Tag Archives: Turning-point

Turning Points

Sharp turn sign

Turning Point

I have talked, more than once, about what constitutes a turning point. This post takes another look at this all important topic, adding what, I hope, is fresh insight.

A turning point, we are reminded, is that moment in the story, when something big happens to spin it around in a new and unexpected direction. I’ve mentioned that this takes the form of new information granted to the protagonist and audience.

I’ve also intimated that an action-orientated turn ought to be supported by a strong inner motivation and goal. I’ve further suggested that such motivation is nested in the inner journey—so, if we draw a line to represent the outer journey as the physical series of actions and events, the inner journey is the line that rides below it in parallel, with the various turning points seen as spiking intersections between the two.

But precisely what form should this new information take? Specifically, should it come from the outer journey–such as the news that a solar flare seems set to destroy the earth, in the filmKnowing, then pull the inner journey closer to it, or should it spring from he inner journey directly, as in Oblivion, when the Tom Cruise character realises that the flashes of memory that have been plaguing him are, in fact, actual memories of his wife (albeit, as we’ll later find out, through the medium of resonance, which unites his clones).

Does it really matter, which comes first, you may well ask, since the outer and inner journeys meet at the turning points anyway? My personal view is that it does. A turning point that comes from the inner journey then lifts to touch the outer journey, contains more of an “Aha” moment. It draws our attention to the character’s background and motivation and makes us care more for her predicament. It makes the action that springs from it more meaningfully, right off the bat, and invites empathy and verisimilitude in our apprehension her response.

Of course, that is not to say that action can’t initiate the turning point then drop down to the inner journey and fuse with it effectively. Action films such as Die Hard and the crop of superhero films such as Batman and Superman. often take that route. Still, letting the turning point spring from the inner journey heightens the authenticity of the protagonist’s actions and may be the more appropriate place to mine for turning points in drama-ordinated genres.

Summary

A turning point that springs directly from the inner journey increases character authenticity and verisimilitude and may be the more appropriate place to mine when writing within drama-orientated genres.

Structuring Act I, etc.

Building Structure

Building Structure

In his book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the first act of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is inflected by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point. The primary function of the first act is to set up the dramatic context for the entire story, introduce the protagonist as well as other important characters, their world, and the goal – that which the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.

Dramatic context

Establishing the dramatic context of the first act means setting up characters, the situation they find themselves in, and the premise of the story: Who is the protagonist? What is at stake? What is the goal? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? And more concisely, what is the dramatic question of this act? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence.

Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I—I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I—I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…” The first act, and indeed, the entire film revolves around that short statement. The film examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?”

Pilot Question

This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question: in the first act there are really two questions: one which quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen) – what I call the pilot question, and a smaller one which concerns itself with the single act; for example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?

The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act

Identifying the dramatic questions of the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic questions of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall, for example, the dramatic question might be, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question might well ask, what is the final straw that finally breaks them up? Our task as writers, therefore, is to lay out the answers to these questions – a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.

Summary

Encapsulating the needs of the first act (and indeed, the second and third acts in general) in terms of a dramatic question helps us focus on the dramatic context of our story and propels us to write material that is purposeful, concise and which keeps our entire story on track.

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How to Avoid the Blank Page

The Blank Page

The Blank Page

In his book,The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field mentions that the great Irish writer, James Joyce, once said that writing is like climbing a mountain. When ascending the rock-face, all you can see is the surface directly in front and behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. Writing is a little like that. All you can see is the page you’re immediately working on.

Pantser or Plotter?

When we sit down to write a screenplay, novel, or short story we are faced with the daunting challenge of having to fill a blank page. Having a story roadmap helps us orientate ourselves and get us to our destination sooner — page by page.

Some writers like to plan the story meticulously before writing down a single word of the actual screenplay or manuscript. Others like to write from the seat of their pants — pantsers in colloquial speech. But even pantsers ought to have some idea of story direction prior to commencing the journey. Having a sense of the overall story’s structure, knowing how our story ends, for example, allows us to to begin charting the protagonist’s journey from page one.

Even more helpful is knowing what the midpoint or turning points are. This allows us even more freedom — the freedom to drop into at any point in the story and write from there. If we are feeling sensitive and soppy today, we might write up the love scenes of our tale; if, on the other hand, we are in the mood for action, the confrontational scene between the Hero and the antagonist might be more appropriate.

Left or Right Brain?

Sitting down to write a story from a structural roadmap, however, often changes the roadmap. Turning points, the midpoint, pinches, even endings, shift, breathe. The structure (essentially a left-brain activity) that we outline in the cool light of day mutates when we massage it back to our right brain and finally onto the screen or paper. Indeed, this is the most common reason pantsers give against pre-planingning story structure.

Yet, a changing structure need not be an argument for not having one at all. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going back and adjusting/rewriting our midpoint, or second turning point, or pinch, according to the new direction that may result from the actual writing of our tale. Indeed, this to and fro movement between our left and right brain hemispheres may help to integrate the writing process and make us more accomplished writers — with only proviso: when letting the muse go, let her go. Don’t put her on the leash of structure. But when she pauses to rest, by all means, look over her shoulder and let the left brain take over for a while. Ideally, this occurs after the first draft has been written, as I have mentioned in a previous post. But there is no reason to assume that we shouldn’t pause to catch our breath from the creative hurly-burly and ponder on the direction of our stories, at any time.

Summary

Having a roadmap for our stories, no matter how scant or vague, helps us to drop in at any point of our protagonist’s journey and write from there. When the muse changes our roadmap in the act of writing itself, simply go back and adjust the map rather than assume it had no value in the first place.

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Exploring the Story Network II

Network Connections

Network Connections

The main structural hoists between the 1st and 2nd turning points are: the 1st pinch, the midpoint, and the 2nd pinch. In this post, we explore the dynamic relationship that exists between these structures.

1st Pinch, 1st Turning Point, & Midpoint

The 1st pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs about halfway through the first part of act ii and the midpoint. It helps to keep things moving by propelling events toward the midpoint and the moment of illumination that occurs there. The 1st pinch feeds off the 1st turning point, reminding us of what is at stake. Its relationship to the 1st turning point, therefore, is not of one of surprise or deviation, but of reiteration. This is because the 1st turning point has already changed the story’s direction and the task of the 1st pinch is to keep the story on track by subtly and adroitly reminding us of this fact, not to surprise us by introducing yet another change in direction.

2nd Pinch & 2nd Turning Point

The 2nd pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs halfway between the midpoint and the end of act ii. As with the 1st pinch, the 2nd pinch keeps the story on track by revisiting, through a single scene, or scene sequence, the (changed) concerns of the story and propels it towards the 2nd turning point. The relationship between the 2nd pinch and the 2nd turning point, however, is now one of deviation and surprise, since the task of the 2nd turning point is to spin the story around in a different direction by introducing a new challenge, or by deepening the existing one in a game of rising stakes.

1st & 2nd Pinch Symmetry

Sometimes a strong symmetry obtains between the 1st and 2nd pinch. In his book, The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field points to an example of such symmetry in the film, Thelma and Louise. The 1st pinch occurs when the two girls pick up J.D. (Brad Pitt) who then proceeds to steal their money (at the Midpoint). The 2nd pinch occurs when J.D. is picked up by the police and rats on the two women by telling the cops that the women are headed for Mexico, thus sealing their fate.

Summary

Pinches 1 & 2 are scenes or scene sequences that keep the story on track by reminding the reader or audience of the central concerns of the story initiated by the 1st turning point. The relationship of the 1st pinch to the 1st turning point is one of reiteration; that of the 2nd pinch to the 2nd turning point is one of surprise and deviation.

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Why Obstacles are Good for Stories: Directing Story Traffic

Obstacles

Obstacles

What is Story Traffic?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the development and structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, which should be as surprising as it is inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience/reader guessing, and inevitable, because it has been deftly prepared for by the writer. Another way to view turning points is as obstacles, blocking the way to the protagonist’s goal, forcing a change in direction.

What of the Midpoint?

Typically, a story contains a beginning, middle, and end, and therefore, two major turning points — one which introduces the middle section (or act ii,) and one which introduces the last section (or act iii). But because this middle section tends to be the longest, it often needs to be split further through the use of a midpoint, also discussed previous posts, in effect, creating two more sections. The midpoint, too, may be regarded as a turning point, with one proviso — that it presents the protagonist with a moral choice, a moment of illumination, which once accepted, changes him. Henceforth, the protagonist’s actions take on board this insight, for good or ill, and guide his actions to the story’s conclusion.

What specific forms, then, do turning points/obstacles take? I offer the following for your consideration:

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journeys respectively. In the best stories, they operate simultaneously. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has then to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has clearly more on his hands than the physical task alone.

Obstacle Types

Obstacles may stop the established external/internal flow of events dead in its tracks, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may reverse the flow completely, in a 180 degree about-turn. What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins.

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Vantage Point and Source Code, to replay the story from the same starting point.

Deflection, or expansion, is by far the most common form of turning point/obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the overall parameters of the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s (Clint Eastwood) intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one, albeit in the same vain.

In Summary

Turning points introduce major new sections of your story by presenting new information that is as surprising as it is inevitable. There are three main types of turning point — dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

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The Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: what are they?

The first significant incident in any story (from a structural point of view), is the initial disturbance that sets everything in motion. In his book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that this disturbance, usually referred to as the inciting incident (in relation to the main plot of your story), is an event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s world. In seeking to restore the balance, he (or she) is forced to respond to the challenge, creating a domino effect, which culminates in the story’s first major turning point.

Magnitude and Direction

While the inciting incident and the first turning point are distinct entities, there exists a strong relationship between them — one of direction and magnitude, mediated by the injection of new information. The inciting incident is a result of the protagonist’s response to an outer (or inner) event, but the respose is either misdirected, or not strong enough to solve the problem or grasp the opportunity at hand. Indeed, the forces that have caused the disturbance, now regather to confront the protagonist more powerfully than before. In the light of additional information, this causes the protagonist to rethink the old goal, or to seek a new one. In this way, the story moves from lower to higher stakes to the first major turning point, the mid-point, the second turning point, and finally, on to the climax and resolution (the subjects of future blogs).

In The Matrix, for example, the inciting incident occurs when Neo meets Trinity in the club. Trinity surprises Neo by pinpointing the foremost question in his mind: what is the Matrix? This question is answered when Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the blue and red pills – essentially to choose between continuing to live a life of illusion or waking up to the truth in “the desert of the real”. Neo, of course, chooses the red pill. This choice/action bundle constitutes the first major turning point and leads directly to the end of the first act: Neo’s connection to the Matrix is broken and his body and mind are jettisoned into the real world. The question raised by the inciting incident – what is the Matrix – now becomes, how does Neo defeat the agent Smith and machines? These questions frame the dramatic context of future events and help to keep the story on track.

In Summary

The relationship between the inciting incident and the first tuning point is one of magnitude and direction. The inciting incident introduces the initial disturbance and asks an early version of the dramatic question, while the first turning point increases the stakes and reframes the question in the light of new information – a question answered only at the story’s climax and resolution. Mastering the use of these two important structural entities will help you launch your stories and keep them on track.