Hot to Plot: Turning Points

Been reading a great book, Made to Stick. Basically, it’s a great guide to shaping ideas so they’ll catch on better. I’m sure I’ll be writing a whole series of posts about its advice and insights.

Here’s a great tip related to storytelling, credited by the book to screenwriter Robert McKee: Get viewers/readers hooked by giving characters turning points. It’s not just spectacular actions (Godzilla rises from the sea!) that enthrall us but life-changing consequences (Yikes, there’s a baby in his path!). More on point, you gotta have a backstory about your characters that adds meaning to moments and events. Will cowardly Hilbert finally face his fears? Will sorrowful Stan find happiness? Will disgraced cop Sheila redeem herself? Each time the plot pivots in a way that plays off their hopes and dreams, fears and flaws, the audience stays interested. Many successful TV shows, from reality shows like Survivor and American Idol to dramas like CSI and Lost, clearly understand the power of the backstory.
Take Harry Potter. Why did it catch on? Partly because of Rowling’s impressive imagination and the archetypal appeal of wishing to do magic. But can you think of anyone except for Jesus who embodies so many turning points as a baby? His life, his parents’ sacrifices, the lives of wizards and witches, the future of Hogwarts, even the future of the world — everything hangs in the balance because of this one baby. Or so the prophecies predict. All jeopardy and hope iconified in one scar.

The power of turning points — no wonder so many famous characters were orphans. Harry, Batman, Superman, Cinderella, Luke Skywalker, Oliver Twist, Little Orphan Annie.

Leave a Reply