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?