Six impossible things

Points and Turns

When I was in school, back in the Jurassic, I was taught the basic plot structure and its variations: beginning, rising action, climax or turning point, falling action. The chart that went along with it looked something like this:

Rising action graph

For years and years, I thought this was the only plot structure there was; the only things that changed were how many peaks and valleys you had in the “rising action” part and where in the story the turning point came (it could, my teachers told me, happen as early as halfway through or as late as 90% through).

The climax, also called the turning point, got the lion’s share of attention in my classes. It was supposed to be the point of greatest tension in the story, the point after which, however much story there was to come, the end was inevitable. (This always made me wonder why the “turning point” in a Sherlock Holmes story wasn’t always the moment in the first few pages where Holmes says, “Yes, I’ll take the case.” Because from then on, the ending was inevitable…)

Somewhere in the past thirty or forty years, things have gotten a lot more complex. For one thing, at least half the things I read talk about “turning points” – plural. People seem to mean one of two things by this: either they are talking about the smaller peak-points on the “rising action” side of the graph, where something tense and dramatic happens that changes the direction of the story, or else they are talking about the specific spots in a three- or four- or five-act story structure where the story moves from one “act” to the next.

This change in definition has caused a certain amount of confusion. Most stories have one, and only one, climactic moment in which the outcome is settled. There may be many points of great tension and drama, but there is only one that is the highest point. On the other hand, there are plenty of stories that take a sharp turn away from whatever the reader had been expecting, and these do feel a lot like whipping around a sharp corner at high speed, so it’s perfectly understandable that these points end up being called “turning points,” even though they aren’t THE turning point or climax.

There is a good deal to be said for both views, if you’re a writer…and if you are a writer, you don’t have to worry about whether they can both make sense simultaneously. You only have to worry about whether the way of thinking about turning point(s) you’re currently using is currently helpful to you.

Some writers, for instance, can get totally bogged down in the miserable middle of a novel if they only ever think about the big climax they’re aiming toward. It’s too far away and it’s all uphill from where they are. They find it much more helpful to look for tense, dramatic moments of change – lesser turning points – that are closer to hand. It’s a lot easier to get motivated to write the cool scene in the next chapter where the heroine makes a life-changing discovery or finally gets the sword she needs to slay the dragon than it is to get motivated to write the battle with the dragon that’s still twelve chapters off, even if the giant dragon-battle is much cooler.

On the other hand, if all the writer ever looks at are the cool scenes that are coming up, they can easily lose track of where they’re going. It is therefore advisable to stop occasionally and ask oneself whether one is still making progress toward that big, dramatic, final climax…and if not, why not. If a new climax has presented itself, one that’s bigger and more dramatic, that’s fine; but if one is merely wandering in circles in the bog, writing lots of little “turning points” and revelations that don’t actually get the story anywhere, one may have to murder more than a few of the darlings that have been distracting one.

It is also possible for a story to have a double climax, especially if it has an emotional plot that has equal or nearly-equal weight with the action plot and the climaxes of each part can’t possibly take place in the same scene. In this case, readers will generally perceive one of the two as THE climax, but different readers will pick different peaks, depending on which plot they were more interested in. As long as they all go away satisfied, this is fine, but if the writer shortchanges the climax of one plotline because he/she is more interested in the other, one set of readers will end up unhappy. A similar problem can arise when the author is writing a braided novel with an ensemble cast, and likes or dislikes some characters or plotlines more than others.

Noticing these problems is half the battle, or more…or rather, if you don’t notice, the battle is lost before you even start. You can’t fix what you don’t realize is there or recognize as a problem. It is, however, up to the writer to decide whether he/she works most productively and effectively by doing periodic checks during the first draft, or by writing the whole thing and then ripping it apart during the revision stage, as necessary.

And of course, this particular plot structure isn’t the only one there is, though it is possible to shoehorn an awful lot of stories into this format. Next time, I’m going to talk about some of the other possibilities.

5 Comments
  1. A similar problem can arise when the author is writing a braided novel with an ensemble cast…

    I ran into difficulty with a braided novel. It had 5 POV characters, and I’d never written a story with that many before.

    All was well and good with 3 of the POV’s. But the other two…uh, oh!

    In the character arc of the little boy, I essentially skipped the middle of the arc, moving from rising action directly to his resolution. No climax! Very unsatisfying.

    In the character arc of the older bureaucrat, the resolution occurred “off stage,” through the report of another POV character. Even more unsatisfying.

    Fortunately, my first reader caught both errors! I saw it as soon as the words left her mouth. The revision flowed so easily, it seemed clear it was meant to be.

    I loved writing the extra scenes – an additional moment of rising action for the little boy and then his grand and scary moment; the bureaucrat’s experience of the dream he’d believed could never come true, but that did.

    My immense gratitude to my astute first reader!

  2. I liked Lars Whosis talking about the point where someone says, “After him, boys!” The big question is answered, but there’s still the action of chasing and fighting, so the outcome may not be inevitable (depending on genre).

    My Oz pastiche is entangled with a big build-up followed by multiple anti-climaxes. All the parties dramatically converge at a hostage scene, but the Villain quickly surrenders, and they get news that back at the ranch a Monster is attacking, so they split up, and the ranch melee only needs one little couple of main characters, who then have to find and release their own leader, who then gets them all lost on a more or less peaceful journey through dark tunnels to release the Monster back to the wild. Then mercifully there’s a big jump to everyone meeting again at a party where they all tell what’s happened to them in the meantime.

    And somehow this FEELS right for this story. I can see a lot of theme variations maybe holding it together. (The separate parties are a crew divided by shipwreck; when they do converge at the hostage scene, the Villain surrenders because they summon his own lost family to reclaim him; the Monster gets taken to rejoin his own monster family. Dare I hope this will all come across as Theme, instead of as me using the same ideas over and over and being too lazy to write big action melees?

  3. They still teach that same plot structure (or at least they did when I went to school, which wasn’t *too* long ago…) so I guess not much changes in the education system!

    With my current WIP, I know how I want it to end, but getting there … well that’s another matter entirely!

  4. For me, the climax to LOTR was not when the One Ring was destroyed. It was when Lobelia was released from the Lockholes.

    The Ring was going to get destroyed, but the rehabilitation of Lobelia means much more to me.

  5. That plot structure is what I taught to middle schoolers when I was doing long term substitute teaching assignments as recently as 6 or 7 years ago. The classes were analyzing short stories and it seemed to work the best with even the most clueless amongst them in helping them figure out a story arc.
    I loved seeing the graphic and reading how it could be used to facilitate one’s writing. I will keep it in mind when I have to teach any of the creative writing sections.

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