Turning points

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.

  1. But maybe my life would’ve been even better if I’d written about Elvis. Who knows? []
  2. Which I wouldn’t, ’cause BORING. []


  1. Tim on #

    I think most people will find that their lives have majorly impacted in some way by decisions that seemed really small at the time. For example, when I began uni I really had no friends there. I’d go in, sit down and listen to the lectures and that was it. One day, I just heard some people behind me talking about about how boring the lecture was and how ridiculous the content was, and I turned around and agreed with them. We then realised we were all doing a few subjects together and chatted a bit more.

    Long story short; some of these people are now amongst my best friends and I have no idea where I’d be without ’em.

  2. Lesley on #

    Years ago, I took on the role of social coordinator of our high school English department. One of our first outings as a department was to take place on the Friday of finals week. We decided to go to a movie and dinner. Many people were signed up but backed out at the last minute. Three remained, myself included. I was a bit leary…I didn’t know the other two girls well since they were knew in the department, and we were going to spend the entire evening together. That night, we went to dinner, but the real fun began when we saw “Vanilla Sky.” We thought it was weird and ended up laughing through it together. Afterwards, we went to my house to talk and hang out some more. The bonding continued when my toilet got clogged, and I couldn’t get it fixed. Then this girl I barely knew grabbed that plunger out of my hands and fixed my toilet. 🙂 We laughed so hard that night, and had you asked me then if they would have ended up as two of my closest, most dear friends, I probably would have said no. Alas, that is where we are today, so many years later, and we still celebrate our “Vanilla Sky Anniversary” and are thankful that everyone backed out on our department plans that evening. Had they not, I wonder if we would be as close today.

  3. Justine on #

    I love that both of your turning point stories are about friendships.

  4. Rebecca on #

    Reading this post: for me, turning point.

  5. Amber on #

    Turning point for me: Finding your blog (and Ally Carter’s)

    Your story is interesting in a short narrative on your blog though!

  6. Lesley on #

    Lesley wrote “knew” instead of “new.” Lesley wrote “leary” instead of “leery.” Lesley is horrified. 🙂

    In my defense, I am babysitting for my brother-in-law’s giant dog, which means that I now have two giant dogs living in my house. I also have two children (ages 8 and 5), and all were swarming around me while I wrote my comment. Thank goodness my high school students don’t check this blog. It may not seem like a big thing, but after all the crap I’ve given them during D.O.L. activities, I would NEVER live this down. 🙂

  7. Max on #

    We’ll the story of my life really has a turning point to it! As i was growing up in a very small community i noticed that my family was not that educated…so i set out to be the first within my family to get to uni. I’ve always had this plan in my head that i would make it there. Nothing in the world could stop me… But then…pubity hit! The social life became alot more than books and pens and all that kind of stuff. But all was going good…until the last year of my senior school year. I was made a prefect, class captain and house captain. The unfortunate thing was that half way through the year i found out that i was pregnant. All of what i had planned, constructed carefully, went down the drain! A turning point in life that struck me when i was an inch away from achieving my goal. The sad thing is, now im just like the rest of them! But worse!

    But i wouldnt say that my son to me was a bad thing. Just that he really turned my life around. He was the only positive gain that i got out of it. Now look at me…im so inlove with him…

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