Crisis and the point of no return #amwriting

In literature what is the “point of no return?” Scott Driscoll, on his blog, says, “This event or act represents the point of maximum risk and exposure for the main character (and precedes the crisis moment and climax).”

Crises, even small ones on the most personal of levels, are the fertile ground from which adventure springs. Most disasters are preceded by one or more points of no return; places where the protagonist could have made a different choice and trouble could have been avoided.

Our task as authors is to identify this plot point and make it subtly clear to the reader, even if only in hindsight.

In life we often find ourselves boxed into a corner, frantically dealing with things we could have avoided if only we had paid attention and not ignored the metaphoric “turn back now” signs.

I’ve used this prompt before, but it’s a good one, so here it is again:

Imagine a road trip where you are sent off on a detour in a city you’re unfamiliar with. What would happen if some of the signs were missing, detour signs telling you the correct way to go? Also missing is a one-way street warning sign.

At some point, before you realized the signs had been removed, there was a place you could have turned back. Unaware of the danger, you passed that stopping point and turned left when you should have turned right. Now you find yourself driving into oncoming traffic on a one-way street.

That place where you could have turned around before you entered the danger zone was the point of no return for your adventure. Fortunately, in our hypothetical road-trip, no one was harmed, although you were honked at and verbally abused by the people who were endangered by your wrong turn. You made it safely out of danger, but you’ll never take a detour again without fearing the worst.

In contemporary fiction, literary fiction, romance—no matter what genre you are writing in, “arcs of action” drive the plot. A point of no return comes into play in every novel to some degree. The protagonists are in danger of losing everything because they didn’t recognize the warning signs, and they are pushed to the final confrontation whether they are ready for it or not.

Speculative fiction generally features a plot driven by a chain of events, small points of no return, each one progressively forcing the protagonist and his/her companions to their meeting with destiny.

Contemporary and literary fiction is also driven by a chain of small events. In some novels, this takes the protagonist to a confrontation with himself, or a family is forced to deal with long-simmering problems. Many times in literary fiction the point of no return looks like a non-event on the surface. But nevertheless, these events are the impetus of change.

In most literature, these scenes of action form arcs that rise to the Third Plot Point: the event that is either an actual death or a symbolic death. This event forces the protagonist to be greater than they believed they could be, OR it breaks them down to their component parts. Either way, the protagonist is changed by this crisis.

The struggle may have been fraught with hardship, but the final point of no return is the ultimate event that forces the showdown and face-to-face confrontation with the enemy—the climactic event.

No matter the genre, the story arc has certain commonalities—in literary fiction, they will be more subtle and internal than in an action adventure or space opera, but in all novels the characters experience growth/change forced on them by events.

During the build-up to the final point of no return, you must develop your characters’ strengths. You must identify the protagonist’s goals early on and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  1. How does the protagonist react to being thwarted in his efforts?
  2. How does the antagonist currently control the situation?
  3. How does the protagonist react to pressure from the antagonist?
  4. How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the protagonist and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  5. What complications arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict?
  6. How will the characters acquire that necessary information?

Misfortune and struggle create opportunities for your character to grow as a person or to change for the worse. We must place obstacles in our protagonists’ path that will stretch their abilities, and which are believable, so that by the end of the book they are strong enough to face the final event and denouement.

Remember, each time the characters in a book overcome an obstruction, the reader is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction. That reward keeps the reader turning pages.

It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: you could be writing romances, thrillers, paranormal fantasy, or contemporary chick lit—obstacles in the protagonist’s path to happiness make for satisfying conclusions.

The books I love to read are crafted in such a way that we get to know the characters, see them in their environment, and then an incident happens, thrusting the hero down the road to divorce court, or trying to head off a nuclear melt-down.

After all, sometimes a dinner party happens, and the next day our Hobbit finds himself walking to the Misty Mountains with a group of Dwarves he only just met, leaving home with nothing but the clothes on his back. In chasing after them, Bilbo has passed the first point of no return. I say this because after having heard the stories and listened to their song, and after having seen the map, even if he were to turn back and stay home, Bilbo would have been forever changed by regret for what he didn’t have the courage to do.


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9 responses to “Crisis and the point of no return #amwriting

  1. The point of no return always puts me in a “Sliding Doors” kind of mood. What if the protagonist had turned before the signs disappeared? What if the marriage was saved or Bilbo had decided the quiet life was a better idea? I guess the real question in all that wondering is, do bad choices lead to epic adventure?

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    • I don’t know that ‘bad choices’ per se lead to epic adventure, but they do lead to consequences, lol! But now that I think about it, every watershed moment I have experienced has been preceded by moment where I could have followed a different path, but didn’t. Thank you for commenting and making me think!

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  2. Interesting question: do bad choices lead to epic adventure? Is it bad/good choices at play, or is it more about twigs-dams/stones-ripples?

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  3. Excellent discussion of point of no return. in writing a novel, the author of course has to gauge levels of risk taken on by the protagonist so that the ultimate risk is encountered just before the crisis/climax. I like your list of questions to be asked re the protagonist. I would add just two: 1) At each point of opposition, what level of risk would your hero take on?, and 2) Why? What value combined with that stimulus on the surface combined with what subtextual urge would cause him or her to take that risk?

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    • Thank you for your kind words, and for your thoughts. Level of risk is so crucial, because if they risk nothing, what’s the point? Now I’m going back to a short story manuscript I’ve had on hold and re-examining it–I lost interest in it and now I know why!


  4. Pingback: Bad Choices and the Epic Adventure – Fairy Tale Feminista

  5. Stephen Swartz

    As a writer, I find my point of no return to be around 15k words. Then it becomes a book I must complete.
    I also find that, whereas many writers plot everything and calculate when this and that will happen, I generally feel it, at the moment in the manuscript where it needs to happen, and I am seldom off target or mistimed. If one reads enough, I believe, one gains an inner clock that goes off when something crucial must happen. But that’s me.