I promised to put this up and then forgot. I’m scum. Eventually we’ll get a PDF up on the website, but until then:
A story is a sequence of events generated by
a protagonist pursuing a goal and
an antagonist pursuing the same or different goal that crosses and blocks the protagonist.
So the story is a series of escalating battles between the protagonist and the antagonist in pursuit of their goal(s) that ends in a final battle from which only one emerges the winner.
The problem is that the longer the protagonist pursues the goal, the longer the story runs, and the more sag it develops as the pursuit is stretched out, leading the reader to tire of the chase and ask “Are we there yet? But if you can turn the story in a new direction with higher stakes, essentially beginning a new story that’s a more exciting continuation of the old, the reader is hooked again and digs deeper into the narrative.
Or to go back to “Are we there yet?”, it’s two hundred miles to Grandma’s house.
At the sixty mile mark, we stop for lunch.
At the hundred and ten mile mark, we stop for ice cream.
At the hundred and sixty mile mark, we stop for the zoo.
And at two hundred miles, we arrive at Grandma’s.
We started out going to Grandma’s house and we ended at Grandma’s house (we kept the same overall goal) but along the way things happened that were interesting and made the ride seem brand new each time we got back in the car again. But that example isn’t quite right either, because each turning point not only refreshes the reader and sends him or her off on a new trip, it also increases the stakes and the tension. So for that, think of each turning point as the place where you shift the plot car you’re driving into a higher gear until you’re going flat out full power into the climax.
So what are turning points?
They’re events in the action of the plot where something happens that turns the story around in a new direction, raising the stakes and creating a new, more difficult struggle for the protagonist and, in turn, for the antagonist.
You can diagram a story in five turning points:
The Struggle Begins: The Protagonist is living in her normal world when something happens, preferably on the first page, that turns her life around and starts her battle with the antagonist.
Then at about 30% of the story in . . .
The First Complication (or First Turning Point) turns the story in a new direction again, raising the stakes because of the new information, new pressure to fight back.
Then at about 55% of the story in . . .
The Point of No Return (or Second Turning Point) turns the story in a new direction again, and this time the impact is so great that the protagonist changes so much (has changed so much over the first half of the book due to her struggle) that she can’t go back to where she was before.
Then at about 80% of the story in . . .
The Crisis or Dark Moment (or Third Turning Point) turns the story in a new direction again, almost defeating the protagonist, making her revise everything she’s learned as she symbolically goes to hell and then rises again at the end of the story or . . .
The Climax or The Final Battle (or Fourth Turning Point) when the story turns once more, ending with the protagonist in a new but stable situation.
Obviously those percentages are completely optional, as are the number of turning points. (Actually, everything is completely optional; it’s your book, you can write it any way you want.) But as a tool for revising a sagging plot, turning points that are spaced so that they grow closer together with each turn will increase the pace of a story while also increasing the pressure on a protagonist.
Finally in between those turning points are acts, big chunks of story that create the anticipation (audiences like to guess what’s going to happen next) of a probable outcome and that then surprise the audience and reverse the anticipation at the turning point. Each act also raises stakes, forces the protagonist to take greater and greater actions in pursuit of her goal, and shows evidence that the protagonist is changing (aka character arc).
Or to put it another way:
Turning points should be used as a tool to shape a rough first draft or to solve pacing problems or to give you a way to stand back from your story and analyze it. They’re tools, not rules. Use what works for you and discard the rest.