Ages ago John Scalzi wrote about being sacked ten years ago and how it changed his life. It ties in (somewhat) with with what I have tried to say about luck, which also has a lot to do with writing novels.
Stay with me. It will all become clear.
Scalzi was telling a story about his life. He was shaping an event into a story and considering how that story might have been different if he had gone a different way. That’s how many of us write novels. As a long story with one or two (or many) turning points. What would happen if your character killed the bully tormenting her? What would happen if she didn’t? What would happen if she turned him into a toad? What would happen if she did that but had no idea she was capable of it until it happened?
Or it could be something really small in a butterfly-flapping-its-wings way. She gets a bindi in her foot and in pausing to take it out sees something she wasn’t supposed to see . . .
My big turning point was deciding which PhD topic to pursue. Doesn’t sound very earth shattering, does it? As I wrote here, it took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to write about:
Depending on the time of day or what I had just read, my thesis was going to be about the reception of Elvis Presley amongst indigenous communities in Australia; the short stories of Isak Dinesen or Angela Carter or Tanith Lee or Kate Chopin or maybe Flannery O’Conner; or possibly on the use of nightmares in horror films.
I wound up writing about the USian science fiction community (despite not being especially interested in sf), which led to doing research in the US of A. I’m not sure I would have visited the US of A if it wasn’t for my research and if I had I certainly wouldn’t have been hanging out with science fiction fans, writers, editors, and publishers. Now I live in the US half the year and am published there. I’m not sure that would have happened if not for my decision to not write about Elvis.1
If I were writing a novel about me2, I would definitely signal in some way that the PhD topic was a big decision. Indeed, when I tell my story, I talk about it like it was a huge moment. But at the time it really wasn’t. It was more of a oh-crap-I-don’t-know-it-all-looks-cool-oh-you-mean-there’s-a-useful-collection-full-of-primary-resources-here-and-I-could-get-going-straight-away kind of thing.
I’m sure many people have no idea what the turning points are until they look back at them. And depending on what happens to them after a particular turning point they may, in fact, decide on a different turning point when they tell their life story. I could have decided that it wasn’t the thesis topic choice that was the big moment, but getting the extra grant money that allowed me to travel to North America, or meeting the bookseller, Justin Ackroyd, who convinced me that I really needed to go to a real life science fiction convention, rather than just read about them. Or—actually there are dozens of other turning point candidates.
When you’re telling a story, whether it’s the story of your life, or someone’s else’s (imaginary or real) part of what you’re doing is highlighting particular moments and casting them as turning points whether or not your protag is aware of it. Turning points are a useful way of thinking about the structure of your book. As they are for thinking about the structure of your life.