259 – Turning Points
There’s a moment in every climax where the hero goes from losing to winning, or from winning to losing in the case of tragedies. It’s when Luke turns off his targeting computer or when Eowyn declares that she is no man. It’s got that special something that makes the hero’s win satisfying. This is the turning point, and it’s what we’re talking about today. Turning points are one of the most important concepts in storytelling, and yet, surprisingly few writers know about them. So today we give you the basics with examples you can find in the wild. Plus, we complain about stories that botched their turning point, or just never included one.
Generously transcribed by Yzsekh. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren with me today is:
Oren: And we’ve really been struggling against this problem, but we have just finally figured out the solution and it was very satisfying. But why was it satisfying? We may never know the answer, unless Chris knows the answer.
Chris: [laughing] So yeah, we’re going to talk about turning points, which are basically the magical secret sauce that makes a climax feel satisfying. And it’s hard because we all learn about climaxes and we’re told that they’re the point of highest action intention, but it turns out that climaxes have a specific mechanism that’s designed to make the ending feel earned, and most people don’t teach new storytellers about that.
Basically what happens, if the turning point is missing, is it just feels like the hero got lucky, or if it was a bad ending, unlucky. Like just random things happened and that’s not great. We want to see that the hero earned their happy ending by doing something that was worthwhile basically, by struggling and achieving something that we feel has value or merit.
Turning points are a lot easier to clarify what they are with examples. But first, let me just say what the basic ingredients are, and then we can go into like different types of turning points, which is where it really crystallizes and becomes clear. So in a turning point, which I mean, I consider them the climax of the climax.
They happen to climaxes. You can have more than one, but you need at least one. The hero does something difficult that the audiences feel has value and merit. On Mythcreants, we call that earning good karma. We have this concept of good karma and bad karma. That the characters kind of accumulate during the story that makes it feel like they deserve something good to happen to them, or they deserve something bad to happen to them.
So they do a karmically good deed, and because of that, as a direct result, they succeed at that final conflict. Or in reverse, they fail the final conflict because they did not do the right thing. They did the wrong thing. And then you can think about it that when you boil it down, all stories are vehicles for a lesson. And this turning point kind of reveals what the lesson is. That’s kind of basically what they are. But that’s very loose and conceptual. So we should actually just talk about different types of turning points and how they manifest, which I think makes it much clearer.
Oren: Yeah. Who is turning point?
Chris: Who is turning point? So I have a blog post on this and most of my blog posts on these kinds of concepts are very how to, and this one is actually a list post, six types of turning points because that clarifies it a lot. So for instance, the first one, which is very common, I call it the clever deduction.
And this is one where the hero solves a puzzle. We have in, the moment, the hero has a realization. Where something clicks together and because they managed to figure it out, we feel like that has value, that that has merit, that earns them good karma that figuring that out enables them to defeat the villain or otherwise win the day if it’s, there’s not an actual villain with a big battle. Can be any type of story.
Do you want to go over a story example of this Oren?
Oren: Yes. So I was going to say that a story example of the clever deduction would be from The Martian, and The Martian is basically just a string of clever deductions to be perfectly honest because you can have these turning points, even if you’re not in the climax of your story.
Major conflicts will hinge on a turning point because your story is fractal. You will have more than one of them throughout the length, but particularly at the end, the most notable one is when the main character is trying to get up to the ship that’s come to pick him up and he can’t quite make it, and he’s gonna miss the rendezvous and die in space.
And so he figures out how he can adjust his suit. And I think he uses some bursts of air from depressurizing parts of his suit to get the rest of the way up. And that’s a clever deduction. And the reason that that clever deduction works so well is that the story has explained to us the mechanics of this technology, and that’s really important for our clever deduction, is that the audience understands the mechanics by which the character is doing what they’re doing.
You don’t necessarily always need to explain everything about how the setting works, but if you’re going to use it for your clever deduction, it should be either self-explanatory or explained.
Chris: Right. So if we were watching Star Trek, and the turning point happens because characters say a bunch of technobabble, that’s not satisfying, that’s just something that the writers made up. We don’t understand it, and I’m pretty sure at least one Star Trek episode is guilty of this.
Oren: Oh yeah, so many. The book Empires of Sand does that where at the end, it has an actual very good turning point, which is a kind we’ll talk about later. But then it keeps going and it has this sequence where the main character is doing this magic dance to try to stop a sandstorm, that’s really important.
And we don’t really understand how this dance works, because it’s very vague, so then it’s like, I did this magic dance and it worked. I’m like, okay, well I’m glad you danced, good. But that doesn’t have a particular connection with me, right? I don’t really know how you did that. I just have to take your word for it, that what you did was good enough to win.
Chris: And then it just feels like the storyteller just made up a bunch of stuff, and that’s why the character won. It’s always contrived if the audience doesn’t understand. A good clever deduction has foreshadowing ahead, and then it’s kind of like a reveal that the protagonist works through and clicks together.
Oren: Right. Working for it is also important. If the main character is just, like, notices, “Oh, well, it looks like he has a giant glowing, weak spot on his back. I guess I’ll hit him there.” It’s oh, well, that’s not very satisfying.
Chris: Working, struggling, is a really important part of characters earning good karma, of making it feel they deserve good things to happen to them. Have to have some level of struggle. If it feels easy, then it doesn’t feel satisfying when they succeed.
Okay, so another one. This one also incredibly common, call it the battle of will. This is anytime a character has to use willpower to win, sometimes I think in its best, the character has to actively resist temptation. This would be like at the end of the Return of the Jedi where Luke is fighting the emperor and fighting Vader, and they want him to succumb to the dark side, and he resists by then turning off his lightsaber.
That’s a battle of will, and it’s not actually about his fight with Darth Vader. It’s about him making the choice to not give in to his anger, even though that would be easy.
Oren: Yeah. And I would say that with a battle of will, you have to show both why the thing the hero is resisting is tempting. Like why they would want it, and also why they should not accept it. And that’s actually kind of a problem with the end of Return of the Jedi. It’s sort of like, okay, if Luke kills Vader, that’s bad. Because then he would be on Palpatine’s team, or if he kills Palpatine that would also be bad. And then he would be on Palpatine’s team and it’s, like, but hang on, those two things don’t actually, line up.
And now you have, at that point, you have to get into the meta understanding of how the dark side is basically one giant team evil. And if you do anything evil, you join the dark side. Even if your goals actually don’t align with other dark side users, you’re all kind of on the same team somehow.
Chris: As much as the Rise of Skywalker had a lot of problems. I do have to say that having Palpatine tell Rey that if you kill me my spirit will come to possess you made way more sense because at the Return of the Jedi, the emperor is just saying, “okay, you know, go ahead and strike me down, somehow that means you’ll join me”. And I just don’t know how that works. I don’t know how that would happen. But having this explanation that like, you know, some sort of sith spirit is transferred when you kill another sith. That makes way more sense.
Oren: And so the best ones that I’ve found are situations where giving in would give you a short term benefit, but at a long-term cost.
Those are the best battle of wills that I know of. You don’t want a situation where the main character is offered something and they turn it down and you’re like, why did you turn that down? That sounded like a great idea.
Chris: Battles of will can be hard to depict on screen, where we don’t see the characters thoughts. When you see them in a visual medium, you usually have to show characters hesitating and oftentimes there’s another character actively tempting them. So that they are vocalizing what is supposed to be tempting them.
Another form of battle of will that’s really common that I’m honestly kind of tired of, ‘cause it just feels easy and cheap at this point is what I call winning with spunk, where it’s lot of times the character tries and fails and they try later and it’s like, “Oh, it’s hard, but I just have to persevere. Yeah, go me.” And then their will power overcomes the mind control or whatever it was that they have to will power against. And it just, I’m tired of it. It’s done a lot because it’s easy, but a lot of times it’s just, why didn’t they have enough willpower before right now?
Oren: If it’s going to be a battle of will, you have to show why having more will actually makes a difference.
Chris: Or why they have more will, like, what held them back. Right now, what changed that allowed them to overcome that situation, and a mentor can be really helpful with this. I mean, I don’t really advocate too much for having other characters psychoanalyze your protagonist and tell them what’s wrong with them, I think that can get really toxic really quickly. But having a mentor being like, “Hey, you know, I think that you’re being too impulsive and you need to think about your basics”, right? “Remember to breathe correctly” or introduce something that the protagonist is doing wrong consistently.
That way later they can do it right and we can see the difference that makes. Something like, “Hey, you know, you are a good person and you’re valid and I want you to accept yourself”. And then we see in the final battle, they accept themself. And then we see the change that makes, whereas, you know, I’m just going to willpower harder.
But it’s common. It’s used on a lot of turning points.
Oren: I wish they would stop though.
Chris: Next one. This is the hidden plan. This is one that relies on you not knowing what your protagonist is actually thinking and planning and that can really get storytellers into trouble. It’s very flashy, but it works better in visual media where you’re not inside the character’s head to begin with.
But this is one where basically you think that the villain is gonna win. Villain is trying to close the deal and then suddenly the protagonist reveals that actually, “Everything has gone according to my plan and I have already succeeded.” And so then the idea is that we reveal at the turning point that the protagonist has done all of this work to plan for these events. And that’s why they won.
Oren: And it works better in visual mediums or in omniscient stories. The example that you use on the blog is the Discworld story Going Postal. Where it’s revealed at the end that you thought we were doing this contest to do this, but actually that was just a smokescreen for my actual plan.
And that would just be really frustrating in a limited perspective where it would be like, well, you’d obviously have to hide that information from the reader and that just wouldn’t be satisfying.
Chris: But this is a fairly typical in like heist stories. Heist stories usually have this plot where it seems like everything is going wrong at the climax and then a sudden reveal that actually…
Oren: You thought you were tricked before, but now you’re triple tricked and it’s like, Oh my gosh. There’s a really hilarious doctor who parody, which is just that the doctor being, “I’ve tricked you with time travel” and the master being like, “no, I’ve tricked you with time travel!” I love it. That’s the ultimate hidden plan story.
Chris: The important thing here is to know that the protagonist, when they do something that earns them that victory, it doesn’t technically have to take place at the climax. But the audience has to learn about it at the climax and not earlier. So another one that uses this is the prior achievement turning point.
And in this one, you can stay in the protagonists head, but the idea is that the protagonist has been doing something worthwhile, that they have not gotten any reward for, but still persisted at for a while, and there was no immediate benefit to doing it. They did it because they felt it was worthwhile.
And with our prior achievement, suddenly at the climax, we reveal that actually this does make a difference. And the fact that they persisted at this thing that was worthwhile without any reward is what is going to earn them the day. A very popular example would be, in Lord of the Rings when Éowyn kills the Witch-king because she’s been persisting at becoming a warrior, even though she’s a woman, despite tons of discouragement of all the people around her.
Oren: Another example is from The Calculating Stars. Where Dr. York has been working hard to help all of the people in the space program. And there are a lot of people that she’s personally helped and gone out on a limb for and she’s still gotten all these problems and it looks like she’s about to get drummed out and thrown off the mission and maybe get fired from the space program itself because her arch-nemesis is a dick [emphasis].
And then all the people that she’s helped speak up for her, and they’re, “Actually, York’s great. She’s been helping us, and you’re going to have to go through us if you want to fire her”. And it’s a very like aw moment. And that’s a prior achievement.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, in a traditional fairy tale, you’ll see the prior achievement. There’s a classic story about, and it comes in different forms, I think it’s originally mythology, the protagonist sees a hive of bees that are in trouble and helps them and then goes on their way, but then later they are given a hard task. All of these seeds are spread out everywhere and they have to pick out the few red seeds out of this huge pile. And it’s impossible, oh look, the bees are here, and they help them and sort through the pile of seeds.
Oren: Good friend bees.
Chris: Friend bees, right? That’s a prior achievement. And the protagonist did something good that that pays off later. We just don’t reveal that it pays off until that climax.
Next one. The sacrifice. This one’s really easy. But it does require a sacrifice, usually a bittersweet ending. The most effective is for the protagonist to sacrifice their life, but it doesn’t have to be that. It could be something that feels significant, but it’s not their life. But the point is that the winning comes at a cost.
And the protagonist chooses to pay that cost in order to win. And I think you can pull off something where the protagonist chooses to pay with their life, but then it turns out they don’t actually die. I think you’d have to be careful and make sure it doesn’t feel cheap, but I thought it’s something that technically could be pulled off.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen that. What I’ve seen in it’s always felt really contrived. Where it’s, Oh, I guess they actually didn’t die, and sometimes I’ll go with it just ‘cause I liked the character so much, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Let me put it that way. I think that it’s more likely to go bad than go good.
Chris: I will say that one of the things at the end of The Martian with Mark Watney, he has a clever deduction, but he also chooses to punch a hole in his suit, which is actually high risk. He doesn’t actually have anything to lose at this point ‘cause he’s going to die. But it still feels significant because his arm might freeze off when he chooses to punch a hole in his suit.
Oren: Yeah, that’s true. A sacrifice is, I’d say probably the easiest one of these to do. It doesn’t require as much setup or foreshadowing, and it doesn’t require the reader to have the same knowledge and familiarity with the mechanics of your story that a clever deduction does. But of course, the downside is that if you’ve sacrificed something, then the story could have a sad ending and it would be hard to do sequels if you have sacrificed the main characters life.
Chris: Some other possibilities besides the main character’s life, if there’s an important part of the setting, we managed to get all of the people out, but the city’s been destroyed and they have no home.
Oren: That’s what happens in Thor Ragnarok, that’s a sacrifice turning point and none of the characters died, but that they’re willing to sacrifice Asgard.
Chris: It just has to feel meaningful, basically, whatever it is that it gets sacrificed. And then, the gesture of goodwill. This is when you have a really gracious protagonist that does something genuinely for the villain without expecting, or at least not knowing that they’ll get anything in return, but they do it because it’s the right thing. This happens in Steven Universe. He heals, what’s the character’s name?
Chris: Lapis Lazuli. He heals her wings. And she’s about to take all of the oceans [water] off of the Earth [chuckles]. He doesn’t extract a promise from her to stop doing that. He just sees that she’s in pain. He decides that healing her is the right thing to do. And so that’s the gesture of goodwill. And that is generally thought to be a thing with value. And then the cure was rewarded when the villain decides to not be so villainous anymore.
Oren: And the gesture of goodwill is really satisfying when it works, but it’s very tricky. Because you need a villain who is feasible for them to actually stop because the hero is nice to them, and also a villain that the audience doesn’t hate to the point that they want to see them just die.
Chris: It’s good for a sympathetic villain, or if you have a sympathetic, lesser villain and a more threatening big bad, that would be a good way to resolve that. One other that I didn’t mention in my post and could be classified under battle of will or some others, but that I’ve seen around, I think it’s just worth mentioning separately, is a leap of faith.
A good example of this is at A New Hope when Luke decides to trust in the force and turn off his targeting computer. He has to be prompted by Obi Wan to do so and Obi Wan is basically coaching. This is very similar to a lesson of what we were talking about with introducing something that’s holding the protagonist back and then bringing it back and having them overcome that problem where Obi Wan has been telling him to trust in the force and then later he does it.
But I think it’s really significant that he turns off his targeting computer. So, by trusting in the force, he is taking a risk. That’s why it’s a leap of faith, this is potentially costing him something if he needed the targeting computer. Whereas at the end of Force Awakens, we have this really funny scene in the final battle between Rey and Kylo Ren where Rey is losing, and then she just remembers that the force exists because Kylo Ren mentions it and then she just stops.
It’s like, “Oh, the force” and closes her eyes and Kylo Ren just stands there watching her do this. And then she suddenly is really good. And I feel that’s just kind of laziness that’s building off of this new hope ending, but it doesn’t cost her anything to do that; she was already losing. There’s nothing, she didn’t have to struggle for that she didn’t even remember the force on her own [chuckles]. So that was, I think, meant to play off of this new hope ending, but it’s just not work as well as the new hope ending did.
Oren: Yeah. It was very silly. One thing, speaking of visual mediums, this is another issue where prose writers can be led astray by learning from movies and TV shows, ‘cause especially in fights, a lot of movies don’t really have a strong turning point just because it’s really fun to watch these really well choreographed fight scenes.
We’re willing to kind of let that go. Black Panther, it’s a fantastic movie. I love Black Panther, but the fight between Killmonger and T’Challa at the end doesn’t really have a turning point. They just fight for a while and eventually T’Challa gets the better of him.
Chris: I would say that a lot of movies kind of have them if you look closely, but they tend to gloss over them.
In the fight between Black Panther and T’Challa [Killmonger]. He does have a clever idea, which is to turn on this magnetic strip that they’re fighting on. It’s like this track for like a train or something. And then sometimes what you’ll see is there’ll be a point in the fight where there’s kind of a pause and, maybe the protagonist is being choked or something, and then they’re really struggling and we kind of hold onto that moment for a little bit and then they suddenly managed to grab the thing and come back.
So they kind of do something. But it’s definitely very weak compared to what would be normally expected, and I think that what we should expect, even from visual media or from, much less a novel where you can actually see into the character’s head. So I don’t know if I would say that it’s good for movies to do that I think that they can do better.
But I mean, a lot of times we get examples of stories from visual media, and because visual media has so much tougher problem getting into a character’s head, I think that it’s more likely for them to just kind of gloss over the turning point because it’s harder. Or to kind of convey it in visual ways that just wouldn’t translate very well to prose writing.
Oren: Right. And I, I think movies would be better if they had stronger turning points, but they often don’t, and it doesn’t hinder them in the same way that it would hinder a prose story. It’s really noticeable in a prose story where there’s no turning point. The ending is just, Oh, I guess that happened.
Chris: [chuckles] Yeah.
Oren: There are a whole bunch of those. I have a whole list of stories that have a bad turning point. And they just don’t tend to be as noticeable in film. That’s not to say they can’t be, in Spiderman Homecoming, it’s very noticeable that that story doesn’t have a turning point.
It’s just like, oh, hey, Spiderman does a thing where he’s reckless and tries to stop villains on his own and that’s bad. And he does that again and it’s really bad, and now he gets consequences and then he does it a third time and that time it works and everyone likes him for it. It’s like, okay, the only possible turning point here is actually Iron Man realizing that he was wrong, but Iron Man’s not the main character and also that it’s never played that way.
Chris: In the end, we’re left to believe that even though Iron Man says that Spiderman doesn’t have good judgment, his judgment is fine, Iron Man just wants him to win.
Oren: It’s not judgment. It was that you failed your rolls those times, and I don’t like it when you fail your rolls.
Chris: Yeah. So again, knowing why the characters succeeds now and they failed earlier is really a key in a lot of these things, if we showed that Spiderman was actually doing something differently or made a different judgment call than he had earlier in the movie, that would have made a big difference.
Oren: Right, and I mean, the issue with the Spiderman thing is just they chose to make the thing that Spiderman has a problem with is that he was being too much of a superhero and it’s just, this is a superhero movie guys. He’s not going to not be a superhero. That was just never gonna work. And so then of course he does the thing where he runs off, ‘cause the only way to satisfy that arc that they set up was if he chose not to go fight the villain. And they’re obviously not going to do that. So I don’t know what we were doing there.
Chris: [chuckles] Yeah. There was no way to win that one.
Oren: It just, you know, you set yourself a catch 22 and then you just, all right, well I guess we’re just going to have to do it. Just go straight through.
Chris: Do you want to talk about some more stories that struggle with turning points?
Oren: Oh man, do I, one of my favorites is Omnitopia: Dawn, I love it. It’s so weird. So I’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but to reiterate, this is a story about a guy who has made a giant MMO. And he loves his MMOs so much. He loves it more than his own family. He spends so much time and effort on this MMO, making sure it has everything it needs to grow and prosper.
And over the course of the story, you start to see little bits of foreshadowing that the MMO is actually developing sentience, right? And I’m, okay, I think I know where this is going. And then at the end, in the middle of this absolutely ridiculous battle scene where the hackers are trying to get to the tree of life in the game, because then they will get root access and the security team is fighting them in the game.
Yeah, so that’s all happening. In the middle of all that the main character gets pulled away from the battle, and into a kind of null space where the AI is and the AI is, “I have become an AI and gained awareness and thank you father for making me”. And it’s like, okay, this is going to be, the AI is going to help them defeat the hackers ‘cause before he got pulled in here the hackers were winning,
Chris: Right? So it’s like a prior achievement turning point basically.
Oren: Right. It was clearly a prior achievement turning point, but then instead the AI just leaves. And somehow they beat the hackers off screen. Like when he’s come back, they won [Chris laughs].
It’s like what? It had all the pieces to be a perfect, a prior achievements, a turning point, and then they just chose not to do it.
Chris: [laughing] Why did the climax happen off screen?
Oren: I don’t know. We had to stop the hackers from stealing all of our in game currency [sarcastic].
Chris: Well. That’s funny.
Oren: That’s my absolute favorite fail turning point because.
Chris: Like it was right there.
Oren: Yeah. It has all the things and it simply chose not to use them.
All right. Well, we have now reached the turning point in this podcast where we have to end the podcast because we are out of time.
Chris: That’s not what a turning point is, Oren.
Oren: What? That sounds like what a turning point is.
Chris: No, I’m pretty sure this is the resolution.
Oren: We’ve reached the point where it’s turning into the ending, heh? [prompting]
Chris: Ah, no. No.
Oren: Oh, okay. Well those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.