Covid-19 is a disruptive, dangerous and potentially lethal experience. It also contains an upside for writers, hard as that might be to imagine. In gaining a visceral, firsthand understanding of Before and After—as in “life before and after a pandemic”—we can get better at writing a crucial element of story: emotional turning points.
What is a turning point?
It’s the moment of change when a character learns something new, and with that fresh understanding of the nature of reality, they will think, feel, or act differently going forward. They have evolved into different people.
Note that emotional turning points need not be an improvement over the status quo to qualify!
Here’s a meme which humorously captures the principle.
Commercial fiction is chock full of emotional turning points. Look closely, and you will see them at the level of the full story (character arc), subplot, chapter, and scene.
They drive reader engagement. In fact, if readers can skip entire chapters without feeling that the story suffers, odds are you have focused on plot—the story’s external events—but not how said events drive emotional change.
How do you know if your scene contains an emotional turning point?
I’m paraphrasing Donald Maass here, but at the level of scene, he has laid down a tidy marker of emotional change in the following setup:
“Five minutes before [your character] _____; now he/she ______.”
Can you fill in the blanks by describing a shift in emotional state? If yes, odds are you have a turning point. If no, you might have work to do.
For example, sex scenes are notorious for providing action without an accompanying emotional payoff, and therefore being skipable. But here’s a sex scene which does include an emotional turning point:
Five minutes before, Ben believed Lois to be so vain that she would forgo all fun in life to protect her appearance; now, after sex, Ben believes she wears her makeup as protective armor.
Pro Tip: Alter the time encompassed in the test phrase, and extend the principle to story chunks of different sizes, using it to pinpoint why certain portions of it don’t sing. (e.g. “Five seconds/days/years/decades before…”)
This would also help to avoid jokes about Ben’s prowess.
While you can signal the presence of an emotional turning point in various ways, not all methods carry equal punch. To examine why that might be, I thought we could outline a short story, look at our choices, and determine why we might pick one option over another.
Let’s take a scenario being played out in homes all over the world right now. We’ll take a longtime-married fictional couple, Helen and George, who bear absolutely no resemblance to this author and her ToolMaster husband.
What began as a shiny, hopeful relationship has become tarnished by neglect, misunderstanding, and responsibility. Our couple shot through a period of mutual indifference some time ago. Now they’re caught in a vicious cycle of nagging and stonewalling.
Covid-19 came along in February, and with it, the need for both to work from home.
Let’s confine ourselves to a series of dinnertime scenes, where Helen, our main character and narrator, does little but pace the kitchen.
It’s the usual story, Helen thinks. After exhausting essential conversation, during which time they quarreled about who was right about scenario X and who proved prescient in scenario Y, George picks up his fork. He stares right through her and begins to bounce the tines off his teeth.
What is wrong with the man? He knows she hates this ghastly, unhygienic, nocturnal musical—has to, because if she’s told him once she’s told him a thousand times. But tonight, with the specter of death haunting the news and a neighbor taken away by ambulance, it feels different when she shoots to her feet.
This could be her life forever, she suddenly realizes. Unless she dies or does something drastic, she will spend every evening wearing the shine off the tiles and fretting over his enamel. No more, Helen decides, because she hates the sap. I’m going to file for divorce. The minute this pandemic is over, I’m out of here.
Is there an emotional turning point in this vignette? Yes. Five minutes before, Helen railed against a static situation. Now, her inner thoughts reveal a decision to write off her marriage and seek freedom.
What do you think of its effectiveness?
I’m decidedly in the “meh” camp. I mean, can we trust this event to be more than a blip on the radar? Humans deal with an ongoing parade of thoughts, ranging from the benign and banal to the lusty and murderous. Until we attach and act on them, thoughts themselves rarely signify a change. If they did, every gym membership and New Year’s resolution would be taken more seriously.
And how do we know this internal dialogue is any different than when George forgot her fortieth birthday? Or that time she worked for hours to serve Baked Alaska to his poker buddies, and his only response was to grunt?
I suppose we could add clarifying, direct internal dialogue, like, “And I’m scaring myself now, because despite the hundreds of nights I’ve yearned for freedom before, this is the first time I’ve decided on divorce.”
Ignoring the clunky delivery, the problem is that there’s no sweat equity in a turning point that hinges entirely on internal dialogue. No cost. No damage done if Helen changes her mind tomorrow night.
If internal dialogue isn’t going to pack a punch, we could always have her speak the words aloud. Personally, I love a scene with good dialogue and would consider that an improvement over a passage of thinking. Yet it’s still sort of one-note, isn’t it? A change from bickering to weightier disagreement is still just a matter of yapping.
What if, instead, Helen were to go in her office and retrieve a binder reserved for special reports? What if she were to slam it down on the table in front of George? If he were to open it and see neatly collated paperwork pertaining to the lawyer she’d hired?
Does that feel like a more meaningful emotional turning point?
If you agree it is superior, here are a few ideas why that might be the case:
Note: I am not saying that each scene’s emotional turning point must always lead to immediate action. That, too, could come to feel monotonous.
⇒By shifting the strategy from thoughts to actions, you raise tiny questions in the reader’s brain:
- What is Helen retrieving from the office?
- What is in the binder?
- How will George react?
Action, in effect, provides ambiguity to the text that thinking would not. For all we know, until George opens the binder, she’s presenting him with a list of counselors, or an itinerary of the workshop they’ll attend to break out of their relationship rut. A BDSM tutorial to go with the kit she has ordered.
Whatever the case, the reader exists in a state of suspense for a few seconds longer and must work for the payoff. In general, readers adore puzzles and questions.
A week later, it looks like our couple is back to square one. George, either indifferent to or skeptical of Helen’s announcement, plays another dental symphony. An aggrieved Helen paces.
But a sound stops her, puts her on alert: a cough. And it’s not just that tickle George gets when she serves him sausages baked in sauerkraut, either.
Out of reflex, she chews him out for taking that trip to the hardware store. “You know what your problem is? You don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘essential.’ It’ll be your own damn fault if you’re sick.”
George rolls his eyes. But is that a drop of perspiration beading his brow? As she reaches into the cupboard for medical supplies, she bobbles the thermometer, her hands are trembling that much.
We have an emotional turning point marked by action on Helen’s part. (Five minutes before she was mired in routine resentment; now she exists in a state of probable alarm.)
“Probable”, because once again said reaction comes with ambiguity about its meaning. That tremor could come from avid joy. (Maybe poor George is worth more dead than alive.) It could signify fear for her own health or her finances if something should happen to him. Or it could signal cracks in her ossified approach to their relationship.
So we have questions raised again, yes? And hopefully more tension to pull the reader onward.
⇒Notice that by making this turning point an action, it adds a sense of motion, color, and texture to the scene. If your reader is after a virtual reality experience, you’ve brought them closer to their desire.
⇒Notice also that turning points will have signposts specific to your characters, their relationship, the setting, and the type of story you’re writing.
For me, the central question of this story is whether Helen can learn to let go of her bitterness and see George anew. (It’s somewhat immaterial whether he responds in kind, though that would be a nice reward for her growth. Either way, we sense Helen would have a better life going forward.)
The story’s emotional turning points, then, will generally tell us whether she’s getting closer to or farther from that unconscious objective—within that specific context. As such, it’s unlikely to feature flamethrowers or questions about justice.
(If you were writing a longer piece of fiction with subplots, your turning points would address different questions at different points in the story. For example, in a romantic suspense, some turning points will be all about the romantic relationship, others the life/death stakes, and yet others address both simultaneously.)
Two weeks later, we find Helen pacing the kitchen. She’s alone this time, the kitchen already tidied because she’s so much more efficient when she doesn’t have to hear that annoying tink, tink, tink sound. In fact it’s too quiet because the phone won’t ring.
Stupid doctors—well, she hopes she’s indulging in a bit of hyperbole because George’s well-being lies in their patronizing hands—but they’re definitely ignorant and hypersensitive creatures. Supply a tiny bit of helpful criticism just that one—okay, three times—and you get banned from calling the ICU for updates. It’s the modern, Covidly brushoff of Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
On the other hand, she’s not sure why she’s so anxious to hear from them. A few week ago she was ready to leave George and never see him again. Ready to burn it all down on her way out the door. Now she just wishes—
No, this is ridiculous. She’s not frazzled and anxious over him. She’s just tired and…squished. All the ice cream binges when she should have been eating vegetables have taken their toll on her figure. It’s been thirty years since she last permitted herself an elasticized waist, but maybe she should relax her standards.
Before she knows it, she’s in their bedroom, staring into the dresser. She’s so unaccustomed to the length of George’s pock-kneed sweats that when the phone rings she trips on the way to it, banging her chin, nearly biting off her tongue.
A lot of this scene is subtextual, but if I’ve done my job, you’ll be thinking that Helen’s victimhood now sounds reflexive. That underneath it all, including the scapegoating of doctors, she’s deeply anxious about George for his sake and reconsidering her general approach to life.
IMHO, the most effective aspect of this scene is the visual of Helen prostrate, elbows bruised, almost chewing off the tongue that has taken her so far from her goal. Contrast that posture of humility with how the scene began with her upright and prideful.
Pro Tip: Here’s a quick scene check that I learned from our own Jennie Nash: Draw two images of your scene, one at the beginning, the other at the end. Beyond setting, do they look materially different? If yes, odds are you’ve got an effective emotional turning point.
Scene #4 (Final)
Two weeks later, Helen paces the kitchen, pausing only to check if George needs water, to bring him his meds, and ensure he took them all. It has been an odd meal, neither knowing how to act, the strained silence still present but carrying different undertones than before he was ill.
“You know what your problem is?” she begins, but catches herself before she tells him he’s pushing himself too hard. The man is paper thin, certainly not up for a well-meaning lecture. She clears her throat and speaks with deliberate gentleness. “Your problem is that you didn’t get proper nourishment in the hospital. I’ll make goulash, just how you like, and you’ll eat it all.”
George blinks at her. “Okay.” He sits with the blankets pulled over his shoulders, coughing occasionally, wearing a bemused expression on his face as she flutters about the kitchen.* Eventually he forgets himself, picks up his fork, starts to play his teeth.
At the sink, Helen’s head comes up. She goes rigid.
She draws in several deep breaths, crosses the room, sits. “George,” she begins curtly, then reins herself in when she sees him withdraw. “You know what you need? A bigger repertoire.”
Picking up her own fork, she draws a water glass nearer and begins to tap out a rhythm.
Okay, maybe that ending is cheesy, but it illustrates one final aspect of turning points: the handiness of bookending.
Theoretically, we could have ended the story where I placed the asterisk, with our couple embarking on a new path. But how much more effective to prove Helen’s evolution than by having her confront her most symbolic challenge twice, then compare her reactions. The reader winds up with two contrasting mental snapshots: George playing alone while Helen resents him, versus George being accompanied by a playful partner.
Pulling all the above together in a brief summary, emotional turning points are moments that mark a character’s evolution. They are most effective when they:
- involve action and commitment on the part of the protagonist as opposed to thinking or dialogue alone
- provide the reader with ambiguity and/or puzzles to solve
- strengthen the reader’s virtual reality experience by providing sensory detail
- are specific to the characters, setting, and type of conflicts contained in the story’s genre
- provide contrasting Before and After snapshots, especially if they include bookending
Over to you, Unboxeders. What aspect of emotional turning points did I miss? How would you have ended our little Covidly tale? And how are you changing with this pandemic-invoked chaos?