Scene Structure: Understanding Turning Points

Turning PointEvery scene needs conflict. And every scene must “turn.” Here’s some insight about the turning point, a crucial ingredient of every scene.

What’s a Scene?

A scene is a discrete story segment in which your characters engage in conflict and take significant actions that you portray memorably as if the events were happening in real time. Robert McKee in his seminal STORY recommends that every scene be a story event. And every scene must “turn.”

What’s at Stake for Your Character?

SubscribeA scene is like a story in miniature: it has a beginning, middle, and end. “No matter locations or length,” says McKee, “a scene is unified around desire, action, conflict, and change.”

A scene begins with a problem or goal that’s based on some value at stake in your character’s life at the moment. What’s at stake? Love? Truth? Safety? Honor? Justice? Meaningfulness? Action genres turn on values such as freedom/slavery or justice/injustice. Educational stories turn on interior values such as self-awareness/self-deception or life as meaningful/meaningless.

In chapter 1 of THE SIXTH SEED, my protagonist Tom Furst’s freedom is at stake, both personal and financial.

Examine each of your scenes and identify what’s at stake for your character.

What’s Your Character’s Objective?

Tom’s goal is based on a desire to change the current state of his freedom.

In each scene your character pursues an immediate, short-term desire. This scene goal must be sub-goal of his or her greater story objective. In a scene, your character goes after this scene goal by enduring conflict or opposition to make a decision or take a specific action.

The scene portrays this push and pull. The process is built on beats, individual units of action and reaction. Your character says, “Stop doing that.” The opposition says, “I won’t.” Beat by beat, this dance of behaviors escalates progressively. The last beat must end with a turning point.

Deliver the Unexpected

In this process of mounting action/reaction between your characters, their conflict produces a big reaction that your character failed to anticipate. McKee explains that:

The effect is to crack open the gap between expectation and result, turning his outer fortunes, inner life, or both from the positive to the negative or the negative to the positive in terms of values the audience understands are at risk.

Your character asks, “Why won’t you stop doing that? It’s hurting me.” The scene antagonist replies, “Because your best friend likes what I’m doing. And I’m in love with him.” BAM!

In this way, a scene creates change in a minor yet significant way. So how do you set this up?

Polarity Must Change

Polarity must change.Once you’ve highlighted the core issue, state the charge of that value at the start of the scene: positive or negative.

For example, with Tom Furst in THE SIXTH SEED, the value of freedom at the start of chapter 1 is negative. He’s between a rock and a hard place and needs to increase his freedom to gain some financial breathing room. His goal is to undergo a vasectomy (a procedure so intense you have to read it for yourself!), a small step in gaining that freedom back—or so he thinks.

Your characters begin the scene with two things: the current charge (+/-) of their core value at stake, and their immediate goal. Then, they:

  • Encounter the opposition (who also has a goal and value of their own)
  • Engage in conflict (exchange escalating behavior beats)
  • Finally experience an outcome

This outcome is the turning point of the scene—the moment where your character’s value changes polarity.

The effects of turning points, according to McKee, include: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new direction. The turning point provides new information and a goal for the next scene.

At the end of the scene, what is the state of your POV character’s value? Is it positive, negative, or both? Compare the charge at the beginning and the end. If the value doesn’t change polarity, then why is the scene is in your narrative? McKee points out:

If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful has happened; it is a nonevent. If a scene is not a true event, cut it. If the scene is only there for exposition, it needs more justification. Every scene must turn.

Story Structure

How to Make Your Scenes Turn

Craft your scenes using the following process:

  1. Begin with a value at stake in your character’s life. Base a scene goal on that value. (You could also start with the goal and discover the value at stake.)
  2. Determine the motivation and goal of your scene’s opposition. (Your antagonistic force cannot exist merely to give your character an ass-pain.)
  3. Over the course of the scene, challenge and threaten the state of that value through conflict between your character and the opposition. Beats should escalate logically and progressively (not leap a chasm from rationality to absurdity or from laxity to high tension).
  4. Determine the final beat that is the turning point, the reaction that bears the fruit of surprise, increased curiosity, insight, or new direction.
  5. Evaluate whether the beat process and turning point have changed the polarity of your character’s value. If not, keep working.
  6. What is the outcome of the turning point—the surprise, curiosity, insight, or new direction? This is the starting point for your next scene in this plot line.

Note: If you’re a pre-plotter or outliner, you might find it useful to map the value/goal/turning point/outcome for each scene to ensure that your scenes are linked logically in a greater chain of cause-and-effect over the course of the narrative. Just as beats escalate to a turning point in each scene, so do scenes escalate to major turning points or reversals in the broader narrative.

SubscribeTest this process by analyzing scenes from well-written books. Apply the process to your own scenes. If you find it helpful, I’d love to hear from you. Please like this post and subscribe. And spread the word!

11 Responses to “Scene Structure: Understanding Turning Points”

  1. Broken Scene Repair - My Imaginary Friends: Episode 82 | L. Penelope :: Award-Winning Fantasy Author Says:

    […] – Lee Allen Howard on “Scene Structure: Understanding Turning Points” […]

  2. Jesse Goonerage Says:

    Based on my understanding of how he described sequences it can be helpful to think of turning points relative to one another.

    For instance, if one scene starts a financial broker on top of the world (Positive) and ends with him being falsely accused of fraud and at risk of being imprisoned (Negative) Tthe next scene can start with him in court having some hope (Positive) only to end with him being sentenced after a long and tense trial where he is found guilty (Negative.)

    Being on trial obviously isn’t a good thing to happen to you, but its better off than being in jail.

  3. Lori Says:

    Bridesmaids is a perfect script to see these +/- scene changes. And it isn’t because it’s a film that highlights a constant ‘comedy of errors’ it’s because ultimately, things go from good to bad and bad to good in every scene and it’s a very clear-cut film from which to learn.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    If a scene opens with a positive value that turns to the negative by the end of the scene, should the next scene begin with a positive value???
    I’m a little confused as McKee talks about moving from the positive to the negative or negative to the positive in each scene, but I’m not if he’s suggesting that you need to keep to a pattern (i.e., each scene starts on say the positive and ends on the negative), or whether he’s just saying that each scene’s value needs to turn. I noticed that some screenplays for example have a scene that opens on a positive value which turns to the negative and that the next scene opens on the negative and turns to the positive.
    Any help would be appreciated.

    • LeeAllenHoward Says:

      Hi. I think McKee means that if an individual scene starts one way, it should end in the opposite way. I think it’s all right to start a different scene on whatever charge you want to start it, especially if it’s a different subplot. But you don’t want scenes where no value change takes place — they’re static.

  5. The Smell of Paper » Muddle Says:

    […] writer passed on this post about scenes requiring a beginning, middle and end. The more I think about what that means for the […]

  6. inkle » Learning to adapt Says:

    […] To write a good film script, you have to know how it’s going to play. The same is true for a good inklebook. For instance, maybe the scene is a conversation. But is it a discussion, an exposition, an interrogation? Is the protagonist trying to learn something, or is it the reader who needs to be informed? Is this a chance for the reader to suck up to another character, or take them down a peg or two? What’s at the heart of the scene? In the language of story-telling theory, what does it turn on? […]

  7. Ron Edison Says:

    Interesting. At MWA University, one of the presenters recommended approaching each scene as a ‘business deal’ for your protagonist–they have something they want in each scene and whether they get it or not is the note you end on–a lot like McKee’s ‘+/-‘ tagging for scenes.

    • leeallenhoward Says:

      This technique is used to great effect in Natsuo Kirino’s OUT, which I recommend for a taut and grisly read.

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