THE FIRST ACT TURNING POINT
May 19, 2016
To continue the lovely metaphor from my last post on the Inciting Incident, if the inciting incident is the moment the cigarette is tossed carelessly from the window of a moving car, the First Act Turning Point is the moment the winds change, a dry twig catches, and the fire starts. It’s the moment there’s no turning back for your story or your characters. It’s the moment that whatever possibility became, well, possible, with your inciting incident, becomes the plot. If the inciting incident is someone rolling a boulder up a hill, the First Act Turning Point is the moment it starts rolling down the other side, picking up speed, wiping out trees and hikers, and gaining momentum until it reaches its inevitable (but unexpected and satisfying) conclusion.
As mentioned, I went to film school. (Also as mentioned, I do not work in film, so I’m not boasting.) There we learned that your FATP needs to happen around the 15-20 page mark. (Assuming a 100-page script at one-minute screen time per page.) This is not a hard and fast rule. Your FATP can and probably should come sooner, and I would venture to say it should definitely not come later. Just put yourself in the reader’s shoes: how long do you want to watch someone push that boulder up the hill? Yes, it’s hilarious for a while… But a real while? Er, no, we want to see what happens when it rolls down the other side. We want to see what happens next. That’s what your FATP does. It starts the next.
As mentioned in the introduction post, think about this. Think about it when you’re writing, and really think about it when you’re reading. Analyze the book you’re currently reading. When did the inciting incident take place? The FATP? How did you feel waiting for each of those events? Too soon? Too early? Just right? Learn from that. “I really liked this book but it took too long for the plot to start,” is a lesson to you to make sure your plot kicks in fast enough. If I remember, I’ll do a post on how to do that, but first things first: more metaphors! (Just kidding. Not yet. But if you're wondering how to hurry up your story, my number one piece of advice would be to combine scenes. If you’ve got a scene with a housewife buying groceries and another of her calling a hitman to take out her husband, have her make the call WHILE buying groceries. Better already, right?)
Okay, back to the point. Here are what I consider the FATPs in my published books:
Just Once: When Shane helps Kate massage the knot in her shoulder. It’s the moment the whole “we’re never going to do this” turns into “yeah, this is going to happen sooner rather than later.” (However, as I mentioned in the last post, readers felt things maybe happened a little too later, which is a difficult balancing act in a story about two people who say they’re never going to cross that bridge. They can’t cross it immediately or your premise is shot, but you have to make all the pre-crossing parts interesting or people will complain. Lesson learned!) This scene starts on page 65 of 255, which is the 25% mark. It’s safe to say this is too late for a FATP. (Though it really does get going after this, honest.)
Time Served: The 4th of July when Rachel shows up at Dean’s apartment uninvited and they have sex for the first time since being “reunited.” Until that point she’d been saying she wanted the past to be the past—so had he, really—but that moment showed both the characters and the reader otherwise. (I actually have a print copy of this book and that scene starts on page 67. 395 pages total. Which…math drum roll…is the 17% mark.)
Going the Distance: The FATP here is also the first sex scene (after they watch Love, Actually, for those taking notes), even though they don’t go all the way. The reason I decided that these two fully consenting adults wouldn’t go all the way this time is because the hero only did one night stands up until that point. When he leaves after this encounter he asks the heroine if she’s okay and she says something like, “Yeah, I’m fine. That was fine.” That bruises his manly ego and he simply has to come back for seconds to do things better. And then better. And better again. That rock is rolling. (Print book page count: scene starts on page 37; 228 pages total. 16.2%)
In Her Defense: So as I write this, I’m seeing that I use the first sexual encounters to mark my FATPs. I wouldn’t say that’s a fully conscious effort, but seeing as this is romance, I think it makes sense. It doesn’t have to be a sex scene, but clearly I think it can be. Anyway, the FATP in this book is the moment Caitlin and Eli meet in the bar and begin the game of Truth or Dare that leads to… Did you guess sex? Why, you’re right! Through her relationship with the hero, Caitlin learns that life can be about more than career success. And since she’s on a mandated holiday, how better to spend her newly free time than banging the IT guy? I don’t have a print copy of this, but looking at the Word document and doing the math, the scene begins at the 11% mark.
Undecided: The FATP in this book is not a sex scene! I’m breaking from tradition and forging a new path! (The first sex scene is actually the halfway mark, for those wondering.) Because this is the story of a girl who moves in with the campus heartthrob and assumes she’ll fall for him but actually ends up falling for Crosbie, his cocky best friend, the FATP is when Crosbie helps her build her bed. (This is the excerpt scene that’s available on the book page, if you’re curious.) I chose to make this the FATP because it’s the first time the heroine acknowledges that she could kinda maybe sorta have feelings for Crosbie. And it’s all downhill after that! (Hmm. Maybe the rock metaphor doesn’t work in all instances.) This is also the moment that readers completely realize (if they haven’t already) that Crosbie’s the love interest, not Kellan. And it was my intention that the scene be so sweet and funny that they’re totally thrilled at the prospect. Page check: the scene begins on page 50 of 301. 16.6%.
One very important thing to keep in mind is that your characters should be active in your FATP. For example, if the plot was, “When a freak lightning strike burned down her barn, Jodie Jones was forced to accept help from taciturn fire chief Brady O’Grady. (Inciting incident.) But when a second lightning strike a few weeks later burns down her half-built new barn…” I recently saw a writing tip on Twitter that said it’s possible (use this cautiously) to have your inciting incident be something random or coincidental, but after that, the plot has to be believable and realistic (within the realm of your story). I agree with this. One lightning strike I can buy. But two? No. Not just because we all know lighting doesn’t strike twice (*looks around, paranoid*), but because Jodie’s not doing anything in this story. She’s just sitting at home watching paint dry while lightning keeps striking. If you want to make this story interesting, perhaps Jodie’s an arsonist who burns down the new barn to lure Brady O’Grady back to the farm. Or if you want to be really interesting, perhaps O’Grady’s ALSO an arsonist and they meet while pouring gasoline on the barn! (Yeah, they’re crazy, but at least they’re active.)
In the instances above, the protagonist does something to initiate or be active in the FATP. (With the exception of Going the Distance, all of my books to date have just one POV, which makes my protagonist easy to identify.)
When writing Time Served, the hero, Dean, had spent time in prison and is a big guy. He’s also an angry guy. And though Rachel (the protagonist) wants their history to be history, he continues to pursue her in search of some answers about why she left him. The 4th of July sex, however, is Rachel’s idea. They’re not going to see each other anymore. Ever. But then she goes to his apartment. (That’s also important as a consent issue, but this is a post about structure.) I was very conscious of making sure Rachel was the one determining the future of the story. If Dean came to Rachel’s apartment and she agreed to have sex with him, she would be reacting, not acting, and that’s a major distinction. You want your heroes and heroines to be active and driving your story. The gal pushing that boulder up the hill? She’s the heroine. (She’s also chasing it down the opposite side while pretending she didn’t push it up there in the first place.)
In Going the Distance, which has dual POV, the hero initiates the sex, then the chapter ends and the next chapter is the heroine’s POV as she agrees to it. Then they have sex. When you have dual POV, showing the FATP from both sides is one way to make both characters active in the decision. They don’t necessarily have to share the exact same FATP, though they usually will. One example of that could be an art thief and a police officer start an affair under the assumption that the thief will be thieving no more. Until the thief steals a very valuable painting. That’s the thief initiating the FATP. Then the police officer is like, WTF? You betrayed me! Revenge is mine! and starts the chase. That’s the officer’s FATP. One event, two active responses to it. (Also: see arsonist example above.)
Your FATP can be something more obviously marked, like travel. Your hero’s unhappy in his job and needs a change. The set up is his unhappy life, the inciting incident is his house gets broken into and his favourite painting gets stolen and the officer in charge of the investigation seems oddly distracted. Because that painting was of the Tahitian beach where his parents first fell in love, the hero decides to hop a plane to Tahiti. As soon as that plane takes off, the story’s on. The rock’s rolling. Other examples are starting a new job, new school, moving to a new home… There’s some story set-up of their “old” life, an inciting incident that sparks this change, then the FATP when they make the change and the adventure starts.
Ask yourself if your FATP allows your characters to retreat. If so, it can probably be strengthened. Ask yourself if your characters are making the FATP happen, or if it’s happening to them. See if you can’t rework it to make your protagonist active in this decision. The hero in the cigarette example isn’t the guy who waits at a safe distance for the fire to burn itself out, it’s the guy who runs into the forest because he hears somebody screaming. And then of course burning trees fall down behind him and block the exit, so there’s truly no turning back. Which means readers keep turning the pages, because how on earth is he going to get out of this mess?
Your First Act Turning Point leads your story into Act Two. Act Two is the longest act, and can be the hardest. (Oh, who am I kidding? They’re all hard! I said that at the beginning.) Its sheer length makes it an unwieldy thing, and breaking it into halves will help. I’ll talk about The Mid-Point next post.
Questions? Comments? I’m still on the fence about adding a comments section to these pages because a) I’d have to figure out how to do that, and b) I’m not sure I have the time to moderate it. But I do monitor my social media accounts with astounding unpredictability, so feel free to message me on Facebook or tweet me or email me, and I’ll do my best to respond and, if necessary, update my post accordingly.
Ready to Roll