July 24th, 2013

Figuring Out Your Story’s Turning Points

Story Turning Points from http://teachingliteracy.tumblr.com

Story Turning Points from http://teachingliteracy.tumblr.com

by Jenny Hansen

One of my favorite speakers on writing is Jennifer Crusie. For some reason, she makes sense to me…as if she has an expressway dug directly into my writing mind. Stephen Cannell (creator of The Rockford Files) was the man who etched 3-Act Structure on my brain, but for turning points it was all Jenny Crusie.

Below is an excerpt of the talk she gave at an RWA conference a few years back, and I’m using it this morning to edit my fiction.

The 5 Turning Points ala Jenny Crusie:

A turning point is a part in the story where an event happens that throws the protagonist into a whole new place.

1st turning point is where things go from stable to unstable. You can start 5 mins before or after this turning point, but not later. You must introduce a protagonist that the reader wants to stay with for the whole book. (It’s why you often start things off with the protagonist in trouble.)

Your reader is going to connect to your hero or heroine from that first page – you give them the payoff with your turning points.

2nd Turning point – The original trouble gets worse.

3rd turning point is where the reader can’t go back.

Some people title each turning point, which I think is a grand idea. In Agnes and the Hitman it was called “Agnes Unleashed” and it was where she gives in to her rage.

4th turning point is the Dark Moment. This is the crisis where both the heroine and the reader lose everything. This is the crisis the heroine is not sure she can overcome. The actions the heroine decide on here will determine the last turning point.

5th turning point is the end where there is once more a stable world, it is just a new stable world.

Now, here come my favorite bits of “Jenny” advice about turning points!

1. Do not identify these turning points until the 2nd draft.

2. If you’re thinking in terms of 100K book, the 1st turning point should be at the 30K word mark. This needs to be a very big event.

Note: Don’t confuse “inciting incident” with “turning point.”

3. About 20-25K words later, you hit them with another big event. (This second event combats “sagging middles.”)

4. Each chunk of the book should grow smaller.

5. Things are getting worse faster if the pacing is quick and you keep the heroine struggling with these events.

6. Pace the novel AFTER the first draft.

7. Every scene should have a protagonist and an antagonist (keeps conflict on every page).

8. People do not change because of thoughts – they change because of actions.

Are those stellar or what??

Most writers shake their heads over Elmore Leonard’s famous quote on writing:

I try not to write the parts people skip.

Jennifer Crusie’s talk on turning points was the first time I got a glimmer of what the hell Mr. Leonard was talking about.

Have you ever heard a good talk on turning points? Who gave it? What turned the lightbulb on for you? Add your own bit of advice in the comments! If the idea of turning points is new to you in your writing, do you have questions?

Jenny

*** Need more Jenny? Check out her latest post:
5 Vices I Get To Keep (Sweet!) ***

About Jenny Hansen

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.

When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA and here at Writers In The Storm. She’s also the author of the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

42 comments to Figuring Out Your Story’s Turning Points

  • Jen, I follow this. It’s pretty, logical, and I can even see where it would help. But the thought of trying to use it makes me sweat. Plotting! I just don’t know why my brain won’t behave, and use a wonderful tool like this. But it would rather chip the book out of rock.

    Hey, who ever said I did things the easy way? Sigh. Hope it helps a ton of other people!

  • Great explanation, Jenny, thanks for passing it along. James Scott Bell talks about main turning points as doorways of no return. I like that, as it keeps pushing your character further along her path. When the protagonist walks through and closes that first door, she makes an irrevocable commitment to pursue her goal.

  • Totally loved the Elmore Leonard quote. Jenny Crusie sure has it bang-on for turning points. Thanks for sharing her work.

  • #1 and #6 — why skip these during the first draft?

    • I think because, if you’re like me, you’ve just got to get the book out. I’m incapable of figuring out good pacing during the first draft. I wish my cadence was perfect and even during draft one, but it isn’t…

  • Appreciate these tips as I am editing right now, but I am curious why not do this as you write the first draft? I realize you may not know what your word count will be until the 1st draft is done, but there would be less chopping required if you are trying to hit the marks up front.

    • Remember, Jenny Crusie has a hard time with her first draft. I think lots of people do. I plot out my turning points in advance and write to them, but I always have to go back and tweak because it’s just awkward in the first run.

      As I told Joel above…I totally understand pacing as a 2nd draft issue. I just can’t seem to get that working in the first sprint.

  • I love reading other writers’ gems about story structure. Every time I do, it’s like a new floodlight gets turned on in my brain. Thanks for this post, Jenny!

  • This is perfect timing for me, Jenny! I’ve got revisions to plan. This is helpful for seeing where the plot is going. Thanks!

  • Austin Berkel

    This is similar to what Lady Brooks talks about in Story Engineering/Story Physics/his blog. The first plot point is roughly a quarter of the way in, and when the real story problem begins…the midpoint is (surprisingly) half way in, and where things drastically change for the reader (we see something the protagonist doesn’t) or the reader and the protagonist…then the second plot point is roughly three quarters in, where the protagonist makes his final moves to resolve the story (this isn’t the climax, but where the last bit of new information is presented before the climax).

    • Austin Berkel

      And auto correct makes an ass of me yet again. Should be Larry Brooks…not Lady…

      • I hear he’s changing his last name to “Gaga” so it’ll work out in the long run.

        Larry is simply the best there is for structure and planning, whether you’re a pantser; er, “organic” writer, or outliner.

        • Austin Berkel

          I’ve heard he gets a little animated in his workshops, might be worth checking out if he gets meat suit animated.

        • You know, I KNOW he’s great – I’ve tried to read his book. It’s me. It’s just to ‘engineery’ for me. Puts me to sleep, every time! Pantser naps. What can I say?

        • Laura, I think we need to have a talk 🙂

          Seriously, I know the feeling. I’ve pantsed nearly everything, my whole life. I’m detail oriented and love minutiae, but only in things where it doesn’t matter. Big decisions? Just wing it.

          I’ve learned the hard way that even the most dedicated wingnut (I once wrote a song about jumping from an airplane with a silkworm instead of a parachute) can benefit from planning and preparation.

          But, just as my color-blind friend Jeff needed a little guidance from his wife when he started mixing his own colors for his award-winning waterfowl paintings (yes, color-blind award-winning painter) the seriously non-planning right-brained writer needs a different vocabulary to get over that threshold.

          I promise: the water is fine.

      • LOL, Austin…I do that all the time. 🙂

    • It is similar. Crusie’s way would characterize that midpoint as the 2nd turning point. The smaller chunks were easier for me to digest because plotting is not an easy or happy place for me.

      • Austin Berkel

        Understandable, I can only plot so much before I have to just start writing and seeing where it goes. I like the emphasis on rising tension given in what you presented with the points coming quicker each time.

  • Jenny, I’m with Laura on this one. I know it makes sense. I do love Jenny’s books and the ones she did with Bob … but it smacks of your Excel charts and gives me a rash. I’d be lost in a sea around the second turning point … inciting what?

    Wonderful post as always. I know my brain will absorb and benefit, but it’s like the first hill of a roller coaster, if you looked all the way down the first time, you’d never get on 🙂

  • […] Figuring Out Your Story’s Turning Points […]

  • […] the continued conversation of “you must read if you want to write”, Jenny Hansen gives a summary post about Jennifer Cruisie’s advice about determining where turning points should go in your novel. […]

  • […] Hansen: Figuring Out Your Story’s Turning Points. Excerpt: “One of my favorite speakers on writing is Jennifer Crusie. For some reason, she […]

  • Yvette Carol

    Yes, I thought the idea of the points coming closer together as you go through was a good one too. I hadn’t heard that before. However, I have to say, being an organic writer myself, that the thought of imposing the turning points in first draft is completely creativity-killing. It would stop me dead, in other words. But, I love having meaty tools like this to use after the rough draft is written! Thanks, Jenny.

  • Every word here is gold, Jenny. Thank you. I’ll set this up to reblog next week on my site. 🙂

  • […] by Jenny Hansen One of my favorite speakers on writing is Jennifer Crusie. For some reason, she makes sense to me…as if she has an expressway dug directly into my writing mind. Stephen Cannell (c…  […]

  • I’m a bit late to the game, and I’ve got Larry Brooks’ book, but I like the idea that the time between turning points gets shorter and keeps the tension up. And I especially like the idea of doing it on a second draft! Not first – too hard to churn out as it is. Not third – to vested in what I’ve already got. But to do it on a second run through, yes! Thanks, Jenny.

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