Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Point of No Return

There's no way I can top Wavy's most excellent post on premature climaxes (love that title, btw) from yesterday, so I'm not even going to try. But I am going to touch on something that's been on my mind lately. Mainly, jumping off points and what keeps your characters going when they get deep into your story.

I blogged about Michael Hauge's fabulous National workshop at my other blog, and I mentioned it at our meeting on Tuesday, but I'll say it again here just for good measure. If you ever have a chance to take one of Michael's workshops, do it. He breaks plot points and character arcs down into their simplest forms and uses examples from movies most of the population (or at least, most romance readers) have seen. Basically, he dissects movies (or books) into the three act structure, and within that, has six plot stages, marked by five turning points:

Turning Point #1 - When the main character is presented with the opportunity that changes his/her life
Turning Point #2 (end of first act) - When the main character's plans are drastically altered
Turning Point #3 (halfway point) - The point of no return when the main character becomes fully committed to their goal
Turning Point #4 (end of second act) - Where main character experiences a major setback
Turning Point #5 - The climax

As I listened to Michael explain each of the six plot stages in his model, what stood out to me was the halfway point or point of no return. I've heard this from other authors before - that the halfway point in your book marks a major change of some kind, where the characters might have been halfway committed to their goal before, but are now fully committed. Often this is when the first love scene happens, when some secret is shared, walls are brought down, and (in a romance) characters connect on an emotional level. Love scenes don't always have to happen here, but it's a natural point for that to occur, and if they don't, then there's probably some other transformation that happens at the halfway mark.

Most of us probably do this instinctively, but it's fun to look back at your work and see if you have some sort of "point of no return" in your book. So I opened my GH book (the one my agent's shopping) and flipped to pg 240 (of a 480 pg book). No love scene, but after a tense chase scene, the heroine (who is the main character in this book), realizes in order to achieve her goal, she has to put her trust in the hero. For her, it's an emotional and pivotal moment because she doesn't instinctively trust people. And trusting men is something she's always struggled with. Especially this man. The first love scene doesn't happen for another chapter or two, but there's an obvious shift from working against each other, to working with each other. She admits it to herself, and he realizes it in her actions.

So here's your challenge today: Open your last finished book - or your wip, doesn't matter which - and look at the halfway point. (If it's a wip, look at where the halfway point should be. For example, I expect my wip to run about 400-420 pgs. I'm on pg 320 right now, so I'll look at pgs 200-210). Is there a point of no return somewhere withing the 10-20 pg range of your halway point? If so, what is it? Is there a love scene? If not, where is the love scene in relation to the midway point, and does your book fall into line with Hauge's Point of No Return theory?


Alice Sharpe said...

Well, damn. I don't see a point of no return halfway through in my last book -- it comes a chapter or two later. The book before that seems to have a point of no return where the hero accepts the fact that he can't leave the heroine behind and the heroine has a premonition that her presence will be required before the end of their quest, but the love scene comes later and is actually delayed at this point.

However, now that I have this in my head, I'm sure there'll be one exactly on the correct page in my current WIP because that's what my subconscious will now demand. It seems a good idea. Besides, I was impressed enough by the other stuff this guy said that I would be willing to investigate this, too.

Good blog. I'm going to print it out and use it to look at the pages in the handbook I brought home. Thanks Eli.


wavybrains said...

WIP= 474 pages. How pathetic is it that I first had to open up the calculator to find that the halfway point is page 237. And what do you know, we're in the midst of a love scene gone awry and heroine's having a bit of breakdown as she realizes that she's going to have to change plans yet again.

The six plot stages needs a little tweaking to apply to my WIP. Heroine and Hero both have their own arcs, with similarly spaced turning points, so in that way it works. But, at base this book about a woman with too many plans and a man with none. Wow. I think I just finally got my "one sentence idea" down. So, at each turning point, the heroine is forced to change plans (which she hates to do), and the stakes are raised, until finally she forced to live without a plan. At each turning point, the hero gets closer to committing to a plan, and his arc more closely mirrors the six plot stages. In both cases, it's a matter of what the character THINKS the goal is, not being the goal at all--so I really have to look at the six stages from a reader perspective. But, otherwise, I'm kinda happy to see that I'm already roughly following this structure. It's also given me some more focus for editing. Thanks for a great blog!

Karen Duvall said...

Interesting post, Eli. Sounds like it was a good workshop. I just downloaded the order form for RWA conference tapes and I might add that one to the bunch I've already checked off.

The point of no-return in my books usually happens sooner than halfway. I normally have my characters in a position early on that makes it physically impossible to turn back to their ordinary lives, but they do have to make a major decision halfway through as to which "fork in the road" direction they want to take.

My WIP isn't a romance, but there is a love interest. I'm not sure if I'll have them hook-up in this book because they'll be together again in the next one. However, my heroine and her entourage need to choose whether they should go forward to their original goal, or back to the island's coast in hopes of a rescue. Of course they're divided on what to do, and the group splits up. This is where it gets really interesting. The plot literally thickens.

So technically there is a major directional change at my halfway point, but theoretically the way back was blocked the moment they all parachuted on to the island, which was a quarter way from the beginning.

wavybrains said...

Karen--I get what you are saying. And my WIP is probably going to have a similar set-up (it doesn't at the moment, but in doing an outline for editing, I'm seeing the need)--sometimes the story has to begin with a major roadblock, a departure from the character's usual mojo. IMHO, it's really about front-loading turning point 1, and making it a point of no-return. A different point of no-return has to happen later as the tension escalates. My two cents. Many action adventure books like what you write have each turning point be a point of no return. Think Guy movies. They need the stakes to be sky high for each turning point. Chick flicks might have a very subtle rise to the point of no return. But you're not writing a chick flick, so you can have the higher stakes and still fit within the structure, if that makes sense???

Elisabeth Naughton said...

You girls are so smart. :)

Okay, what I neglected to say was that this model is set up for screenplays. And in screenplays, the first 10% of the movie is used to establish the main character in their "normal world". This doesn't tend to happen so much anymore in novels because readers want to be immediately dropped into that inciting incidence and the first turning point shortly thereafter. But everything else rings true for both movies and books.

Paty Jager said...

Okay, I took a look at OIP - a little over half way the hero realizes he can't keep the heroine save and she finally realizes how vulnerable she is and the next chapter there is a love scene.

Great Blog, Eli! Guess I need to take a closer look at how my books are set up.

Karen Duvall said...

Yes, Wavy, you make sense. And Eli, I love the 3-act structure thing. I even bought a book on writing screenplays because it's really helpful with the big picture look at your story from all angles. I like to remember what it says about the purpose of each act: 1 get your character in the tree, 2 throw rocks at him, and 3 gets him down. So I guess the rock-throwing would be the halfway point. 8^) Theoretically. Like you said, books are structured differently, but the principal for escalating stakes etc. is the same.

The book I'm talking about is THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE by David Trottier.

Danita Cahill said...

My halfway point has the hero showing up to help rescue the heroine and her baby. The heroine, a widow, has fought her impulses drawing her towards the hero because she has a baby to raise, and must do it on her own -- blended families don't work. After a night together, she realizes she may need this man, physically and emotionally.

Good blog, Eli. Sorry for the late comment.

Danita Cahill said...

I like your one sentence idea, Wavy, especially if you add a bit more: A story about a woman with too many plans and a man with none in which both strive to change the direction of the other's life.

Or something like that. Show their clash somehow.