Monday, November 16, 2009

Point of no return

Been thinking about dramatic moments, and here's one-- it can be deceptively low-key, actually, and might be revealed as essential only when the events of the last act play out. I find it a fascinating turning point because, unlike most turning points, it often doesn't seem like a turning point-- and that "sneaking up on" aspect adds to the fun.

The point of no return is another Act 2 turning point, and usually comes pretty hard on the heels of the reversal. This is an action taken by the protagonist or an event that happens that means there’s no turning back, that the story is going to hurtle towards the climax, that the crisis can’t be avoided, that the protagonist has taken a fatal step into the inevitable.

This can be a clearly dramatic event (in a fast-paced story) or a seemingly trivial one, but no matter what, it’s important, essential, as it forces the protagonist and the plot into the final act (and actions).

I actually like to end Act 2 on the point of no return or have a scene or two of reaction/response/further action after that, more down-peltering to the crisis (when the worst that can happen happens). But I notice that in longer works

Hmm. Let’s speculate about why you would have an event happening to the protagonist or a protagonist taking an action, and which would be better for which kind of story. Why?

In Casablanca, as I said, the point of no return is when Rick nods—that’s all— to tell the band to play La Marseillaise, and thus he incurs the wrath of Major Strasser. But he’s also choosing a side, the side of the Resistance (as the US chose to join the Allies), while he’s spent the first part of the story avoiding just that. “I stick my neck out for no man,” remember. That nod seems trivial, but it brings on the closing of his café, the fury of Strasser, and leads to Ilsa re-committing to Laslo and the cause, and also makes it imperative for Laslo to leave Casablanca (and Rick eventually to help).

In The Godfather, the point of no return for Michael is when he chooses to shoot the police captain, thereby making himself an outlaw, choosing to join the family business, and estranging himself from “the straight world” embodied in Kay, the WASP fiancée who he leaves behind. (Notice how this happens nearer the middle than the end. The final act in this film --- and book—have always seemed very long to me, and for some reason, this really heightens the excitement.)

What’s the point of no return for Scarlett? Is it marrying Frank (her sister’s beau) or marrying Rhett? And why—in this most active and purposeful of heroines—do I think marriage is her important action? Maybe it’s definitely an action—she’s never swept away and marries due to love or impetuosity. She always has a reason.

Can you think of PNRs which happen to the protagonist, rather than actions of the protagonist? What about Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz?

I wonder if there’s usually (or always, if only in retrospect?) some moral or values component in this moment. Rick, whether he understands it or not, has chosen his side. Michael has chosen family loyalty over conventional morality. Is this a redefining of what’s important to the New Person? In light of the New Reality revealed in the reversal?



Sylvia said...

I was thinking the point of no return for Scarlet could be when she went to Rhett to agree to be his mistress (and he realised she was in dire straits)?

Edittorrent said...

But he can't take her up on it then... so you're thinking that the repercussions that come later are his proposal? I remember him saying that he didn't want to have to wait to catch her between husbands. :)

Sylvia said...

She's decided / recognised she'd do anything for Tara (so she can't go back to her easy life).

He turns her down, sends her back home, which neither of them thought he would do. He also for the first time expresses disappointment with her trying to fix things.

From there, they DO finally get together but the romance is already broken. So I think the repercussions is that the romance was doomed from that moment, even though he proposes anyway. Even though Mitchell lets us hope that somehow, despite all this, they might make it work.

It's been a long time since I've read it so I'm now feeling a bit nervous I might be misremembering but there's an inevitableness from that point, isn't there?

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Alicia!

You ask: Is this a redefining of what’s important to the New Person? In light of the New Reality revealed in the reversal?

I’m trying to catch up here - I hate that.:D I probably could have come up with some example. Drat! (insert sigh, here) but isn’t this the point in a writer’s story where their protagonist is given the opportunity to psychologically change the method of his/her physical pursuit? I mean, I get what you’re saying about the new reality revealed idea - but isn’t there something important here about internal v.s external process and the way that these things will now affect the protagonist from this point forward? Or have I come too late into the game and missed the point. Between you and me, (like my phatic phrase?) sometimes I have to read your stuff twice to absorb it.:D

Edittorrent said...

Actually, Murph, I think the point where the protagonist has to change happens at the crisis. The point of no return makes the crisis inevitable, but the protagonist presumably still has a choice (quit, do the old way, do a new destructive thing, do something different) in the next big event. I should post what i have on that.

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, is there a right and wrong answer to this? Or, is it open to interpretation?

You say:
but the protagonist presumably still has a choice (quit, do the old way, do a new destructive thing, do something different) in the next big event.

(we’re going to assume the Protagonist I’m talking about is a woman - makes it easier to follow.:D)

And I say:
Exactly, she has to think and process her motives. She reacts psychologically (internally) instead of just reacting to the (external) that so far has gotten her to this point. She makes a conscious decision that propels her toward the dire straights (crisis) and she will have no choice, but to deal with the consequences of her choice - right or wrong.

In my mind, the PNR, is where I think the moral/value dilemma begins, or at the very least, is introduced, because she’s had to question her belief system - as you say: she must choose between: quitting, doing the old way, doing a new destructive thing, doing something different. In essence, make a conscious and possibly life changing choice at this PNR moment (isn’t that the point of the PNR?) and that choice leads to the path of enlightenment, which fuels the fire of her journey toward the inevitable crisis - it gives the reader a definable conflict to follow until she has to fully embrace her choice and overcome the crisis. I mean without an acceptance of conscious change at the PNR moment- couldn’t there be a return? If we were talking about external things, couldn’t something happen that was beyond her control, to turn things back - so the PNR has to be internal and that being so - doesn’t it have to be significant? Value changing? A moral questioning and a soul searching kind of a thing? Something that keeps her in forward and unwavering motion to resolution? She has to change at the PNR - so she has a barometer of difference between then and now, and can deal with the crisis she’s inevitably faced with and by doing so, she accepts the change freely and fully?

Murphy (who has a headache now! Thanks Alicia:D)

Unknown said...

Alicia, I like this series of articles. Thank-you!
Murphy, I happen to agree with you, but maybe the two of you are both right in this instance. There might be a change in the protag at the point of no return moment, but is it conscious or subconscious, change? I'm going to have think about that. I do agree with the moral and value shift to make the h/h move forward to the crisis. Good one!

Edittorrent said...

Well, right, wrong, I don't want to be judgemental. :) But for this person to resolve the internal issue (fear of whatever, lack of trust, etc), he/she probably needs to choose some course or action which forces the overcoming of that. If he can't trust, he chooses to trust. If she can't commit, she chooses to commit.

The clever part is... when this is exactly what's needed to give the power to resolve the external problem in the climax-- when trusting brings a new ally, say.

Riley Murphy said...

The clever part is... when this is exactly what's needed to give the power to resolve the external problem in the climax-- when trusting brings a new ally, say.

I like this. There's a multitude of things being said with this...hmm, can you smell the wood burning?