Turning points are critical to a good story. What’s a turning point, you ask? It’s the moment in a story’s climax when the situation changes, when the hero goes from losing to winning, or winning to losing if this is a story that ends poorly. Because plots are fractal, a story will usually have multiple turning points, often one for each scene, but it’s the big turning point at the end that matters most. If that turning point goes wrong, it can ruin the entire climax, leaving readers wishing they’d picked up some other story.
Despite how important the turning point is, many stories neglect it. Instead of an exciting climax, audiences watch as the protagonist stumbles their way to an unlikely victory. There’s no satisfaction, which is one of a story’s most critical elements. This problem is really common in new manuscripts, but it also crops up in a lot of published stories, which is great for us since it means we have many popular examples to look at.
Before we do, though, it’s important to understand the more common types of turning points, since most of the stories we’re about to look at try to employ one of them. Chris wrote an entire article about that, but in short there are six basic types that most turning points fall into.
- The Clever Deduction: The hero puts together previously established clues and determines a solution.
- The Battle of Will: The hero sticks to their guns or refuses temptation when it’s difficult, allowing them to triumph.
- The Hidden Plan: It looks to the audience that the hero is doomed, but they had an ace up their sleeve that lets them win.
- The Sacrifice: The hero sacrifices something important, often their life, to win the day.
- The Prior Achievement: Something the hero did earlier in the story bears fruit, allowing them to vanquish whatever opposes them.
- The Gesture of Good Will: The hero wins not by fighting, but by being kind to their adversary.
1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
As an episodic TV show with multiple seasons, Buffy has a lot of turning points, but today we’re going to focus on just one: Buffy Summer’s battle with a Turok-Han, more commonly known as an ubervamp. This battle takes place in season seven, and was so important that the writers dedicated two episodes to it: Bring on the Night and Showtime.
In Bring on the Night, we meet the ubervamp and see it totally kick Buffy’s ass. She’s barely able to escape, with injuries that would probably kill a normal human. This is a pretty big deal, as only a handful of villains have ever bested the slayer in hand-to-hand combat. It also comes at a terrible time for Team Good. They’ve already suffered several setbacks, and now there’s an enemy out there that even Buffy can’t defeat. The episode ends with Buffy giving a speech about how even though the ubervamp is super tough, they still have to fight it. This isn’t just a battle anymore; it’s war.
That’s a cool way to end the episode, and it raises the obvious question: How are they going to defeat the ubervamp? What exactly will this war that Buffy’s just declared entail? It turns out their grand plan is to… have Buffy fight it again? But don’t worry, she wins this time. Somehow.
This doesn’t work for several reasons. Most obviously, the ubervamp is way stronger than Buffy. Their first fight wasn’t even close. It’s really hard to believe Buffy could ever triumph against this thing unless something changes. When Buffy wins anyway, the best explanation possible is that she just got really lucky this time, which is hardly satisfying. For that matter, even luck doesn’t work. Buffy wins by using some wire to garrote her enemy to death, but the ubervamp is still way stronger than her, so why didn’t it just throw her off?*
At first, it looks like there’s no turning point here at all – Buffy just fights really well and then wins. But this is actually a failed attempt at a hidden plan. Right before the fight, it looks like the ubervamp has Buffy cornered in a construction yard, but surprise, it turns out Buffy actually lured the ubervamp here. The floodlights turn on, revealing that all of Team Good is watching, so they can get an education in kicking ubervamp ass, and hopefully a boost to morale. The audience didn’t know about this plan, so it’s a neat twist.
Unfortunately, the writers forgot to make the twist affect Buffy’s fight in any material way. The show acts like circumstances are different now, but they’re not. The only difference is that now we can imagine the morbid awkwardness of Buffy getting torn to shreds in front of all her friends during her big moment.
The hidden plan is a good choice for this turning point, since it’s easier to hide information on TV than in novels, but the plan had to actually change the situation in some way. One option would be to reveal that Buffy has lured the ubervamp into an ambush where all of Team Good take it on at once. That would certainly fit with her earlier declaration of war.*
2. Empire of Sand
Tasha Suri’s debut novel has a complex plot, so let me break down the relevant details. Protagonist Mehr has the ability to alter reality by manipulating the dreams of the gods through her people’s magical dances, with the caveat that she can only do it during special storms. The Maha, our villain, has long enslaved Mehr’s people and forced them to use their dances to shape reality as he wants it, strengthening his brutal empire. Mehr is now his latest victim.*
Mehr doesn’t take this lying down. She’s bound to the Maha by magical rituals, but she resists anyway, planning to escape and plotting how to subvert the Maha’s control over her. Sadly, the Maha is not so easily beaten, and when he discovers Mehr’s plans, he executes her only friend as a punishment. He’s a bad dude that way.
Finally, Mehr realizes she has one piece of leverage over the Maha. If she doesn’t perform the magic dance, all the Maha’s previous reality alterations will backlash on the world, causing an apocalypse. As the storm approaches, Mehr tries to use this threat as a basis for negotiation. It’s a desperate play, but it’s all she has. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be working. The Maha is unmoved, even in the face of Armageddon.
That’s when Suri springs the turning point. The Maha’s most loyal retainer betrays him, cutting the old man’s throat in bloody vengeance. Remember Mehr’s friend who was executed earlier? She was the retainer’s sister. This is an excellent example of the prior achievement turning point. Not only was Mehr’s friendship important, but there were also a few scenes where she subtly influenced the retainer toward helping her.
That’s a great climax, so what’s it doing on this list? Well, it turns out that wasn’t really the climax. Instead of transitioning into falling action, the book keeps going with a long section about Mehr using her magic dance to stop the apocalypse. This is pitched as a major conflict, but it has no turning point. The magic in this book is really vague, so the reader has no way to appreciate how or why Mehr succeeds. As far as we can tell, she just dances until she wins.
But that’s not all! In the middle of that, Mehr is approached by a spirit who offers to help her if she’ll take up the Maha’s old power, for some reason. So now we’re in a battle of will turning point, but it falls completely flat because we have no reason to believe Mehr would take that deal. She’s never been tempted by the Maha’s power, so of course she says no. Then the spirits decide to help her anyway, as if she’s made some great sacrifice.
The weirdest part is that if you look past Mehr’s immediate disgust at the offer, she should absolutely have taken it. The Maha’s power wasn’t inherently evil; he was just using it to further the expansion of an evil empire. In Mehr’s hands, that power could have prevented plague and famine, not to mention taking down that evil empire. But no, instead Mehr says that would be wrong because you need a balance of good and evil. I guess we can’t appreciate a rainbow if no one dies from the bubonic plague.*
So what should Empire of Sand have done instead? Use that awesome turning point it already had! After the Maha’s death, Mehr should have quickly used her power to prevent the world from ending, and then the story should have moved to falling action. That would have avoided both a boring sequence of vague magic and the terrible idea of needing a balance between good and evil. It’s also possible that Suri could have used a clever deduction turning point with the magic dance, but that would have required a better understanding of how it worked.
3. Omnitopia Dawn
I’ll give it to you straight: Omnitopia Dawn is a weird book. It’s about a tech CEO who runs an immersive virtual reality MMO video game, and the villains are some hackers who want to steal a bunch of in-game currency like they were robbing an actual bank with physical money. But we’re not here to talk about the overall plot, just the turning point. Also the hackers’ plan is to log into the game and have a giant fantasy battle against the game’s security team, because that will help somehow? But as I said, we’re not talking about that aspect of the book. But also if the hackers can get to a really important tree within the game it will grant them, are you ready for it, root access. This book is amazing.
Right, the turning point. Throughout the book, we get two important pieces of foreshadowing. First, that the protagonist really loves his game. He puts countless hours into it and devotes a staggering amount of both money and processing power to make sure the game’s capabilities are off the chart. Frankly, he loves this game more than he loves his actual family. We also learn that the game has been acting strangely, occasionally taking actions on its own that would normally require a human operator. Can you guess where this is going?
Fast forward to the climax, which has the hackers and the security team engaging in a mass battle like this was the Pelennor Fields. No, I don’t know why security doesn’t just shut the game down for maintenance once they know a hack is in progress.* Whatever the reason, our hero is losing the battle. Soon the hackers will reach the Tree of Terrible Infosec, and everything he’s worked for will be destroyed.
In this low point, the protag is whisked away into a private virtual space by the game itself. Surprise, the game has spontaneously become an artificial intelligence, specifically because the hero gave it so many resources. It’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen now, right? The new AI will defeat the hackers, rewarding all the time and attention our hero put into it. That’s a classic prior achievement turning point, even if the setup is really silly.
Nope, that does not happen. Instead, the AI thanks our hero for creating it, and then flees to the wilds of the internet. The hero returns only to find his security team has turned the tide of battle on their own, and all that’s needed is to mop up. The hackers are thwarted, and the game is safe, since spawning an independent AI apparently didn’t affect it in the slightest. Other than a little falling action, that’s the end of the book.
The problem here is similar to what we saw with Buffy fighting the ubervamp. The author put in all the trappings of a proper turning point but didn’t give it any substance. The AI shows up right when it should, at a critical point in the battle, and then the tide of battle turns, but those two events aren’t actually linked. Instead, the hacker plot just fizzles out, and the AI plot feels like a distraction.
Fortunately, the solution is simple. All the author would need to do to fix the turning point issue is have the AI defeat the hackers in gratitude to its creator. This could probably be done by changing a few paragraphs of text, and it would vastly improve the climax. It won’t fix the way hacking works in this story, but that’s something else.
4. A Memory Called Empire
Romans. In. Spaaaaaaaaace. That’s the premise of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, and this book is a cool twist on the old classic. It’s got space legions and a space emperor, but there’s also beautiful poetry and elaborate fictional naming conventions that are actually relevant to the plot. In fact, the naming conventions were so good that I was easily able to keep track of more than a dozen major political players, some of whom we never even met. Point to Martine.
The plot is pretty solid, too, at least at first. Protagonist Mahit is the ambassador of a small station that borders Teixcalaan (Space Rome). She has two problems: she needs to keep the empire from annexing her home, and she needs to solve the previous ambassador’s murder. But there’s a twist: through some fancy scifi tech, Mahit carries the old ambassador’s memories* inside her, and to some extent, his personality.
The first crack in the plot shows up in the form of regularly cutting away from Mahit so we can learn about some Cthulhu-aliens and their ships on the edge of imperial space. What does that have to do with Mahit? Absolutely nothing. She doesn’t even know about the aliens, and it wouldn’t affect her if she did.
The cracks continue to grow as the book goes forward. Some of the scifi tech seems to change in functionality based on what scene we’re in, but the major problem is that Mahit feels increasingly irrelevant. There’s a huge political plot going on, a side effect of which will be the empire annexing Mahit’s home, but it’s way over her pay grade. She keeps working to solve her predecessor’s murder, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that nothing she does matters.
Finally, as the book nears its end, Mahit gets a transmission from her superiors back home. They tell her about the Cthulhu-aliens and then instruct her to bargain that information into an imperial guaranty not to annex Mahit’s home. Presumably, the Empire will want to know the strength and location of dangerous aliens on their border.
This plan has several logical problems, like why they expect the Empire to keep its word once the info is handed over, but more importantly, it has little to do with Mahit. She wasn’t involved in procuring this information; she didn’t even know about the aliens until now. She did have to jump through some hoops to decode the message, but that action takes place too early for an effective turning point. Finally, there’s a dangerous trek to reach the palace since a coup is currently in progress,* but again, that’s all setup, not the climax.
The actual climax is a long sequence where Mahit gives her information to the Emperor exactly as planned and then explains how he can use the info to stop the coup. This reads like an attempt at a clever deduction turning point, but it’s not clear what information Mahit is putting together, or why no one else thought of the same ideas. It’s not even clear if Mahit is actually coming up with these ideas herself or if she’s just voicing what everyone else is already thinking.
With that possible turning point fizzled, the book goes on to a long sequence of the Emperor heroically sacrificing himself. Like so much else, the sacrifice has nothing to do with Mahit, nor does the book give us any reason to care about the Emperor for his own sake. We’re told that Mahit’s previous incarnation was in love with the Emperor, but that all happened offscreen. Then the book goes into falling action and ends.
All we’re left with is what might be a failed clever deduction and a MacGuffin so far out of left field that it’s nearly a deus ex machina. Unlike some previous entries, fixing A Memory Called Empire is no simple feat. We’d likely need to seriously revise the plot so Mahit was more relevant to the big political events or reduce the story’s scale so those events didn’t matter.
5. Spider-Man: Homecoming
After nearly a decade of mistreatment at Sony’s hands, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is finally safe in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Rejoice, and let the quips flow freely!* The only problem is that while Spidey’s first movie is a roller coaster of fun action sequences and amusing one-liners, its climax leaves much to be desired. The MCU has long had a problem with weak turning points, but Spiderman: Homecoming doesn’t seem to have one at all.
The main emotional action of this movie is Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man being reckless and bad things happening as a result. First, he tries to stop an alien weapons deal, and it goes so badly he nearly drowns. Only Iron Man’s intervention saves him, and Tony tells Peter to stay out of this investigation because he’s not ready. Next, Peter keeps investigating the weapons dealers, but he nearly gets all his civilian friends killed when some of the tech he retrieved turns out to be unstable.
The low point comes when Peter tries to take the dealers down a second time, only now he interrupts an FBI operation and causes a huge fight on board a civilian ferry. Again, Iron Man has to save the day. Now, Tony’s had it. He tells Peter that this kind of reckless action puts civilians in danger, exactly the sort of thing a superhero shouldn’t do. To drive his point home, he takes back the super advanced suit he gave Peter earlier.
How does Peter come back from all these setbacks? Well, considering this all happened because he recklessly went after the bad guys, Peter decides to… do that again? This time he learns that the villain is planning to hijack a shipment of tech flying out of Stark Tower, so Peter leaps into action. This is exactly what he did last time, but now it works! Peter wins the fight, and now Iron Man is happy with him.
It’s really not clear what emotional growth Peter is supposed to get from this arc. At first, acting rashly to take down the bad guy was wrong, and then later it was good. He doesn’t do anything differently the second time; he’s just really lucky. If anything, his second plan is worse. The first time, he was only endangering the people on a ferry. This time, he crashes a huge plane in the middle of New York City. A few meters to the left and it would have plowed through Coney Island.
Peter’s final fight with the villain is okay, but it doesn’t offer a turning point either. Spider-Man actually loses, but then the villain’s own tech disables him. Peter saves the villain’s life, which could have been a gesture of goodwill turning point, but the fight is already over by then, and it’s not like Peter had an arc about becoming less vengeful.
For a final wrinkle, near the end Tony offers Peter an even more advanced suit and membership in the Avengers, but Peter turns both down. It’s not really clear why he does this. Is he traumatized by his final fight and doesn’t want more of that? If so, why didn’t the previous incident on the ferry have the same effect? Maybe he’s finally realized that Tony is being an arbitrary dick, but the movie certainly doesn’t give that impression.
And then the movie is over. Don’t worry, that weird refusal at the end won’t matter long, as Infinity War has Peter put on the more advanced suit almost immediately. It doesn’t feel like Peter changed at all, despite everything that happened to him. I think the main problem is that Peter’s supposed flaw is taking reckless action against villains, when that’s pretty much the definition of being a superhero. You can’t have the heroes stop taking reckless actions against the villains, or there’d be nothing left for the MCU to do.
If the filmmakers wanted that arc to work, they needed a turning point where Peter learns to do something different. Maybe he specifically takes the villain on somewhere far away from civilians, so he’s only risking himself. That would still be inconsistent with a lot of other Marvel films, but at least it would work in the short term. Alternatively, Peter could realize that Tony is full of it and stop caring what he says, but that’s unlikely since Iron Man is a fan favorite.*
6. Space Opera
The premise of Space Opera is simple: Our heroes Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet have to win a music contest, or else humanity will be wiped out.* This is an obviously absurdist premise, but the book plays it incredibly straight, with long monologues from both the characters and the omniscient narrator about how a music contest is just the best way to determine whether a species is worthy of survival. Sure, why not? We’re here to critique the turning point, not the premise.
Things get off to a rocky start for both the characters and the reader as it becomes increasingly clear that our heroes can’t possibly triumph. The book talks a lot about the other contestants’ skill and talent, but it’s really technology and special powers that make the difference. We see one band that infects the audience with microbes that carry music directly to the brain, while another just uses mind control to make the audience love them. This goes on and on. Humanity has nothing remotely comparable, and it’s obvious that Dess and Oort can’t ever hope to win, no matter how good their song is.
Most stories don’t introduce such a dismal state until just before the turning point, but Space Opera starts off that way. And because it’s obvious that the good guys can’t win, the story has nowhere to go. Things can technically still get worse, but it doesn’t meaningfully affect the story. A 0% chance of winning is functionally the same as a -50% chance. The reader is now just waiting for something to change, and when that moment finally comes, it won’t be as satisfying because all the surprise is gone.
It only gets worse from there. Most of the book is taken up by reason after reason that the heroes can’t possibly succeed, until the climax is under an impossible burden. It strains believability that any turning point could possibly reverse the situation. When the turning point finally arrives, it’s every bit as bad as you’d expect.
As Dess and Oort take the stage, it’s still obvious they can’t win. Then Dess suddenly gives birth to a baby alien he’d apparently gotten pregnant with earlier in the book. This makes the audience feel sympathy for him, I guess. Then a different alien uses his time travel technology to bring Dess and Oort’s dead bandmate from an alternate timeline to help. Then, to top it all off, Dess is so sad that he attracts the attention of some cosmic beings who feed on sadness, and they sing backup. It’s not clear why they do this, since they were previously described as existing on timescales so vast that a single music contest would be meaningless to them, but who’s counting at this point?
Each of these contrived moments is meant to be a prior achievement turning point, and they all fail. Dess did sleep with an alien earlier, but it wasn’t particularly meaningful, so neither is his cross-species pregnancy. The time travel alien helped because he likes Oort, but Oort never did anything to earn that friendship, nor is it clear why the alien waited until now to help them, since it’s seemingly not against the rules. Finally, while Dess is certainly shown to be sad, other people just within the context of this book have been equally sad, if not sadder, and none of them ever attracted any cosmic beings. So why Dess? There is no answer. That’s a triple ex machina, something I’ve never seen before, and I’m honestly impressed. It’s a terrible ending, but at least it’s memorable.
To fix this turning point, we’d first have to revise the earlier section so it’s actually conceivable for the heroes to win, even if their odds are long. That would take some of the pressure off the turning point and also make the story a lot more enjoyable. Next, we’d have to find a turning point that’s actually earned. This could be any number of things, but if it were up to me, I’d use Oort’s subplot about being shy. Have Dess lose his voice, then it turns out that Oort is actually really good at singing while Dess handles the instruments.*
The turning point easily ranks among a story’s most important moments. If a good first scene convinces people to read the book, a good turning point convinces them to read the sequel.* It also determines whether people will recommend a story to their friends, since the turning point is what they’re most likely to remember. Finally, it plays a huge role in how much audiences enjoy the story. If the turning point is neglected, it’ll ruin the experience, and that’s not something any storyteller wants.
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