Misfortune and struggle create opportunities for growth. We place obstacles in our protagonists’ paths that will force change on them. Crises, even small ones on the most personal of levels, are the fertile ground from which adventure springs.
In the editing process, we must ensure these opportunities are clearly defined, logical, and in the right place.
Most disasters are preceded by one or more points of no return.
Consider the engineering that goes into building and maintaining a dam.
Dams are considered “installations containing dangerous forces” under International humanitarian law due to the massive impact of a possible destruction on the civilian population and the environment. Dam failures are comparatively rare, but can cause immense damage and loss of life when they occur. In 1975 the failure of the Banqiao Reservoir Dam and other dams in Henan Province, China caused more casualties than any other dam failure in history. The disaster killed an estimated 171,000 people and 11 million people lost their homes. 
When a mistake is made in the planning or construction process of a dam, it sets a chain of events into motion.
There are usually opportunities to notice the problem and resolve it long before the dam breaks, but despite the diligence of the engineers, the construction workers, and the maintenance personnel, the flaw may go unseen, and everyone is at risk.
Once the river begins flooding, the workers and people living downstream are faced with an event from which there is no turning back.
We must identify this plot point and make it subtly clear to the reader. Knowing the flaw is there, and seeing the workers unaware of it ratchets up the tension. The moment cracks appear in the dam, you have placed the protagonist at maximum risk.
Many times, in my real life, I’ve been boxed into a corner, frantically dealing with things I could have avoided, had I noticed the cracks in the metaphoric dam. When you look at history, humanity seems hardwired to ignore the “turn back now” signs.
In every novel, a point of no return, large or small, comes into play. 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.
Arcs of action drive the plot. Sometimes that action is a chain of seemingly unconnected events. The first event is a catalyst, setting in motion the small events that follow. Each incident progressively forces the protagonist and their companions to a meeting with destiny.
In the editing process, we want to make sure the events are in a logical order, and that they serve the purpose of forcing the protagonist down the path we have chosen for them. Also, we want the reader to say, “Now I see the connections.”
Points of no return aren’t always large disasters. Events can force the protagonist to a confrontation with himself.
Perhaps a family is forced to deal with long-simmering problems.
Events from which there is no turning back are the impetus of change, and that change is what the book is about.
Midpoint is often a place where a choice is made from which there is no turning back. From that point, the narrative rises to the Third Plot Point, an event that is either an actual death or a symbolic death.
This major event forces the protagonist to be greater than they believed they could be. Conversely, it can break them down to their component parts.
Either way, the protagonist is profoundly changed by this crisis.
The structure of the story must be closely examined in the process of self-editing to ensure the logic of the plot.
During the build-up to the final point of no return, we want to ensure these events develop our characters’ strengths, so they are ready to face the final crisis.
Structural editors identify both the protagonist’s goals and those of the antagonist early on. They look at the arc of the story to make sure the author shows why these goals are important and why they justify the struggle that will ensue.
- How does the protagonist react to being thwarted in his efforts?
- How does the antagonist currently control the situation?
- How does the protagonist react to pressure from the antagonist?
- How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the protagonist and their companions or romantic interest?
- What complications arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict?
- How will the characters acquire that necessary information?
Obstacles in the protagonist’s path to happiness make for satisfying conclusions, no matter what genre you’re writing in. Whenever the protagonist overcomes an obstruction, the reader is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction. That reward keeps the reader turning pages.
I love books that allow us to get to know the characters, see them in their environment. An incident happens, thrusting the hero down the road to the Lonely Mountain, or trying to head off a war.
In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien set the first point of no return early. An acquaintance, Gandalf the Wizard, invited himself and twelve friends to dinner at Bilbo’s house, knowing that politeness would compel the hobbit to feed them.
The next day Bilbo found 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.
By serving dinner to the unexpected guests, Bilbo passed the first point of no return. He heard the stories and listened to their songs. 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.
Credits and attributions:
 Wikipedia contributors, “Dam failure,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dam_failure&oldid=943367090 (accessed March 3, 2020).
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Alfred Zoff – A River Dam.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Alfred_Zoff_-_A_River_Dam.jpg&oldid=283453136 (accessed March 3, 2020).
The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, Theatrical release poster, Warner Bros. 2012 (Fair Use).
3 responses to “Self-editing: The Point of No Return #amwriting”
When you take the gun off the mantelpiece, you know it’s going to be fired.
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