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Writing Tips: The turning point

The turning point in a novel looks a lot like a plot thumbscrew. It’s a collision of two or more storylines that twists the plot in an unexpected new direction. But the turning point differs in one important respect. A plot thumbscrew leads to complications and an increase of difficulty; it sends the protagonist and the main antagonist deeper into the story. The turning point heads straight for the resolution.

In Pride and Prejudice, the turning point happens when Lady Catherine de Bourgh rolls up to Elizabeth’s house in full state and demands to know whether she is engaged to Mr Darcy. She tries to bully Elizabeth; she tries emotional blackmail. She is very nasty about it. Her whole world view is at stake. When Elizabeth finally admits that she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, Lady Catherine tries to coerce her into promising never to accept an offer of marriage from him. Elizabeth refuses. 

This is the turning point. It looks like a plot thumbscrew in that two storylines have collided. But notice that, while it has increased the difficulty for Lady Catherine, it hasn’t increased the difficulty for Elizabeth. In fact, as it turns out, Lady Catherine reports the dispute to Mr Darcy, who returns to Longbourn in the belief that Elizabeth has had a change of heart. Thus, the turning point leads directly to the resolution.

If you look at The Bourne Identity, you can see the turning point at work here, too. Jason and Marie have fled to the South of France in a last-ditch effort to escape his nemesis. But an assassin tracks them there and tries to kill them. Jason shoots him, and on searching his backpack, finds a mobile phone with one number in the contacts list. He calls and reaches Treadstone, the organisation that has been trying to get rid of him. 

This is the turning point in that two storylines have collided, but there is no escalation of difficulty for the protagonist, though there is for Conklin and Treadstone. Jason goes on the offensive, setting out to end the conflict once and for all, and find out who he really is. He sends Marie away and returns to Paris to meet with Conklin, Treadstone’s chief. In the final confrontation, Jason demands to know who he is. Conklin tells him he is “US property”, a “malfunctioning, thirty-million-dollar weapon”, and why Treadstone has been trying to kill him. This is the resolution of Jason’s problem, the answer to the question he has been asking ever since he was fished out of the sea at the start of the movie.

Notice also that, like plot thumbscrews, the turning point is vivid and dramatic. It can’t be vague or wishy-washy. It signals clearly to the reader (or viewer) that the end is in sight. But though it doesn’t increase the difficulty for the protagonist, it still ratchets up the tension. It does so because the reader is expecting the resolution, which is the moment they have longed for ever since the plot trigger. 

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