Stories depend on twists and turns to deliver their content in an engaging way. But what’s the difference between a turning point and a twist? Let’s look into it.
In her book Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seeger gives us six attributes that define a turning point: 1. Turns the action in a new direction. 2. Ushers us into a new arena and a new focus for the action. 3. The protagonist makes a new decision or commitment . 4. Raises the central question again. 5. Ups the stakes. 6. Propels the story into the next act.
Seger states that the turning point is not a surprise although how it is executed may be. That’s because the turning point has been prepared for—through the inciting incident for example, or other foreshadowing elements.
In Dead Poet’s Society the boys going to the cave has been prepared for by earlier scenes: The boys discover John Keating’s Year Book and ask him about it. Keating mentions that the cave was where the dead poet’s society used to meet. This sets up the context for Act II and the resulting conflict between creativity versus conformity, the theme of the story, that is to be unleashed. The cave scene, then, leads the story in a new but not unexpected direction.
“A turning point steers the story in a new direction, usually prepared for earlier. A twists uncovers a gut-wrenching emotion through exposing a secret that has the penny drop.”
The twist by contrast differs from the turning point in these ways: Twists are almost always rooted in secrets. Specifically, the twist is an action or event which reveals that things are not what everyone thought them to be. It is the moment when the penny drops—the moment in The Sixth Sense, when Malcolm Crowe realises that he is dead, the moment when a puzzle is suddenly solved as in Chinatown when Evelyn Mulvaney gives up of her shameful secret that Katherine Cross is both her daughter and her sister as a result of her father’s incestuous acts with her. Her shocking revelation explains Evelyn’s obfuscating behaviour, her seeming lies, her stutter upon the mention of the word ‘father’, and the like.
Here’s what you need to know about writing secrets and have them drive your twists: 1. What is the purpose of the secret? 2. Whose secret is it? 3. Who is unaware of the secret? 4. When should the secret be revealed? 5. To whom is the secret first revealed, and why?
Typically, then, the twist may occur near a turning point in a story, but it’s most important differentiation from the turning point is that it delivers a gut-wrenching emotion, couched in past secrets, that sheds light upon hitherto unexplained action.
Turning points steer the action in new directions prepared for earlier. Twists expose secrets and create powerful emotions through surprise.