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: 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?
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 1
P.300—TP#2/End Act 2
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!
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 http://www.cjlyons.net
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