When I think about a great story — whether it’s a book or movie or stage play or other format — I likely remember those hair-raising, heart-thumping, gut-wrenching moments when change happens. These moments are the turning points in the story.
It wasn’t until I studied story structure that I began to understand why these turning points made such an impression: Because the character would discover that they couldn’t — or even shouldn’t — pursue the path they had been on to achieve their goal.
The turning point would compel them to change direction. They would literally need to turn onto a new path.
Once I understood that, my own ability to bring my characters to life within the plot of a story got a lot easier. Plus, it’s provides a handy revision tool. Now I take a close look at my draft to make sure it includes enough moments when my main character pivots. Does the character truly step away from the path? Or have I allowed them to keep one foot on the old path while stepping onto a new one, muddling the character’s development? More on that below.
The three (or more) turning points in a story
Let’s begin by taking a look at the story map before we dive into the character journey.
There are at least three turning points in a traditional story: a catalyst, midpoint, and climax. I knew these terms for years before I learned that each was a turning point. Frankly, it was hugely helpful to stop thinking of them as unique moments and instead see them as steps on the same stairs leading the main character toward the resolution of the story.
Turning point #1 — the catalyst
A story begins with the “normal world” or “status quo.” We usually get a glimpse of the character’s life before a big change kicks their story into action.
This can be an exciting normal world (James Bond movies often begin with a thrilling action sequence — just another day on the job for 007) or it can be more recognizable and mundane (Stephen King’s novel IT begins with a little boy in a small town playing with a newspaper boat — ordinary enough).
Either way, the story doesn’t take shape until the first turning point.
The first turning point compels the main character to take the path toward a newly formed goal. But keep in mind that this turning point doesn’t always guarantee that the main character will pursue that path. Often the main character, resistant to change, must actively choose to go forward, though maybe with a little push or coercion from an ally or antagonist.
When the turning point happens, the main character formulates a goal. At the very least it’s an implied goal.
For example, I want to escape prison or I want to go to the rock concert or I want to get out of this relationship.
The goal may be given to them by another person (Here, you must take this ring, Frodo). In fact, in this first stage of the character’s journey, they will often be reacting to the first turning point, following someone else’s lead or path or simply fleeing from trouble.
Turning point #2 — the midpoint
At the midpoint — literally the middle of your story — the main character comes up against a massive obstacle, throwing the entire journey into question. Whatever assumptions the main character has been basing their decisions on, they now see that they’re false or inadequate.
A new approach is required. A new direction.
The detective discovers that the man he’d pointed to as the killer is innocent, because he’s dead — one of the other suspects has a false alibi.
The squire assisting the knight on the quest to slay the dragon realizes that the knight is a fraud and will never stand up to the monster — and if the squire doesn’t do it, no one else will.
The innocent hero escaping the police, who believe him to be a criminal, realizes that he can’t run forever — he must discover who framed him so he can be free.
The important thing here is that the main character must come out of the turning point with an entirely new plan. Maybe the story goal is still to track down the killer or slay the dragon or find that true love, but the tactic must change significantly.
At least until the next turning point.
Turning point #3 — the climax
Don’t think of the climax as when the main character succeeds or fails, ending the story. The climax is the beginning of the finale. It’s the final confrontation with the antagonist, whether that’s an evil mastermind, representatives of a corporation, or a force of nature.
It’s also another turning point, when the main character’s tactic turns out to be inadequate.
Maybe the main character tires out half a dozen variations on the same tactic, all failing to stop the antagonist. In spite of everything that has happened over the course of this difficult journey, it seems the main character, success finally within reach, may fail and not get a second chance.
The problem is usually that the main character still hasn’t learned their life lesson and may be clinging to old habits.
The detective is still using her old ways of thinking — logic that has gotten her far, but not far enough to finally uncover who the killer is.
The squire faces the dragon, but continues to compare himself to the knight and trying to emulate his former boss’s style, failing to see that only his own unique skills that can vanquish the monster.
The hero, innocently accused of a crime, finally discovers the motive for framing him, but still fails to see the truth about who stands to benefit, deep down refusing to accept that his best friend would kill his wife and set him up to be the patsy.
The main character needs to push themselves one last time, raising their actions to the new standards they’ve learned. Basically, they need to rethink their goal or the path to that goal, just as they did back at the midpoint.
Only they need to do it fast. Because the climax is underway.
Extra turning points
Can you have more than three turning points?
Sure you can. In a long story, you may want multiple turning points along the way.
But be careful. After too many epiphanies where the main character realizes they’re going about everything the wrong way, the reader may grow impatient: How many twists and turns can this story contain?
Ideally, the character should set a course, and we should see them go through a try-fail cycle a couple of times before they realize that this isn’t going to work.
It can look something like this:
How many try-fail cycles should you have before reaching a turning point?
There’s no rule. It depends on the length and pacing of your story. A very compressed narrative with high stakes may have fewer try-fail cycles before we get to the turning points. You may have lots of try-fail cycles between the catalyst and the midpoint but fewer between the midpoint and the climax.
In general, however, it’s safer to have more try-fail cycles than it is to have too many turning points, and also to make sure they’re spread more or less evenly (the midpoint is called the midpoint for a reason — too many try-fail cycles before the midpoint and too few after can make your story feel unbalanced).
But, again, take care. The risk with too many try-fail cycles is that, after a while, the reader may grow impatient with the character: What’s wrong with this protagonist — can’t they see that this isn’t working?!
The quick test to see if your story “turns” enough
OK. So, knowing this now, how can it be used for storytelling?
Here’s how I use it. If I’m outlining or checking an outline for weaknesses or revising a draft, I can ignore the dozens of other elements in a story and zoom right in on the turning points.
- What happens at turning point #1 (the catalyst) and what goal/tactic does the main character commit to?
- What happens at turning point #2 (the midpoint) and what new goal/tactic does the main character pursue? Is it different enough from the first goal/tactic? Is to too different, sending the character off on a tangent?
- What happens at turning point #3 (the climax) and what new goal/tactic does the main character pursue? Does it reflect the life lesson the main character learned in the third act of the story? Is the last and best tactic of them all, exhausting the final ideas of the story?
What’s nice about targeting the turning points in e.g. revisions is that I can ignore everything else. I’m less likely to feel overwhelmed and I can devote my brain power entirely to making sure that the journey my character goes on isn’t so straightforward that it gets boring — or that I’ve missed out on an opportunity for a turning point that is bigger, bolder and more emotionally satisfying.