Posted On October 23, 2009 by Print This Post

Pinch Points and Turning Points, Oh My!

Good morning and welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing.  Our guest today is author CJ Lyons, who returns to RU after visiting last month with a grand slam of a post on building a brand.  Today, CJ tackles pinch points and turning points and why they are so important to our stories.

Take it away, CJ!

Adrienne: Would you please define a turning point and a pinch?

CJ_Tall_Emergency_Sign_3AB_copy_optCJ: Plot is character in conflict, taking action, changing over time.  We start Act 1 with the character acting “normally” but we end Act 2 with the character changed—with more change promised in Act 3.

In a novel or movie,  a turning point takes the plot in a new and different direction, often through a decision and action taken by the main character.  A pinch point is often a much quieter scene, not so much action as emotional, setting up the character’s motivation for the following action.

We show WHY the character must change through the main plot’s action with its turning points.

Pinch points let you take a short breather from the main action and show HOW the character changes by letting the reader in on their inner conflicts and goals.  More emphasis is on what they NEED rather than what they WANT.

In romances (and thrillers!) these are often the “quiet” scenes—the ones that nothing seems to be happening but you can’t forget them because so much actually DID happen, emotionally.

Think emotion, think theme.  Theme is what separates Drama from Action. Theme reflects primal, universal emotions.  It’s the ultimate emotional velcro to connect your audience with your story.

Adrienne:  I love to go through my scene chart and label my turning points and pinches.  It gives me a quick, visual progression of my story.  Using three-act structure as a guide, how many turning points and pinches do you recommend within each act?LIFELINES-2_copy

CJ: Since Act 1 is filled with all the stuff of setting up a story you don’t need pinch points there.  The same with Act 3, which is filled with the black moment, climax, and resolution.

Where pinch points come in handy, though, is that pesky Act 2–pinch points act as buttresses on a bridge, pulling Act 2 together and avoiding that sagging middle!

The three act structure the acts are laid out thusly (approximate page numbers for a 400 page book):



P.100—TP #1/End Act 1WARNINGSIGNS_copy


P.300—TP#2/End Act 2

P.360—Black Moment/Climax


Notice how huge Act 2 is—half the book (or more, as Act 3 is often the shortest of all the acts).  That’s 200 pages to fill—without boring the reader!!!  Yikes!

Now look at Act 2 using Pinch Points:

P.100—TP#1/End Act 1

P.150—Pinch Point #1


P.250—Pinch Point #2

P.300—TP#2/End Act 2

Now you only have 50 pages (in a 400 page novel) between major, high impact scenes.  Ah, 50 pages, that I can handle!

Here’s an example from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Its second act looks like:

25% Turning Point #1, Call to Action = Army Intelligence sending Indy after Ark (Outer Goal clear)

*Pinch Point #1: Indy thinks Marion is dead, confronts Balloq and threatens to kill him, even though Balloq’s men would then kill Indy.

50% Midpoint: Indy finds both the Ark’s whereabouts and that Marion is  alive (reversal) but instead of freeing her, leaves her with Nazi’s so that he can go after Ark.  Reaffirms Outer Goal (obtaining Ark), while denying Inner Goal (need for a partner).

*Pinch Point #2: Marion and Indy “reunited” along with the snakes in the Well of Souls (reversal of first pinch point and midpoint where they were separated)

75% End of Act 2: Indy saves Marion by conquering physical manifestation of  his Inner Conflict (fear of failure) Everything seems lost, the Nazis have the Ark, they have no transportation, no weapons, no plan…

Notice how the pinch points are more focused on setting up the emotional change in the character rather than action.

Yet, who could forget that scene where Indy thinks Marion is dead?  Or the snarky quips hiding his joy when he is reunited with her, surrounded by snakes and overwhelming evidence of his failure—which has doomed them both.

Spielberg and Lucas add a pinch point in the third act (which is very, very long and needed one!) when they have the scene where Marion is tending to Indy’s wounds asking if they’ll ever have a chance for the two of them to be together.

Notice that, unlike most of the action scenes, these pinch points all reflect the theme of the movie: that no man is an island, and focus on Indy’s unconscious desire, what he truly needs (rather than what he wants): a life-partner, someone to share his burdens and help prevent him from failing.

Adrienne:  How/where do you use turning points and pinches in your books?

CJ: Once you’re clued into pinch points, you’ll start to notice them in so many movies and books—they’re the subliminal glue that holds the story together.

Let’s look at my debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, 2008).  Here are the major turning points and pinch points:

–Opening: July 1st, the most dangerous day of the year, reveals the main character, Lydia Fiore’s default action on her first day of work at Pittsburgh’s Angels of Mercy Medical Center.  She’s a maverick, an excellent doctor who will do anything for her patients, even if it means breaking all the rules and going it alone.

–Call to Action: Lydia loses the wrong patient—the chief of surgery’s son….and she has no idea how he really died

–TP #1: Lydia is alone in suspecting her patient’s death to be a homicide—but she won’t give up.  In this scene she decides to trust someone else (a huge decision for her, an independent woman raised on the streets of LA) and confides in paramedic Trey Garrison (the love interest)

–Pinch Point #1: Lydia argues with Trey about a patient’s care, and not only is she right, but she earns Trey’s admiration during a tricky car-accident rescue.  Trey shows his trust in her as a doctor and proves his respect for her as a woman—both setting up the romance to follow, because there’s no way a woman like Lydia could love any man she doesn’t trust, or who doesn’t trust her

–Midpoint: Everything changes here.  Just as Lydia thinks she’s figured out what killed her patient, another patient dies and she’s the number one suspect.  The hospital board interrogates her, suspending her privileges,  the real killer is still roaming free, and everything—Lydia’s job, reputation, friends, and life—are now at risk.

–Pinch Point #2: Trey and Lydia spend the night together and the next morning together save another victim from the killer—unfortunately it gets Lydia into more trouble with the authorities

–TP#2: Fearing that more innocent lives will be targeted by the killer if Lydia stays, she decides to leave Pittsburgh, and continue the search for the killer on her own (a return to her default action), a decision that will have dire consequences

–Black Moment/Climax: The killer has targeted not only Lydia but hundreds of innocent people. Lydia realizes that going it alone won’t work, that she needs the lifelines she’s forged at Angels of Mercy. Together she, Trey and the others save the day.

–Resolution: Lydia decides to stay in Pittsburgh and her new friends welcome her to her new home.  She’s now a very different person than the loner who arrived in Pittsburgh at the start of the story.

I hope the above example shows not only how to use the 3 Act Structure’s Turning Points and Pinch Points, but also how your character can drive the plot.

Can you find the pinch points in your book?  Movies are a good place to practice.  Check your favorites and tell us about the pinch points you find.

Any questions?  If so, post them below!  One lucky commenter will win a copy of LIFELINES as well as my second book, WARNING SIGNS.

Thanks for inviting me back to Romance University!


Thank you to CJ for another fantastic post.  Okay, everyone, let’s get to work and find those pinch points!

About CJ:

As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels.  Her first novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), received praise as a “breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller” from Publishers Weekly, was reviewed favorably by the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, named a Top Pick by Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and became a National Bestseller.  LIFELINES also won a Readers’ Choice Award for Best First Novel.

Her second novel, WARNING SIGNS, was published by Berkley in January, 2009, with the third, URGENT CARE, scheduled for October 27, 2009. To learn more about CJ and her work, go to

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37 Responses to “Pinch Points and Turning Points, Oh My!”

  1. Good morning, CJ! Thanks so much for hanging out with us again at RU.

    Here’s my question for you: Did you intuitively know when and how to write “pinch points” in your debut book? And how many, if any, manuscripts did you write before Lifelines?


    Posted by KelseyBrowning | October 8, 2009, 11:26 pm
    • Hi Kelsey! Great question!

      I didn’t even know about pinch points until after I finished the first draft of LIFELINES! But I’ve always written out of order, creating the emotional high points and most dramatic scenes first, then building to them as I string them together.

      (whoops, sorry all you plotter out there, you’re probably breaking out in hives, reading that, lol!!!)

      Then I read Robert McKee’s STORY and discovered pinch points–and I went back and looked at LIFELINES and voila! They were all there–and even more amazing, in the right place!

      I think it’s because we do absorb the three act structure subliminally as we’re growing up–it’s in every movie and tons of books as well.

      Now that I’m aware of the power of pinches and turning points, I keep them consciously in mind when approaching a scene: how can I power this up, add layers to make it a high-powered pinch or turning point? Then when I edit, I go back and look at the spacing and timing of them so that they build organically for the reader.

      Hope that helps!

      Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 8:50 am
      • Hi CJ

        Are you saying that as you write your novels, you write the scenes as you feel to write then, in whatever order? Are you concerned about the seeminly fecund chaos? or do you trust that you will be able to easily weave together your scenes into your novel, when you feel complete with the first draft?

        I think you said you wrote all the high point scenes/the turning point scenes,( they seem to say the same thing?) first, and then the turning point scenes?

        Can a point turn in any direction?

        Thank you for being here!



        Posted by Laurel Kahaner | October 23, 2009, 12:42 pm
        • Hey, Laurel!

          Yes, my writing process could best be described as chaos! What can you expect from a former ER doc, lol!

          But I really enjoy those high impact scenes (usually the turning points and pinch points) and they usually come to me first–and often the rest of the plot is crafted from the directions they lead me.

          So yes, a turning point can take you in any direction–in fact, they are often most powerfully used if they take you in a reversal. Especially one that seems not so obvious at first, like Alladin stealing the genie’s bottle seems like a triumph but in actuality it’s a disaster because of the consequences.

          Readers love reversals and surprises–as long as the character’s actions are well motivated and don’t feel contrived.

          Hope that helps,

          Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 1:25 pm
          • Hi CJ

            Dangerous and wonderfully helpful, yes! Thank you.

            “We show WHY the character must change through the main plot’s action with its turning points.”

            Could you give a few examples to illustrate what you wrote above?

            It is so exciting to learn.



            Posted by Laurel Kahaner | October 23, 2009, 1:46 pm
          • Laurel,
            In a character driven plot (which is what we’re talking about here) you don’t just want things to happen just to happen. To create drama, we illustrate the character’s change and the turning points help to illustrate this.

            For instance in the classic story of Cinderella, her default action is to be obediant, but as the story progresses the turning points present Cinderella with decisions to make: does she obey her stepmother or the fairy godmother or does she disobey and remain true to herself?

            Each decision reveals WHY she should remain true to herself even though immediately after the decision she suffers the consequences. Until the climax when she’s learned enough about what remaining true to herself really means and she stands up for herself and gains her reward: the prince.

            Hope that helps!

            Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 6:24 pm
          • HI CJ

            I’m still perplexed how as an ‘organic writer’ I can fathom all that is necessary for a cohesive novel where everything mirrors everything. I am lost as to fathoming how much needs to be known before the blessed dive into the infinite writing well, and how much can be discovered along the writing ways. I realize that the more the conscious mind knows about craft, the more the other than conscious mind knows about craft. Though it seems that learning craft is a once upon a time forever learning adventure…?

            how much before, how much during; how much in re-write? And does this change with each novel, as you know more, less preparation or more preparation time is required? I did not realize, until now, that preparation and palpitation were so closely related. I will look up the etymology later. My internet connection is more off than on, so I am going to send this before the connection vanishes again .

            your sharing with us what you have learned is deeply appreciated.

            thank you


            Posted by Laurel Kahaner | October 23, 2009, 7:12 pm
          • Laurel, obviously this is very individual and will vary from novel to novel.

            You know as much as you need to know…..and if you go the wrong direction during the first draft, well, then you go back and re-vision your world and story until you get it right.

            No rules, just write!

            Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 7:49 pm
      • HI CJ

        How much did you know about Lydia before you began to write the book and how much did you discover a you wrote?

        Could you say a bit more about how you layer information into your books?

        I’m a bit flummoxed how much I need to know before I begin?
        My mind is wonderfully wayward and quite like quicksilver but after writing three novels, I realize I need to know a wee bit more before I begin, though I have no idea how much?

        Wonderful workshop. Thank you!


        Posted by Laurel Kahaner | October 23, 2009, 2:55 pm
        • Each book is different. As soon as I realized that Lydia’s story would be the classic stranger come to town story, I knew she’s be an “outsider” kind of character and from there it was easy to flesh her out.

          I knew her backstory before I began writing, but didn’t know all of the other characters–I discovered them as Lydia did, in many ways

          So how much you need to know before you start depends on how much you as a writer need to know–and how hard you’re willing to work on revising things if you wander astray…..

          Hope that helps!

          Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 7:47 pm
          • CJ

            This is my last quest ion. Thanks so much.

            Given that I am delectably likely to wander astray, how far can one wander astray and still return. In my first two novels I wandered too far astray to return. I realize this is an extremely subjective question and still I wish to ask you. any thoughts? This truly is my last question.. Thank you so very much!

            I look forward to reading your new book.



            Posted by Laurel Kahaner | October 23, 2009, 7:57 pm
          • I don’t think you can wander too far–your mind takes you there for a reason. Maybe you learn something through the exercise of writing that draft that is essential to the next novel–even if it means setting that first novel aside.

            Most published authors have written at least 4-5 novels, half a million words, before becoming published. I doubt any of them would have considered that wasted time–it’s all part of the education of becoming a writer, you don’t expect a brain surgeon to operate their first day of med school, after all

            Good luck,

            Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 9:03 pm
  2. Hi CJ, it’s good to “see” you again!

    Thanks for another fabulous post.


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 23, 2009, 5:46 am
    • Tracey,
      thanks for having me back!!! Although following my buddy, Mario Acevedo is always a tough gig, lol!

      Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 8:51 am
      • I had not idea Mario was your husband! How cool that you’re both authors. He did a fabulous job (so did Jeanne!), and we’re so grateful he accepted our reader’s challenge. Great fun!

        Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 23, 2009, 11:07 am
        • LOL! No, Mario’s not my husband (he’s probably saying, thank god, lol!!!) he’s just a friend–we must be on similar release schedules because our paths are always crossing and he came to visit me for research–which was great fun, breaking into gated plantations and figuring out how Felix, his vampire/detective hero would escape….he’s a very funny guy, and great writer–if you haven’t tried his books, you should!

          Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 12:04 pm
  3. Hi guys! Forgot to mention in my post that I have another opportunity for you to win!!!

    In honor of URGENT CARE’s upcoming release (Tuesday!!!), I’m hosting a contest. One lucky winner will have their query package critiqued by my agent, Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Agency.

    Check here for more details:

    Feel free to spread the word to all your writer friends!

    Good luck,

    Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 8:52 am
  4. Hi, CJ,
    Great to see you here! Isn’t this the coolest online place to learn? I know Tracey and Adrienne well, so I’m not surprised at the consistant caliber of guest professors here, they are not only talented writers but terrific people.
    I’ve really enjoyed both of your books and am excited about another medical adventure in Urgent Care.
    I’m happy to see that you are an intuitive writer, too. I had to finish my first ms before looking back at it and realizing I actually had a plot, with turning points and all! Not ready for publication yet, but at least I’m going in the right direction.
    I’m getting back into writing after a long absence (medical issues) and decided to tackle something shorter, so am trying my hand at a short story. Have you ever tackled something less than full length? And would you think there could be room for pinch points in, say, a 4,000 word story?
    I have no idea if I can pull one off, but it seemed less daunting than going back into my previous, book length wips.

    Posted by Sherry Weddle | October 23, 2009, 11:58 am
    • Hi Sherry! Short stories are very challenging for me–heck, anything shorter than 75K is a challenge for me, lol!

      But, I think pinch points are even more important in a shortstory, because if you don’t have that emotional set up, the story falls flat.

      You’ll probably have to combine a scene where the emotional impact of the pinch is combined with other action, simply because there is less room. But that’s okay, because that will add layers/depth to your writing and make the pace feel tighter.

      have fun with it!

      Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 12:01 pm
  5. Thanks, CJ,
    I’ve been playing with a scene I wrote, using memories of when I was in ICU for days, on morphine (ugh) and fictionalizing it, in my heroine’s POV. I’ve gotten feedback from my critique partners that it is very powerful, but too dark to open a story, esp a shorter length one. (it has the heroine showing guilt at her unborn baby’s death) I may end up with book length, so I’m not limiting myself.
    You write compelling, fastpaced books with lots of danger, which I love to read! but I’ve so far written romance that is family centered, without that kind of drama.
    I’m not sure what I’m asking, but are there any suggestions you can give me when I’m changing the type of story I’m writing? What to look out for or to include while I’m writing?
    I’m NOT a plotter! used to call myself a pantser but I love the new term, ‘organic writer’ 🙂


    Posted by Sherry Weddle | October 23, 2009, 12:15 pm
    • Sherry, I’ve read a lot of short stories that begin very dark–mainly crime fiction and literary shorts, so I wouldn’t trouble too much about that if the rest of the story plays out and that’s the best way to get into it–you may need to finish the story before you know what you truly have.

      As for compelling personal drama in fiction, I think you can’t do better than studying Jodi Piccoult’s books. Also, if you haven’t read it yet, try Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones.

      It is a fine line between melodrama and drama–I think the difference is that if the reader has a strong emotional connection to the character and the character’s actions are well-motivated (not contrived just for effect) then you have drama.

      Nothing wrong with powerful, compelling, gripping drama–that’s why most of us read!

      Good luck with it,

      Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 12:35 pm
  6. CJ wrote: “I think the difference is that if the reader has a strong emotional connection to the character and the character’s actions are well-motivated (not contrived just for effect) then you have drama.”
    Exactly. I think my trepidation is mostly because it’s such a difference from what I’ve written so far.
    Your advice to just write the book is one I know well, my cp’s Golden Rule! I also know it’s how I work best, just let the story flow, he he, organically! wish it would just flow without all the angst I suffer. But that’s another problem. sigh! I made the mistake of thinking since it was to be a short story I should plot it out, to get it in under word count. Still doesn’t work for me!
    I look forward to Urgent Care! Keep them coming, I am a fast reader!

    Posted by Sherry Weddle | October 23, 2009, 12:57 pm
  7. Hi, CJ. Thank you for another great post. I’m a plotter and love playing around with pinch points and turning points. Sometimes when I feel like something isn’t right I move the pinches. That’s always fun because it usually gives me a slew of ideas based on the new order of scenes. It’s a continuity nightmare though! LOL.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 23, 2009, 12:57 pm
    • LOL! What fun! I often have no idea where things will go until I get far enough along to “see” the entire project, but I can usually tell if a scene is a first, second, or third act scene because of the way the character’s default action is either working or not–just my way of tying my character to the plot.

      Posted by CJ Lyons | October 23, 2009, 1:29 pm
  8. Hi CJ, This is terrific. Just this past weekend, I was reading a series of posts at on story structure, talking about the plot points/turning points and pinch points. So I sat down and watched 3 separate movies and with a notebook, wrote down the structure of each, found all the plot/turning points. It was amazing to see how each movie followed the same structure, and yet had such different stories to tell.

    I got all the plot points/turning points, but it was hard to understand what exactly qualified as a “pinch point” — your descriptions help tremendously, so thank you!

    Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | October 23, 2009, 1:30 pm
  9. augh! what a horrible day to lose the internet! luckily I’m taking one of CJ’s classes…=)
    sorry I missed it, but great article as always!!!


    Posted by carrie | October 23, 2009, 10:21 pm
  10. Thanks for such an informative post, CJ. I appreciate you laying out the various points with approximate page numbers. I’m going to print this out and save for future reference as I’m writing. It’s always good to have a guideline to follow.


    Posted by Kelly L Stone | October 25, 2009, 7:06 am


  1. […] first plot point, aka the climax of Act 1).  Were we to go further, we’d also be looking for pinch point 1, the world-changing midpoint, pinch point 2, doorway 2 (aka the second plot point, aka the climax […]

  2. […] plot point, aka the climax of Act 1).  Were we to go further, we’d also be looking for pinch point 1, the world-changing midpoint, pinch point 2, doorway 2 (aka the second plot point, aka the […]

  3. […] that’s pretty much it. Here’s a great plot analysis of Raiders of the Lost Arc. I use a variation on this to help plot my stories. I’m not really into outlines, so defining […]

  4. […] Here Are Some Examples of Pinch Points:From: Romance University on Pinch Points […]

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