The turning point in a beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot or Story is the moment when new information comes to the fore and a character can’t help but react. This is where the rubber meets the road in a story. Without clearly defined and surprising turning points, the reader/audience will lose interest. Quickly.
I’m writing an entire post on turning point and putting it just after Progressive Complications for a reason. Turning points are sort of the little buddies of complication. They are the little choices that a writer makes that drive progressive complications, the nails that put the progressively larger complication building blocks in place in a Story.
There are only two ways you can create a turning point in an event.
The event can turn with:
- Character Action
One of the best ways to tell if your scenes are working is to pinpoint the exact place (the exact beat/s and the precise place in those beats) when the story turns. It will be the place when something unexpected happens.
To give you a very obvious example, there is a scene in the screenplay Zero Dark Thirty where the female protagonist (Jessica Chastain) has a friendly meeting/dinner date with a colleague (Jennifer Ehle). These are the highest ranking women in the Islamabad CIA station and it’s their infrequent chance to blow off some steam. Our hero is a workaholic and through great effort she finally pulls herself away from her desk and arrives late for the dinner. There is an awkward moment between the two like the one we all feel when we are reintroduced to a person we don’t know well. You can’t yell at the acquaintance for being late, but you don’t want them to think they can treat you as a second-class citizen either. That sub-textual tension is palpable in the scene as it plays in the film.
At last the two relax and as they drink a glass of wine together the audience settles in for what they expect will be the typical “girl talk” scene. The audience is expecting these two to commiserate about how shitty it is that they are the only women in the station and how the men treat them poorly and they get no support and blah blah blah. We all like this kind of scene when it’s done well, especially after the mini-drama of the protagonist even making it to the dinner itself. As they pick up their wine, we, the audience, are looking forward to a relaxation of physical action in the storyline and the opportunity to eavesdrop on a juicy conversation.
And we get some of that…but just before the scene goes on too long, while the Jennifer Ehle character is tipping back her second glass of wine, there is a massive explosion. The entire room completely disintegrates. The lights go out, fires erupt etc.
Obviously the scene has completed turned from the action of two people getting to know each other over light dinner conversation to the action of urgency for survival. The two agents have to get the Hell out of there before another bomb goes off. The audience is grabbed by the throat and surprised by the revolutionary shift in the scene. The turning point shakes the audience up as they breathlessly go on the ride with the two women as they sort themselves out and find a passageway to safety.
This is an example of a Character Action turning point scene. In an act of terrorism, the major antagonists in the story, Al Qaeda, have bombed a hotel. This is extra-personal conflict antagonism at a very high level. This kind of turn on big action is one often used for an act climax. It’s shocking and changes the entire specter of the story.
What is an example of a smaller turning point that is not a “big moment” story event but still emblematic of a character action turning point? There is a wonderful moment in the movie The Way We Were that turns the scene with a very subtle action.
Again, the setting is a restaurant/bar. Barbra Streisand plays the lead character Katie Morosky. She’s a nice, hardworking Jewish girl from Brooklyn who has entered a blue blood university in New England. She works at the local diner to pay her way through school. She is infatuated with an All American blond blue-eyed young man in her class, Robert Redford’s Hubble Gardiner.
In the Story, both Streisand and Redford are studying to be writers. She’s the grinder type who busts her ass with every word, sentence and paragraph…relentlessly editing her work intellectually. He’s a natural. He doesn’t sweat. He seemingly sits down, the Gods descend, and he bangs out brilliant short stories.
She hates him for it but also can’t help but be attracted to him. Why has God given such gifts to someone so privileged by birth?
So one night…it’s late…Streisand has just finished her nightly shift and she’s walking back to her campus dorm room. Up ahead, she sees Redford, sitting alone outside a restaurant with a pitcher of beer. He’s too much of a temptation. She needs to keep focused. And she’s embarrassed too for being such a grind and loser poor girl from the neighborhood. So she crosses the street so that she doesn’t have to walk by him.
As she clicks her heels on the opposite sidewalk, Redford calls out to her.
The problem with some people is they work to hard.
He gets her to cross the street. You can tell he thinks she’s the greatest thing on earth and he’s just drunk enough to let her know that. But he’s as insecure and pathetic as she is. He sees himself as a huge fraud, someone given so much for doing far too little. His gifts have not been earned like Streisand’s. He’s just one of the lucky ones and he finds his life and the life of his friends rather absurd. She’s the real deal.
To gain her admiration he tells her that he’s just sold a short story. He knows that she’s the only one who would be impressed by such a thing and he gets her to share a beer with him in celebration.
After some flirty chit-chat, Streisand begs off. She’s gotta get back and do her homework. But before she can get away, Redford tells her to stop. The audience thinks maybe he’s going to kiss her and declare his love for her. But instead he takes another action that tells the audience everything they need to know about him.
He sticks out his leg and tells her Put your foot here. She does. He ties her shoelace very tightly and says:
Go get ‘em, Katie.
This is also a scene that turns on character action. The big action of the scene is Redford’s character tying the shoe of Streisand’s character, instead of telling her how he feels about her. He sends her on her way content that there is someone wonderful in the world to take on the big battles that he is too cowardly to fight himself. He’s fine resting on his freely given gifts, getting drunk and feeling superior to everyone else because he “sees through” the bullshit. He will never take up the sword like this woman will and he accepts that about himself.
This scene occurs in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and it pays off in a huge way by the end. It leads to an end that is both surprising and inevitable.
Okay, so if those are two examples of scenes that turn on Action, what are examples of scenes that turn on revelation?
There is a wonderful small scene in Chinatown that is a perfect example of revelation.
Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes. He’s caught up in the investigation of the murder of a wealthy man in Los Angeles. He’s at the home of the victim, waiting to interview his widow. As he waits in the backyard garden, there is a Chinese gardener tending a lush natural pool of water. He’s pulling out sod that surrounds the pool and notices Gittes looking at him perplexed.
Gittes has actually spotted something in the water and is focusing his attention on whatever it is, but the gardener thinks he’s questioning him about why he’s pulling up the sod.
Bad for the glass. the gardener says in rough English.
Huh says Gittes.
Salt water, bad for the glass.
Yeah, bad for the glass. Gittes repeats.
Gittes then asks the gardener to fish out what he’s sighted in the pool. The gardener does so, handing him a broken set of spectacles.
The beat ends as the widow (Faye Dunaway) enters, greeting Gittes in dressage gear.
This small scene turns on two seemingly irrelevant revelations that will later have a huge impact on the story. Gittes doesn’t know at the time how the victim was killed (he drowned). And again, this scene, like the one in The Way We Were comes very early in the movie and seems sort of off-handed. But the revelations in this exchange between two people who work for the powerful (a private investigator and a gardener) are the key to the entire murder mystery.
The turning point revelations are that the pool in the backyard garden is saltwater and that there was a pair of the murdered man glasses at the bottom of the pool. Gittes eventual pulls those two pieces of information together and solves the case.
One last example of revelation turning a scene comes from The Great Gatsby.
One day, Gatsby invites his neighbor Nick Carraway for lunch in the city. Carraway arrives and finds Gatsby sitting with an elderly gentleman. He joins the two men. Carraway notices that the man has a set of cuff links made of human molar teeth and that there’s something quite peculiar about the relationship between the Oxford educated Gatsby and this rather common figure. At last the man rises to take his leave and Caraway asks Gatsby who the man was.
Why that’s the man who fixed the 1908 World Series…
This revelation that Gatsby is closely associated with an organized crime figure turns the scene and the overall story. We don’t need to know anything more about how Gatsby has found his fortune. He openly consorts with gangsters.
Character action and revelation are the only way to turn scenes.
When you edit your work, put each of your scenes under a microscope and see where you’ve turned your scenes and by what method you’ve done so. If they turn on Action, Action, Action, Action and you infrequently use Revelation, guess what? The reader/audience will get frustrated. Your book or screenplay will seem “overly plotted, making it hard to suspend disbelief”
Similarly if you turn all of your scenes with Revelation, Revelation, Revelation, your story will seem, and most likely will be, melodramatic. It will feel like a telenovela/soap opera because there is no let up on new information. Either way, if you do not regulate your turning points, your work will lack narrative drive…that magic stuff that keeps people turning pages.
The key is to find a compelling mix between how your beats, scenes, sequences and acts turn. If your Act One Crisis scene turns on Revelation, your might want to consider turning your Act One Climax scene on Action and vice versa. If you hear comments from others like “something just doesn’t feel right” about your story, it could be a turning point problem.
Taking an analytical approach to your work when you put on your editor hat is very important. It will help you find out what the problems are in your story, so that you can fix them. It’s like a weird noise in your car. You need to find out what the problem is before you can fix it. This is what the analytical/editor mind is all about.
And as always, for new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, here are the previous Story Grid posts in sequential order, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 30, 31 and 32.