Saturday, December 28, 2013

On Turning Points, and Small, Non-Act Defining Ones Especially.

One of the books I've read recently has been "The Rook". Despite being mostly exposition and talking, it managed to hold my attention so completely that I finished all just-under-500-pages in a day. It's about a woman who wakes up with no memory, and only letters from her previous self to guide her through the totally bizarre world which she apparently used to help run. There's not a lot of action, most of what goes on is internal, and takes part in offices and in letters from her previous self. There are a few notable exceptions, but it is largely much more a political thriller/mystery than an action novel.

 So I went about looking for what kept me interested. And it was quite straight forwards: I was introduced into a world I knew nothing about, and every time I got used to everything, something happened which would either propel me further into the world and the politics, or would force a turning point.

Now, to define turning points as I see them: they rely heavily on character choice and resolution. They are, essentially, the character changing their mind about how to solve their major problem. This can either come as an active choice:
  •  I did this before, it's not working, time to try something different 
 As resolution by the character:
  • I've been thinking about this, now it's time to fully commit to this action.
Ideally, a turning point also represents the growth a character has undergone.Their decision or resolution is a result of all that has come before.

You can find them in every story - to make an example of Harry Potter - the first turning point is where he agree to go to Hogwarts. Second one is where the trio decide to go and fetch the Philosopher's Stone for themselves. The third is when he decides not to hand the stone over the Voldermort.

None of these would have been possible without all that had come before. If Harry hadn't spent his life being mistreated by his aunt and uncle, and hadn't just been dragged around the countryside for a month and had his birthday completely forgotten, his decisions about going to Hogwarts might have been different. He may have made the same decision "go to Hogwarts", but with different implications. He may have kept in touch with a nicer family, may have been less desperate for acceptance and friendship when he showed up in his new world. His second major decision, to go get the Philsopher's Stone himself, would not have happened without everything that went on before that - finding out about the Philospher's Stone, facing the troll and Fluffy with Ron and Hermione, having Ron and Hermione there to back him up.

And the third major turning point would not have happened if he hadn't created a place and a family for himself in this new world. He might well have accepted Quirrel's offer.

But these are the major turning points. They are the decisions that bookend acts. What about in between? Especially in books, which tend to be longer than movies. Are there smaller turning points within acts?

I would argue, that yes, there are. Not every decision in a story changes the entire direction of the story, but they do make an impact on the character, and what they try next. They are not
  • What do I have to do differently to solve this big massive problem?
They are instead:
  • What do I have to do differently or strengthen my resolve in to resolve this issue in front of me right now?

And that's what The Rook did well. There was one scene in particular, where the MC acted differently from how those around her expected her to, given how her previous self had acted. And the MC, despite the danger of someone discovering that she'd had her memory wiped, resolved to act how she wished to act, not how her predecessor had.

Now, this decision didn't change the way the story played out, but it did foreshadow other major decisions and changes of direction. The character took charge of her narrative, and it led her onto her next set of actions.

These smaller turning points, when I looked at the book, popped up every 30 pages or so.  They weren't huge, I wasn't getting whiplash from a rapidly changing story, but they were there, and they were interesting enough that I would then read the next 30 pages to witness the consequences of that choice. And then another turning point would pop up, and I'd want to see the emotional consequences of that decision.

This interests me, because previously I'd been led to believe that turning points only came at the end of acts. But if you look at any story (of sizable length), you will see more than three turning points. You just can't go for 50,000 words without the characters making decisions of import.

So what can we learn from this? Well, I made a short list:

  1. Keep your characters involved and active in their destinies. Whatever the circumstances, have them make decisions about what to do
  2. this will depend largely on the type of novel you're writing, but I think a good rule of thumb is to put a small turning point every time the consequences from your MC's last major decision have run their course.
  3. Try and give these turning points emotional resonance. Irregardless how small, they should both impact on the character, and show the impact of the last run of events. The decisions the character makes 60000 words in won't be the decisions they made 30000 words in.
So yes. Things to keep in mind I think. I hope everyone is enjoying their holidays, and writing all the words.

See ya invisible readers :D

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