Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quick turning points schema

I thought maybe I'd post this-- because I want to later talk about the Point of No Return, so thought it might be helpful to see how I envision the three-act structure and positioning of turning points (those scenes/events where the plot changes in some important way).

This is by no means the only way to plot a book, etc., etc., and we might discuss different turning point designations and positions. This is just to start up a discussion of structure-- and Theresa's way better at this than I am, so ask her how she would suggest a typical plot structure. And Aristotle thought up most of this a few years before I did. But enough disclaimers! This is simply one structural schema, and I elaborate on each turning point in my article The Three Acts, archived on my website.

So without further ado:
Turning points are *---
Act 1 (The Beginning)
Set up (establishment of character, setting, situation, whatever)
* Initiating Event (what starts off the new storyline, the interruption of the routine, etc. This often comes at the very end of the Set up Scene)

Act 2 (The Middle)
* Emergence of External Conflict (and following that, the protagonist's response)
(rising conflict in between)
* The Reversal (when something reverses -- the hunter becomes the hunted, someone trusted proves untrustworthy, something surprising is revealed)
(rising conflict in between, but usually these two scenes are pretty close together)
* The Point of No Return (of which more later-- some action or event that once embarked on by the protagonist, inevitably leads to the crisis/disaster/dark moment)

Act 3 (The Ending)
*Crisis/Dark Moment (when the worst that can happen happens, and then the protagonist faces despair- usually some major step towards resolving the internal conflict happens here, and that gives the protagonist the courage, skills, ability, whatever, to tackle the external conflict again)

* Climax (when the protagonist resolves the external conflict)

* Resolution (when the protagonist resolves the remaining internal and/or interactional conflict)

I think that in Act 1 and Act 3, there's more pounding drama-- less between the turning points. In the middle act, there are scenes of rising conflict between the turning points.

A good film example for this schema is Casablanca. Well, that's a good film for about everything. :)

Let's see:

Act 1
The Casablanca set up is fairly long (because, I think, there are a lot of supporting subplots to set up).
Initiating event:
Ugarte gives Rick the letters of transit.

(Notice that the interactional plot-- the romance-- has its own set of turning points, and the initiating event for that is, of course, Ilsa coming into the cafe.)

Act 2
External conflict emerges:
Major Strasser comes into the cafe and recognizes Rick as a potential troublemaker, and Rick can't help but respond by being defiant. Same scene-- Ugarte is shot and killed, and Rick wants to but doesn't help him.

(Romance-- Rick sits with Ilsa and starts competing with Laslo.)

(The romantic reversal comes first-- at the market, Rick pretty much calls Ilsa a whore, and she reveals that she is married to Laslo and was even when she and Rick were lovers in Paris.)

Laslo reveals that he needs the letters and knows Rick has them, and Rick refuses to sell them and tells him to ask his wife for the reason. The reversal is that Laslo (as her patron) has had the upperhand with Ilsa, and now Rick does-- knows more about his wife than Laslo does.

Point of No Return:
The two plots kind of converge here, with the romantic and the external PNR in the same scene, where Rick throws his lot in with Ilsa and Laslo when he gives his band permission to play La Marseillaise. (More about this in next post.)

Act 3:
Ilsa arrives with a gun and demands the letters of transit, sure that her husband will be killed if he doesn't get out of Casablanca.

Dark Moment:
(same scene) Rick is willing to commit suicide-by-Ilsa rather than give into his love for her.

(Action that comes out of this-- She professes her love, and he surprises himself by agreeing to protect "all of them"-- taking responsibility for Laslo too.)
(This is an AMAZING scene-- one of the greatest ever in film.)

Rick gets everything organized to get himself and Ilsa out of Casablanca... but of course, at the airport he reveals that the letters of transit are to be used by Laslo and Ilsa. They get away, but Rick stays.
(Romantic climax-- he and Ilsa "get Paris back" because of his unconditionally loving act of sacrifice to save her and her husband.)

He kills Strasser (how cool that this is a resolution, not a climax!), and he and Capt. Renault decide to join the Resistance and fight the Nazis together.

Thoughts? Any one of those turning points stand out as especially important in your story?



Wes said...


Joan Mora said...

This is especially helpful today. I've started wondering where my NaNo plot is headed. Right now it feels like a character study. Will look at the concept of reversal. Bound to be something there. Ahhh, Casablanca... Will not stop writing to go watch the movie.

Anonymous said...

Seriously Alicia, perfect timing :)

I finished reading my MS last night and summarised chapters in Act/scene index cards. I'm excited! I read your post and, in my head, I saw each scene slotting into its own place. I had outlined this plot structure before writing, so it's reassuring to see it work.

Ever since I first learned the ascending plot structure at a workshop run by Aussie author Kate Forsyth, my MS has improved dramatically. My favourite in my MS is the dark moment ... hopefully my readers won't see/expect the twist :)

Thanks again,

Ian said...

I loved this post! I linked to it from my blog because everyone who reads my ramblings ought to be reading this. It's very timely for nanowrimo writers as well.

Eva Gale said...

Ohh, that makes my head hurt.

I plot, but I do it more organically only because when I write it all out and shuffle it around to hit the high notes, like clockwork when I'm writing Other Things Appear (which are so much better than what I first came up with) and the cards get thrown up in the air and flutter down around me. If I can plot it loosey goosey, just main GMC, then I can fit in the fun stuff my subsonscious brings to the partay.

So, I can't see those things until the story is down. THEN I go back and squeeze a little here, and expand a little there.

Believe me, it's not something I'm proud of. I'm an extremely organized person and I HATE not having and follwing a structure. But it's something that I've had to trust even though it takes a lot of talking to myself and pats on the head.

Edittorrent said...

Eva, you do plot. Just not consciously and ahead of time. Plotting can be done in revision. And some writers are natural plotters and can write a draft and have it fall organically into a coherent draft (though in my experience, many writers who AREN'T think they are, and don't replot as they revise).

Often small emphasis changes can make a big difference.

Jami Gold said...


You sound like me. I am very organized (although you wouldn't guess it by looking at my desk :) ) and I do outlines and all that kind of stuff. But I've also had to trust my subconscious. There are things that it tells me to put into my story and I don't find out until months later why it wanted me to put it there. (I really need to give a name to my muse/subconscious so I'm not calling my own brain "it". :) ) I think it's fascinating how it all comes together.

Jami G.

John H said...

Interesting reading, Alicia. The reversal is a new idea to me.

I'm not entirely sure of the differentiation between the 'point of no return' and the 'dark moment'.

I've done things a bit differently in the latest short story i'm trying to unload on someone. In my story, the climax is the point where he decides to change and fight and it is left open. By all appearances he is a bout to get killed, but the resolution is left unsaid and i leave it the reader to decide for themselves.
Of course not adhering to the 'rules' might be hindering me selling the story, but I haven't given up yet!

Leona said...

If I plot in outline form or work out the details/structure and how it ends. I'm done. I'm bored. I've figured it out and I'm ready for the next book. If I get an idea for plot, and see a few characters in my head, then I can write.

I let the characters work with the idea. Always, with my best stories, things are added in (hopefully hit save before shutting down) that I hadn't planned that bring a cohesiveness to the story.

I'm 27 words away from 25k for nanowrimo and I need to get back. happy writing ::)

PS Anyone seen my glasses?

John H said...

I envy you guys doing the nanomo. I have done stuff all writing in the last few months. With wife and baby, the only chance I have to write is my lunch break, and things are so hectic at work, I can't remember the last break i had!

Eva Gale said...

So I plot? Thank you. Although I think I'm still going to be talking to myself alot!

Jami, yes, your muse deserves a name. Something grand.

Sarah Ahiers said...

i like to plan a structure as 3 disasters plus an ending, which more or less lines up with 3 acts. I found that if i plan it out ahead of time, it saves me issues of writing stuff in the middle with nothing happening.

Jami Gold said...


A couple of comments have mentioned that they weren't familiar with the "reversal". Maybe a post with more examples of that might be in order?

Jami G.

Jami Gold said...


Any suggestions for a grand name for my muse? :) (One note, my muse often wants to have conversations with me while I'm in the shower, so it needs to be a male name... LOL!)

Jami G.

Leona said...

Jami G.

Your muse... How about Thoran. Its the name of a hero I intend to write about in the future. He shows up briefly before he gets his own story... He's very courageous and strong and won't shut up! LOL

Jami Gold said...


LOL!!! Won't shut up - yes, that's the correct description. :)

Jami G.

Eva Gale said...

Yep, I am familiar with that muse that likes to hang out in the shower. I can't figure out if it's a prankster-(Kokopelli? in his trickster form) waiting until you have NO paper/pen and laughing hysterically while you repeat it to yourself over and over just so you remember. OR it could be a water sprite, Nyriad? Siren? Ohhh Njord, he's a bit scrumptios or a Nix?

Edittorrent said...

John, I'll be doing a post when I get some time free-- all about the point of no return. Here's the real difference -- the dark moment is obvious. The point of no return often seems deceptively trivial and is only shown as important when the disaster happens.
More later.

Riley Murphy said...


Great post. What resonated with me though, was one of your comments:

Often small emphasis changes can make a big difference.

So true. So timely. So awesome.



em said...

I do my plot in three sections. I like the idea of a reversal I do that but I've never thought about consciously doing it.:)

MitMoi said...


This really is a great post - combining two different languages I've seen. The plotting language my writing instructor uses (Initiating Event, Point of No Return, Climax, Resolution) and screen writing/play write language (Act I, II, & III).

I think we all intuitively know how to tell a story - but the value of the structure is it helps us keep things tight and moving forward while maintaining the conflicting tension. (and also insure you have conflict between a protag and antag - and are not just wandering around inside some really great vignettes that don't add up to diddly.)

I've never felt like I need to plot each of these steps before I start writing - but it's SO HELPFUL when I get stuck - to be able to look at the structure and know what I'm working towards. It also helps me evaluate my character actions/reactions and stops me from rabbit paths that won't fit (or support) the final story.

Thanks so much for reinforcing good structure = strong story with no sagging middle!

Anonymous said...

"The point of no return often seems deceptively trivial and is only shown as important when the disaster happens."

This post you're cooking up sounds AMAZING.

You know, the first crisis is so important, too. In media res is great and all, but I really hate it when I feel like I;m watching a movie that's too dark, you know what I mean? When you're squinting and straining to see? I hate beginnings that start too far ahead and just make me WTF through the first 100 pages.

And, it also ties to the end, so your catalyst/resolution can mirror.


Kat said...

Amazing timing. I've started struggling with my project, and this helps greatly.