6 Tip for Writing Your Novel's First Turning Point
Chapter 6 “Plot Points” – Section 3 “First Turning Point”
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”- John Keats
After the point in your story at which an event destroys the balance in your protagonist's life (the Inciting Incident), he or she will likely not know how to react. Like Luke Skywalker just discovering his heritage and being given he chance of a lifetime, there will be an instant in which your hero won't know what to do. Then, something small and personal, a painful aftershock event that pushes your hero to the path that will take them forward and launch their personal journey. This personal aftershock event is called the First Turning Point.
Tip 1: Create a First Turning Point that has a symbiotic connection to your Inciting Incident.
Your First Turning Point ultimately exists for two primary purposes: to give your hero a goal for how to deal with the broken balance in their lives, and to create a forward momentum that will give them the drive to get through the story. For this first purpose to be achieved, there should be a logical connection between the Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point. Consider how Star Wars – A New Hope achieves this. Immediately after Luke discovers that Darth Vader killed his father, that he himself can be a Jedi, and that Ben Kenobi is going on a quest against Vader, he does not quite know if he can give up everything and move forward toward what might be his destiny or his destruction. In fact, he doesn't know what he can do until he returns home to find that his aunt and uncle have been murdered by the Empire. At this point, his anger and his lack of a home make following Ben the only logical way to move forward. Note that the Inciting Incident and First Turning Point do not even need to be this closely related, only closely related enough so that they work together to push your hero forward.
Tip 2: Create a logical progression from your First Turning Point to the rest of your journey.
If tonight when I go grocery shopping I get beaten up by thugs, I may resolve to double down on my martial arts classes, I might start or join a community watch, or I might call the cops; but I'm not going to buy spandex and start fighting crime. Why? Because that would provide no real personal resolution for the problem that I have, and only the act of being mugged does not push someone toward the hero path. Often, beginning storytellers know the kind of story that they want to tell—whether a story of revenge, heroes, romance, or whatever else, but they do not know how to set that story into motion in a believable way. The key to making this work is to create an Inciting Incident/First Turning Point combo that will make the heroes path forward most logical. Before finding his aunt and uncle murdered, the path to Luke's destiny is clear, all he has to do is to say “yes”; and then the First Turning Point gives puts him into a position where saying “yes” is the most logical decision in the world. Now, that doesn't mean that your hero's journey has to be objectively logical (after all, there is nothing logical about trusting a crazy old man who claims you have magic powers, on a quest to kill the greatest badass in the land), only that it makes logical sense given the world, the hero's personality, the Inciting Incident, and the First Turning Point.
Tip 3: Make your First Turning Point appropriate for how your protagonist should grow as a character.
We've talked about the importance of creating flaws and weaknesses within our protagonists, which they must fight in order to overcome. A core element in creating a story that makes the best use of your protagonist's flaws is to create a journey that will make it a necessity for the hero to deal with their flaws and weaknesses. For example, one of the greatest flaws (and strengths) in Luke Skywalker is his great passion that will drive him to mistakes (like later trying avenge Ben, and nearly being killed except for his friends dragging him to safety). And so Luke is put on a journey where his emotions will be constantly tested, starting with an event that already has pushed him to his emotional limit. Also the death of his family creates an appeal for the power of the Dark Side to avenge his loved ones, right from the beginning, which Luke must ultimately resist. Carefully craft the event that drives their desires to properly fit the growth you wish to cause. Don't set a martial artist on a quest to stand up to bullies that they can easily defeat, or a genius on a quest that fits neatly within the realm of their expertise. Set them on a journey that will require them to fail, learn from their failure, and finally grow.
Tip 4: Craft the First Turning Point to be a very personal experience.
While the Inciting Incident may be grand in nature—learning that you have super powers, witnessing a zombie outbreak, meeting a cute girl who just moved in next door—remember that your First Turning Point is something smaller and closer to the protagonist's heart. In A New Hope, Luke gets the news of a big galactic struggle and his own potential place within it, which creates an exciting appeal, but the death of his family creates an emotional factor which balances out the excitement and makes us see the character as a real and hurting person like us. Knowing your own protagonist as well as you do, you should know their weaknesses, what they hold dear, as well as to what extreme you want to take them emotionally in your particular story. With those things in mind, play on your protagonist's heart-strings to the level that you want the story to go. Of course if you're writing a farcical, light-humor story about a boy in high-school, you may not want to make his parents get a divorce, as the intensity will drown out the humor and turn it into a dark comedy or a drama. But you may find it appropriate to have him make a fool of himself in front of the girl he's loved all his life.
Tip 5: Finish igniting any remaining, explosive plot-devices from your Beginning.
In the tutorial on writing a Beginning chapter, we discussed implicit promises that we make with elements of our stories—just like the first scene in A New Hope that shows Darth Vader's lightsaber, magic powers, and Stormtroopers as implicit promises to the audience that there will be exciting lightsaber/force battles. Now, some of these promises, like Princess Leia sending her droids to Ben Kenobi for help, are clearly meant to be fulfilled in Act I to help launch the story. So reread your Beginning chapter, and look at all of the setups that you prepared for later scenes (the radioactive spider you let loose in the lab, the man in a trench-coat following your character, and anything else you created to set your character off on their adventure with a bang), and make sure that you have not left anything floating and forgotten. Of course, that doesn't mean you have to reveal everything about every shadow and weirdo in a trench-coat that your protagonist saw (those mysteries can be saved for later), just make sure that you have a satisfying payoff for all of the charged plot elements that have built a specific expectation in your audience for the first Act. By fulfilling these initial promises early on, you are showing your audience that you can be trusted to settle the mysteries and promises that you create later. You are also making sure that they get the punchline of your setups before they stop caring and just want to know the conclusion of the story as a whole; this is a much more important thing to accomplish in a novel, which is much longer and has many more elements for the audience to remember, than a movie.
Tip 6: Realize that you are concluding Act I and end strong.
At the end of Act I, there is a little know pitfall where you are most likely to lose your audience … you might even call this the Danger Zone (you should definitely read this in Kenny Loggins' voice or alternatively Archer's; fight about it in the comments). The Danger Zone occurs during the shift from Act I to Act II, if they feel a subconscious sense of resolution which makes them feel like they can stop reading. Take the death of Luke's Aunt and Uncle, and what might have happened if there had been a funeral scene where Luke and the audience were able to deal with the tension and their own emotions. This would have been a sort of miniature resolution, in which the audience could pause the movie, go and get a snack, get distracted, and never return to the story. Instead, the movie cuts immediately from the deaths to Luke and Ben embarking on their adventure with tensions high and danger on every side. Likewise, the conclusion of your first Act should retain as much tension from both the events of the Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point as possible, creating within your audience a compelling sense that they must press forward for resolution.
Weekly Recommended Reading: "The Killing Joke" by Alan Moore. (Note the Joker's personal story-arch and the very strong difference between the Inciting Incident that begins his life of crime, and the painful First Turning Point, which turns him into the Crowned Prince of Chaos and drives him to make his own story and mark on Gotham.)
Write-A-Novel Exercise 6.3
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(I feel like such a butt when I point out a little error or two like this...)
You have a very valid point about the examples being difficult to understand for those who haven't watched them. However, I've received a lot of feedback from people who have found that the examples make a lot of difference. They take the concepts from just theories to a look at application. I did try to pick one of the most universally known stories in existence, but there will always be those who haven't seen whatever story I use for an example. I do highly recommend that you do watch the first movie, or if you can't/don't have time/don't want to, reading the plot synopsis online. I'll link a good one below.
I personally always try to use multiple small changes/discrepancies in the environment/story before the real turning point, so that the turning point is a bit more foreshadowed as a natural consequence instead of just one big event. Having some early and easily guessed story points can help, because the readers feel more invested if they saw some things coming, because they probably ask themselves if the next thing will play also play out like they think. I hope with those two things together to reduce the loss of readers. The biggest problem of course is, that the first turning point can easily lose impact, if it's not enough change...