As readers, we want stories to keep us intrigued and excited. So as fiction writers, we often ask ourselves what makes a book unputdownable.
The answer to that is ensuring your story is full of twists and turns – in other words, are there enough compelling turning points in your story to keep readers guessing and turning the pages?
Every character in fiction reaches a decisive moment where they are forced to act – a crossroad which is destined to take the story in a new direction. But what is the best way to introduce those moments to your story and where do you place them?
In this guide, I will be explaining what the turning point of a story is, with plenty of literary examples, and will outline a step-by-step process to help you incorporate turning points in your novel.
What Is A Turning Point In A Novel?
A turning point in a story is a moment in the plot when a character must make a decision that will change the course of the story.
Every turn involves decisive change and either helps with character development or keeps the story moving. The choices the characters in your story make will change the direction of the plot and, in turn, their future.
Sometimes that decision is theirs alone, and sometimes external factors or events may force their hand. Every turning point in a story – whether it’s an obstacle, a choice or a decision – should be a point of no return.
Before you start coming up with your own ideas, it helps to study well-known stories as examples. Let’s focus on a fun classic.
The Wizard of Oz is full of turning points. Dorothy is on a literal journey, after all, and that yellow brick road is full of twists, turns and crossroads. No matter how much a character tries, they mustn’t be able to go backwards.
After all, had Dorothy been able to return to Kansas as soon as she’d landed in Oz, there would be no story!
Meeting the Witch of the North, being given her ruby slippers, following the yellow brick road, meeting her new friends, having to steal the Wicked Witch of the East’s broomstick, getting trapped in the castle, discovering that the wizard isn’t real – these are all turning points in the story.
Some of these moments create character development, some move the plot forward, and some add to the tension – but either way… there’s no way back… so let’s keep going.
How Does The Turning Point Affect The Whole Story?
If a turning point in your book doesn’t effect the whole story, then it’s not a turning point – it’s just a choice.
The first and major turning point in most books is the inciting incident; what some writers refer to as ‘the call to adventure.’
If we return to Oz, we will see that Dorothy’s main turning point is that she’s been magically transported from her mundane life on a Kansas farm to the colourful and magical world of Oz.
The original movie version makes that turning point incredibly helpful for viewers to spot as they literally turn her old black and white life into technicolour splendour.
Arriving in a new world, having accidentally killed a witch with her house, and then agreeing to follow the yellow brick road in order to return home is the major turning point in the story. Without that there is no story.
Much like in The Wizard of Oz, you need to ensure that the turning points in your novel affect the overall story. If, at any point, the character can make a different choice or the event has no effect on character arcs, then it’s not a turning point.
How Many Turning Points Are In A Novel?
A traditional story has five turns, most of which move the action from one scene to another.
First of all, let us look at the three-act structure and how a story has a beginning, middle and end (and how the turning points can help readers move from one to the other).
Every Story Has Three Acts
In act one we meet the main character and the rest of the cast. We see what life was like before the inciting incident (ie what they have to lose or need to change). We then see the character presented with the first turning point – the crux of the story – the catalyst.
In The Wizard of Oz, act one ends with Dorothy finding herself in the fantasy world of Oz. The tornado that got her there was an external driving force and a turning point. Straight away she wants to go home (who wouldn’t?) and that’s when she meets a good witch and is told about the yellow brick road.
The choice to follow the yellow brick road is Dorothy’s call to adventure, her literal first step on her journey to reach her goal.
In any story, after some deliberation, the main character must choose to go forward with that decision and that takes them to act two.
This takes you to a complete change of scene.
Act two is when most of the action happens. This is the part full of adventure, trials and tribulations, the biggest obstacles, new characters, conflict, and lots of lessons learned.
Within act two we should see turning points that confront the protagonist and help their character arc develop.
In Dorothy’s case, she meets the cowardly lion, the scarecrow with no brain, and the tin man with no heart. She has scary run-ins with the Wicked Witch of the West, and, when she finally reaches the Emerald City, discovers that the wizard is a fake.
This is another turning point, which leads us to the next act…
The final act is when all feels lost and the goal of the story is slipping through the protagonist’s hands. Then the hero makes a decision which should be the culmination of all they have learned on their journey, helped by their self-realisation and a new-found strength.
This is when Dorothy has to escape the witch and kill her, tells her friends they always had the courage, brains and compassion they were seeking, and realises she also had the power to go home all along.
Now we can clearly see how a story has three acts, let’s look at the five turning points within those acts (and remember this applies as much to novel writing as it does to screenplays and playwriting).
Five Classic Turning Points:
1. The Inciting Incident
This is the first plot point. Without this part, there would be no story.
Dorothy lands in Oz, meets a good witch and takes the dead witch’s red shoes.
2. A Goal
This is the whole point of the story, the part when the hero decides what they want and what they must do to get it.
Dorothy must follow the yellow brick road to the wizard in order to get home.
3. The Midpoint
The hero goes from knowing what they want, to realising what they need. They may, and should, still waver and struggle a little, but we’re heading towards the climax and all is going well.
Dorothy has finally found the wizard! He tells her that to get home she must steal the Wicked Witch’s broomstick. She heads for the castle… and gets captured.
4. The Dark Night Of The Soul
This is where the bad guy gets the upper hand and our hero reaches rock bottom – when they (and the reader) think they will fail. The falling action.
It’s at this point that we reach the ‘final push’ when the hero must dig deep and use all their strength, knowledge and resources gathered on their journey to take action.
Dorothy sees a vision of her Aunt Em and finds the strength to get back home.
5. The Climax
This is the final plot point which leads to the falling action and then the very end (the denouement). This is the part of the story where the turning point decides whether the hero wins or loses.
Dorothy returns to the wizard, discovers the truth, and realises her ruby slippers could have gotten her home at any point.
Without that last turning point, the story would not be complete.
What Makes A Good Turning Point?
Although the above is quite formulaic, the turning point can happen at any time in the story.
The most important thing to remember is that the turning point changes everything – whether it literally changes the direction the hero is going in, provides a new perspective, reveals crucial information, or changes the trajectory of the story.
Before we learn what a turning point should include, let’s look at the type of turning points that exist.
Here are five turning points that you may find in a good story.
5 Different Types Of Turning Points
Every single one of these turning points either moves the plot forward, teaches the hero something, or develops their character arcs. And don’t forget – there’s no going back!
Here are some examples…
Most stories start with an opportunity (often the inciting incident) which leads to a turn in the story.
- Harry discovers he’s a wizard and gets invited to wizard school.
- Frodo is tasked with taking the ring to Mordor,
The hero learns something, or they figure something out, which forces them to make a decision.
- Romeo falls in love with Juliet then realises she’s a Capulet.
- Dorothy discovers that her shoes could have gotten her home all along.
The main character sacrifices themselves to achieve their goals or save someone they love.
- Katniss volunteers for The Hunger Games in place of her sister.
- Ariel gives up her voice to become human.
The Leap Of Faith
Our hero takes a gamble and hopes it pays off.
- Cinderella goes to the ball.
- Macbeth meets three witches and believes their predictions.
The protagonist has an opportunity to change their situation.
- Aladdin rubs the lamp.
- Pi jumps into the lifeboat with all the wild animals.
What A Turning Point Should Achieve
Most stories include a number of major turning points which affect the rest of the story, keep the reader intrigued and drive the plot forward.
But what are the rules to writing great turning points? What should they achieve?
It Must Fit Into The Story
All turning points should be relevant to the plot of the story.
For example, the hero shouldn’t choose to chase an elephant and ride into town on its back unless the elephant, and the town, are crucial to the storyline (even if it makes for a fun visual).
The Character Should Be Challenged
Don’t make it easy for them. All main characters need to confront obstacles and face pinch points that will determine their future and move the story along.
The Little Mermaid wouldn’t be much of a story if she got her human legs but also kept her voice and was able to easily explain her situation to the prince.
Changes The Course Of The Plot
Every story needs conflict.
That doesn’t mean every story needs a battle or fight scene; the conflict can be emotional or spiritual, but the hero needs to find resistance. Which means every story turn must change the course of the action and move the plot forward.
If Romeo hadn’t agreed to go to the party, he wouldn’t have met Juliet. If he hadn’t killed her cousin, he wouldn’t have been banished. If he’d received the message from the priest he would have known she was faking death and he wouldn’t have taken his own life.
Keeps The Reader Hooked
It’s the sweet irony and frustration of twists and turns in a story that keeps the reader turning the pages and the viewer in their seat.
The highest tension leads to decisions and choices that drive the plot forward and deepen the hero’s experience.
If a turning point doesn’t lead to excitement of some kind, then the reader won’t care… and nobody wants that!
What’s The Difference Between A Turning Point And A Plot Twist?
One changes the course of a story (a turning point) and the other is a reveal/shock factor (a plot twist).
Here are some examples from Romeo And Juliet…
A turning point can be a plot twist: Romeo discovering Juliet is a Capulet.
You can have a twist that isn’t a turning point: Tybalt kills Mercutio.
And a twist can lead to a turning point: Romeo gets his revenge, kills Tybalt, and is banished from Verona.
See how you can combine the two and keep the pace of the story going, without having so many twists and turns that you exhaust the reader or lose credibility.
What’s The Difference Between A Turning Point And The Climax?
A good turning point can be found at any point of the story, whereas the climax is only ever at the end. The climax itself doesn’t have to be a turning point, often it’s a natural conclusion, although you can have a turning point leading up to the climax that changes everything.
As mentioned above, the ‘will they won’t they’ aspect of Romeo And Juliet keeps the audience guessing all the way through.
The climax is Romeo learning that his love is dead and killing himself, with the added twist of Juliet waking up, seeing he’s dead, and killing herself too.
But the final turning point is that the grief felt by both the Montages and Capulets brings the warring family together in a way love never could.
That’s what makes this play not a love story, but a tragedy.
5 Tips For Writing Great Turning Points
It Must Be Earned By The Character
Don’t make the turning point convenient for the plot. The hero must reach the point of no return through hard work, sacrifice and character building determination.
Katniss has to be physically and mentally strong to beat her opponents in The Hunger Games. Her realisations are turning points, but she suffers a lot to reach them.
It Develops The Character Arc
A character doesn’t grow and develop in just one scene. Their journey needs to be both physical and metaphorical.
Ensure your turning points help the characters learn something about themselves – by the end of the story they should be a very different person to the character in chapter one.
Frodo doesn’t return to the Shire the same little Hobbit he was when he left the comfort of home with his best friend.
Your turning point has to weave the story together, so it makes sense to plot and plan ahead. Ask yourself how your hero is going to get from one part of the story to the other.
Give them a goal, send them on a journey, decide how they will achieve that goal – then add all the turning points that will decide the course of the story.
Don’t worry about the details at this point of plotting, simply ask yourself whether they need to make a choice, a sacrifice, learn something new, or realise something.
Don’t Force It
Although each turning point should up the stakes and keep readers on the edge of their seats, never force a turning point into a scene if it doesn’t fit.
Great pacing means also having quiet moments in a story where nice things happen and everything is going to plan, as well as sections full of rising action, obstacles and decisions.
As long as you know your character well and they have a goal, some of the turning points may evolve naturally as you write the novel.
No Turning Back
I’ve said it once, and I shall say it again – there should be no way the character can return to the old status quo!
Cinderella doesn’t have the choice to have a quiet night in instead of going to the ball; her Fairy Godmother wouldn’t have allowed it. Romeo has no choice but to leave Verona when he’s banished. And Katniss can’t change her mind about taking part in The Hunger Games.
Your story can only go in one direction after each turning point… and that’s onwards!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is A Turning Point Example?
A turning point in a story is a moment in time when something occurs that causes a shift or an irrevocable change in direction.
In literature, that turning point may be a call to adventure, a choice they are given, a sacrifice they make, a realisation or a decision.
What Is The Turning Point In A Scene?
A turning point in a story can occur at any moment – whether that’s within an act, a chapter, or a scene.
In any story, the change from one scene to another is often caused by a change in direction (this can be seen visually on stage or in a movie).
A great example of this is when Alice falls down the rabbit hole, the scene (and her surroundings) change dramatically. Or when Charlie wins the golden ticket and visits the chocolate factory – a completely different world to the one he was familiar with. Or when Romeo decides to join his friends at the Capulet party – again, the scene changes and so does the course of his life.
In most of these cases it’s a transitionary moment from act one to act two, but that scene change can occur at any point of the story with many other turning points ahead.
What Is The First Turning Point?
The first turning point is the inciting incident.
This is the part of the story where the hero goes from living their normal existence to setting off on a quest/adventure/seeking a goal following a choice or external occurrence that forces them to step into a whole new world. This new world isn’t always literal- unless you’re writing fantasy- but it is generally outside of their comfort zone.
It’s this initial push, that first turning point, and gets the story going.
As novelists we are always striving to be better writers, because there is always something new to learn when it comes to structuring and planning a novel. So I hope this guide to turning points has been helpful.
Next time you are reading a book, or watching a movie or play, see if you can spot each turning point. Are they all irreversible? Are they believable? Do they develop the character? Have they kept you glued to the page/your seat?
If so, ask yourself how you can strengthen your own story and what journey you will take your character on.
After all, without turning points your hero’s journey is going to be one very long, straight, and boring road… and where’s the fun in that?
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles, take a look at our blog page.