The Act 1 Turn

I have heard of writers who map out the specific page number on which they will hit certain story beats before they ever start writing.  As in, I will write a 244 page novel, and the turning point between Act 1 and Act 22 will occur on page 61.

I am not one of those people. 
But I do try to think about the character’s major turning points as part of my initial story planning.  In most books, whether the ending is happy or sad, the character will emerge on the other side of the central conflict changed in some way.  When mapping out an initial structure for the book, I try to think about what events will change the character the most, and then when those events should occur in the story for maximum impact.

I start with four “big” things that I know must happen in my story, whether a turning point, a reversal or a revelation.  These four points are absolutely vital to the story, both from an internal and external character arc, and they will form the anchors for each of my four acts (Act 1, Act 2 part 1, Act 2 part 2, and Act 3).  Then I think of four events that are smaller in scope, but critical to building to the other four.  These are the midpoint scenes of each of my four acts.  The remaining scenes will be the necessary building blocks to get me from point to point- or turning point to turning point as the case may be.

At the end of Act 1, approximately a quarter of the way through the book (but it could be sooner or later- rules are made to be broken), I look for a turning point that places the main character on the path that will propel them through Acts 2 and 3.  This is the point of no return, where both internal and external forces converge to thrust the character into action.

In SPIES AND PREJUDICE, a key plot point is Berry’s decision to investigate the death of her mother eight years earlier.  This turning point marks the end of Act 1.  Early in the story, she is tempted by the idea of doing so, but fights it, in part because of her fear of what she will find, but more because she doesn't want to face an emotional truth- that she hasn’t gotten over her mother’s death.  The romantic plot is important to the story as well, so I played with using her initial distrust of her love interest as a means of propeling her forward in the mystery element. Characters and events converge to bring her to the place where she has no choice but to move forward despite her fears. 
The story could have been written where she starts the story determined to find out what happened to her mother, but then I’d miss the conflict and tension (and character development) that comes from her fear and indecision.  As Katy said so well yesterday, a turning point is meaningless without some prior build up- a reader needs to be invested in the outcome.  By allowing the character to fear what could happen,  the stakes are raised for both the character and the reader.  By knowing and understanding the consequences of a particular course of action, the reader can empathize with the character's struggles along the way.
I like to think of the Act 1 turning point as the moment where your character is knocked on or off course.  It can be the character’s choice, or external events or characters that push the character in  certain direction, but to me, the best turns are where the character veers away from his or her comfort zone.  
The Act 1 turning point is a great place to examine your character's internal motivations at the beginning of the novel, and experiment with what it would take to push your character in the direction that will challenge them the most.   


Yes! I like it - especially that last piece of advice of looking at the Act I turning point & the character's motivation. My newer WIP could really benefit from that.

I ponder, though rarely, what it would be like to actually have a novel down to a science to where I could predict the page number that I write something happening.

I'm doubtful that will happen anytime soon since my writing is an adventure that usually detours off from what little bit of skeleton outline I drafted.

I enjoyed your mention of taking the characters from their comfort zone. This is truly a great way for the character to begin helpful or harmful changes, or maybe to show the muster of their will.

I work the same way, Talia - looking for the "big" things first, then looking for the smaller events critical to getting there. In all of them I ask myself, how is this going to change my character?

Thanks for the thought-provoking and detailed insight into your process!

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