Before I cover turning points I need to go over short definitions of external and internal as it relates to fiction. Simple definitions:
External is tangible.
Internal is intangible.
External is the gun pointed at the heroine’s head.
Internal is the fear the heroine feels though she’s starting to feel a little courageous.
External is the heroine grabbing for the gun.
Internal is the way heroine feels now that she has finally stood up for herself.
In a story the external conflict feeds into the internal conflict. Same with plot points. You not only have to look at what happens, but how the character feels while it’s happening.
What does that have to do with turning points?
The mainstream definition of a turning point is a point in a story when the character’s path is redirected in a new and unexpected way. It’s a good core definition, but what does a turning point consist of?
The basic ingredients: an action and a reaction. A turning point is an external change that creates an internal change. It’s the point of the story when Dorothy makes a cameo to say, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
So, turning points can also be thought of as points of no return. Once a character has passed them she can never go back. In every sense, Dorothy couldn’t go back home. She couldn’t un-see in color again. It's like graduating from high school or being at your high school weight—it's never going to happen again.
The Touchstone To Turning Points:
Again, the core understanding of a turning point is that it's a changed action that changes the character’s reaction. Something happens in the story and the character reacts to it on the page.
Like most structural tools, it's a step by step progression from point A to point B. How the character would react on page 1 is not how they would react on page 350.
Turning Points Serve Other Functions
1. Turning Points raise the stakes.
At each interval a turning point threatens the character’s want. In The Mummy, the heroine wants greater recognition, specifically from her intellectual peers. The heroine cannot get that if she believes in curses and mummies. If they do exist, she can’t get that if she were the one to actually release the plague against humanity. Oh wow, curses and mummies do exist and now she has bigger troubles–saving all of humanity. If she can save the world how could her intellectual peers not give her the accolades?
2. Turning Points helps your pacing.
The dreaded, sagging middle didn’t get its name because it’s pleasant for everyone to write. (Yes, I’ve met some authors who love to write the middle.) Doesn't matter if you're writing 30,000 or 100,000 words, the middle is an oasis of words. If you're building toward a changed action and reaction it can serve as a guidepost.
How exciting could a trek through the desert be? As with The Mummy it can turn out to be a horrifying experience. The heroine watches as the villain sets out to kill the hero and her brother. Not only that the mousy, clumsy librarian can be more than a damsel in distress. She can attempt to distract the villain so that the hero and her brother can get a chance to defeat the second plague on Earth.
3. Turning Points show progress within the character.
Series can be frustrating because it can seem like the character has learned absolutely nothing from their experiences. If you read book 1 you're reading the same type of character in book 6.
If you're reading a novel that stands alone it can feel the same way if the character doesn’t change. Unless that is the author’s purpose. Stasis can be very frustrating to a reader. Turning points serve as checkpoints to the character’s growth. Turning points show the reader how the character is striving for what they want and the obstacles they're facing to get it. Each change should show the progress the character is making to who they need to be.
What Is The Action and Reaction?
This is the hardest question to answer, because it depends on your character and where they are in the story.
Imagine her (insert your character’s name) in front of a locked door. Your character has to open it. There are a million things she would do, except one.
Under any other circumstances the character would walk away, but what's behind that locked door is what they have to have. It’s the universal question of what do I have to do in order to get what I want? For you, the author, it’s showing what the character needs to do and them refusing to do it. What is the million things they would do? What is the one thing they will never do? That never is what the character fears the most. It's the fear she faces at each turning point. It’s the need of her overall goal.
The commitment-phobe would have to face committing. This fear can be embodied as inheriting a house from her beloved mother. If a cousin had willed the heroine the house she would have sold it without an ounce of guilt. So, she bargains with herself. I'll stay for X amount of time to clean it out so I can rent the house, then I'm out of here.
Let's call that the established reaction. It's what the character would normally do. Also, let's call this character Mel. This house is in a small town where she grew up.
1st turning point: Mel finds out the house is in disrepair. It needs to be fixed before she can get a decent price for rent. The established reaction would be to bulldoze the home and sell the land for a pretty penny.
The problem is it's her mother's house. The same house Mel grew up in. Under these circumstances she can't make that choice. Mel's reaction is to repair the house, but no way is she staying for a minute longer.
2nd turning point: Though Mel has tried to avoid making friends, or connecting with old ones, she's really starting to like the people in town. Mel starts to understand why her mother stayed here until she died. Still that doesn't mean she's not leaving. She's enjoying herself. That's all.
3rd turning Point: The repairs on the house are almost finished. She finds a photo album that brings up old memories of why she left in the first place, and why she doesn't need to commit to this town or house. Despite being faced with her reasons for the established reaction, the stirring to stay gets stronger.
4th turning point: The house is ready. She has potential renters in sight. The plane ticket out of there is burning a hole in her pocket. Where Mel's headed no one who knows her. No one who would care to bring her chicken noodle soup if she's sick. Can she go back to that existence?
I'm going to stop here and let that disgust for a bit. Next up will be figuring out what IS a turning point within your story. There's a big difference in knowing what a turning point is and pointing at one and say that's a turning point. Some writers, bless them, make it clearly obvious. I have a love/hate relationship with those writers. Yes, it's great I can see your turning point, but I've stopped reading the story to go Hey, there's a turning point. As a reader I like my stories to be seamless. I don't want to see the man behind the curtain. But, of course, I love to see the character is progressing.
That's for the next blog post. As usual I'm more than open to questions or outright disagreement. Do so in the comments.
[I've got a rambling turning point break down for The Mummy and Back to the Future. Other people may see the turning points differently, but these are the ones I think the story hangs on. Follow the Google Doc link. ]