I. What is a Turning Point?
In literature, the turning point or climax is the point of highest tension in a narrative; it’s the most exciting and revealing part of a story. It leads the rising action into the falling action before a story is resolved and reaches the conclusion. From a narrative’s beginning, all of the action rises up to the turning point, where questions are answered, secrets are revealed, conflicts are resolved, and everything begins to come to a close. It is a central and key narrative device for authors of all genres, both fiction and nonfiction.
II. Example of a Turning Point
Read the following short passage:
The detective looked through the photos over and over, just like she did every night since they had found the woman’s body. What am I missing? she asked herself. She picked up the small evidence bag that held the woman’s wedding ring. Inside the ring was inscribed “September 20, 1998.” She dropped the ring and gasped. She was killed on her anniversary! The detective grabbed her coat and ran out the door. She knew who the killer was.
The passage above shows a turning point of a larger crime story. Here, the detective has a revealing idea that will lead to the murderer’s capture and the story’s conclusion.
III. Importance of a Turning Point
The turning point is an important part of all stories because it brings out the final action that is necessary for the narrative to end. It’s what the audience spends their time waiting for, and it leads to the conflict’s resolution. Without turning points, narratives would be incomplete and boring—all audiences read and watch stories with the expectation that the action will climb to a peak, and then work back down to a conclusion.
IV. Examples in Literature
In Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, the play reaches a turning point when Romeo arrives at Juliet’s tomb, believing she is dead when she is actually in a false sleep. Below, he recites his last words as he looks at Juliet’s body:
Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love!
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
This tragic scene when Romeo drinks the poison is the perhaps the play’s most tense moment—the audience knows Juliet will wake up any second, but Romeo is about to die. He doesn’t know about her plan that is supposed to bring them together, a plan that will actually lead to the end of the story and their lives.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dark short story A Rose for Emily, the turning point comes after the death of Emily, a woman with many secrets:
Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced. They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it.
The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust. A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal…Upon a chair hung the suit, carefully folded; beneath it the two mute shoes and the discarded socks.
The man himself lay in the bed.
Here, the townspeople break into a room in Emily’s house, where they then find a dead man’s body. Before this passage, the readers didn’t know just how dark Emily’s secrets were, and had no idea what would be behind the door. But when they find the man’s body, all of the story’s details seem to come together and make sense. The story concludes just a few sentences after the last line above.
In Charles Dicken’s time-honored novel A Christmas Carol, three ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge on the night of Christmas Eve. At the end of the last ghost’s visit, the ghost shows him a gravestone with his name on it. Scrooge sees that if he doesn’t change, he will die in the near future. In the following passage, he begs the ghost for his life:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
With these words Scrooge starts to be the man that the audience has hoped he would become. He has realized his mistakes and is now promising to change his life. Just as tension is highest, the ghost disappears, and Scrooge wakes up in his own bed. The awakening he had with the ghosts will now lead to Scrooge making amends for his wrongdoings and brings the story to its conclusion.
V. Examples in Pop Culture
Director M. Night Shyamalan is famous for the shocking turning points in his films. Almost all of his stories have a turning point that leads to a conclusion that the viewers never expected. In his thriller The Village, protagonist Ivy is a resident of a small colonial village, and in the scene below she’s left it for the first time to try to find medicine for her dying fiancé:
Ivy reaching the end of the gravel road and hitting the ivy wall is the turning point of the story. Back at the village, we see Ivy’s parents looking at color photographs and talking about modern-sounding shootings, which suspiciously doesn’t match with the time period. In this scene, the tension is at its highest as the action assures the audience that answers are on the other side of the wall.
In the action horror film World War Z, based on the novel by Max Brooks, former United Nations investigator Gerry is on a mission to save the world from a zombie epidemic. In the following clip, he’s figured out a possible solution:
Everything has led to this scene—the moment when Gerry opens the door is the turning point of the film. This tense situation has the audience on the edge of their seats as Gerry takes that chance that will either kill him or save humanity. As he walks past dozens of zombies, its clear that the story’s conclusion is near.
In the science fiction drama Gravity, this is astronaut Ryan’s last chance of making it home after a tragic accident leaves her in space while repairing a satellite. In the following clip, she’s about to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere:
This is the point in the film where the suspense and anticipation are highest—neither the audience nor the protagonist knows whether Ryan is going to live or die. As her parachute deploys, some of the tension is relieved, and it seems that she might be safe on Earth soon.
Turn of events
A turn of events is when the plot of a narrative suddenly takes a drastic turn in a different direction. Unlike a turning point, it can happen at any time in the story, so long as it provides a shock and “turns the events” to new action.