When my youngest was a wee lad, there was a period when I knew I was failing him as a parent. Day after day, from the moment I woke him up to take him to the sitter’s until I tucked him into bed (for the last time), we were locked in one power struggle after another.
I wanted him to have a playful, imaginative childhood, yet the word I uttered with the most frequency was no.
Worse, while I retained the upper hand, I was under no illusion that would persist. Short of formal therapy, I’d already exhausted every resource at my disposal. I’d bent The ToolMaster’s ear whenever he could call from his enforced work absence. I combined his advice with that gleaned from seasoned and skillful parents. I’d worked on my reactivity and consistency, picked my battles, used time-outs, positive reinforcement, logical consequences, yada yada.
Still, it seemed that my son knew all my moves and counter-moves in advance, could push me to the limit, so I was always on the cusp of acting more childlike than him. It was a discouraging, humbling experience and ironic, given that my patients often thanked me for my parenting counsel.
But one hot July evening, as my son and I launched into our post-dinner script, I clutched a new, secret weapon to my breast.
A Hero in a Red Sports Car
It came courtesy of Dr. G, whom I’d been fortunate to meet at a conference on spirituality in medicine. A Corvette-driving, six-foot-tall woman in her early sixties, G’s practice was devoted to cognitive behavioral therapy. She was good at it, too — so much so that she was under contract to provide mental health services to the province’s physicians. (Doctors make extra-demanding patients because of challenges around vulnerability and trust.)
I don’t recall confiding in her about my worries, but G was full of entertaining stories. At some point in our luncheons together, she talked about hamster-wheel relationships and how she worked with clients to shift them. She had plenty of examples — all anonymous or derived from her personal life — and I glommed onto them.
The principle was radically simple: When stuck in a scripted relationship, disrupt the pattern. Do something fresh, something completely unexpected so that neither party can return to the previous relationship trajectory. (She never said as much, but by her examples and common sense, I understood this to exclude anything destructive, disrespectful, or cruel. In other words, follow the Golden Rule.)
So it was, on that sweltering July evening, when Frank and I began another of our tussles over the bedtime routine, that I had a different consequence to use when he refused my request to go up for his bath. My inspiration? Marilyn Monroe’s solution to the heat in her movie The Seven Year Itch.
“Frank, it’s bedtime, ” I said again. “We need to go upstairs now. If you choose not to listen, there will be consequences.”
This time, when his response was a version of Make me, I had enough emotional distance to notice his reaction without tensing further. I could see his half-triumphant, half-fearful face, how he was waiting for the next step in Mommy’s escalation.
I said nothing. I left him behind in the kitchen and moseyed up to his room. I reached into the top drawer of his dresser, grabbed an object, took my time descending the stairs and navigating the hallway back into the kitchen. And as a puzzled frown blossomed on his face, with Frank’s complete and utter attention focused upon what I held in my hand, I opened the freezer door and dropped in a pair of clean underpants.
For an extra dose of unpredictability, I flopped onto the kitchen floor and lay supine.
“Mommy?” His voice sounded tremulous, uncertain.
I didn’t answer. I smiled and tried to look relaxed, as if staring at a cobwebbed ceiling was the natural post-dinner activity of all up-and-coming moms. But my heart was pounding. Would it be enough? After all these months of difficulty, could a pair of sub-zero tighty-whities create the relationship-altering changes I craved?
It seemed to take forever, but eventually I felt Frank’s two small hands on my cheeks, turning me toward him. When I saw his expression — confusion, uncertainty, with a spark of dawning humor — I knew we were going to be okay.
Applying Unpredictability to Story
Are you sometimes confounded by story terms, or do you have trouble applying them to your fiction? I do. Until last month, if you asked me to explain the significance of the above event, I’d describe it as a turning point in our relationship without really hearing that I was using a writing term. (For that evening birthed a different dynamic — one that was kinder and gentler to us both.)
But in a Robert McKee lecture  last month, my adventure in frozen underpants came back to me. I realized it formed a real life example of a Turning Point and explained why those moments in the kitchen felt so profound. Maybe these other points from McKee’s Story seminar will help the concept gel for you:
- Readers go to fiction and audiences to film in order to have their expectations reversed, McKee says. They don’t go to a story to experience more of what they already understand. They have life for that. They want to experience a burst of insight, laugh at something they’ve never before found funny, quake before a threat that previously felt insipid.
- There can be no story without turning points. In fact, the gap between expectation and reality comprises the substance of story, which is why it can be sung, danced, mimed, cartooned, or given any artistic form which unfurls over a span of time. You might write a beautiful, illuminating, transcendent work of prose, but unless it includes turning points, you’ve created a portraiture of life, not a story.
- Since we understand the story through the eyes of a character, it must be the character who’s first surprised by the gap between reality and expectation. When their universe pushes back in ways they don’t anticipate, they are forced to pivot, forced to adapt. (Some call this the Oh shit! moment.)
- You’ll know you’re on track by watching your readers’ faces. Turning points release a burst of kinetic energy in an audience, so watch for bouncing eyebrows.
- It’s important to understand your readers’ expectations within your story’s genre. Unless you want your book to become a projectile, you don’t want to accidentally write a genre-violating turning point or omit an essential one. (Imagine a romance without a commitment scene or an action-adventure story where the hero doesn’t outsmart the villain.) At the same time, once you understand a genre’s expectations, you can purposefully subvert them to create a profound effect in your readers.
- Lastly, within the constraints of your world and your characters’ personalities, work to create the unexpected on a beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene, act-by-act basis. Don’t restrict change, insight, and adaptation to the climax. Until that moment — until you’ve cultivated the gap between expectation and reality in ways both small and large and seeded throughout your manuscript — you’re just another struggling “professional” having your butt handed to you by a four-year-old child.
Now it’s your turn, Unboxeders. I’d love to hear what you know about Turning Points and opening up the gap between expectation and reality. What books or movies do this particularly well? Is this intuitive for you, or a skill you’re developing?