Turning points. We know them, we love them. Without a turning point, a conflict gives no satisfaction – it just fizzles out. But are all turning points good? Absolutely not. This week, we’re showing you the highest highs and the lowest lows of all the turning points we could find. And some of the bad ones aren’t even from the MCU. Amazing!
Generously transcribed by Lady Oscar. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Chris.
Oren: And I’m Oren.
Chris: [dramatic voice] The Mythcreant Podcast is in dire straits. For one, Wes was clearly captured by a villain. Why else wouldn’t he be here?
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: Now, it’s the moment of truth. Can we save the podcast with our clever wits or unfaltering determination? [end dramatic voice] Speaking of which, we could use some audio volunteers. [laughter] Yes, that’s right. The turning point is you, dear listeners. If you’re interested, no experience necessary, we’ll train you how to do it. Just go to mythcreants.com slash volunteer. [*ting* sound]
Oren: You can help us sound way smarter than we actually are.
Chris: Okay, I will now assume the podcast was saved. Or, alternately, we just committed a misdeed by asking for volunteers during the opening gag.
Oren: Oh, no!
Chris: We’ll get our comeuppance shortly.
Oren: We have bad character karma now, that needs to be balanced out.
Chris: So, this time we are talking about good and bad turning points. What are turning points again? That is a very valid question.
Oren: Yeah, who is turning point?
Chris: They’re one of the most advanced storytelling concepts. When we’re doing editing, we don’t usually talk about turning points unless the plot is already pretty strong. Because they do take a little bit of effort to wrap your brain around.
But basically, a turning point is how you make your resolution feel satisfying, feel right. You’ll have a moment at the climax–the climax of the climax, if you will. And that is the difference between failure and success. And your protagonist needs to do something impressive under difficult circumstances. Or, alternately, if it’s a downward turning point, it means they did something like taking the easy route. Or succumbing to temptation. So you can have a satisfying ending that is happy or sad. Either way, it just makes the outcome feel deserved. And it gives it meaning, too. If you don’t have a good turning point, a lot of times the end just feels kind of pointless. Because you’re not making a point. So, there are many different ways you can do turning points. And, it would take quite a while for us to get into it. But generally, most of the time we’re focusing on positive turning points because most stories end happily. So, that’s what you’re going to focus on. And usually, the hero is going to win because they’re clever, or they’re selfless, or they persevere and do what is necessary, such as making a sacrifice.
Oren: You’re usually demonstrating one or more of those three qualities when you’re doing a turning point. There are occasional other things, but those are the ones that will get the job done most of the time.
Chris: Turning points actually happen at all levels of the fractal. When you get to the big climax of the story, you really want the protagonist to do something that feels impressive, that stands out. So if they’re making a sacrifice, it has to be a significant sacrifice. If they’re going to be clever, the puzzle should seem real difficult. If they have to just push past pain–this is a common one that comes up in movies because movies have a little bit more trouble with turning points. If you see a moment where the hero gets shot and then they manage to get up again, generally that’s their turning point. It’s like, see, because they had willpower and they just pushed through all that pain. Which we can talk about whether that’s a good idea, but that’s what they’re doing there.
Oren: I mean, it tends to work better in movies because we can have the actors there to show us how much pain they’re in. And so it’s like, all right, well, that looks like an effort of will. That was hard work. So not that you can’t do it in prose, it’s just a little more difficult to communicate emotion at that level.
Chris: So should we start with a good turning point, or a bad one?
Oren: Well, we should start with something nice, I think.
Chris: Okay, so my favorite still is the climax of Free Guy. For anybody who’s not familiar, the concept of this movie is that the main character is a video game NPC, non-player character, and he basically starts to gain the powers of a player. And again, I’m going to have to spoil this. We’re going to spoil all the things we’re talking about because we have to talk about the ending turning point. So there’s not really a way to get around that, sorry. So the way that he manages to get the powers of a player is he gets these special glasses. Before, he was operating on a predetermined route where he would just repeat the same actions over and over again as an NPC. And then he gets the glasses on and suddenly he sees that he’s just repeating himself and starts learning and kind of evolving beyond that little NPC role and becoming a protagonist. And as the movie goes on, he wants to empower all the other NPCs. So he’s trying to encourage them to rethink what they’re doing and try new things and experiment. But these glasses are, you know, enabling him to do what he does and giving him a lot of power. So the villain controls the game server, and to get rid of Free Guy, he creates Dude. [laughter]
So the characters are Guy and Dude, don’t forget, which is a version of Guy who’s super muscled and has been designed just for violence. I designed this super violent NPC for the explicit purpose of replacing Guy and also tearing him apart. So the climax is when we do this fight, which is kind of like a mirror mode fight, except for Dude, of course, has been given all of these inherent fighting abilities. The turning point comes when Guy, the main character, just in case you mix up Guy and Dude, has been pinned down by Dude and is really struggling and he’s getting choked. And, for the turning point, he puts his all-powerful glasses on Dude. It’s such a good turning point because it just meets multiple criteria for what makes a happy ending feel deserved. For one thing, putting the glasses on Dude shows that Guy considers Dude to be another person, who is worthy of agency and having his own life outside of the constraints that have been programmed for him, despite the fact that he’s being actively attacked by Dude. So that’s really selfless.
Oren: It shows a level of compassion that is refreshing to see in big budget movie characters.
Chris: So, it meets the selfless criteria, but it’s also just very clever. We know that he became self-aware when he got his glasses. Giving your greatest weapon, that he’s been using continuously during the fight, to the person who’s about to defeat him is just not an intuitive move to make. So it’s a very clever thing to do on top of that. And then, instantly after that turning point happens, we see the reward. Dude is really delighted to have these new glasses, and so he just gets distracted playing with the glasses and doesn’t bother trying to go after Guy anymore.
Oren: Yay! Yeah, no, that was really good. That movie was better than I expected it to be. I was admittedly a little bit like, oh man, it’s another Ryan Reynolds vehicle where he’s playing a video game protagonist. But it worked out much better than I thought it would.
Okay, so this one is a little less well-known. This is from a novel that I read recently called Daughter of the Moon Goddess, by Sue Lynn Tan. So, the protagonist has a problem, which is that she needs to give the Emperor these pearls that she’s found so that he’ll release her mother. But the pearls contain the souls of these dragons, and that’s why the Emperor wants them, because he wants to control the dragons. And the dragons don’t want to be controlled by the Emperor, because the Emperor’s kind of a rude man. So we have this moral dilemma. And so here she has a clever realization, that I really liked, where she realizes that she promised to give the Emperor the pearls, but didn’t say anything about the dragon souls. Those were just assumed, because they’re attached to the pearls. And so she realized that she can free the dragons, so that no one can control them, and then give over the pearls, which fulfills her end of the bargain. Now admittedly, as I read this, I was like, okay, this feels like maybe this is an invitation for the Emperor to fulfill his side of the bargain by releasing the mother into a pit of snakes. [laughter]
But I was like, all right, it’s not perfect, but it’s very clever. I like it. I thought it made sense. It had a very, almost fairy tale type of ending quality to it. And I should note, all of my examples, my good ones, are from books, because I’ve noticed that books tend to have a harder time with turning points than movies and TV shows do. So I desperately looked for book turning points to find, and I eventually compiled my list. If it was me, if I was editing that, I might have suggested that they make it so that the Emperor doesn’t realize that the dragons aren’t in the pearls until after he’s released the mom, and then they, like, get out of town. [laughter] I think that would have been my suggestion to improve that a little bit. But it still, it wasn’t bad, as was. It worked fine.
Chris: The other option, if you really want to feel good editing and don’t want to feel like the protagonist just got one over on the Emperor and actually fulfilled her deal, I think you would need to change the Emperor’s character.
Oren: You could make the Emperor someone who would respect that kind of cleverness. I honestly would have preferred that. I found the Emperor a little bit too cacklingly evil. But yeah, that would also have worked.
Chris: And you just do some things early in the story to demonstrate that your evil character is actually very lawful and respects that kind of thing. Alright, how about a bad one?
Oren: Yeah, tell me a bad one. I’m ready.
Chris: Okay. I think the baddest one has to be Space Opera.
Oren: Oh gosh, Space Opera. Man, that’s been a while. This is the novel by Catherynne Valente?
Chris: Mm-hmm. It managed to have not one, not two, but three deus ex machinas.
Oren: I wrote this in an article, but I don’t remember what they all are now. It’s been so long. [https://mythcreants.com/blog/six-stories-with-failed-turning-points/]
Chris: Basically, we’re in a music contest that is supposed to prove that humanity is sentient enough to continue existing, and the humans have no way to win because all of the aliens basically cheat. Like, they have a song that releases brain worms, and the brain worms go into the audience and then give them various feelings, and that’s why their music is supposed to be better. It’s like, okay, but that’s not music, that’s just technology.
Oren: Yep, they have mind control worms or super tech or whatever, and it’s like, alright, this is clearly rigged from the start. And yet, at the same time, also it feels too easy, because remember, they don’t have to win, they just have to not come in last. And it’s really weird to me that they aren’t talking about that more, they aren’t being like, okay, how do we make sure we beat whoever the other worst team is? They just never acknowledge that. And in fact, at one point, I thought they had actually just won by default, because a number of teams were sabotaged and didn’t show up, and it said that they were automatically losers. So I guess that doesn’t count? But I thought it did for a while, and I was like, alright, I guess they have won now. [laughter]
Chris: So, basically, a weird alien creature is born, and other things show up at the end that basically screws up the humans’ number when they try to perform. But then because it’s so screwed up, people are like, yeah, we decided we like this. And nothing about it is due to any effort on the part of the protagonists. There’s no agency involved. They don’t make any choices that lead to this outcome at all. The funny thing is that it really would have been better if they had just done what everybody in this contest is doing, which is to eliminate your competition, because that’s allowed–for people to just attack another team.
Oren: Except apparently not. I don’t know why they even bother doing that, since apparently those teams are just not counted anymore. I don’t know. That was weird. I don’t understand how this ranking system works.
Chris: So yeah, deus ex machinas obviously are always a problem, because you need to lay the groundwork for whatever your solution is early, so that it doesn’t feel like you’re just making random stuff up in the moment. But also, your main character has to do something to bring about the end. That’s absolutely essential.
Oren: Alright, I found my article where I mentioned what the other two were. So after this weird alien birth happens, a side character suddenly decides to help them, and it’s like, why is he helping them now? Why didn’t he help them at any other previous point? And the answer is, there is no answer. He just decides to, because the story’s almost over. And so he uses time magic to bring back their dead band member to help them perform. And it’s like, okay. And at this point, it’s kind of unclear, do they even need more help? Because again, they don’t have to win, they just have to be better than last. And then suddenly, the big space black holes who are sapient, or alive in this setting, show up to sing backup for them, because they just think that their song of losing their band member is so sad and tragic. But there was another person here who was singing about losing his entire species. Why is that not tragic enough to get the black holes to show up? It just reminded me of Star Wars, when Leia is comforting Luke, who has lost an old man he’s known for two days, and Leia has lost her entire planet. It was just so weird. And it was also weirdly unnecessary, because it felt like they had already achieved their objective.
Chris: It’s weird how little most of these deus ex machinas actually have to do with the final outcome. We had a creature birth, and that doesn’t really matter, and we brought our dead friend back, and that doesn’t really matter either.
Oren: It would be sort of like if how in Rocky, the big goal with Rocky is that he’s trying to last the whole fight with the champ. He’s not even trying to win. It’s a victory if he gets all the way through it. It would be like if they kept saying that, but then as the fight went on, there were just random people showing up to help him to not only win the fight, but to become the world boxing champion in the last five minutes of the movie.
Okay, my turn for a bad one. Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, in that it made me mad. I assume that’s what they meant. There are not one, but two big turning points in the ending of this movie that are solved by pep talks. First you have Doctor Strange, who is doing a weird communion where he’s trying to get control of the extra dark powers, and a bunch of ghosts are showing up and giving him grief. And his alternate universe girlfriend, Christine, gives him a little pep talk about how you tell those ghosts you’re the boss of them. And he’s like, oh yeah, I guess I should do that. And then he does it. And he’s like, alright, that was weird. And then a little bit later, we have Strange goes up to America Chavez, who is the sexy lamp of this movie, because she doesn’t really do anything, but she does have a randomly malfunctioning portal power that will move the characters around through dimensions whenever the writers want it to. So now they’re in the big fight against the bad guy, and Doctor Strange is like, hey, America, you actually can use your powers if you just believe in yourself. And then he tells her that she’s been controlling her powers the whole time, which is obviously not true. [laughter] I might even respect the movie a little more if it was a deliberate lie to give her confidence, but I don’t think it is. I think we’re supposed to think he’s telling the truth, and somehow that works. That gives her the ability to control her powers that she hasn’t been able to control for the entire movie.
Chris: You know, considering that she remembers using her powers to send her moms away to a different dimension, you think that would make her feel a little guilty?
Oren: You would think, but it’s okay, because the moms only exist for five seconds so that we can cut them out for releases in any countries that have anti-gay laws. So she can’t feel bad about them later, because then that would make it harder to cut out, you see.
Oren: We’ve solved it.
Chris: Oh, no.
Oren: The real villain was Disney’s moral cowardice. [laughter]
Chris: Oh, dear.
Oren: Although I will give Doctor Strange a little bit of credit. Once America has miraculously gained the ability to control her powers, her idea of opening a portal to a world where Wanda the villain’s imaginary magic children are real is actually very good. I actually like that quite a lot, because that’s a clever idea and it makes sense, and it’s actually something that she could think of and fits with what was happening instead of just suddenly being able to do something.
Chris: Right, because having her children be gone is Wanda’s entire motivation for all of her villainy. It’s not really giving her what she wants, because the other version of Wanda is also there, but then her kids can look at her and be like, how could you do this?
Oren: Right. It’s totally believable that, A, Wanda’s kids would freak out because this evil witch lady is in their house, and that this would get through to Wanda the villain as these kids that she apparently cares for a lot. I don’t buy that part of the story, that she cares about these fake magic kids she invented, but if we assume that she does, which the movie tells us she does, and that’s what America knows, then them thinking she’s a monster would have some effect on her. So that part of it makes sense.
Chris: Alright, back to good.
Oren: Yeah, give me another good one, Chris.
Chris: Since somebody’s like, oh, we should talk about books.
Chris: I like the turning point in Elantris, Brandon Sanders, good old Brando Sando, because it’s about the magic system, and everybody knows he loves his magic systems. And so, it’s really nice to see a storyteller who then makes the problems about the things that they care about, and then makes that at the center and makes a turning point about it. So, in this case, Elantris is this fallen city that used to be basically heavenly looking, glowing buildings, glowing people who have magic and lived forever. And something happened ten years prior where the city just broke, and the people in it just kind of broke. So they still technically live forever, but now they feel the pain of all of their wounds. So they become, you know, non-functional pretty quickly. The main character, Raoden, starts to problem solve how this magic system works during the book, and he studies all of these symbols, and in the great cataclysm that broke the city, there was a big rift that was created. So it came along with a huge natural disaster, and as he puts together the pieces, he realizes that the magic system has symbols that are based on physical features, and that a very big important symbol stopped working because there was a new physical feature in the land that was created, and the symbol no longer matched. So for the turning point, he figures that out, and then draws a line in the ground to fix the symbol.
Oren: That’s very Brandon Sanderson.
Chris: [laughing] It’s very Brandon Sanderson, yeah. But that’s what I really like about it, is because I’m always trying to encourage people to, you know, you can make problems about anything, so you don’t have to add lots of action if that’s not actually what you care about. And so I just love that as an example.
Oren: Center your darlings.
Chris: Yep, center your darlings.
Oren: If this is what you care about, make it the whole point, don’t keep cutting away from the point to get to the thing you care about. Alright, so I’ve got another one. This is from one of the Animorphs books, because I’ve been doing an Animorphs reread. This is from the book Separation, and the basic plot of this book is that Rachel, who is the group’s badass, gets split in two Captain Kirk-style. Fortunately, one of her versions doesn’t become a sex pest, I appreciate that.
Chris: [laughing] Oh, no.
Oren: But she has mean Rachel and nice Rachel, is what they describe them as. There’s some not 100% perfect things in the depiction that I would change if I could, but the basic concept is solid, which is that one side of her has the courage, and the aggression, and the short-term thinking, and the other side of her has her long-term planning, and her ability to care about others and empathize with them. So, the aggressive side is a huge badass but can’t make plans and is constantly messing things up because all she wants to do is charge in, and then the more passive side struggles to do anything because she doesn’t have any courage to help her get over her fear. You have that classic sci-fi setup, and in this case they manage to arrange a scenario where the climax depends on the two of them working together, which demonstrates a certain amount of perseverance, because they really don’t like each other. This is also symbolic of Rachel having a problem where she’s starting to think that she’s a bad person, so she has a lot of self-hate and the two sides don’t like each other, but they have to work together. They need the planning of the passive side and the ability to kick butt of the active side. And then of course they have to make a plan together, and that shows a certain amount of cleverness. And, I also just really appreciated how this book managed to make Rachel’s character arc its throughline, which is a thing that I hear a lot of authors want to do but is very difficult, and they managed to do it in this episode, while also leaving a hook because there was a Yeerk project that they were trying to stop that they weren’t able to, and so they continue to stop it in the next book. But it doesn’t feel like there was a bad resolution because Rachel’s character arc was introduced first, and was more urgent. So it was just very cool. It was a cool way of externalizing the character arc, and I liked when they worked together, and it was just a fun little turning point.
Give me a bad one, Chris. I’m ready.
Chris: Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Oren: Aww yeah, I love that one! Haha!
Chris: So this is actually a very frequent problem that we see with turning points, is where the protagonist just does the same thing and gets different results. Or just does it like, with more spunk. It’s like, were you not trying the first time? So in Spider-Man: Homecoming, we’re going with the theme of great power comes with great responsibility. So, Spider-Man decides to go and solve this big problem, fight this bad guy on his own without calling any backup, and it leads to…was a building being split in half or something?
Oren: A boat, yeah. He’s on a boat, and the boat gets split in half.
Chris: The boat gets split in half. And afterwards, Iron Man berates him for being irresponsible. It’s like, you shouldn’t have taken on this thing and now all this disaster was created. You have not learned your lesson. And then, for the climax, we do the same thing. He does a big fight on an airplane, and the airplane crashes. So that’s just as destructive as the first time, but he manages to catch the villain. And this time Iron Man is totally cool with it. So he made the same decision, it’s just this time he punched a little better. And, that’s not something he should be rewarded for.
Oren: This is definitely a thing that comes up in a number of stories that I’ve worked on where the character’s arc is that he shouldn’t do the thing that he needs to do for the plot to work. And it’s like, that’s just not a good arc. There’s no way that’s going to be satisfying. And this movie, it seems like Peter has this arc of not going and saving the day by himself, because that’s irresponsible. I mean, sure, you can make that argument, but he’s a superhero. That’s literally what he has to do. So there’s no way that character arc is going to end in a way that’s satisfying.
Chris: Yeah, if there was something about his earlier decision, if he was supposed to call for backup and get help, and then he accepted help the second time or something, anything that’s different. But no, he just does the same thing again. And there’s no real learning.
Oren: You could also set it up so that Tony is wrong, and that Tony is basically trying to prevent Peter from doing stuff because he doesn’t think Peter’s ready, but Peter is ready. And that’s possible. You could do that, too. It’s just, they didn’t. It’s just like, I’m going to do this again, but this time it works.
Oren: Yeah, because. Because it has to, because the movie’s almost over. All right, I got one more. It’s the ending of Wolfpack.
Chris: Ohh, yup.
Oren: Because–spoilers for the end of Wolfpack. What is even happening here? First, all of the main characters get sent off to their rooms, basically. One of them gets arrested. One of them gets non-consensually committed to a mental health facility. One of them, her brother and her get taken away by social services. And then Luna, the last one, she just stays in the car. [laughter] Like, as far as we know for that entire episode, she’s still just sitting in the car.
Chris: Yeah, there’s no real turning point, unless you think of AU Buffy. We call her “AU Buffy”, it’s “Alternate Universe Buffy”, because she’s played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, and she has definitely been styled to look exactly like Buffy, like makeup and everything. So she’s AU Buffy. Unless she’s the main character.
Oren: Right. She goes and has a final fight with a retired fireman.
Chris: You know, a normal dude. They’re so scary.
Oren: A normal guy, not even like a soldier or a police officer or someone who is good at fighting, just an ex-fireman who’s been working as a janitor for the last 10 years. And she has a gun, and is a werewolf. And she also has backup. She has another badass dude with a gun and her werewolf son is also there. It’s like, what is this? Why is this happening?
Chris: And she’s presented as being somewhat antagonistic for most of the season. So she just kind of steps in and gets everything she wants. Nobody else really has any kind of turning point. It’s just like all of the Teenie characters had their turning point in episode seven. The one thing they do choose to do, that if we were going to change it, is they do have to make the decision in the final episode to go to a parent and tell their parent about the problem. I can definitely see, in a different show, there being an episode about that. But when you have the final episode, that’s just not really climactic enough.
Oren: Right. Especially since it doesn’t even change anything. Because what specifically is happening is that they have a former werewolf. He’s been stabbed. So now he’s in human form, and he’s dying. And they have to decide whether or not to tell their parents, or the one particular parent, the one who knows about werewolves. And they argue about it for a while, and then they eventually decide to. But as I’m watching, I’m like, what is he going to do if they tell him?
Chris: He takes the werewolf to the hospital, and then the werewolf was just stolen from the hospital.
Oren: Right. Because the hospital can’t do anything. He has blood poisoning with silver. What is the hospital going to do? Remove the silver from his blood? They’re going to put him in a centrifuge? It was so weird. And so they told him and it didn’t matter. Nothing changed. It was just, we’re in a different location now. So I guess that’s a lesson, is that moving locations is not the same as a turning point. All right. Well, I think we’re out of time. We gotta get out of here.
Chris: All right. If you enjoyed this episode, support us on Patreon. Go to patreon.com slash mythcreants.
Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, there’s the popular writing software Plottr, which you can learn more about at plottr.com. Then there’s Callie Macleod. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
This has been the Mythcreant Podcast, opening and closing theme, “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?