A turning point (also known as a “plot turn” or “plot point”) changes the direction of the story, through an action or a revelation. The protagonist was going one direction, and an event takes place or information is revealed, and the protagonist is now on a different trajectory. Major turning points are often recognized in popular story structures. “Crossing the Threshold” in the Hero’s Journey and “All is Lost” in Save the Cat are both examples of major turning points. And let’s not forget, the biggest turning point of all, the climax, turns the story from conflict to resolution.
Previously, I discussed how relationship plotlines have the same elements as external plotlines: arcs, goals, antagonists, conflicts, and consequences. They just manifest a little differently.
This is also true with turning points. Relationship plots (whether they be between allies, love interests, or enemies) need turns as well. So, let’s go over their critical components.
1. A Point of No Return
In external plotlines, turning points are often called “Points of No Return,” because when handled properly, the protagonist should not be able to go back to how life was previously. He may try, but it’s never the same and his attempts are costly.
In relationship plots, turning points are also “Points of No Return.” An event takes place or information is revealed, and it essentially changes the relationship forever. A first kiss, sharing an emotional wound, a punch to the face, a betrayal—these alter relationships in definitive ways.
In Pride and Prejudice, at the midpoint, Mr. Darcy shares he’s in love with Elizabeth and proposes to her. This is both a revelation and an action that can’t be undone. It’s a moment where Mr. Darcy attempts to move closer to Elizabeth, but Elizabeth creates distance. She will never see Mr. Darcy the same way. Their relationship will never truly go back to what it was. It has become more personal.
2. Close or Distant
Typically, in external plots, the turn ends in a victory or a failure. In relationship plots, the turn ends in the participants being close or apart. For most relationship journeys, you’ll want major turns of each. A “break up” may tear characters apart, while a “grand gesture” may bring them close together. This helps create a zigzag effect, so it feels like the relationship is evolving, instead of remaining stagnant or circling the same problems.
It’s also possible to bring close characters closer, or pull distant characters further apart.
You have four options:
Distant –> Close
Close –> Distant
Distant –> More Distant
Close –> Closer
With that said, there is room for complexity. In the Pride and Prejudice example above, Mr. Darcy tries to get close to Elizabeth, but she pushes him away, creating distance. This brings me to the next section.
3. A Vulnerable Moment that is Accepted, Rejected, or Neglected
A relationship turn almost always contains a vulnerable moment. One character is vulnerable, and the other gets to decide how to respond.
The first character’s vulnerability may be voluntary, or it may be forced. It may even be forced by the other character in the relationship.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy shares his vulnerability voluntarily—he confesses he’s in love with Elizabeth.
In contrast, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Hermione is attacked by a troll in the girls’ bathroom, her vulnerable state is involuntary.
And in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan forces Anakin into a vulnerable state when he cuts him down in the climactic fight.
In the next moment, the second character gets to decide what to do to the first: accept, reject, or neglect them. This is what ultimately turns the relationship.
Elizabeth responds by rejecting Mr. Darcy. They are pushed further apart.
Harry (and Ron) responds by accepting the call to save Hermione. They are brought closer together.
While Anakin lays dying, in need of medical assistance, Obi-Wan neglects him, walking away. This also pushes them further apart. (Neglect can be viewed as a lesser form of rejection.)
It’s important to note that rejecting and neglecting aren’t always bad. What they usually mean is that the second character is unwilling to cross a boundary. Elizabeth isn’t going to agree to marry Mr. Darcy, because she’s unwilling to marry someone she hates. And Obi-Wan isn’t going to help Anakin, because it would harm the whole galaxy.
As with any writing element, there is room for variations, but at the basic level, this is how relationship turning points work.
And just like the external plotline, the turns in the relationship plotline should escalate so that vulnerable moments grow more intense, and the acceptance, rejection, or neglect of them carry bigger ramifications.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.