Darrow stabs the prisoner in the hand.
- Darrow reveals that he’s known the prisoner was secretly the Jackal all along.
- Darrow holds the Jackal as his helpless prisoner.
- We are told via summary that while this was happening, Darrow’s offscreen forces defeated an ambush the Jackal had planned.
That’s right: the Jackal is defeated before we even know he’s there. You might expect that the hidden-plan reveal would at least show us how hard Darrow had to work for this plan to succeed, but actually it was no problem at all.* It doesn’t sound as if the Jackal even brought enough soldiers for his ambush to work in the first place.
To see such an important enemy defeated so easily only reinforces the feeling that Darrow can’t lose, and if it ever seems like he might, it’s only because he’s about to use his secret jetboots to win the day.*
How to Fix It
I dunno, why would you ask me that? Whose idea was this article, anyway? Oh, that’s right, it was mine. Ahem.
Our main stumbling block is the author’s insistence on using a hidden plan turning point. There’s just no simple way to make those work, and they function much better in film than in prose. The basic requirement for a hidden plan is that the audience needs to be unaware there’s a hidden plan; they have to believe they’re headed into a regular conflict. That means no unexplained lines about how Darrow wants the Proctors to know where he’s going or references to Mustang not understanding something.
Even more difficult, the character has to believably act like there’s no hidden plan. This part trips up a lot of stories that make it past stage one. The Last Colony, for example, doesn’t have any obviously missing information, but the protagonist is notably way less worried that he should be on account of the secret alien tech he has to help him win the final battle. So we need Darrow to feel like he might lose to keep the tension up, but when the plan is revealed, it still needs to be believable that he was worried.
That is an incredibly tall order. The best I can come up with is to have a scene where Darrow gives all of his officers their orders for the battle, then later we can reveal that he gave Mustang* special orders to take her soldiers and wait for the Jackal to spring his trap. Then, we can have the Jackal’s ambush appear to go off successfully, with Darrow fighting for his life, increasingly feeling like the battle is turning against him. When Mustang arrives with reinforcements, we can reveal that Darrow was worried because she was late, keeping things at least somewhat believable.
Yeah, that would probably still be contrived to some readers, but it’s the best I can manage with the hidden-plan requirements, and at least it doesn’t involve Darrow rendering the villain helpless as an afterthought. Sometimes that’s all an editor can do.
Some conflicts fail because of scene-level mistakes, like a mermaid who doesn’t remember that her powers are water themed. In other cases, they’re brought down by bad worldbuilding, like when a non-magic human tries to fight an overpowered super-mage. And sometimes it’s all down to an author being overly attached to a certain type of turning point. Whatever the cause, conflict is the fuel stories run on, and turning points are how you get that fuel burning. It’s important to get them right, or your story will stall out at exactly the wrong time.
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