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You can write a great character sketch, a moving love scene, a thrilling chase, even a heart-clutching murder—but a good story needs more than those elements. It needs plot movement—articulated by pivot points.
A pivot point is an essential fulcrum upon which a story or a large swath of story turns. Archimedes, standing there next to the Earth with his lever, would understand! More significant than an ordinary plot point (which might serve to impart information or develop character), a pivot point effectively changes the direction of a character or action sequence. Huge when used as a foundation for a story, a pivot point can also be a small powerhouse for plot movement.
If your outline or story hangs together but lacks zing or seems to be missing something, take a look and see if there’s an opportunity to add a pivot point—or three. Some may be more or less dropped in via a new character or subplot; others require more planning to effectively incorporate. Let these ideas get your wheels turning. (Warning: plot spoilers ahead, in the name of learning by example. This is the life we’ve chosen …)
1. Drop a house.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum features any number of important turning points, the most central (and literal) of which is the tornado that transports Dorothy to Munchkin Country. While the tornado is definitely the inciting incident, the immediate pivot point that results is the fact that Dorothy’s house crushes to death the Wicked Witch of the East—thus earning Dorothy the malignant enmity of the Wicked Witch of the West. That one pivot infuses life-and-death urgency into every minute of Dorothy’s journey.
You too can create an accident that brings an innocent character into the crosshairs of an unforgiving antagonist, be it a car wreck, a spilled drink or a bump in an elevator.
2. Create a ghost.
Some plot points can pivot more than one way; for example, the introduction of Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The children’s obsession with him leads them to approach his creepy house; Boo’s secret gifts to the kids reveal his true nature; and, of course, without Boo, Scout would not have lived to tell her tale. In this case the pivot point is the ultimate force for good.
Of course, Boo was a man, not a ghost. But you can take that idea of a quiet presence or force and make it your own. Such a “ghost” who quietly crops up here and there can suffuse your plot with real tension and mystery.
3. Give somebody charge over something.
The classic fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” pivots beautifully on this. Jack’s mother, instead of taking the family’s cow to market herself, entrusts young Jack to do the job. Before he even reaches town, he gets suckered into giving the cow to an old man who offers him a few supposedly magic beans for it. He catches hell, but all ends well.
The injunction “Don’t screw it up!” is an automatic pivot point, because it applies instant pressure to the character entrusted with the task.
4. Suppress a conscience.
In Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a key pivot point comes fairly late in the story, but it’s correctly placed for maximum impact. It’s not when the ambitious Clyde Griffiths gets the homely Roberta Alden pregnant, and not even when he begins to think of how much easier life would be without her. It’s when he swims away from her in the cold lake after their boat capsizes. He has made a decision that both solves his immediate problem and damns him forever.
How could you give a more or less moral character a dire, fast decision to make—and have her pick the dark path? That choice itself is hugely compelling.
5. Torment a conscience.
Edgar Allan Poe got maximum mileage from a guilty conscience in his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the unnamed narrator commits a murder, dismembers the corpse and hides it beneath the floorboards. After the cops show up, the narrator’s unhinged conscience works on him until his guilt becomes unbearable and he confesses in a frenzy.
The pivot is the sudden appearance of the police—the agents of moral authority. Young children, with their rudimentary impulse control, can be great fun as characters in situations like this.
6. Exploit loyalty.
A character who is blind to the faults of another can furnish fabulous pivot points. In Graham Greene’s short, powerful novel The Third Man, the entire plot hinges on Rollo Martins’ decision to stay in Vienna to clear the reputation of his dead friend Harry Lime. The reason Martins stays is his loyalty, which, because it influences his every choice, serves to pivot the story multiple times.
This technique is beautiful because it’s so simple and internal, and because you can—like Greene—twist your character into knots trying to justify her allegiance, whether that loyalty serves as a driving force all the way to the end, or ultimately comes to a breaking point.
7. Put integrity up for sale.
A character who is willing to pay a high price for being honest can furnish a terrific turning point. In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, such a pivot comes not at the startling moment of Lear’s request that his daughters compete with one another to show their love, but when Cordelia refuses, knowing she’ll be disinherited on the spot. Without this key moment of integrity, the play could easily be merely a miasma of greed and vanity.
You can endow a character with similar principles. When integrity costs nothing, it’s not that interesting. But when a character sacrifices much to be true to his standards? Now there’s some drama.
8. Leverage shame.
Deep down, shame begins with ego: What will people think? A single shameful secret provides a major fulcrum for Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The matriarch’s drug addiction defines her life, and it also effectively controls her husband and sons, whose actions in scene after scene revolve around their mother’s relationship with her syringe.
Make a character feel shame over something secret and watch what it does to that character. Better still, let that character manipulate others into codependence, as O’Neill did, and press the results forward.
9. Cover up a mistake.
A serious mistake can be buried, with hope, for years (“maybe no one will find out!”), only to surface as a pivotal element.
One of my favorites is the switched-at-birth story at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. A dotty wet nurse mixes up two infants, one of humble birth, “the other upper crust!” but keeps mum, hoping for the best. She (having a conscience—see above) feels compelled to come clean when one of the lads, now grown, is smitten with a lass far above his station. All seems hopeless—until the happy truth comes out.
You can use any hidden error to pivot a plot: a wrong grade on a long-ago exam, a contract containing a critical typo, a misidentified photo in a newspaper archive …
10. Delay salvation.
Help is on the way … or is it? Laura Ingalls Wilder drew on her family’s experiences in The Long Winter, during which an entire region of South Dakota is snowed in for months and months with the supply train unable to reach them. The townspeople endure dreadful privations as they work to defeat starvation. Hidden caches of food play a starring role, but blizzards keep delaying that train.
You can pivot a plot by creating an expectation that goes unmet. Hope rises … hope falls … hope rises …
11. Level a curse.
Many a folktale relies on a curse for a plot fulcrum, “Sleeping Beauty” being perhaps the most famous. Today, knowing what we know about the power of suggestion—from the placebo effect to hypnosis—an author can work a curse to not only pivot a plot, but to drive subsequent action to an exciting (or ghastly) conclusion.
You can employ a literal curse in fantasy genres. More broadly, consider the closely related self-fulfilling prophecy, upon which an entire multi-generational saga can pivot.
12. Breach a confidence.
In the Norse myth of Balder and the mistletoe, goddess Frigg extracts promises from the gods and all the animals, plants, metals and stones on Earth never to hurt her beloved son Balder. But the jealous trickster Loki wonders if perhaps the queen missed something. He changes into a friendly, harmless crone and gets the queen to admit that she overlooked a young sprig of mistletoe. He fashions an arrow from it, and soon Balder lies dead. The pivot here is the queen’s careless tongue.
You can create a marvelous pivot point by having someone trustingly reveal a vulnerability to a treacherous foe in (figurative) disguise.
13. Invent a mini mentor.
Mildred Pierce, eponymous protagonist of James M. Cain’s novel, is down on her luck. A tough-talking woman at the employment agency asks why Mildred won’t take a job as a waitress. Mildred says she couldn’t face her kids if they knew she was doing such menial work.
“But you can face them with nothing to eat?” says Miss Turner, who gives her a few more choice words. That blunt affirmation gets Mildred to see herself honestly, and she changes her course then and there.
Any minor character can speak wisdom that pivots a character—and your story.
14. Make a bad decision.
The first pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code contain a major pivot point: the moment when the assassin sadistically refrains from completing his task, feeling safe in permitting his target to die slowly. Which, of course, enables the victim, art curator Jacques Saunière, to prepare his final messages to the world via a subtle system of clues. Personally, I thought it was a sketchy device, but then again, I haven’t sold a bazillion copies of anything.
Let evil indulge itself a little. It can prove to be its own worst enemy.
15. Wreck a ship.
Never underestimate the power of brute force. From Captains Courageous (Rudyard Kipling) to Lord of the Flies (William Golding) to Life of Pi (Yann Martel), authors have explored the gut-wrenching, life-changing effect of a shipwreck. You can create all sorts of aquatic disasters—even, say, a scuba lesson gone wrong—or you can get farther out: a marooned spacecraft, a time traveler separated from her equipment.
This one can act as your main pivot point, or be dropped in to shake things up.
16. Grant a wish.
All King Midas wanted was more riches—is that too much to ask? The gods granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold—but of course they knew better, and soon so did Midas. His lively daughter turned into a golden statue, and inedible hard yellow food made him see the error of his greed.
Grant a wish—or bestow some benevolence—that can grow fangs over the course of your story: a lift to a hitcher, a witness statement, a marriage proposal, a gift of money or land, or political favor.
17. Betray between the sheets.
Literary novels often take license to sprawl all over the place, plotwise. But if you look closely, you can see pivot points.
In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a key pivot is when Lady Brett seduces the young matador, Romero. It’s a double betrayal of the sexually disabled protagonist Jake: Not only is it clear she doesn’t care about Jake’s feelings, but by recklessly bedding Romero, she destroys Jake’s credibility with the local bullfighting aficionados, whose esteem he cherishes.
Sexual betrayal is powerful, and nothing’s ever the same afterward.
18. Pass the point of no return.
James Dickey’s violent ’70s-era classic, Deliverance, features four men who set off into the wilderness on a pleasure trip. Once they’ve pushed off in their canoes and shot a few rapids—a strong pivot point—they realize how isolated they are, how far from the thin but comforting veneer of civilization. They literally cannot paddle upriver, back the way they came; they must keep going, into a contemporary heart of darkness.
You can create a similarly intense situation, either with a literal journey or perhaps a spiritual or emotional one. Someone who spontaneously sells off everything she owns likely cannot buy it back. Someone who at last remembers a suppressed trauma cannot unremember it.
19. Kill an albatross.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” created the lasting trope of an albatross around one’s neck. It’s a mistake of overconfidence for the mariner to shoot the lucky albatross, leading to his awful penance.
Create a similar pivot point by having a character—in a moment of stupidity or perhaps arrogance—throw away or destroy a gift, with deep consequences.
20. Warp an innocent.
Incest almost always represents a major pivot point; a contemporary example can be found in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Oprah’s Book Club bestseller, Fall on Your Knees. Other sorts of corruption can be achieved when a person in a position of power forces or cajoles an innocent into committing an atrocity, such as murdering a shared enemy, or suppressing evidence, or giving false testimony.
Furthermore, in many such cases the revenge of the innocent can drive a story on to a satisfying and dramatic conclusion.
21. Indulge a daring impulse.
Many successful stories hinge upon characters who suddenly give in to impulse. We find a good example in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. The first (tremendously illicit) kiss between Frances and Lilian not only pivots the plot, it heightens the tone of the story from that point on.
When a conventional character suddenly rebels against fundamental cultural rules, you have something juicy to work with.
I bet now you’ll be able to perceive and note pivot points as you read the novels on your wish list. You’re also equipped to recognize existing pivot points in your own work, and consciously create and incorporate new ones going forward. Readers might not know exactly why your fiction grabs them—but they’ll agree that it’s taken a turn for the better.
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Elizabeth Sims (elizabethsims.com) is a contributing editor to WD and is working on her 10th novel, which features a mayoral election in a big city. Check out her instructional title You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams (WD Books) for writerly encouragement and inspiration.