When I introduced turning points, I put them into categories and explained each category instead of focusing on what they all have in common. That’s the easiest way to get started, but choosing a category can be limiting. So this time, we dig deeper into what turning points are and how they work. Once you understand that, you can create whatever turning points work best for your story.
The Lesson of the Story
When people listen to a story, they want to take away a useful life lesson. They probably aren’t consciously aware that’s what they want, but that desire shows through in the endings we find compelling.
Imagine you’re in the Stone Age, and one of your friends has recently survived a saber-toothed tiger attack. Not only did they survive, but they also managed to kill the tiger and therefore feed their extended family. You ask to hear their story. Sure, you care about your friend and what happened to them, but no doubt you’re also wondering if you might survive a tiger attack and feed your family too. But not all tales from your friend will meet your desire to learn their secret to surviving and thriving.
- Your friend might describe how the saber-toothed tiger was already dying when it made a desperate attack and then simply dropped dead. In that case, you’ll probably be disappointed that their victory was just some amazing luck. That probably won’t happen to you.
- Imagine your friend succeeds by using a bunch of children as bait. That’s definitely not something you want to hear; you won’t do that even if it gets you a tiger. Plus, on hearing this you’ll probably decide not to be this person’s friend anymore.
- Now let’s say your friend tells you that the saber-toothed tiger only spots movement, so they remained really, really still as the predator slowly sniffed them out. When it was inches away, they slashed its throat. Bingo! If you are in the same situation, you can do that yourself. And now you probably admire your friend for controlling their fear.
Turning points work just like this. Of course, you might wonder how avoiding the attention of an elder god or destroying an alien ship is supposed to translate to a useful life lesson. In reality, it doesn’t. But if the human brain could distinguish between what’s real and what’s not, the world would be a very different place, and we would have to find a new calling.
A good turning point has two components: First, the karmic deed, which in this case is your friend standing steadfast instead of running. Second, causation, which is how standing steadfast enabled them to slay the saber-toothed tiger.
The Consequence Must Fit the Crime
I’ve discussed character karma in more depth elsewhere, but, in brief, it’s the sense that a character deserves either a reward or punishment for the things they’ve done. Once they get what they deserve, their karma dissipates.
Characters have to make choices of their own free will to earn karma. Of course, the boundaries of that can get fuzzy. Duress reduces responsibility, but we might still hold a character responsible for doing especially horrible things under the threat of death. On the other hand, a mind-controlled character isn’t responsible for their choices and therefore can’t perform a karmic deed. This is one reason why character agency is so important to stories. Without agency, the story’s outcome is just some amazing luck.
Let’s go back to what would happen if you discovered your tiger-hunting friend used children as bait. Not only is their secret to success unusable, but your friend was rewarded for their unethical behavior. Hearing this, you might repeat what they said to the village elders in hopes the elders will punish them. You know your friend deserves to be punished, and you’ll only be satisfied with their tale once they are.
If you succeed in bringing about this punishment, you might then tell the story to your children as a cautionary tale. The lesson of your story: don’t sacrifice others for your own gain.
While horror stories and other dark works often deal in bad karma and punishment, most stories focus on good karma and rewards because more people enjoy that. So let’s cover good karmic deeds in more detail, with notes on how these deeds can be reversed to produce bad karma.
What a Karmic Deed Requires
Let’s look at the two boxes you have to check when crafting a deed that earns good karma.
A Worthy Choice
The big question here is “What the hell is worthy?” That includes a lot of subjectivity, and cultural values matter. However, a worthy choice is generally one that demonstrates good morals, strength of character, or other positive personality attributes. Common worthy characteristics include kindness, generosity, perseverance, or cleverness. Conversely, cruelty, greed, or laziness would be considered unworthy, generating bad karma instead of good.
While worthiness follows general trends, many choices can be depicted as either worthy or unworthy depending on the context you provide. George R. R. Martin uses this to shock his audience in A Game of Thrones. In the novel, Eddard Stark sticks to his principles by warning the queen before he tells the king of her duplicity. This will give her time to flee with her innocent children. But instead of fleeing, the queen uses the heads-up to murder the king and take power. While warning her ahead would be a worthy action in most stories, it’s naive in this one. Martin succeeded in this shocking twist because while readers value mercy, they also value practicality.
On the other hand, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke wins the day by putting faith in the Force. In another story, risking everything on faith might be punished. In the world of Star Wars, there is a force greater than people, and trusting in it is a worthy deed.
However, context won’t convince an audience with strong opinions. It’s unlikely that audiences will think endangering children is worthy in any context. Cultural values can also clash. A horror movie that punishes unmarried women for being sexually active will make some audiences angry regardless of the fictional justifications.
When you’re searching for a worthy quality, remember that skill is not worthiness. If two characters fight, even if the fight is close, the winner isn’t worthy just because they won. Instead, the lesson should show why the winner is better. Did they work incredibly hard? Did they focus on mastering fundamentals instead of getting distracted by flashy moves? Did they figure out their opponent’s secret weakness? Those details demonstrate worthiness; simply being skilled at something does not.
Choosing to do the right thing means more if it doesn’t come easily. What’s more, a character who struggles to do something but ultimately succeeds demonstrates a worthy quality: perseverance. That’s why a key factor in turning points is showing how difficult it is for the character to do what they need to do. That can come in a variety of different forms.
- A struggle with hesitation or wavering
- A high cost to making the choice
- Other people doubting the character or telling them to stop
- Failing several times before succeeding
- Context that would deter almost anyone
When a character’s karmic deed involves traits like kindness or generosity, it’s never aimed at someone who is easy to be kind to. Instead, goodwill is usually shown to villains who’ve already done harm. That makes the act difficult and exceptional.
Karmic deeds where a character must use self-control require initial failures, wavering, or other signs that they are barely managing that control. Back to the example of the friend standing still while a saber-toothed tiger approaches, a visual depiction would show body language such as quaking, sweating, and holding their breath. A narrated work would probably include internal sensations such as their racing heart along with thoughts emphasizing their internal conflict. They might repeat a calming mantra interrupted by a few panicked words.
When a character is clever, the problem they are solving must feel difficult. In many stories, the hero will come to an important realization during the climax that allows them to succeed. Generally, this entails piecing together several clues so the realization doesn’t seem obvious. Showing them lose for a while before they have the realization also demonstrates the difficulty of the problem.
If your plan for resolving a conflict doesn’t include any worthy trait, making it into a big personal struggle or attaching a high cost will usually fix that. In those cases, the act becomes worthy because of perseverance or selfless sacrifice. Marvel’s The Winter Soldier contains a turning point where Captain America just has to plug in a computer chip. It works because he gets shot in the chest first, so even doing that takes enormous willpower.
If you’re looking to create bad karma instead of good, difficulty can also be reversed. This includes trusting something that is too good to be true, succumbing to temptation, or accepting something that hasn’t been earned. Taking the easy route doesn’t look good.
Let’s go back to your Stone Age friend. Imagine your friend told you that they held their fear in check as the saber-toothed tiger approached, but then the tiger was slain by the spear of a family member who happened to be passing by. You’d probably thank your friend and then forget about the whole thing a week later. While it’s nifty that your friend can hold their fear in check, you don’t know whether that helped them survive. Similarly, a turning point won’t work unless it establishes a direct causal relationship between the karmic deed and the victory or defeat.
In most stories, the karmic deed takes place right at the climax of the conflict, immediately before the problem is resolved. That makes it easy to link the deed to the outcome. However, the karmic deed can actually take place earlier in the story so long as it meets two requirements:
- The karma must be unpaid. In other words, if the character has already been punished or rewarded for their deed, they no longer have a karmic balance that’s due. If they perform a good deed, they can’t benefit from that deed in any way before the corresponding turning point arrives.
- The connection between the deed and the outcome must only be revealed once it’s time to resolve the conflict. If your character’s karmic deed is being generous to all of their neighbors, both the character and the audience should be surprised when those neighbors show up to fight for the character at the climax. This reveal enables the story to follow the good old-fashioned rule of escalating tension. Knowing that all of their neighbors were planning on fighting for them would ruin the excitement.
While connecting a karmic deed to a specific outcome may sound difficult, karmic deeds are pretty broad and varied. Once you get used to them, it shouldn’t be difficult to find one that works with the particulars of your conflict.
- Is the enemy sympathetic? Win them over with something like kindness or generosity.
- Could the right knowledge make a difference? Let the protagonist piece together some clues and have a realization. If necessary, you can revise your story to give the enemy a weakness to figure out.
- Is there something the character could give up? If you can link victory to the character’s losing their career, freedom, life, or something else, that can create a great turning point.
- Does the character have a flaw they should grow out of? Make them resist falling back on bad habits to win the day.
For more specific ideas, I recommend my original Six Types of Turning Points for Climaxes article.
Whatever you choose, make sure the logic is solid and it doesn’t sound like you made up a bunch of worldbuilding rules on the spot. A deus ex machina with a turning point is still a deus ex machina. That means if you introduce a brand-new magic spell at your climax to explain your turning point, it will feel contrived. Instead go back and introduce the spell earlier in the story.
Another common gotcha happens when storytellers use failed attempts to demonstrate difficulty. If a character fails twice and then succeeds the third time, what changed? A common way to resolve this is for the character to learn just how much is at stake, firming their resolve. This can also be a great place for another character to contribute by giving them encouragement that boosts their spirit and leads to a victory.
We’ve covered how to construct turning points; let’s clarify how they are used in practice.
Using a Single Turning Point for Multiple Arcs
Climactic conflicts often address multiple important arcs in the story. A particularly common scenario is to have a conflict over both the external throughline that represents an outside threat, a middle throughline such as a relationship arc, and an internal throughline that represents personal growth. For instance, at the climax your hero might need to defeat a supervillain, make up with their estranged mother, and overcome their trust issues.
Turning points are emotional and personality based by nature. That means that they are a natural fit for most internal arcs of the story. When you have both external and internal arcs, consider how the internal conflict can be the key to resolving the external one, and then craft a turning point for the internal conflict.
In my triple throughline example, defeating the villain might depend on the hero and their mother working together. Then working together might depend on the hero overcoming their trust issues. So the turning point would be a key moment where the character struggles with whether to trust their mother. Once the audience sees them struggle to do something worthy – learn to trust again – they’ll enjoy watching the new duo smack down the villain.
If you have multiple arcs at the same level, such as two external arcs or two relationship arcs, then you’ll need to arrange the story logistically so that the character can feed two birds with one hand. Maybe your character has to unlock a superpower that will enable them to defeat two villains. Multiple relationships might be threatened by a personal weakness they have to overcome.
Alternatively, if you’re going for a bittersweet ending, you can create an inverse relationship where success at one thing means failure at another. Maybe the estranged mother can’t be relied upon, and the character has to give up that relationship to defeat the villain.
How Many Turning Points to Use
Using exactly one turning point is the easiest way to create a ramp of escalating tension with a memorable and satisfying resolution. However, it may be appropriate to use more than one turning point, or even to use none.
Most of the important conflicts throughout the story should have turning points before they resolve. However, sometimes it’s okay to go without one earlier in the story when the character encounters a big problem they can’t handle. For instance, a character who fails to fight some minions and has to be rescued by their mentor may not have a turning point. In that case, they didn’t commit a karmic misdeed; they just don’t have what it takes to succeed yet.
In these cases, the resolution shouldn’t reward or punish them. Yes, the hero falls on their ass, but everyone gets away unscathed. This creates a standstill that sets up a greater conflict instead of providing satisfaction. Don’t do this often – audiences still need some satisfaction during the story – but it can be an effective way to spotlight the side character who gets the hero out of trouble.
However, these same rescue scenes often have turning points attached. In the Fellowship of the Ring movie, the hobbits succumb to the temptation to start a fire, so they can have a nice meal like they’re used to. This misdeed summons the Ring Wraiths, and while Aragorn drives the wraiths away, Frodo is injured as their karmic punishment. This effectively sets up the greater struggle against Sauron while raising tension further. Conversely, a prior act of kindness can be rewarded when an unexpected ally appears on the scene.
Using multiple turning points can make it a little more challenging to ramp up the tension for a final, climactic moment. That’s because, by default, protagonist victories lower the story’s tension. However, a smaller conflict with its own turning point can still come before the main one, particularly if it’s used to narrowly avoid complete disaster or if the struggle appears to go badly right after. Alternatively, two bigger turning points can happen almost simultaneously to narrow the low tension gap between them. In the climax of Star Wars: A New Hope, Han Solo gives up staying on Jabba’s good side to make a surprise appearance during the battle. He defends Luke from attack as Luke heads down the trench run to save the day.
Multiple turning points are most useful when a story features multiple protagonists who all need to contribute to the end. While it’s possible for multiple characters to perform a karmic deed together, each character probably has their own arc to complete. Giving side characters small turning points gives every protagonist a little time to shine.
If you’re feeling intimidated by turning points, don’t worry. Storytelling can be tough to learn because every concept is related to every other. But while they make it tougher to break in, the more you learn, the easier everything else will come.
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