If you’re wondering how to write a turning point in your novel, this article has you covered.
We’ll break down:
- what turning points in novels and stories are
- how many turning points you should have in your novel
- what makes a good turning point in the story
- and how to write one a successful turning point in your novel.
Ready? Let’s go!
What is the turning point in a novel?
While every writer and novel is unique, you’ll see patterns and formulas in the way the stories are assembled. Most stories have formulas.
If you’ve read books like Save the Cat! Writes a Novel or have used The Snowflake Method of outlining a book, you’re familiar with story pieces like the inciting incident, the rising action, the climax, etc.
One important element to a story is the turning point.
There might be multiple turning points (usually five), but not every novel will follow that formula.
Unlike other pieces of a book’s formula, the turning point can happen at any time in the story. It’s essentially a part in the story when everything changes. It might be the character having a brand new perspective, deciding to take an active part in what’s happening, or a reveal of some crucial information that dramatically shifts the trajectory of the story.
Sometimes the turning point is referred to as “the point of no return.” Some people consider books to have one turning point, which is the climax. The climax is the biggest turning point of the story. It’s the point in the story where all of that tension has built up and your character must make a decision. After they make that decision, life can’t go back to how it was.
But technically, there are five or more pieces of a story to consider turning points.
We’ll get into examples later on, but let’s look at the five classic turning points:
- The inciting incident – this is the event that spurs the story into existence
- A goal – this is when we realize what the character will strive for
- The midpoint – when we are fully in the story and there’s no turning back. The character might still (and should) waver and struggle, but they’re heading toward the climax
- The “darkest night” – this is the point of the biggest obstacles. Everything is bleak, it looks like the character will fail. This is what cooks up the Final Push, where the character either does fail or succeeds in reaching their goal, leading to:
- The climax – this is the big moment where all of the tension has built to break in a final conflict where we see if the character will succeed or fail
Turning points are important to execute well because they’re one of the biggest things that will make your book interesting. Just like a disappointing ending, a fumbled turning point can ruin the book and the entire reader experience.
How many turning points are in a novel?
Classically, there are five turning points in a novel. That doesn’t mean you can’t have more (or even fewer), but the traditional structure for a novel consists of those five turning points.
I’ve listed the five turning points above, but let’s illustrate them with one of my favorite books that most readers are familiar with: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
The Inciting Incident Turning Point
Mr. Bingley has come to town, bringing his sisters and best friend, Mr. Darcy. This shifts the story irreversibly into the chain of events that follow.
The Goal Turning Point
Now that Bingley is there, and an eligible bachelor, Lizzie and her sisters’ lives become centered around the goal of marrying him. Lizzie herself isn’t incredibly interested in marrying, and she’s more interested in seeing her sisters succeed. Lizzie’s outlook is that she will marry for love or not at all.
Darcy proposes. Lizzie turns him down. Up until this point, both characters had an unspoken opinion of each other. Now Darcy has shown all of his cards–he’s in love with Lizzie. And Lizzie equally has dropped her entire hand on the table–she thinks he’s a scoundrel whom she can never forgive for how he’s ruined her sister’s life by lying to Bingley.
The “Darkest Night” Turning Point
Lizzie’s sister, Lydia, is ruined. She has gone off with Darcy’s enemy, destroyed her virtue, and tossed the whole family into irreparable social death. Lizzie can’t marry Darcy now–she can’t marry anyone. “Who will take you now, with a fallen sister?”
But Darcy fixed it all. Lizzie learns that he paid for Lydia’s elopement, patching the scandal and unburdening the family. He reunited Bingley and Jane. Everything comes to light, Lizzie forgives him, and they admit their love for each other.
As you can see, each turning point irreversibly alters the course of the story, and each makes sense for the characters, situation, and story up until this point.
What makes a good turning point?
A good turning point is a turning point that works for your story. It is the part of writing the scene that pulls the reader and characters through the current scene and propels the story forward.
There is no right or wrong way to write a story–follow your story’s goals and style. But here are four general things you’ll probably want your turning points to accomplish.
1. Makes sense with the story so far
The turning points don’t need to be obvious, but once they happen, your reader should be able to understand why and track the events that led us to this point.
2. Involves character decisions
You want an active character in your novel, which means they should be taking the steps and actions that lead us to those crucial turning points. If the story is just happening to your character, that makes them passive, which makes them less compelling to read about.
3. Irreversibly changes the course of the story
If the story can go back to the status quo after a turning point, it wasn’t big enough. The Point of No Return means there’s nowhere to go but forward.
And of course, your turning point should be significant enough to be interesting and compel your readers to finish the book.
How to write a turning point in your novel
Now that we know what a good turning point is, how do we write one ourselves? Here are six tips to write a stellar turning point. These mostly relate to that BIG turning point, the climax of the story.
1. Earn the turning point.
The turning point is sometimes surprising, but it should be believable. If the turning point is too wild or unrelated to what has already happened in the story, your reader’s belief suspension might get wrecked. Be sure to foreshadow and hint at the major turning points throughout the story so it’s not a total blindside.
2. Makes sense for the characters, ideally revealing more about them
Like earning the turning point plot-wise, the decision-maker for the turning point should earn it. The action the character takes in the turning point should make sense for the character. The perfect action will reveal more about the character. It might indicate their change or character arc, but it shouldn’t come out of absolutely nowhere.
3. Think of it as a “crisis”
For your main turning points, those moments should be tension-filled, do-or-die crises. The character should be at their record lowest as they confront that change.
Writing a fight scene? Check out our post on how to write a fight scene for additional tips.
4. Plot and plan
Even the pantser writers will probably want to have a specific plan for their turning points. Planning the turning points ahead of time will make them read more realistically, because the rest of the story will have been building up to that point.
5. Don’t force a twist
Plot twists can be fun and great, especially in certain genres, but nothing flops like a forced plot twist. It’s okay if your readers guess what’s going to happen–that means you set it up well! Focus on telling a good story, rather than shocking your reader with a surprise twist.
6. Make the changes irreversible
The exciting part of turning points is that there’s no going back to how things were before. The only way our character can move is forward.
Examples of well done turning points in novels
We already saw the turning points in Pride and Prejudice, now let’s look at the turning points in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins to give us a more rounded understanding of how to recognize and write turning points in novels.
The Hunger Games turning points
Let’s take a look at a popular novel/movie and the examples we can learn from there.
Katniss’ little sister gets chosen to compete in the Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers to take her place, becoming a tribute in the Games.
This turning point changes the story from being about Katniss illegally hunting to feed her family and surviving in District 12 to following her as a tribute.
The Goal turning point
Up until now, Katniss has more or less accepted that she’ll die in the games. Then Peeta, the other tribute from District 12, reveals in an interview that he’s in love with Katniss. While this initially angers her, she realizes that Peeta did that to make her sponsors want to sponsor her, giving her an edge in the game. She remembers her promise to her little sister that she would do her best to win. This solidifies her goal: survive.
Now that they have the publicity angle that she and Peeta are in love, Katniss’ behavior and overall goals shift to catering to the audience as a fan favorite.
Katniss sees Peeta has partnered with the strongest competitors to hunt her down. Feeling betrayed, partnered with an injury, has her trapped up a tree with the other competitors trying to chase her down to kill her. With her new friend, Rue, the youngest competitor, Katniss hatches a plan to drop a nest of tracker jackers onto the enemies below. She gets stung herself, and is saved by Peeta.
This is a turning point because Katniss realizes both that she wants to survive, and that she is willing to kill to do it.
The darkest night
Rue is trapped and killed. Rue has become a pseudo-sister and stand-in for Katniss’ actual sister. She feels as if she’s failed, both Rue and Primrose. When the game maker announces that Peeta is alive AND they will allow two victors from the same district, Katniss’ resolve is reignited.
Katniss and Peeta have been hiding out and waiting for the stronger competitors to kill each other. When the gamemakers push them toward the only remaining tribute, who is being chased by monstrous creatures, they fight with him until he’s thrown into the pile of creatures while Katniss and Peeta hide on top of the cornucopia. When she realizes the gamemakers aren’t going to let the creatures actually kill the other tribute, she shoots him with an arrow in a mercy kill.
When Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left, the gamemakers announce that there can only be one winner. Katniss plays 4D chess, pretending that she and Peeta will commit suicide. ASt the last moment, the announcer stops them to declare that the games are over, and both are victors.
Turning points are an important element in an intriguing and satisfying book, so all authors should learn how they work and how to do them well.