A turning point is just that: a left turn here, a right there, a bit of round and round, until something gives way to change—or a stance against it.
My debut novel, Provenance, begins just after a major turning point that’s quickly summed up in the first few pages. DJ, a still-grieving widower, is at an all-time low. Having lost the Brooklyn apartment he’d shared with his wife for 26 years—and run through all the money from her insurance policy—he’s taken refuge in his sister’s half-finished basement, in the small Hudson Valley town where they grew up.
As if that weren’t enough to keep him from wanting to get out of bed, his life is also freighted with over a dozen guitars, plus the thousands of vinyl records—and every other scrap of his Brooklyn life—that fill a nearby storage unit he can’t afford. Now what? is the question I was interested in.
I knew that in the scheme of things—and considering the man he was—he was likely to avoid making any changes at all. So, what could I do, what kind of drama—and turning points—could I create that would help the reader not only care about what happens to him, but also keep them turning the page?
1. In Harm’s Way
The world we live in is a treacherous place. Think of the opening sequence of the TV series Six Feet Under, and all the freaky ways you never imagined it was possible to die.
Whether it’s a family member or romantic partner, a friend or someone you barely knew, death draws a definitive line of before and after. It’s an effective—and can be a dramatic—choice for a turning point, and someone’s recent or pending death often serves as a short story or a novel’s premise.
But what lesser physical harm can you trouble your characters with—especially those your protagonist loves or was counting on—that might force them to rise to the occasion or even give up habitual behavior?
Let’s say you’ve got a recalcitrant character who’s resistant to change. A broken arm might result only in their digging their heels into an already passive stance. But if someone they love gets hurt—and it’s in any small way their fault—it’s likely to cause a whole array of possible reactions, and potentially spur them on to significant change.
2. Pile Ups
It’s rarely just one thing that causes us to make a major change in our life’s direction. In Marilynne Robinson’s stunning novel Housekeeping, Ruth and her younger sister Lucille grow up in circumstances of increasing hardship and isolation. First their mother kills herself, then the grandmother who’s been caring for them dies, and then, after the pair of spinster great-aunts next charged with their care have fled, they’re left to carry on in the same water-logged house, under the auspices of their eccentric aunt Sylvie, who’s been living as a drifter. Any one of these scenarios would be enough to trouble a young person’s life, and at first the girls fear being abandoned by Sylvie, too.
I’m over-simplifying the story, but Sylvie’s dreamy impracticality, her odd dress, and embarrassing habits, such as napping on public park benches—all the things that mark her as a drifter—ultimately alienate Lucille, who longs for the normalcy of her school friends’ home lives. Rejecting Sylvie, as well as Ruth, who still aligns with her, Lucille moves into the home of her economics teacher, and Ruth eventually joins Sylvie in a fully transient lifestyle. It's for her own survival, of course, but let me underscore that, after living so long with a fear of being left, Lucille ends up abandoning her sister.
The circumstances in Housekeeping tend (wonderfully) toward the extreme. But given the nature of your character’s situation, consider what unexpected losses or responsibilities, what financial or emotional stressors, you can send their way.
3. The Forest and the Trees
While external events trigger a turning point, a character’s response—or lack thereof—is a part of their broader emotional landscape, and scene by scene, as we write a novel, that expanse can become hard to see. Across a character’s life, their triumphs and failures, their moments of joy and grief, may be assigned to the fictive present, backstory, or a flash of memory, but the question is always how to order those experiences in such a way as to have the most meaningful effect on the reader.
Let’s take an affair as a turning point. Do we learn that the protagonist’s first boyfriend cheated on her before we learn of her unfaithfulness to her husband, or after? Is her affair a conscious if misplaced revenge or does she only make that connection after the fact? Would backstory about her parents’ marriage contribute a useful resonance?
In completing a full draft, you’ve had to make any number of choices as to what stays and goes, as well as where it fits in. But is there a way to examine your novel as a whole and see how well those choices are or aren’t serving your story? Creating a reverse outline, a technique I learned from Susan Scarf Merrell, author of Shirley: A Novel, is an illuminating tool to do just that.
Broken down into vertical columns by chapter—or whatever section-by-section dividers make sense—a reverse outline is a wall-length spreadsheet of everything that happens in your novel, in the order that it occurs, with the information written in Sharpie on architectural tracing paper. In other words, it’s a way to see everything at once—the true topography of your manuscript, if you will. A map that’s likely to reveal surprising things about character arc, how events are juxtaposed, and how they might be more effectively arranged—especially in regard to turning points.
Find out more about reverse outlines here.
4. Second to None
In the example of Housekeeping, I noted how, over time, the sisters are repeatedly challenged by narrowed options and punishing circumstances that wear them down. Both girls end up running away—Lucille escaping to her teacher’s home, and Ruth taking up Sylvie’s transient lifestyle. But what happens if instead of, or along with, being bombarded by loss, your protagonist is repeatedly offered a chance to step up to the plate?
One way to develop an effective turning point—in either direction—is to take advantage of secondary characters whose expectations, encouragement, or belief in your protagonist might lead to a shift in allegiance. Love, pride, approval, inclusion, acceptance—what’s the emotional reward that ultimately makes it worth overcoming even the strongest resistance to action or change?
In terms of structure, “repeatedly” is the operative word. Maybe at first, a secondary character merely leads by example, or by displaying opposing personality traits. (Aesop’s ants vs the grasshopper—so to speak.) But then a situation arises in which your protagonist, possibly surprising themselves, gets a taste of that emotional reward.
Then, they disappoint by falling back on their old ways, but your secondary character remains undeterred, and offers yet another opportunity for your protagonist to keep their word or respond in some other notable way. This time, they do—or promise to—step up a little more, but then fail again, etc., etc. Without false starts and backslides, a turning point is hardly credible or satisfying. (And a reverse outline can help determine where best to seed them.)
On the flip side of positive reinforcement, and coming back to the notion of harm’s way, a secondary character’s failure or downward spiral might serve as a “there but for the grace” awakening for your protagonist.
5. Nobody’s Perfect
If making a substantial change in our behavior—or how we view the world—were easy, there’d be no such thing as therapy. And crafting a character’s motivations—or a novel, really—is like deliberately making a puzzle that’s got missing pieces, while still including just enough of them for the picture to come clear. A cloud here, a bit of fencing there: emerging facts and scraps of memory providing revelation for character and reader alike.
There’s always backstory, of course, for detailing the formative events in a character’s life. But what are the resulting flaws of their history that allow for growth—to whatever degree—within the constraints of their current circumstance? And how can you leverage those flaws for dramatic effect?
Let’s take perfectionism as a flaw. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but let’s say a once wild teen grows up to be social worker with a perfectionistic drive that’s constantly thwarted due to the nature of her job. What happens when her own daughter heads down a dangerous road? Or if her daughter is so over-protected, she’s ill-prepared for leaving home? What if a determination to fix other people’s situations keeps her blind to the issues in her own? Was it damage done to her or damage she perpetrated that pushes her so strongly toward repair? What’s so threatening about a loss of control? And what price did she pay for past imperfection?
Any one of those questions could inspire material that would lead to a turning point, steering your character’s trajectory toward emotional growth, with a flaw that initially seemed minor having a major effect. What’s the flaw that propels both you and your character forward on the page?