Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dangerous Curve Ahead

C.J. Chase

If you were to read a book about my life, well, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you'd quit long before you finished. In fact, except for a some scattered incidents over the years, most of it is rather mundane fare.

But as for those times when my life hasn't been dull reading? The most "exciting" chapters of my life are its darkest points: the death of my father, the birth of my son with Down Syndrome, my husband's battle with mental illness. Hard times, filled with tears and questions. And yet, I wouldn't be the person I am without them.

If my life were a story, those life-changing experiences would be called turning points.

Protagonists of commercial fiction always have a goal.
Solve the crime. Escape from the villain. Make the team. Even, save the world.

But reaching the goal is never easy for our hero. He faces twists--turning points--along the way in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back pattern. Just when he thinks the goal is within reach--the crime is solved, the escape is assured, the world is saved--our intrepid hero comes to a detour that requires his story GPS to furiously recalibrate.

These turning points throw the character off course. How will our heroine find a new route to reach her goal? Or is that even her goal anymore? Sometimes, the goal actually changes because of the curves, the turning points, the character encounters along the way.

Consider Luke Skywalker, the protagonist of Star Wars, the most successful movie of all time. Luke buys a droid (robot) with a cryptic message: “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Luke tracks down Obi Wan, delivers the message, and then heads back to the farm. Hey, he's got obligations to fulfill before he can go to the academy. Luke's life is set, and he's done his part. He delivered the message. Rescuing the girl is up to Obi Wan.

Or so he thinks. What he finds when he returns to the farm changes young Luke’s life forever.

With his family massacred, Luke's goals change, and he joins Obi Wan in the resistance.

Let's take another famous example from the great Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast. (A bit of trivia, Beauty and the Beast was the first animated movie nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.) Our heroine Belle has dreams of romance and adventure. We know this because she tells us so. "I want adventure in the great, wide somewhere..." Go ahead, sing the rest. I know you know it.

Instead, she ends up exchanging her life for her father's, in the process becoming a prisoner of the Beast. This is not the adventure she envisioned! Her great, wide somewhere has been reduced to a gloomy, remote castle.

During a desperate escape attempt, Belle is attacked by wolves. Who comes to her rescue? The very Beast she is trying to flee. He fights the wolves and suffers a grievous injury during the ensuing melee. With the wolves gone and the Beast wounded, Belle has her chance to run away.

But then she hesitates as she realizes the ramifications of the Beast's actions. What does she do? She literally turns (turning point alert!) and looks at the injured Beast. And this time, she sees not the horrid Beast who keeps her prisoner, but the person who just saved her life. It's time for a decision. Leave him, alone and dying in the snow, or return and nurse him back to health? The choice she makes changes the course of her life.

To see the creative genius of the Beauty and the Beast writers, watch the movie for yourself. At every turning point, a character literally turns, either toward or away from another character.
You see, in addition to keeping us interested and entertained, these twists, these turning points, are what force our hero to face his own character flaws. The character has to change--not just direction, but attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs. And we want the character to change. We want the hero to be a better person at the end of the story, to be a person worthy of reaching the goal.

Imagine a Christian life that is a straight, smooth road. No struggles. No pain.

No growth.

Now think back on the turning points in your life: a divorce, a diagnosis, a death. They force us to confront some rather un-pretty aspects of our character, the dark places we try to keep hidden from our friends and relatives. Those times present us with a choice. Will we allow bitterness to harden our hearts, or will we allow God to use these situations to mold us into the people he wants us to be?

I have a goal for my life story. Someday, I want to hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" And while I know the antagonist is constantly trying to throw roadblocks in my path, to divert me from living a full, Christian life, I know the Author of my story can use those turning points for something good.

Fun question: Do you have a favorite turning point from a story?
Serious question: What have been some of the turning points of your life, and how have they changed you?

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Redeeming the Rogue was an August, 2011 release. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at


  1. I like to put a big T P in my synopsis when I can see a turning point in my story. It's not just a new conflict, but a change of direction as you said.

    Thanks CJ! A great explanation. It's been too long since I've seen Beauty and the Beast.

    I think one of the bigger turning points in my life, (later, not earlier) was when my dad passed away and I had to stop seeing things as 'their life' and my life. No longer two separate things but that I now was responsible for my mother and all the decisions for our joint future.

  2. Excellent post CJ. Lots of things to ponder for the writing life, and just life.

    The Hiding Place comes to mind as an example of both a book/life with clearly defined turning points. You'd think the life of two spinster sisters caring for their father would be predictable. But after the German invasion they reached a turning point when they chose to harbor Jews and others who needed to escape Nazi clutches. Another turning point came when they were arrested. On the surface they don't have any choices left. But what makes The Hiding Place such a great story is that even when they had no other choices left they could control their own reaction, and they maintained their faith through the greatest horrors of the century.

  3. Turning points. I love it when the turning points seem natural. Sometimes you're reading a book and it starts dragging and so of course the author throws in a turning point, but it seems forced and episodic. Sort of out of the blue.

    I just read one of those. Gag. Won't say who wrote it, but you see it a lot in category fiction that's trying to fit a certain pattern. I also noticed that at least in this book the only real thing keeping the hero and heroine apart is the hero's stubbornness and stupidity. Maybe that's why it requires stupid turning points?

  4. Deb, I think a synopsis is pretty much just a list of a book's turning points -- and how they force change in the characters.

    And BATB is a great study of story structure.

  5. Lisa, my copy of The Hiding Place is literally falling apart. The decisions the Ten Booms made had such serious ramifications.

    Faith under enormous fire. So much we can learn from them.

  6. Dina, one thing I (finally!) learned is that turning points have to be strong enough to change EVERYTHING. Since I'm writing romantic suspense, the turning points have to affect the suspense, the romance, and the faith journey in some way. Each turning point hey might not affect all pieces equally, but the ramifications must cause change in every aspect of the plot.

    Of course, I won't say how many books it took me to figure that out!

  7. *sigh* I'm gonna need to watch BATB again. I think I must be a lazy reader/watcher... someone else has to point these things out to me.
    Although now that I'm thinking about it, ALL of those classic Disney flicks have turning points like that... Sleeping Beauty chooses to try the spinning wheel, Cinderella loses her slipper running home from the ball, Snow White eats the apple, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula...

    As for my turning points? When my daughter ended up in the hospital for a UTI at 10-months, I was so afraid for her I told God I'd do anything if he would just heal her. (Yeah, baby Christian, making deals with God.) The Sunday after she was released, I woke up and "heard" a voice telling me to go to church, even which church to go to. That one service turned my entire life around. That was probably the biggest one.

  8. Niki, it helps to watch the movies multiple times and be looking for story structure when you do it. For studying structure, you really can't beat the best products of Disney and Pixar (another studio that puts a LOT of emphasis on the story first, before anything else).

    And isn't it wonderful that God would meet a newbie Christian right where she was at the time, so she could be right where she needed to be?

  9. Um, I really do have a name. Bumped a button on my way to publishing my comment, and the next thing you knew, I was Anonymous instead of CJ.

  10. Excellent post, CJ. Yeah, I wondered who left the thoughtful comment without a name. :)

    When I think of turning points, the one that always comes to mind is High Noon. Sure it's a western, but this scene is unforgettable...

    The turning point comes within a couple hours of Will Kane (Cary Cooper) and Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly)exchanging marriage vows. Will gave up his badge to marry the beautiful young Quaker. But on the way out of town toward their new home, riders stop them and announce a killer bent on revenge is headed for the town. For several minutes, Will sits there with myriad expressions crossing his face and Amy staring at him, waiting for his decision...

    Will he leave the town defenceless now that he's laid down his badge... or will he pick up his gun and break his oath of non-violence to his Quaker wife. To whom does he owe his loyalty? The town...his wife... or himself? No matter what he choses, he'll lose something valuable.

    Again, excellent post, CJ. This ones a keeper for sure.

  11. Wow. C.J. Turning points. I know them well, and like you, I know I wouldn't be who I am without them. It's so hard to see that when you're going through it, but I can look back at every major instance and see how I've grown because of them.

  12. Anita, it's been a long time since I saw High Noon. I'll have to watch that one sometime with an eye to the structure.

  13. Suzie, our fictional characters get their turning points all compressed -- several in a very short time frame. In the real world, they take much longer to get through.

    I guess we're harder to teach than fictional characters.

  14. Great post, CJ. Now it's got me thinking about my wip...Hmm. Very helpful.

    And for anyone who wants to see a bit of BATB, I'll have a clip of it in my post 3/19.


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